In turbulent times, President Ulysses S. Grant’s star is shooting up

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A photo of a sketch of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. | AP Photo

Even as controversy swirls around the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, we are seeing a dramatic rise in the popularity of another once derided president, Ulysses S. Grant.

He is moving up in the rankings made by historians and political scientists, and that says much about how the times we live in can shape historical assessments.


A half century ago, and even until the last decade, Grant was ranked as a failure — a disastrous chief executive who had presided over the most corrupt administration in American history prior to the 20th century.

He was seen as having ushered in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, with its corruption and malfeasance. He was seen as totally inept, blamed for the terrible Panic of 1873.

He was a heavy drinker, our second alcoholic president after Franklin Pierce. And he was seen as clueless, unaware of what was going on even within his own cabinet.

While it was acknowledged that Grant had been a great Civil War general, it also was accepted that Gen. Robert E. Lee had been a far better military leader, despite his having served in a losing cause. Grant’s reputation was in tatters as a president, just above James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore and Herbert Hoover.

In 2000, a C-SPAN poll of presidential scholars ranked Grant number 33 out of 41. But just nine years later, a similar poll saw Grant shoot up ten points to number 23 out of 42, an astounding rise. Then, in 2017, Grant rose to 22 out of 43. And in 2018, the Presidents and Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey of the American Political Science Association saw Grant rise to number 21, ahead of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, and close behind William McKinley and James K. Polk.

It was an astounding development.

In the most recent survey, Grant was ranked 27th by self-defined conservatives and 25th by self-defined Republicans, while moderates and independents ranked him 22nd. More astounding was that self-defined liberals and Democrats both ranked him 19th. So it was the latter two groups which assisted Grant’s rise to number 21, something no historian would have thought possible in the past half century.

Who would think that a flawed Republican president of the Gilded Age would be ranked higher than any post Civil War president with the exception of William McKinley?

Recent scholarship on Grant has greatly contributed to his rehabilitation, emphasizing his open-minded and tolerant views on racial matters. While massive corruption was common during his presidency and the economy was perilous, writers have given him high marks for his efforts on behalf of African Americans and Native Americans.

And his leadership in the Civil War has probably also had an effect on his ranking, given that we recently commemorated the 150th anniversary of that war.

The ranking, image and popularity of a past president is often in flux, affected by changing times and issues. It makes one wonder if in the future we will see a revival of the image and ranking of other presidents who now languish in the lower depths of presidential reputations, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush.

The odds of Nixon, Carter, Ford or George W. Bush ever reaching the lofty heights of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower or Lyndon B. Johnson are highly unlikely. But they could move up in ranking over time as we add more presidents to the list, and as the leadership of past presidents begins to look better by comparison.

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015).

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