Guns and Gear

Guns & Politics: A President Who Was Not A Politician

Susan Smith Columnist
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Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States, as you well know.  Not many, but some, Presidents have been elected not having served in political office before, and few, again, not many, but some, have been businessmen.  But of the few who have not served in some sort of political office previous to the Presidency, and that would be only six of that 44, each one had served in the military in some capacity.  Not so Donald J. Trump.

FYI, two people who ran for the office, Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and Ross Perot in 1992, were wealthy businessmen like Trump who had not previously served in a political capacity, but neither succeeded in winning the Presidency.

One of these six men, Ulysses S. Grant, who served as our 18th President, from 1869-1877, had perhaps the perfect name to run for and serve as President of the United States.

Disappointingly, though, the S in General Grant’s name didn’t stand for anything; in fact, it didn’t belong there at all.  When his name was submitted to West Point by his family’s Congressman, at Grant’s father’s request, the individual mistakenly assumed that the boy’s mother’s maiden name was to be used as Ulysses’ middle name, and ‘Simpson’ was thusly placed on his registration.  When Grant arrived at West Point, and finding there was no one there registered in his actual name, he searched a bit more and found a U.S. Grant as yet unclaimed.  He took it as his own, and the name U.S. Grant was born.

A largely undistinguished student at West Point, Grant excelled only in horsemanship and mathematics, and made it clear during his school career that he would leave the Army as soon as his required period of military service was over.  As predicted, after serving as a brevet second lieutenant for a short number of years in a series of remote posts, Grant resigned his Army commission and embarked on a business career after marrying a friend’s sister, Julia Dent.  It, (the business career, not the marriage), was a disaster.

He started out as a farmer, (he, rather fittingly it turned out, named his farm “Hardscrabble”), and it couldn’t have turned out to be a bigger mess.  Then he took a turn at real estate, and it was another complete fiasco.  Then he moved his family back into his parents’ house, (he had four children by then), and joined his father’s leather goods’ business.  It’s hard to say thankfully, (though it must have been for Grant’s father), but 1861 came along, and the Civil War was starting.  In April of that year, Grant joined the Army, and was able to start at the rank of Colonel.  By that summer, Abraham Lincoln himself awarded Grant the rank of Brigadier General, and he soon distinguished himself at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee.  It was there that when asked about the terms of surrender, Grant famously replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

A brilliant military career followed, with successive victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg and the Wilderness, among others.  Earning a reputation as a highly aggressive, determined and tenacious leader, Grant was appointed lieutenant general by Lincoln in March, 1864, and later given command of all U.S. armies, an honor that had not been bestowed on any military commander since General George Washington.  General Grant led a series of campaigns that “ultimately wore down the Confederate army and helped bring the deadliest conflict in U.S. history” to a much speedier close, it was thought, than were he not the Northern Command’s leader.

There were many, however, who did not approve of Grant’s methods of achieving victory.  As commander, “Grant worked to constantly occupy Robert E. Lee’s rebel army in the East, while Union troops struck at the heart of the South, destroying homes, farms, and factories, and Southerners’ willingness to fight.”  His methods, in short, were brutal, though highly effective.  Grant’s nefarious plans worked, though, and on April 9, 1865, he accepted Lee’s surrender at the Court House in Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.

Five days later, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  General Grant and his wife had been invited to accompany the President’s party, and regrets had been conveyed as the Grants had a long standing family commitment in New Jersey.  Upon finding out about the President’s death at a train stop on the way to their destination, Grant described Lincoln’s death as the “darkest day of my life,” and bitterly regretted not having been at his side. Despite being a potential target himself, he was convinced he would have somehow stopped the assassin “from pulling the trigger.”

Having been designated America’s national hero, U.S. Grant became the Republican Party’s nominee for President, and defeated the Democrat, Horatio Seymour, in 1868, and went on to serve two terms as President in a tumultuous post-Reconstruction period in American history.  He was determined to help the South recover, (his campaign slogan was “Let Us Have Peace”), and he fought before and during his entire Presidency to reconcile the North and the South.

Grant believed leniency re: the South was critical to achieving a lasting peace following the brutal Civil War, and he was “furious when a federal grand jury later negated the terms” of an agreement he had made paroling Confederate soldiers and officers, and charged the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and several other Confederate generals with treason. During a subsequent meeting with soon to depart President Andrew Johnson, he stated his intention to “resign the command of the army rather than execute any order to arrest Lee or any of his commanders so long as they obey the law.” Unwilling to lose Grant’s support, Johnson reluctantly dropped the case.

President Grant fought with an “emerging white supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan,” to the extent that the group practically disappeared from any position of power and didn’t really reappear as a force until the 1910’s, and other violent uprisings against blacks and Republicans.

He also met with many  Native American leaders, including the very famous and powerful (at the time), Red Cloud, trying to develop an effective peace policy in the West, and “took steps to repair the damaged economy” of the nation.  But sadly, his two terms in office are most widely known for  “ financial scandals among members of his party and his administration.”

One of the financial scandals, involving the notorious 19th century financial baron Jay Gould, was so devastating to the country and many of its people, in September, 1869, that it caused a financial panic that became known as “Black Friday,” and a later Depression.   Another major scandal was known as the Whiskey Ring, which was exposed in 1875 and involved a network of distillers, distributors and public officials, some of whom were known to Grant, who “conspired to defraud the federal government of millions in liquor tax revenue.”

As frequent and distasteful as the many scandals of his Administration were, however, it was never alleged that the President had any personal involvement with any of them.

Though urged to run for a third term, U.S. Grant left office at the end of two terms.  The former President and General wanted to make one final attempt to be a successful businessman.

This final try was the most spectacular failure of them all.

Grant joined with his son, Ulysses Grant, Jr., known as Buck, and a “friend,” Ferdinand Ward, in opening an investment bank in New York City, to which he retired upon leaving office. Unbeknownst to the former President and his son, their friend and partner was robbing the investors and the Grants blind.  As a result, the firm, its investors, and the Grants, went bankrupt, and the President and his family lost everything.  Again.

Resilient and determined to the end, Ulysses Grant picked himself up by his bootstraps once again and embarked upon the authorship of his memoirs, and proceeded to write what many describe as the best presidential autobiography of all time.  Grant turned to his good friend, and this one, it turned out, he could count on, Mark Twain, who had a publishing company, along with a very successful career as a novelist at the time, to publish the work.   Published as a two-volume set, Grant’s memoirs sold some 300,000 copies and became a classic work of American literature.  Grant, however, never saw any of the profits, as shortly after he had begun to write, he was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He died on July 23, 1885, just two months after the book went to press, and was honored with an enormous funeral procession in New York City.  The former General and President is buried in Grant’s Tomb, the largest Mausoleum in America, in New York.

Though both fascinating and charismatic men, there are almost no similarities between Presidents Grant and Trump.  President Trump is a famous teetotaler, and President Grant was, well, quite well known for his imbibing habits (President Lincoln, to whom it was once reported that General Grant was an out and out drunk, responded by telling the tattle tellers to find out what Grant was drinking and getting cases of it to his other Civil War generals).  Also, President Trump is a fantastically successful businessman, while President Grant is known not only for how many, but also for how spectacular, his business failures were.  But both men can be called unique, and successful, and remarkable additions to the panoply of great Presidents of the United States of America.

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.