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Response to Review of Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this review. It is always gratifying when a reviewer exhibits so complete an understanding of what I was attempting to do. I am also grateful that Grenville-Mathers shows a keen appreciation of the contrasting methodologies of popular writers and professional historians.

For the professional, of course, an indispensable rule calls for the historian to approach each source with a healthy dose of skepticism. The reviewer recognizes that although reminiscences, memoirs, and similar works may provide supposedly revealing anecdotes, their invocation by writers nearly always sacrifices accuracy on the altar of adornment. The most suspect of such retrospective ‘sources’ are those that purport to reproduce actual dialog long after the events in question. The historian should also be wary of secondary works that quote such sources and thus compound the original distortion.

No American presidency is more encrusted with myth, misconception, or controversy than Grant’s administration. When I undertook the research for the book, I was determined to tackle the many controversies that plagued and still surround his two terms in office. I saw the need to go beyond unsatisfactory previous accounts and to explore widely and deeply in the original, primary sources­­-the letters, diaries, speeches, debates, articles, and so forth generated by Grant and his contemporaries. What I found was not the inattentive, feckless, and na├»ve president appearing in standard treatments even down to the latest works, but instead an engaged, capable, and resolute chief executive who took seriously his constitutional mandate, political responsibility, and moral obligation to do the best he could for his country.

After the disastrous Johnson administration, Grant took office amid enormous political turmoil. Nonetheless, he posted a substantial record in a variety of areas including Reconstruction, foreign affairs, civil service reform, monetary and fiscal policy, and Indian affairs, among others. No one can claim that he achieved complete success across the board, but what I tried to do was to examine each facet of his administration in depth to discover what actually took place. I did not shy away from allegations of corruption, but, again, I strove to find out what exactly was going on. The ethical bankruptcy of some recent administrations makes some of the alleged misdeeds during Grant’s terms, with the main exception of the Whiskey Ring, seem like penny-ante stuff.

One of the central themes of The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant is that Grant was essentially an embattled chief executive. From day one, he had a number of enemies – many of them disappointed in not receiving offices from him – who denigrated virtually his every act as president. Some disagreed with his policies, while others could never reconcile themselves to the idea that this mere military man had the capacity for political leadership that the presidency required. Their criticisms were relentless. A large part of the reason that Grant’s administration has borne such a negative image over the years is that his enemies succeeded in placing their impress on the narrative that many historians and other writers have perpetuated.

My aim with this book was to engage not in rehabilitation so much as clarification and correction, recognizing that Grant deserves to be regarded as a better president than his reputation suggests, but also acknowledging that he sometimes fell short of his aims. The image of Grant’s presidency occupies an important place in American political culture. My purpose was to revisit his administration to arrive at an account more serviceable to a usable past.