Springfield and Independence do a lot of crowing about Lincoln and Truman, but St. Louis is remarkably reticent about Ulysses S. Grant, the only U.S. president who ever lived here.
Now it's true Grant was born and grew up in Ohio and spent the bulk of his adulthood in the Army and Washington, DC, (although his campaign machine occasionally deployed his years in Galena, Illinois, where he worked at his brothers' tannery to show he was really a common workingman) -- and also that the years he spent in St. Louis in the late 1850s were ones of misery and spectacular failure.
But still. We had one of the great American heroes here, and we should appreciate him way more than we do. That's the gist of H.W. Brands' new book, The Man Who Saved the Union, which he will be reading from tonight at 7 p.m. at (where else?) the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site at Grant's Farm.
Well, OK, Brands didn't just write a massive doorstop of a book just to get St. Louisans to appreciate another former resident. He wrote this massive doorstop of a book so everybody could appreciate this former St. Louisan! (One who was disturbed by the antebellum slavery culture and depressed by his failures in farming and in business.)
The prevailing historical wisdom about Grant over the past couple of decades is that the man was a great general and a terrible president. (He is, in fact, a perennial fixture on Worst U.S. Presidents lists, right down there with Millard Fillmore and Warren Harding.)
But that's not true, Brands maintains. Yes, Grant was a great general, but he was also a pretty good president. People who draw up Worst Presidents lists have been influenced by historical theories formulated by Southern Democrats who resented Grant's Reconstruction policies, mostly the ones that forced government officials to treat African-Americans (and, to a lesser extent, Native Americans and Jews) like human beings. Instead they portrayed Grant as a drunk who filled the White House with a crew of inept cronies and whose massively corrupt administration interfered with the recovery of the South from the Civil War (and overstepped the bounds of federal government by interfering with states' rights.)
Grant did have his troubles with cronyism, or what appeared to be cronyism, but is vastly overshadowed, Brands argues, by his record on Civil Rights which would not be equaled by any president until Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces in 1948. Isn't that more important than preserving the delicate feelings of a bunch of disgruntled former slaveholders? Plus, he wrote what's considered the finest presidential memoir of all time.
So St. Louisans, be proud! We have our very own awesome president!
And check out Daily RFT tomorrow to read an interview with Brands about the great rehabilitation of President Grant.