- - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Many conservatives and Republicans across the country are worried about the possibility that their presidential nominee could be Donald Trump, a man who initially dithered over rejecting the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, someone who has routinely retweeted hateful words from white supremacists. April 27 was the 194th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, a two-term Republican president, so it’s a good time to look back on how this GOP leader handled civil rights.

During his presidency, Grant battled the KKK, signed civil rights legislation and lobbied for the passage of the 15th Amendment barring federal and state governments from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Grant’s initial fame rose from delivering final victory for the Union in the Civil War after other generals failed President Abraham Lincoln and the country. Following the murder of Lincoln, successor Andrew Johnson battled with Republicans and was nearly removed from office. It was into this tumultuous political environment of 1868, with the country grappling over Reconstruction, that the general received the Republican nomination for president. He took office in 1869.

In his inaugural address, Grant called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment:

“The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any State. It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now, and I entertain the hope and express the desire that it may be by the ratification of the fifteenth article of amendment to the Constitution.”

On March 30, 1870, after 29 states voted to ratify the 15th Amendment, Grant hailed the move, calling it “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.”

As the Klan terrorized blacks in the South, Grant and a Republican-controlled Congress fought back with the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871. As Joan Waugh wrote in “U.S. Grant, American Hero, American Myth,” these acts “enabled the president to use the power of the federal government to restore order by sending troops, imposing martial law and suspending the writ of habeas corpus.”

Grant’s attorney general, Amos T. Ackerman, arrested thousands of Klansmen in several states. In 1871, the president sent federal troops into South Carolina to battle this terrorist organization. As H.W. Brands explained in “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace,” the impact of the sweeps “went beyond arrest numbers; many Klansmen fled their home counties ahead of the troops and marshals, some fled the state and a few even fled the country. The detainees overwhelmed the available jails and, after they were eventually indicted, clogged the dockets of the courts.”

Ms. Waugh noted that “the specter of a vigorous federal presence in elections made the subsequent 1872 presidential election the ‘fairest and freest’ in the south until late in the 20th century.”

In 1872, the president won a massive reelection victory. In his 1873 inaugural address, Grant again addressed equality:

“The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected.”

He called for blacks to receive “a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.”

Grant is often maligned as a mediocre president, garnering unimpressive scores in presidential rankings. Critics justly attack him for corruption in his administration. Unskilled in the art of politics, dishonest members of the Cabinet took advantage of this trusting man. Another critique centers on Grant’s less aggressive push to protect black Americans in his second term. He used federal troops less often, fearing for his reputation and pervasive insults that the president was becoming a dictator.

Yet, despite scandal and corruption issues, Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It boldly stated, “It is essential to just government we recognize the equality of all men before the law, and hold that it is the duty of government in its dealings with the people to mete out equal and exact justice to all.” (The Supreme Court declared the legislation unconstitutional in 1883. It was the last serious civil rights effort until 1957.)

In 2014, Henry L. Roediger III and K. Andrew DeSoto produced a study for Science magazine. During their research, they asked subjects to name as many presidents as possible. Only 38 percent could even recall Grant’s name, let alone his accomplishments. This is a shame. As a general, he saved the union and helped free the slaves. As president, he fought for civil rights for black Americans.

As Republicans search for a presidential candidate in 2016, a leader to unite the party and solve this country’s problems, racial and otherwise, they should remember the temperament and determination of a past Republican leader who came to power in difficult times. As for the man himself, in a speech to the Society of the Army of Tennessee in 1875, Grant said: “How many of our comrades of those days paid the latter price for our preserved Union! Let their heroism and sacrifices be ever green and in our memory . The Union and the free institutions for which they fell should be held more dear for their sacrifices.”

Let Americans of all political stripes hold dear the legacy and life of our 18th president.

Scott Whitlock is the associate editor for NewsBusters.org.

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