In 1972 the holiday known as Washington’s Birthday suddenly became Presidents’ Day, thanks to a bit of congressional social engineering designed to reduce absences from work.
Since that time, the idea behind the third Monday in February has been “to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present.”
But do we? Really?
There’s a reason George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are on all the Presidents’ Day sale ads. We the people can agree, those are two past POTUSes worth celebrating.
Beyond Washington and Lincoln, though, our taste in presidents has changed dramatically over time.
That’s actually a great insight into history itself. History is not the past — it’s the way we look at the past through our present-day eyes.
In other words, who we remember this Presidents’ Day is a reflection of what we value as a country.
For proof, I give you Ulysses S. Grant.
The general who won the Civil War is having a moment, thanks to Ron Chernow’s acclaimed new biography of our 18th president.
Grant’s reputation has been growing over the years, much as the myths surrounding his opponent, Robert E. Lee, have been melting away.
We’ve always known Grant to be a great military leader. His Memoirs were long regarded as a masterpiece.
Grant’s insights into why we actually fought the Civil War have gotten play lately, thanks to some bad history spouted by another former general serving in the current White House.
Now, however, Americans are reassessing their view of Grant as president.
Every few years C-SPAN asks a number of historians to rank the chief executives. Since 2000 Grant has been steadily moving up in their collective esteem. Last year, for the very first time, Grant was ranked in the top half of presidents.
This is remarkable. For a century and a quarter Grant’s eight years in the White House (1869-1877) were regarded as a highlight-free presidency beset by scandal, Indian troubles, and the Panic of 1873. What changed?
It couldn’t have been Chernow’s book, which came out after the last C-SPAN poll. Did historians uncover new facts about Grant’s time in office?
Reconstruction and Grant
Nope. What’s happening, I think, is that the most significant event of Grant’s presidency is finally getting the attention it has long deserved.
In our endless fascination with the Civil War, many of us willfully overlooked an uncomfortable fact — that the hard-fought gains of America’s greatest conflict were almost completely undone afterward.
Reconstruction, that great social experiment of assimilating four million newly liberated slaves into the American way of life, was conducted under two presidents, Johnson and Grant, and ended under a third, Hayes.
That traditional assessment, however, misses the real story.
In a country where peacetime power resided almost entirely with the states and localities, the angry white men of the South took back their Confederacy. And the federal government pretty much let them do it.
Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean more aligned with the views of Jackson than Lincoln, stood by as the Ku Klux Klan rose in unholy terror against blacks in the South.
Grant tried to get Reconstruction back on track. But as historian Joan Waugh has noted, he faced a daunting set of challenges:
“As President, Grant was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation with the South rather than one of retribution or appeasement. He also wanted to make sure that the federal government preserved the sacrifices of the war by sustaining a strong Union while at the same time protecting the newly freed slaves and preventing former unreconstructed Confederates from regaining power in the South. Those goals proved difficult, if not impossible to reconcile.” Joan Waugh, professor of history, UCLA
In the first place, the Southern pushback was much stronger than the North had anticipated. Conflicts between white power and blacks seeking political equality broke out all over the South.
Secondly, Grant was a man of his time. He simply couldn’t conceive of using federal power the way JFK or Eisenhower would do in the civil rights era. Grant sent troops to South Carolina to enforce rights for African-Americans, but in many other cases he didn’t.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to Reconstruction, however, was the public mood. “A majority of Americans—Northerners and Southerners—rejected civil and political rights for blacks,” wrote Waugh. As time wore on, the people “lost interest in Reconstruction.“
Then bad history took over.
Several generations of white historians argued that Reconstruction had gone too far, despite ample evidence that it hadn’t gone far enough. Pioneering black historians Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. DuBois were ignored for decades.
So as we re-evaluate this dark chapter in our past, we must re-evaluate the man under whose watch most of it happened.
Historians now consider Grant one of our stronger presidents in his commitment to “equal justice for all.”
Translation: Like other presidents, U.S. Grant was dealt a bad hand by his predecessor, faced enormous domestic pressures — and did the best he could.
That’s a quality worth observing, if not celebrating, this Presidents’ Day.
Ike leapfrogs Harry
As someone living on the Missouri-Kansas border, I couldn’t help noticing that historians now prefer Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Sunflower State’s only president, to Harry Truman, the man from Independence, Missouri.
In the last presidential historians’ poll, Ike jumped from eighth to fifth, moving ahead of Harry by the slimmest of margins.
Barack Obama’s addition to the survey definitely hurt his fellow Democrat. Obama was rated third among presidents in the “equal justice” category, bumping Truman — who integrated the armed forces and stood up to the Dixiecrats in 1948, damn near costing him the election — to fourth.
But it’s also true that Eisenhower, like his fellow retired general Grant, has been slowly moving up the charts. Of course, Ike presided over an era of prosperity, not depression, and unlike Grant he kept his White House clean.
Yet what quality do historians value most in Eisenhower? Not his abilities as an administrator, economic planner, or international diplomat, though he gets high marks in all those areas.
Historians most highly value Ike’s moral authority.
And I think most people reading this would agree, for one simple reason —his warnings against the “military-industrial complex” now resonate more powerfully than ever.
Here’s everyone’s favorite presidential explainer, Michael Beschloss, in a short YouTube:
A footnote about my fellow Missourian: Harry Truman also warned about the military-industrial complex. And as a wartime senator he doggedly investigated that complex.
That got the attention of President Roosevelt, who put Truman on the ticket in 1944. And that got Harry into the Oval Office in 1945.
As great as Chernow’s book is, we’re probably not going to be reading it 125 years from now. But Grant’s Memoirs is timeless. Composed in the waning months of his life, it is rightly called “the only work of literary genius by any American military man.” Memoirs is out in a new annotated edition. It makes a great listen as well (and there are multiple editions and formats, so check your library.)
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