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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Spencer Rendahl: Grant's Story

For weeks, I slogged my way through the almost seven hundred page American Ulysses: A life of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the two recent big biographies of our 18th president, of whom I knew embarrassingly little. Born in 1822, a tanner’s son, Grant graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican American War and later left the military to try his hand – and fail - as an entrepreneur.

Grant’s family was, well, complicated. His father was a friend and admirer of abolitionist John Brown. Grant married the daughter of a slave-owner. He received three slaves through marriage and later manumitted one.

As the Civil War approached, Grant enlisted in the Union Army, and rose quietly and steadily.

General Grant may be most famous for leading and winning the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a key event in the Union’s winning of the Civil War. And he was most infamous for issuing an order banning Jewish traders from military command – which President Lincoln revoked. Grant never formally apologized, but later he took a number of actions which helped him receive endorsements from Jewish leaders.

After the war, in 1866, several Confederate veterans established what they called a social club. They draped themselves in sheets, and called themselves the Ku Klux Klan. They elected the pardoned Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest as their first leader. The Klan initially used economic pressure to suppress the African American vote. But it quickly turned to terrorizing entire African American communities for exercising their civil rights.

While many members of congress were dismissive of the Klan, President Grant didn’t equivocate. Instead, he argued that the federal government needed to help protect the constitutional rights of freed slaves. Accordingly, he helped pass the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act which made it a federal offense to “hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct” anyone from voting “in any election” and offered other protections.

Because of Grant’s commitment to guaranteeing civil rights, African American leader Fredrick Douglas - very much alive at the time - campaigned for Grant’s reelection. While only offering muted praise for Lincoln, Douglas called Grant “the honored and trusted President of the United States.”

To this reader, Grant’s story serves as a reminder of the power Presidents have to effect positive change – if only they choose to use it.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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