Sunday, November 25, 2018

Some similarities between Washington and Grant

Ulysses Grant inherited the problems of Lincoln
The more I read about the presidency of Ulysses Grant (1869-1877), I cannot help but compare it in my mind to that of George Washington (1789-1797).

Both Washington and Grant grew up in middle-class environments (Washington higher middle-class and Grant lower middle-class). They both served as junior officers in terrible conflicts (Washington in the French and Indian War and Grant in the War in Mexico). Both men married women, who they loved, above their stations (For Washington Martha Custis and for Grant Julia Dent). During the Interwar years, for both, they were each sort of lost. Of course, Washington became a successful farmer, though Grant eventually established himself in the family tannery business.

During their wars, Washington led an improbable army to miraculous victory against an unbeatable force (in the British Crown); and Grant led a demoralized and weather-beaten force (Army and Navy) to victory over a valiant and frequently victorious army led by some of the brightest generals in the history of armed warfare.

In the case of both Washington and Grant, neither one could, in good conscience, walk away from their country in the wake of their wars. In the case of Washington, the newfound United States might well have fallen into civil war or a non-democratic form of government without his acceptance of the presidency. Without Grant accepting the presidency, and given outgoing President Andrew Johnson's inabiltiy to lead effectively after the Civil War, the newly reunited nation might well have fallen back into civil war, or back into slavery, or into war with Great Britain.

Neither Washington or Grant ever sought a nomination for the presidency, during any of their terms, and both men patently refused being nominated for third terms. For both of them, public service beyond their military experiences was an unwanted chore that was a mechanism of national need above personal.

When it came to Washington, he was paid through a complex forumula of GNP and other considerations of the new United States. Grant was paid $50,000 per year to be president, but he had to operate the White House with his pay.

Washington did not serve in Washington as the nation's seat of power: he served in New York. Grant served in Washington DC and his wife supervised substantial building of the presidential home.

There were differences during the tenures of office of the two men. The notion of 'strong executive' or 'weak executive' governments was not considered during Washington's time as president. He was Washington. After earlier turning down being an American monarch, and thereafter enforcing the construction of a democratic republic in America, Washington gave orders and most people just went along. Washington was not a unilateral 'decider.' He never was. Washington liked hearing all sides of any matter and then made an informed decision. Washington listened to people and made the best choice he could based on that advice.

Grant basically did business the way Washington did. He took in all sides of any question and made the best choice he saw from out of that counsel. Both men appointed trusted army subordinates in key govermental posts after their rise to office. Maybe Washington did it a little more than Grant.

So, where were the differences?

Grant inherited a 'weak president' role after taking the presidential reins from Andrew Johnson. Johnson did more to weaken the office of the presidency than any 19th century executive. He was a mess and going into Johnson's many sins would take a book (let alone an editorial). Moreover, Grant assumed office at a time when the Senate had become used to calling the shots on the national scene. Grant was second-guessed from the beginning of his tenure. Far from being listened to, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate of his time were more than happy to go about running the country without his interference. For good or bad (mostly bad in my opinion), Grant went from fighting the Civil War to taking part in the Political Wars immediately thereafter.

Washington wouldn't have had any of that. During his presidency, New Jersey Representative Robert Morris recalled, in his memoirs, on one social occasion putting his hand, unsoicited, on Washington's shoulder. To paraphrase, Morris said he was immediately given a frozn stare by the stately president that informed Morris (without any words passing) that putting his hand on the president's shoulder was a mistake and that it would never happen again. I find it hard to think that anyone in the legislative branch of government considered shoving a bill down the president's throat when they could not even gain permission to touch him on the shoulder.

Washington and Grant were both soft-spoken and not 'talkers.' Both wrote extensively. Washington played a vital part in creating and defining all of the government agencies that would, some 72 years later, wage almost ceaseless war against Grant. If anything drew the ire of white men in Grant's day, it was the said (and often un-said) disagreement they held with him about the slavery issue. To put it plainly, most white men (of both the North and South) wanted blacks to be treated as 'less than' whites. Northerners generally believed that blacks should be free and treated as third-class citizens while Southerners believed they should still be enslaved and treated like third-class citizens.

Washington and his founding brothers consciously made the decision to put off the slavery discussion. Given that armistice of views, it made it possible for the North and South to come together and create a new nation. But, slavery had to be dealt with, and while official slavery ended under Abraham Lincoln, it was far harder work to create the legislation that would eventually lead to recognition and enforcement of black rights. Of course, this was a night and day fight and Grant (an abolishionist by the time he was president) would not surrender or get out of the way of those who would find new ways to enslave black people.

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