Ulysses Grant and Wife in the Aquarium
April 13, 2023
Ha! Look what I have found in Grant, by Ron Chernow [large print edition]:
Chapter 40 begins with: “Upon quitting the fish residence in late March, Ulysses and Julie Grant conducted a sentimental tour of familiar haunts . . . “
It was the Fish residence, not the fish residence. What! Does the editor think they lived in an aquarium? Hamilton Fish was his Secretary of State. The two came to be close friends.
I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this. Do you have any idea how devilishly hard it is to chase all blips and typos away in a manuscript, especially if it was your own writing and you read, not what is there, but what you think is there? I still have a few typos in ‘Go Where Tom Goes.’ Probably the blips I have would completely escape the notice of anyone but an obsessive, OCD, picayune, nitpicking person, but even so, there are some. Nothing as egregious at this, however! The ‘fish residence,’ indeed! And this is from a commercial outfit that is not a one-man show, as I am. Oh yeah, I am vindicated.
I am all but done with Grant—not completely, but almost—and have expanded into some of Douglass’s writing. The feeling floated in the first post of this thread intensifies. Lincoln freed the slaves. Grant strived to complete the job. He was relentless in defending southern Blacks. He broke the back of the original Ku Klux Klan. He came to be known as a champion of human rights in general. The feeling grows that he would have completed the job were it not for Andrew Jackson sandwiched in between he and Lincoln.
This is speculative, hardly a sure thing. The racism Grant faced in the South was fanatical, sustained, and virulent. No end of incidents occurred in which Blacks were attacked and murdered by white mobs, not clandestinely, but out in the open and with boasting.
Ten years into Reconstruction, the zeal of Northern reformers was waning. People will devote themselves to a cause for only so long until they get discouraged by reversals and go elsewhere. Time and again Grant would send federal troops South to enforce peace. The moment he withdrew them, anti-Black violence would erupt as before. The Black vote drove white Southerners apoplectic. Though a constitutional amendment guaranteed Blacks the vote, reigns of terror became the order of the day so that few of the former slaves dared exercise it. There are elections on record in which the Black vote numbered less that 10.
Meanwhile, Grant was increasingly undercut by his Northern base. The freed-slave sentiment had not been overwhelmingly strong to begin with—to some it was, but not enough—so that in the face of Southern intransigence, the sentiment in the North morphed into, ‘Time to move on.’ With his support eroding, once in a while—not routinely, but once in a while—Grant took his eye off the ball. Whenever he did so, violence unresisted took heart and became more entrenched.
So maybe the fact that history placed Johnson in between Lincoln and Grant doesn’t matter. Maybe racial hatred would have prevailed for 100+ years in any event. On the other hand, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the racist Johnson sandwiched in between represents the time you ceased taking your antibiotics after you started feeling a little better, instead of finishing the bottle like you were supposed to, and the sickness came roaring back, stronger than before. Had you finished the bottle straight off like the doc said, the plague might have vanished for good.
Some publication of ours that I no longer recall has described the Bible as a record of human history covering times when A) people paid attention to God’s will, B) people did not pay attention to God’s will, and C) people were oblivious or ignorant of God’s will.
With Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant we have history in the C category. Specifically, it was history before the wheat began to be separated from the weeds. It was history before ‘the true knowledge became abundant,’ per Daniel 12. People did the best they could. Lincoln and Douglass both cited scripture frequently. What! You expect everyone to patiently sit on their hands and say, ‘Maybe someday we’ll know exactly what to do but since we don’t now we’ll do nothing?’
Then, too, someday I want to return to the sentiments of the Gettysburg Address—that ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.’ Why was that such a big deal, so that it would be the cause that would push the North into fighting mode against secession but the abolition of slavery would not?
Lincoln’s two-minute speech was not the highlight of that day. He had been invited almost as an afterthought, with no surety that he would even come; presidents didn’t travel much back then. ‘Maybe he’ll just tell jokes,’ was the attitude another of the GC professors attributed to him. The Grant book has some cabinet participant—I think it was Chase—grumbling that all Lincoln did was tell jokes during cabinet meetings. Of course, Chase was not one to joke himself; he wore his piety on his sleeve. Even from within Lincoln’s first-term cabinet, he promoted himself as the next president, which made other cabinet members livid. However, Lincoln said he still got the better use of him. Besides, he knew what it was to be smitten by the presidential bug. Besides again, he thought it well to apply the adage, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’
The main event was a two hour speech from a Harvard orator by the name of Everett. Two hours was standard fare for a speech back then; 3 or 4 hours was not unheard of. Lincoln’s speech was two minutes. He had worked hard on it; it wasn’t jotted down hastily on the back of an envelope as folklore has it. He dismissed it himself as a pretty meager effort upon taking his seat. Many newspapers accustomed to tonnage savaged it. But Everett himself said, ‘You said more in two minutes than I did in two hours.’ So what is this ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ that carries the day? Why does it do that?
It’s because it is a breakthrough advancement in human rule, the issue that is on front and center burner from the days of Genesis 3. With the founding of the U.S representative democracy, here was something significantly new, a major advancement in the evolution of self-rule. It was the ‘human experiment’ that must be nurtured and encouraged to thrive at all costs. Slavery, on the other hand, was NOT at first considered a violation of ‘natural law’ (this, according to another GC professor) Steeped in evolution, the framers of natural law initially considered slavery an advancement. Historically, nations had killed those vanquished in war. Making them slaves instead was an improvement!
Up till that time, human government had consisted of straight-up monarchy. Some variation in the quality/durability/benevolence or malevolence of that monarchy, but one-person-rule it had always been. Supposedly, Jefferson succeeding Adams was the first peaceful transfer of power in history between opposing political factions; up till then it has always been ‘King of the Mountain,’ with one king prevailing only by violently shoving the previous king off.
The ‘human experiment’ of government of, by, and for the people finds roots in Greece and Rome, before resurfacing in England, then blossoms full with the U.S. That’s the long tradition that Lincoln could draw on, as he could not with a straight-up abolitionist stance.
The early adherents to the Enlightenment were ecstatic at the American innovation. With it, ‘the people’ had revolted, thrown off their ‘shackles,’ and discarded ‘tyranny’ for something presumed better—democratic rule. Proponents of the Enlightenment cheered this development. They kept an embarrassed, even horrified silence, at the other product of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, which descended into mayhem and murder. Historian Guelzo makes a big deal over this fork in the road in his lecture series on the History of Freedom. You can envision him waving the flag, but it still seems the idea has merit. After the dust had settled in France, came Bonaparte, then the cradle of the first Communists, and in the modern day [it is just me who says this, not Guelzo] FECRIS and MULVIDES. The country is the birthplace of the current craze to stamp out as ‘cults’ those thinking outside of the box; it can be nothing but mainstream human thinking for them. Human rulership without God is the innovation to be nurtured. Throw God into the mix and you are a cult. If He knows His place maybe you are not, but if He doesn’t, you are.
Guelzo considers the American Revolution the triumph of emerging humanism, and the French Revolution the embarrassing defeat. However, one might note that the American Revolution did not get the job done. It would be some time before it became ‘self-evident’ that all men were created equal. The War that would press toward that goal, and succeed, before being reversed in spirit and often reality, would spill more blood than 100 French Revolutions. And the virulent racism that came to typify the Southern US had no parallel in France. In his seventies, Frederick Douglass toured Europe. He reports no instance of prejudice at all. Nor did anyone look askance on account of his second wife, a white woman.
Civil War/Reconstruction Era consideration therefore makes a great platform for proclaiming how we need God’s Kingdom. If two of the most noble humans who have lived, with worldwide reputations to that effect, both enjoying positions of foremost power, could have their best efforts so easily unraveled, what says that about human rule? At the very least, War/Reconstruction is the death-knell to those who insist God works through human rule, for He couldn’t possibly muck up the job more that was done in those handful of years. A decade after the Civil War’s conclusion, Grant would express misgivings that it had been fought in vain. Conditions had reverted to before. Slavery was gone, but the feudal system of sharecropping imposed by regional laws, later reinforced with Jim Crow policy, to replace it was little better and in some ways worse.
You don’t have to regard Lincoln and Grant as noble, though most of the world does. In these days of revisionist history, there are those who label them butchers, for they both presided over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. Both were frequently called butchers in their lifetimes, especially Grant.
It’s the best human rule can do. It did preserve the ‘human experiment.’ It did free the slaves—though just barely, and with myriad caveats.
When I was in college, before my Witness days, I took an elective course on public speaking. The professor ragged continually on the virtues of voting. Student elections were coming up. He would not let up on his insistence that all must vote. I got fed up. Though I was by no means a rebel, when it was my turn to make a speech, I chose to highlight all the reasons you might not want to vote—not just for the student election, but for any election. 1) the candidate might be lying. 2) He (or she) might be sincere but prove powerless once in office. 3) He/she might change his mind, making one’s vote pointless. I did not then add, 4) how many of them go down to corruption. (The professor was sporting about it, acknowledging valid points had been made, even though he disagreed with the thrust, and he gave me an adequate grade—not like one of those ideologue professors of today that you have to agree with or they flunk you.)
It only takes one torpedo of the four to sink the ship. Neither Lincoln nor Grant has serious problem with 1 or 3, but they both got stymied by 2. Lincoln did pretty well by 4, but Grant well-neigh lost his entire reputation to it. His administration was known for its corruption, even as he himself was always thought honest. He wasn’t the greatest judge of character. He would express shock when presented incontrovertible proof that ‘friends’ had betrayed him—a frequent occurrence. Other times he would stand by ones who anyone else would have abandoned because he had not yet been presented incontrovertible proof. One one occasion, his incontrovertible proof took the form of an empty bankbook. He had been sweet-talked into a scheme that proved fraudulent.
When faced with certain ruin at the end of his life due to crooks leading him astray, he at last steeled himself to dictate his memoirs. Some of these strutting generals started in on the memoirs almost the moment the Civil War ended. Grant had steadfastly refused. When on his post-presidency world tour, dignitaries would ask him to review their troops. Grant would reply that he had seen enough troops to last a lifetime; he didn’t want to see any more.
At the time, he was all but on his deathbed. He would die just days after completing them. It wasn’t for himself that he did it, nor for ‘posterity,’ but for his wife, so that she would not be left destitute.
Mark Twain was a frequent guest and witnessed him at work. Twain was amazed that for hours on end, up to the entire day, Grant could dictate his notes just once and they would be near-perfect prose, with no need of revision. He would neither eat during this time, nor drink beyond the bare minimum, because his rapidly deteriorating health was aggravated by both, and he wanted to finish.
Both Lincoln and Grant were honest men who, when in office, did not line their pockets. The idea of a president having to sweat his financial future plays absurd today, but it was not so then. The problem was best alleviated by dipping one’s hand in the till, as is routine today—people emerge from government service with far more than their salaries would suggest.
In contrast, Mary Todd Lincoln (who spent heavily) complained that her president husband was “too honest to make a penny outside of his salary.” And Grant immediately felt the financial sting upon leaving office—though not enough to forestall a round-the-world tour so long as the money held out; he was not overly given to fretting about the future. Imagine! Grant’s memoirs of the Civil War would not exist had he not faced financial ruin at the end of his life.
All these ideas I hope to expand on some day.
****** The bookstore