Republicans In History: Ulysses S. Grant

When Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869, he was the youngest heretofore to be elected to the highest office in the land.  Born as Hiram Ulysses Grant, he came from very humble beginnings.  His father was a tanner.  His childhood was uneventful.  He attended public schools and later private schools.  The talent that stood out was his remarkable skill as a horseman and horse whisperer.  

Grant was nominated to West Point by Congressman Thomas L. Hamer who mistakenly transcribed his name as “Ulysses S. Grant”.  He immediately adopted the name to avoid his appointment being questioned.  He was a mediocre student, graduating 21st out of 39.  His strong subjects were math and geology.  His most memorable legacy from West Point was his equestrian high jump record which stood for 25 years.  

After graduation from West Point, Grant was transferred to the Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri.  It was there that he met his future wife, Julia Dent and they became engaged.  

The Mexican-American War broke out and Grant followed his unit under the command of Major General Zachary Taylor and later Major General Winfred Scott to fight in Mexico.  Although a quartermaster, Grant let the cavalry charge at the battle of Resaca de la Palma.  As a quartermaster, he did not have a combat role, but he volunteered for perilous missions and was ultimately given dangerous assignments. It was during this time that he was able to observe closely the tactics and strategies of Generals Taylor and Scott.  

Grant returned home and married Julia Dent after a long four-year engagement.  Although his mandatory service had been completed, he chose to remain in the military.  His post-war assignments took him to Detroit, New York, and then the Oregon Territory.  His wife Julia did not follow him as she was pregnant.  His separation from his family was stressful and it was during this time that he started drinking.  He was promoted to Captain and transferred to Humboldt, California.  His off-duty drinking continued and his commanding officer gave him an ultimatum to resign or face a court-martial.  He resigned and returned to St. Louis, Missouri.   

Civilian life was never kind to him throughout his entire lifetime.  After the war, he got out of the military.  He undertook various endeavors unsuccessfully.  He farmed, worked in his father’s tannery, sold wood on the streets, acted as a bill collector and a store clerk.  These were very lean times for the Grant family. In spite of the family’s financial stress, Grant freed the only slave he owned worth $1,500 that he had acquired from Julia’s father.   

Now the Civil War broke out and Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers.  Grant was recognized as a military expert and was called upon to lead a company of volunteers.  Without any formal rank, he wanted a field command in the regular army and continued to lobby for such a position.  With the aid of Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, Grant was promoted to Coronel and put in charge of restoring discipline to the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Shortly thereafter, Lincoln promoted Grant to Brigadier General and gave him command of the troops near Cairo, Illinois.  His successful assault on Fort Donelson afforded him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant”.  Lincoln promoted him to Major General of Volunteers.  Grant was dogged and persistent throughout the war.  Despite heavy losses, Grant ultimately prevailed and Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse.  

Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson (D) became President.  General Grant continued as commander of the army.  Eventually, Grant fell out of favor and broke with Johnson over his lenient Reconstruction policies.  President Johnson was at odds with the Radical Republicans in Congress who passed, with General Grant’s support, the Reconstruction Acts, renewed the Freedman Bureau, and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over President Johnson’s vetoes.  President Johnson barely survived an impeachment attempt when he tried to replace Lincoln appointee Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who favored Congress’ Reconstruction policies.  

General Ulysses S. Grant was nominated as the Presidential candidate at the 1868 Republican National Convention in Chicago.  His popularity was at an all-time high after the Civil War.  After the nomination, Grant went home and left the campaigning largely to his campaign manager William Chandler.  The Democrats attacked Grant’s support of Reconstruction and his defense of former slaves’ civil rights.  Grant won the election by an Electoral College landslide of 214 to 80. 

Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was marked by the creation of the National Park Service, the designation of Yellowstone as a National Park, the creation of the Justice Department to pursue the enforcement of laws in the South targeting the KluKluxKlan, the creation of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service), the return of the US Government to the gold and silver standard to stabilize the government’s finances after the Civil War and the negotiation of the Washington Treat of 1871 to settle British claims resulting from the construction of Confederate ships during the Civil War.  

Most importantly was Grant’s insistence on protecting the civil rights of former slaves through the 15th Amendment.  Grant insisted that the former Southern States ratify the 15th Amendment as a condition of being readmitted to the Union.  He made the Attorney General a cabinet position to give the office the power to enforce the laws passed by Congress and to relentlessly pursue the terror of the Klu Klux Klan.  He encouraged the passage of the Enforcement Acts which made the violation of African American civil rights a Federal offense and empowered the President with the ability to call upon the military to enforce the laws.  He also strove to improve a lot of Native Americans with changes to the Bureau of Indians and the appointment of a Native American as Commissioner.  

After Grant left the White House, he again returned to civilian life.  Following a two-year whirlwind tour of Europe with his family, he returned home to renewed popular support and a third nomination for President.  The Republican National Convention voted on three candidates for the nomination (Ulysses S. Grant, James Blaine, and John Sherman).  After 36 rounds of voting, James A. Garfield was nominated as a compromise candidate and Grant permanently left public life.

The world tour had diminished his personal savings.  Grant needed to secure a source of income.  He invested in a brokerage firm.  His partner looted investor funds and forced both the firm and himself personally to declare bankruptcy.  Grant was broke. 

He wrote pieces about his world travels and chronicled his meetings with celebrity leaders and sold them to The Century Magazine.  These articles became very popular.  His editor encouraged him to write a memoir.  About this time, he came down with throat cancer.  He was restored to the rank of General of the Army so as to receive his military pension.  Although ill, he worked diligently on his memoirs finishing days before his death.  He signed a book contract with his friend Mark Twain to publish his memoirs.  The book was immensely popular and provided his family with financial security after his death.