Brooks Simpson on Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction

Brooks Simpson
Brooks Simpson. Image courtesy of ASU.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legaciesToday, we’re speaking with Brooks Simpson, ASU Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University. His numerous publications include: The Reconstruction Presidents (University Press of Kansas, 2009), Union and Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era (Kent State University Press, 2009, a volume co-edited with David Blight), The Civil War in the East, 1861-1865 (Potomac Books, 2013), and The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, an edited volume published in 2013 by the Library of America. He also maintains the blog Crossroads.

CWI: What were Ulysses S. Grant’s goals for the newly reunited nation during the Reconstruction period? How did his vision for postwar America evolve over time?

SIMPSON: Grant sought to balance sectional reconciliation and reunion among whites with protecting the freedpeople in the aftermath of the destruction of slavery. Over time, he came to realize that African Americans needed protection and assistance as they defined what freedom meant, adding political rights (including suffrage) to the need to secure equality before the law regardless of race. Grant contended that reconciliation did not require the acceptance of continued rebellious behavior. Furthermore, he believed that the continued resistance to Reconstruction by those people in the North who had not wholeheartedly supported the war effort should not be tolerated. Grant never doubted the cause for which he fought and saw no reason to apologize for or tolerate criticisms of the Union war effort.

CWI:   What role did Grant play, both before and during his presidency, in helping to realize his visions for postwar America? In what ways was he successful, and in what ways did he fall short?

SIMPSON: As general-in-chief of the armies of the United States during the administration of Andrew Johnson, Grant supervised the occupation of the former Confederacy, including keeping the peace in the face of friction and violence. Over time the army came to be the administrative arm of congressional reconstruction policy, with Grant in sympathetic support as well as an active advocate and adviser to Republican leadership. Increasingly unhappy with Johnson’s course as president, Grant eventually supported his impeachment and removal from office. In choosing to run for president, he hoped to bring the political controversy over Reconstruction to an end. Much to his frustration, support for protecting black rights declined during his presidency, and although he took forceful steps to assure a peaceful resolution of the disputed election of 1876, he conceded later that the combination of persistent white supremacist violence by white southerners, increasing division and alienation among Republicans, eroding public support in the North, and an insufficient institutional network to subdue terrorism led to Reconstruction’s failure. Perhaps, he later reflected, it was a mistake to seek such a rapid restoration of civil rule in the South.

Ulysses S. Grant during his tenure as the 18th U.S. President (1869-1877). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Ulysses S. Grant during his tenure as the 18th U.S. President (1869-1877). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

CWI: How did public perceptions of Grant in the postwar period evolve throughout the late nineteenth century? How did Grant’s Reconstruction-era policies and the controversies surrounding his presidency shape public memory of him in the present?

SIMPSON: Although Grant as president had his critics, he was also fairly popular among many white and most black Americans. Republican supporters sought a third term for him in 1880; at the time of his death he was widely respected as both a general and a president, despite the persistent denigration offered by dissenters. As American historians questioned the wisdom of Reconstruction and drew largely on the writings of Grant’s critics, his reputation as a president declined, and that did not immediately improve when historians began to reassess Reconstruction. At first scholars criticized Grant for his support of Reconstruction as a means to secure black freedom and equality; later historians asserted that he had not been supportive enough. Few people saw him as an effective chief executive or a skilled politician, although not everyone agreed with those assessments. Those dissenting voices became louder in the 1970s and 1980s, with a more compelling reassessment of Grant as president, especially when it came to his Reconstruction policy, appearing in the 1990s. If anything, the balance of historical assessment may have gone too far in the other direction, although it is not yet clear how much that reassessment has changed popular understandings of what was once seen as a largely dismal tenure in the White House.­

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