For years I’ve considered Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant the most underrated president in US history.
It’s rare to find Grant, who presided over the messy work of Reconstruction following the bloodiest war in American history, ranked among the top ten by historians, though his standing has been steadily increasing since 2000.
My esteem for Grant only increased upon reading Grant, Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of the 18th president. Chernow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote Hamilton, the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, cracks open a figure whose character and story in many ways mirrored the revered George Washington.
Both men were first soldiers, possessing almost unnatural stoicism, fortitude, integrity, grit, and determination. Both rose to the presidency after leading their country through successful wars. Both proved they were much more than mere field generals after being elected, navigating the nation through some of the most challenging chapters in its history.
Where the records of Washington and Grant differ most is race. While Washington kept slaves until his death, Grant—contrary to decades of “badly wrong” history, in Chernow’s words—did more to extend liberty to all races than almost any president in history.
The great orator Frederick Douglass said Grant was “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.” The distinguished historian Sean Wilentz more recently took aim at claims that Grant did little to advance racial equality in the war-torn south, where white planters sought to maintain power with violence and terror against freed blacks and white Republicans.
“The evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson,” Wilentz said.
Grant strikes an impressive figure, but he also had flaws that were more visible than Washington’s. Grant’s alcoholism has been well-chronicled, as has his trusting nature that led to him being swindled numerous times. He also faced corruption charges during his presidency.
A less-scrutinized weakness was that Grant perhaps came to appreciate the power of the sword too much following his victories during the Civil War.
‘A Dangerous Game’
In December 1861, as the Confederacy and Union clashed, Emperor Napoleon III of France invaded Mexico. The pretext for this attack was that Mexico had refused to honor its foreign debt, but the real reason for the invasion was that Napoleon III saw an opportunity to expand his empire in Latin-America while US states feuded amongst themselves.
Though the aggressive act was a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine, Abraham Lincoln—busy fighting the Confederacy on multiple fronts—could do little beyond shore up Northern forces in Texas to discourage an invasion.
Though Mexican fighters were able to repulse the French invasion on May 5, 1862, at the Battle of Puebla, the French eventually captured Mexico City. On April 10, 1864, Austrian archduke Maximilian was sworn in as the first (and only) Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire.
The presence of a European monarchy on the North American continent rankled Grant for several reasons. He had come to love the people and land of Mexico, a country he visited on his tour during the Mexican-American War, a conflict that he saw as deeply unjust (despite his exemplary service in the war).
Grant also saw the action as nothing short of an act of war against the United States. Following Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse—which all but ended the Civil War—a young staff officer said Grant made his feelings known in three short words.
“Now for Mexico,” said Grant, who commanded the most lethal fighting force in the world.
In May 1865, with the Confederacy defeated, Grant began dispatching tens of thousands of troops under the command of Gen. Phil Sheridan toward the Rio Grande. Ostensibly, the troops were sent to pacify soldiers under Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith, whose army was disbanding in Texas and parts of Louisiana. But Grant’s correspondences suggest he had other motives, seeing opportunity for a war that would be “short, quick, decisive, and assuredly triumphant.”
“With Mexico,” Chernow concludes, “Grant played a dangerous game, hoping to reunite North and South under the banner of a popular foreign war.”
‘Aim Right Here’
Grant made his official case for confrontation with Maximilian at a June 16, 1865 cabinet meeting, arguing that remnants of the shattered Confederate army would flock to Mexico and join the French occupiers, which would lead to war. Grant proposed the US government issue a formal protest against the existence of Maximilian’s monarchy.
During an interview with The New York Times later that summer, Grant made his views plain, warning that “the French would have to leave Mexico peaceably, if they chose, but forcibly if they refused.”
A person who saw the situation differently was Secretary of State William Seward, the affable abolitionist orator from New York who months earlier was disfigured by a knife attack when Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater.
Seward favored a less confrontational policy with France, telling Grant there was little need to “wound French pride” with threats when the situation in Mexico was deteriorating.
“[Maximilian’s reign] was rapidly perishing,” Seward told Grant, “and, if let alone, Maximilian would leave in less than six months, perhaps in sixty days, whereas, if we interfered it would prolong his stay and the Empire also.”
Grant was not persuaded by this exchange. He continued to favor confrontation with Mexico, endorsing a letter from Gen. Phil Sheridan (read aloud by an angry President Andrew Johnson at a cabinet meeting) which stated his army was “in magnificent trim” and eagerly awaiting “the pleasure of crossing the Rio Grande.” Grant also advocated sending Gen. John Schofield to Mexico to act as an intermediary with resistance forces there, a move that stood to entangle the US in the conflict.
Seward and other cabinet members were appalled by the bellicosity of Sheridan and Grant. Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCullough explained that another conflict stood to bankrupt the US government, while Seward told Grant “if we got in war and drove out the French, we could not get ourselves out.”
Some present at the meetings said Seward was acting wisely, while Grant seemed ruled by his passions.
“Seward acts from intelligence, Grant from impulse,” Secretary of Navy and diarist Gideon Welles observed after one encounter.
Fortunately, the adept Seward was able to outmaneuver Grant, despite the general’s great influence in the administration. Seward shrewdly steered Schofield to France instead of Mexico—”get your legs under Napoleon’s mahogany and tell him to get out of Mexico,” he told Schoefield—and deflected Grant’s attempts to assert a more confrontational approach.
Events would soon prove Seward’s contention—that Maximilian’s empire was “rapidly perishing”—right. In January 1866, Napoleon III announced plans to begin France’s withdrawal from Mexico.
On June 19 the following year, Emperor Maximilian handed a gold coin – a Maximilian d’or – to several Mexican soldiers, telling them, “Muchachos, aim well, and aim right here,” pointing to his heart.
Maximilian was then executed by firing squad, along with two of his generals. He refused a blindfold.
‘In Search of Monsters to Destroy’
Seward should be commended for his cool head throughout the showdown with France over Mexico. If recent events in US history have taught us anything, it’s that getting into wars is much easier than getting out of them.
Grant was no doubt correct that his army would have crushed Maximilian’s forces, but what would have come after that is far from clear. Conflicts of liberation in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have shown the US military is more than capable of winning battles, but victories always come with new responsibilities and “blowback” (to use a term popularized by Ron Paul)—and often more fighting.
George Washington was long considered the greatest soldier in American history until Grant, whose battle achievements some argue surpassed those of America’s first president. But Washington seemed to glean something from his years of war that Grant perhaps did not, noting in his Farewell Address that “we may be always prepared for War, but never unsheath the sword except in self defence….”
A future president would later expand on Washington’s warning about using power to spread liberty abroad.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be,” John Quincy Adams commented in 1821. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” (emphasis added)
What John Quincy Adams understood was that the world will never lack for monsters to destroy, something even great men like US Grant at times forgot.
As tensions rise across the world with the outbreak of war in Europe, we’d do well to remember that the greatest ally of liberty is peace, and her greatest enemy is war.