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American Ulysses: The Rise of a Forgotten American Hero

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Natalie Samenuk

HIST-120 TTh 9:00

November 14, 2017


        Ulysses S. Grant, born on April 27, 1822, was never meant to live a life of grandeur. Born to a tanner in a small Ohio town, the young boy was described as a romantic, who enjoyed horse riding, reading dramatic novels and showed a particular affinity towards animals, never partaking in hunting. Grant had all the makings to live a regular life; yet, as Ronald C, White chronicles in his novel, American Ulysses: a life of Ulysses S. Grant, he did just the opposite of that. Grant graduated from West Point, rose up ranks in the Mexican American War, eventually became Lieutenant General (a position only George Washington held before him) and served two terms as president. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” But how did Grant get to this point, and why, if one of the great American presidents himself rank him among the same caliber of Washington and Lincoln, become forgotten in history?

The answer falls inside Grant’s character itself. Grant, based on his upbringing, was never meant to be Lieutenant General of the Union army, and never meant to be a president. Furthermore, he should had never been involved in politics in the first place, since his romantic personality could never lead him to be a brutally insensitive politician. However, Grant’s success comes from his character as a public servant. Grant, through his successes in life, never exhibited an ego, but maintained a humble confidence that charmed those around him and a strength against his enemies which was unrivaled by others, which led to his rise in life. These characteristics led to his significance in history as a man with the burden of a desperate country on his shoulders. Overall, Grant exhibited great successes for not only himself, but his country, because of his demeanor and awareness human condition.

The first primary source to support the point that Grant succeeded in life and his legacy due to his character can be seen in the political cartoon titled, The old bull dog on the right track. In it, Grant is depicted as a bulldog, having cornered the Confederate generals, including General Lee, whom Grant was often paralleled with and was his greatest offender in the Civil War. Lincoln and General McClellan are debating whether or not Grant should let up on his relentless attacks on Confederate soldiers, most specifically after his capture of the Weldon Railroad, to which Lincoln states, “...it’s best to give the old bulldog full swing to go in and finish them!” By depicting Grant as a bulldog, it demonstrates his courage and ferocity against the enemy Confederates. It also shows the public’s affection towards Grant as a great leader and a fierce general.

However, the public fondness demonstrated here was not constant through Grant’s life, starting at his early rise to fame in the Mexican American war. Rumors of his drunkenness came from as a young lieutenant in the army, and though they were unsubstantiated claims, they tarnished his reputation. However, Grant did not allow for these claims to ruin his military life. He continued his bulldog approach, always preferring the offensive approach to military situations. He did not let the negative media and false rumors about him deter from his relentless battles against the Confederacy. This directly points to his character. Because Grant was humble, and his ego wasn’t too hurt after the negative press came forward, he was able to maintain his control of his men and lead the Union to decisive victories, such as his Vicksburg campaign strategies and his pushes to gain control of the Mississippi River. Overall, Grant’s ability to lead troops was a partial point of his success, but his unrelenting character and humble nature is what made him successful and fated to be indispensable on the battlefield.

The second primary source is his first Inaugural address, given on March 4, 1869. In this compact speech, the usually introverted Grant addresses the nation as president for the first time. Grant inherited a deeply divided country, who dealt with the assassination of a beloved president who was replaced by an incompetent man, Andrew Johnson, who was just shy of being impeached. In this speech, Grant attempts to unite the country with ideals that were hallmarks to his presidency, including the instatement of the gold standard to help ease the Southerner’s debt, citizenship rights for Native Americans, the installment of the Fifteenth Amendment and his commitment to uphold the Constitution’s definition of an executive leader. Grant specifically says, “...it is desirable [to approach conflicts] calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.” In stating this, Grant attempts to put aside the harsh political differences that literally tore the nation apart, and presents the ideals of a new nation he wishes to foster into a blooming country.

Grant’s devotion to his country in his inaugural address also shows his character. Grant did not have a political background for the majority of his life, but was a general in a war that could have turned him bitter and unwilling to aid the South in his presidency. Instead, Grant’s humanity and humility drives him to unite the country. He does not blame the South for their economic predicament, but instead offers to help them, as they are apart of the nation. He does not have a military approach to his presidency, but a humanitarian approach. And, for the most part, he does help to unite the South economically, especially since their currency was invalid and their economy suffering after the war. It’s Grant’s personal moral that guide him through his presidency, and for better or worse, they define him as a man in history.

The final primary source is his direct address to Congress, Special message, given on March 30, 1870, to discuss the importance of ratification for the Fifteenth Amendment. In his usual fashion, Grant sent the address rather than speaking it, as he was introverted and more comfortable with writing than public speaking. In it, Grant stresses the importance of the new four million citizens of his country to be treated equally with the same rights as everyone else, which in this case, was the right to vote. His push for equality stems from his disagreements with Johnson, which led him to become president after Johnson’s lame duck one term. Grant then pushes for the general education of Southerners and others who oppose the Fifteenth Amendment to persuade them. “Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge… it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Again, it is prevalent that he does not treat his presidency like a general would a war; he goes on the offensive, but to better both sides of the country.



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