Born in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, as the son of a Whig supporter and abolitionist, Ulysses S. Grant came from a military lineage. His great-grandfather fought in the French and Indian War, his grandfather in the American Revolution.
Enrolling at West Point, he proved an expert horseman and afterward fought capably in the Mexican-American War. Marriage to Julie Boggs Dent and a station out West followed. Although allegations of drunkenness surfaced, he resigned in good standing in 1854.
A move to Missouri and financial struggles followed. Despite mounting debts, Grant freed his only slave, whom he had inherited from his father-in-law. He also opposed southern secession.
Upon the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s subsequent call for soldiers, Grant raised a company of volunteers and returned to military duty. During the Civil War he emerged victorious in crucial battles, receiving promotions despite lingering alcohol-related concerns. In March 1864 Lincoln bestowed command of Union armies upon Lieutenant General Grant.
On April 9, 1865 Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, effectively ending the war and sealing his legacy as a great military leader. A commission as general of the Army followed in July 1866, making Grant the first to wear the four-silver-star insignia.
Angered at President Andrew Johnson’s refusal to pursue racial justice in the South, Republicans chose General Grant as their 1868 presidential candidate. Although a national hero in the North and among freedmen, Grant’s selection stoked controversy.
In December 1862 he had issued an order against Jews in his military department, only to reverse course following a public outcry and opposition from Lincoln. The stigma of the anti-Jewish order remained.
During the 1868 campaign he contritely declared: “I do not sustain that order. It would never have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”
Easily winning election, Ulysses S. Grant, 46, became the youngest president thus far.
Remarkable national advances marked Grant’s two terms in office. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad took place in 1869, followed by the establishment of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. Immigration surged; iron and steel production soared; manufacturing and industry expanded rapidly; and western resources of gold, silver and lumber spurred the economy.
At the same time, America’s cities bulged as many citizens abandoned farm life for urbanity. Robber barons emerged, industrialists who utilized monopolies to provide consumer goods and services ever more cheaply, exploiting laborers while hoarding great personal wealth.
Alongside expansion of capital, resources, land and infrastructure, Grant and Congress turned their attention to Southern Reconstruction. Although pardoning some Confederate leaders, the president and Republicans sought protection for former slaves.
The 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote, achieved ratification. The 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, seeking to limit violence against blacks, received backing by federal troops stationed throughout the South.
Although easily winning a second term, white southern opposition and administrative scandals marred Grant’s latter presidential years. Northern commitment to protect freedmen faded in the face of white supremacist intransigence. Meanwhile, Grant, militarily accustomed to trusting subordinates, seemed hapless as corrupt appointees granted favors and enabled monopolies in return for financial benefit.
In 1876 near the end of his second term, Grant apologized for failures “of judgment, not of intent,” lamenting, “It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training.”
Out of favor with Republicans, Grant declined to run for a third term. Yet when the 1876 election resulted in a tense Electoral College standoff that threatened civil unrest, a lame-duck Grant garnered bipartisan approval for his handling of the crisis. His post-presidential years further restored his reputation.
In matters of personal faith, Grant, like many earlier presidents, displayed ambivalence at best. Although raised in a Methodist family, Grant never joined and rarely attended church. At West Point he criticized mandatory chapel services as “not Republican,” refusing to attend.
Chaplain James Crane, serving under Grant during the Civil War, later wrote a saintly account of his former commander. While acknowledging Grant’s lack of religious affiliation, Crane claimed that Grant expressed “the highest esteem” for religion, sometimes attended his family’s Methodist Episcopal church, and encouraged and occasionally attended camp religious services. Crane also dismissed accounts of Grant imbibing alcohol.
Indeed, President Grant periodically attended Metropolitan Methodist Church with his wife Julie, a devout Methodist. And in his memoirs Grant expressed an affinity for the Bible: “I believe in the Holy Scriptures, and whoso lives by them will be benefited thereby. Men may differ as to the interpretation, which is human, but the Scriptures are man’s best guide.”
On the other hand, Grant’s youngest son, Jesse, recalled that his father thought “very little about the question of immortality of the soul and things like that. He believed Christianity to be a good thing, and so were all the other religions of the world. Each had its place, and each would be found on the other side of death, or else nobody at all would be there. He was probably what would be called a pure agnostic. I never heard him talk about religion.”
Like his predecessors in the White House, President Grant upheld church-state separation. “No political party can or ought to exist when one of its corner-stones is opposition to freedom of thought and to the right to worship God ‘according to the dictate of one’s own conscience,’ or according to the creed of any religious denomination whatever,” he insisted. “Nevertheless, if a sect sets up its laws as binding above the State laws, wherever the two come in conflict this claim must be resisted and suppressed at whatever cost.”
Grant brought official closure to a petition by some Christian ministers to amend the nation’s secular Constitution and make America a Christian nation. The failed amendment sought to add to the Constitution’s preamble language acknowledging “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Ruler among the nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority.”
President Grant also sought to prevent schools receiving public monies from teaching religious tenets. He did so as the nation’s growing Catholic population sought government assistance for their schools, generating Protestant opposition. Many interpreted Grant’s position as anti-Catholic, although his close friend Gen. William T. Sherman insisted the decision was made “because of the ceaseless clamor for set religious exercises in the public schools; not from Catholics, but from Protestant denominations.”
In his public appointments Grant made no distinctions based upon religious faith. Appointing more Jews to public office than all prior presidents combined, he spoke against international persecution of Jews.
Also Grant appointed a number of Catholics to administrative posts. New York Baptist minister Thomas Anderson praised Grant for appointing Thomas Murphy the “collectorship of New York,” denouncing Protestant accusations of Murphy “as a bigoted Roman Catholic and likely to prostitute his office to the purposes of promoting his faith.” Following his presidency, Grant visited Ireland, the first American president to do so.
In an address to Congress in 1875, Grant voiced opposition to preferential treatment for religious institutions. Speaking of the “evil” of “the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property,” he called for equal taxation of “church and corporation” property.
Nonetheless, President Grant, in the forceful resettling of Indians upon reservations, solicited federal partnership with religious denominations “to Christianize and civilize the Indians.”
Collectively, Grant’s presidential religious positions and pronouncements reflected tensions between America’s official secular identity, Protestant pride in empowering a new era of westward growth and national prosperity, and ascendant religious minorities boldly placing their own imprints upon the American landscape.
Suffering from cancer and near death in 1885, Grant with pride noted that “The Protestant, the Catholic and the Jew appointed days for universal prayer in my behalf.”
Upon his passing Grant was remembered and mourned in the nation’s synagogues and churches. Some 500,000 Americans flocked to New York for his funeral. Among the 34,000 marching behind his horse-drawn carriage were members of the 69th New York Regiment of the Irish Brigade. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley