As many of you know, Congressman Patrick McHenry recently introduced legislation to replace the portrait of Ulysses S. Grant on the fifty dollar bill with an image of Ronald Reagan.
Needless to say, this has many liberals outraged. Reagan? we ask incredulously. What is it with the conservative obsession with this guy anyway. All he did was hike the national debt, skew the income distribution and usher in an era of plutocracy and robber barons. Oh, and caused the deaths of countless innocents in Latin America in the most boneheaded quixotic anti-communist crusades since Dulles toppled Mosaddegh.
How could we possibly live in a country where they put a guy like THAT on the currency.
This is the wrong response.
The right response to this is the one we see in a brilliant op-ed piece by Sean Wilentz in today's New York Times.
It isn't just that Reagan shouldn't be honored. It's that Grant should be. In the past I have had my differences with many on this site about the use of force to accomplish political goals. I have little patience for pacifism. In my view pacifism is to peace as abstinence-only sex education is to the elimination of teen pregnancy: an impediment erected by those refusing to face some basic truths about our nature.
I understand that this is a minority and unpopular view here. I also understand that the progressive aversion to war often makes people less likely to honor military heroes. Thus when it is proposed to put Reagan on the fifty, our reactions tend to be entirely negative. Reagan doesn't deserve this many of us say, and rightly so. But negative arguments can never win, and as Wilentz demonstrates there are many positive arguments to be made for honoring Ulysses S. Grant, a true champion of human rights.
Unfortunately, many on the left, and indeed many Americans more generally have had their opinions of Grant swayed by the influence of Lost Cause propagandists. Grant was not only a military man, a man whose profession is to snuff out and destroy the sacred and divine gift of human life and to do so on an industrial scale all so that he may help to insure the achievement of profane political objectives, he was a butcher who wasn't even good at his job. The only thing that could be said for him as a commander was that he was indifferent to slaughter and could thus subdue his opponent by sheer force of numbers.
The truth is that Grant was a military genius. In a war in which Robert E. Lee, the supposed genius of southern arms was never able to force the surrender of a single enemy army, Grant captured three. While Lee often performed well with the armies under his direct control, other Confederate armies did not do so well. This was because Grant sent his best subordinates to independent commands while Lee rarely did so, preferring to keep his most talented Lieutenants at his side, thus insuring his own tactical victories, but hardly improving the strategic situation of the south.
Put simply, one of the primary reasons that the Union cause prevailed was that the South was simply out-generaled and the primary reason for that was Ulysses S. Grant. As Wilentz writes:
When one Union general after another proved unequal to the task of leading the army, Lincoln personally elevated Grant, who, with William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, devised the strategy of "hard war" to defeat the slaveholders’ Confederacy. "I cannot spare this man," Lincoln was reported to have said of Grant after the bloody Battle of Shiloh in 1862. "He fights."
Many, no doubt will point out that military genius should not qualify someone to be a hero of his country, after all, was not Patton a military genius? Would we really want him on our currency?
This misses the point completely. Grant was not one of those figures of history who happens to have a talent for taking life and would have been glad to employ that talent in any cause. In fact, Grant was a civilian when the Civil War began and he joined the union cause because he believed in it deeply. As he remarked at the beginning of the struggle, "There are but two parties now, Traitors & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter."
While it is true that Grant was never particularly involved in the struggle to outlaw slavery prior to the war, he became one of the greatest champions of civil rights that the country has ever known. Again, Wilentz:
As president, Grant was determined to achieve national reconciliation, but on the terms of the victorious North, not the defeated Confederates. He fought hard and successfully for ratification of the 15th Amendment, banning disenfranchisement on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. When recalcitrant Southern whites fought back under the white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan, murdering and terrorizing blacks and their political supporters, Grant secured legislation that empowered him to unleash federal force. By 1872, the Klan was effectively dead.
For Grant, Reconstruction always remained of paramount importance, and he remained steadfast, even when members of his own party turned their backs on the former slaves. After white supremacists slaughtered blacks and Republicans in Louisiana in 1873 and attempted a coup the following year, Grant took swift and forceful action to restore order and legitimate government. With the political tide running heavily against him, Grant still managed to see through to enactment the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination according to race in all public accommodations.
The fact is that one of the reasons that Grant is regarded so lightly is that Lost Cause revisionists reviled him for his civil rights record and sought to discredit him in the eyes of a country that once adored him.
In reality, what fueled the personal defamation of Grant was contempt for his Reconstruction policies, which supposedly sacrificed a prostrate South, as one critic put it, "on the altar of Radicalism." That he accomplished as much for freed slaves as he did within the constitutional limits of the presidency was remarkable. Without question, his was the most impressive record on civil rights and equality of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.
Reagan doesn't belong on the fifty dollar bill not just because of his shortcomings. He doesn't belong there because the place is taken. It is occupied by a military genius and a man of greatness, decency and modesty, by a genuine champion of liberal values. It is occupied by one of the few indispensable men in American history.
Not only does Grant deserve his place on the fifty, it is well past time that his military accomplishments be recognized. Grant should, along with George Washington and John Pershing, be honored with six stars.