Should Ronald Regan replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill?


Ronald Regan deserves posterity’s honor, and so it makes sense that the capital’s airport and a major building there are named for him. But the proposal to substitute his image for that of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill is a travesty that would dishonor the nation’s bedrock principles of union, freedom and equality – and damage its historical identity.

Although slandered since his death, Grant, as general and as president, stood second only to Abraham Lincoln as the vindicator of those principles in the Civil War era.

Lincoln personally elevated Ulysses S. Grant to be the top general of the civil war.

Born to humble circumstances, Grant endured personal setbacks and terrible poverty to become the indispensable general of the Union Army.

Although not himself an abolitionist, he recognized from the very start that the Civil War would cause, as he wrote, “the doom of slavery.” Above all, he despised the Southern secessionists as traitors who would destroy democratic republican government, of which, Lincoln said in his first inaugural, there was no “better or equal hope in the world.”

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.”

General Grant narrowly escaped being with Lincoln when he was assasinated.

Had his wife not declined to go to Ford’s Theater the night of April 14, 1865, Grant might well have been killed himself. With Lincoln’s assassination, Grant was left as the greatest Union hero of the Civil War.

He chafed under the neo-Confederate presidency of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, won the Republican presidential nomination in 1868 almost by acclamation and was elected twice – the only president to serve two successive full terms between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.

President Grant unleased federal forces on the Ku Klux Clan

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.

President Grant supported the Civil Rights Act of 1875

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.

President Grant ordered fairer treatment of native americans.

Grant did not confine his reformism to expanding and protecting the rights of the freed slaves. Disgusted at the inhumanity of the nation’s Indian policies, he called for “the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land,” and directed efforts to provide federal aid for food, clothing and schooling for the Indians as well as protection from violence.

Grant also took strong and principled stands in favor of education reform and the separation of church and state.

Grant’s presidency had its failures and blemishes.

On the advice of his counselors, Grant appointed men to the Supreme Court who wound up gutting much of the legislation he himself championed. This included the 1875 civil rights law, which the court declared unconstitutional in 1883.

Certainly, Grant’s administration was tainted by oft-remembered corruption scandals. But Grant was never seriously implicated in any of them, although emboldened Democrats and disloyal Republicans, with the help of a sensationalist press, did their best to make the president appear the villain. (Grant ill-advisedly decided to present a stoic public face instead of fighting back.)

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.

When Grant left the office of President, he was the most famous and admired living American.

After Grant left the presidency in 1877, he was widely hailed as the most famous and admired living American, his alleged transgressions overcome by a fabulously successful two-year world tour.

He was still beloved at his death in 1885 – a reverence embodied by his monumental tomb in Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson.

Grant’s reputation was tarnished after his death.

But Grant came in for decades of disgraceful posthumous attacks that tore his reputation into tatters. Around 1900, pro-Confederate Southern historians began rewriting the history of the Civil War and cast Grant as a “butcher” during the conflict and a corrupt and vindictive tyrant during his presidency.

The conventional wisdom from the left has relied on the bitter comments of snobs like Henry Adams, who slandered Grant as the avatar of the crass, benighted Gilded Age.

Though much of the public and even some historians haven’t yet heard the news, the vindication of Ulysses S. Grant is well under way.

I expect that before too long Grant will be returned to the standing he deserves – not only as the military savior of the Union but as one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history.

Ronald Reagan also had historic acheivements while president.

Now, Ronald Reagan also has historic achievements – chiefly, discarding the advice of his hard-right supporters, embracing the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and taking the first important steps toward ending the cold war. On the other hand, his record on domestic affairs – especially his unsubtle winking at pro-segregationist Southerners and his administration’s fiercely reactionary policies on civil rights – was appalling.

To honor Reagan’s genuine achievements by downgrading those of Grant would deepen our chronic historical amnesia about the Civil War and Reconstruction, the central events of the first 250 years of American history, and their legacy of nationalism, freedom and equal rights.

It’s hard to imagine that Ronald Reagan, whose modesty was part of his charm, would have approved of such a disgraceful act toward another president from Illinois.


Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008