Was Ulysses S. Grant a Good President?

For decades after his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant earned a reputation for being one of the nation’s worst presidents, consistently ranking in the bottom 10 in historian polls. But in recent years, historians have seen the hero of the civil war again. Popular biographies, like that of Ronald C. White American Odysseus (2016) and Ron Chernow’s Grant (2017), convincingly argued that Grant’s presidency deserved a review and that his contributions during his tenure were more substantial than they had been in previous decades. At a time when the nation was still recovering from the trauma of the civil war, he worked to weave the frayed Union, to raise people who were formerly enslaved and to defend a human policy, if not enlightened, concerning the Amerindians.

No one could be more surprised by this revival of reputation than Grant himself. His autobiography, published in two volumes in 1885, covers some 1,200 pages, starting with a discussion of his ancestors and ending with his years of civil war. His presidency is hardly mentioned.

Grant’s farewell message to Congress in 1876 shows that he felt that history could judge him harshly. “Mistakes have been made, as everyone sees and I admit,” he wrote. “But I leave comparisons with history, saying only that I acted in all cases with a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the framework of the law, and in the best interest of all people. The failures were errors of judgment and not of intention. ”

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