Some historical figures maintain their reputation, whatever our contemporary concerns. George Washington has remained one of our most admired Presidents for the entire history of the Republic. James Buchanan settled in the doghouse as soon as he left office and has stayed there ever since. But the assessments of most Presidents and public figures lying between these poles of excellence and of failure wax and wane depending on our current preoccupations. Biography can be the most presentist of historical disciplines.
No subject exemplifies these vicissitudes more than Ulysses S. Grant. When the nation wanted to emphasize the reconciliation of the South and North and forgot about civil rights for African Americans, Grant was derided both as a general and as President. He was said to have defeated Robert E. Lee only because of his greater willingness to sacrifice the lives of ordinary soldiers and the greater industrial might of the North. His Presidency was treated as a travesty almost as bad as Buchanan’s—that of a man in office over his head with a high tolerance of scandalous behavior of subordinates.
But today we see more of American history as a struggle for civil rights and thus Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography attempts to raise Grant to the pantheon of American generals and to a more than respectable position among American Presidents. Chernow is more successful in promoting a reassessment of his career as a warrior than as a statesman.
Civic minded Americans will hopefully pause on the 4th of July to reflect on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to the nation dedicated, however imperfectly, to the cause of liberty. In regards to the Declaration, all honor to Thomas Jefferson, as Lincoln rightly observed.
While the principles of the Declaration are considered self-evident, it is also true that men can be persuaded to wear chains, as Jefferson once noted. Thus it took the force of arms to win American independence and secure those principles. George Washington and the Continental Army, with a considerable assist from the French military, converted those ideas into reality.
Thomas Jefferson did not help draft or ratify the First Amendment, but one argument for favoring his views over those of a Roger Sherman or an Oliver Ellsworth when investigating the “generating history” of the Constitution’s religion clauses is that Jefferson was more important than most Founders. By that measure, investigators of that history ought not to ignore George Washington. Nor shall this series on participants in the Founding-era debates over religious liberty and church-state relations.
For many Republicans, the presidency of Barack Obama felt like a Babylonian exile. America was in ruins, and Donald Trump surveyed them—seeing, as he said in his inaugural address, “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” as evidence of a broader “American carnage.”
Two Hundred Forty years ago, Christmas Eve, was a desperate time for America. General Washington had lost the Battle of New York, and had been chased, humiliatingly, all the way across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania.
Those were, as Thomas Paine‘s first “American Crisis” essay, dated December 23, 1776, declared “the times that try men’s souls”:
In my “Age of Washington” class the other day, I stumbled over the start of his Last Will and Testament. I regard the will as a partly public and partly private document—the last of his great “farewells,” including his farewell to the Virginia Regiment in 1759, his last Circular to the States in 1783, and, of course, his Presidential Farewell Address of 1796.