It’s common these days to hear people complain that the system is broken. It doesn’t matter what their issue is or which side of the aisle they’re on, they’re equally disenchanted. When they talk about “the system,” they mean the American way, the Republic, our democracy. As a journalist I hear a lot of these complaints firsthand when I’m out in the community, traveling, giving speeches, playing golf or at my kids’ sporting events. People are worried.
The belief in the brokenness of our system is so pervasive that it’s easy to despair, and that’s why it’s helpful to look back in history for context. Once before, the American system of government really was broken — during the Civil War. I wrote my latest presidential biography, “To Rescue the Republic: Ulysses S. Grant, the Fragile Union, and the Crisis of 1876,” because Grant was a leader throughout the period of crisis during and after the war — first as the commander of the Union armies and later as a two-term president. As I researched the book, I was struck time and again by how well Grant’s personal qualities were suited to those times. His life story might well be titled “how to mend a broken system.”
Grant was not always a perfect messenger. He had his flaws — a history of problems with alcohol, repeated failures in civilian occupations, a presence that was shuffling and self-denigrating to a fault. But he had a rare gift for leadership that shone through in times of extreme crisis. He was a savant when it came to military strategy, which is why President Lincoln singled him out to command the Union armies. A story made the rounds that when aides to Lincoln expressed doubt about the appointment, citing the rumors of Grant’s drinking, Lincoln replied, “Do you know what brand of whiskey Grant drinks? I would like to get barrels of it and send it to my other generals.” (When the authenticity of the story was challenged, Lincoln himself remarked, “That would have been good if I had said it.”)
Grant is an example of the way a single individual, through acts of positive purpose, can change the narrative and bring an entire nation along. I’ve often wondered what a difference it might have made had Grant, with his great capacity for compassion and healing, been the one to follow Lincoln into the White House, rather than the bitter and racist Andrew Johnson.
Grant’s early failures seem to have toughened his spirit for the long war. On April 12, 1861, when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, many people didn’t take it seriously. The New York Times predicted that the conflict would be over in a month, and other newspapers concurred that it would be a short war. The Chicago Tribune boasted, “Illinois can whip the South by herself.” If many of his fellow combatants were stunned by the interminable war, Grant avoided despair. “He had learned patience when hope was long deferred,” his close military aide Adam Badeau, wrote, referring to Grant’s long years of struggle to find a path in life.
Grant was ruthless in battle, never shirking from the fight. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana observed that he was “gifted with courage that never faltered; when the time came to risk all, he went in like a simple- hearted, unaffected, unpretending hero.” But at the same time, Grant was generous in victory. His only desire was to heal the fracture. He refused to gloat. After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Grant’s men began firing a hundred-gun salute. He quieted them. “The rebels are our countrymen again,” he said, his eye on unification.
When his wife Julia wanted to take a trip to Richmond to savor the scene of the Confederacy’s defeat, he chastised her. “Hush, Julia,” he said. “Do not say another word on this subject. I would not distress these people. They are feeling their defeat bitterly, and you would not add to it by witnessing their despair, could you?”
At the end of the war, there was enormous gratitude in the North, but what of the South? When Grant made a fact-finding tour there in 1865, he often found himself surrounded by former soldiers. They had fought him, but they respected him, and they craved his acknowledgment of their dignity, which he was happy to give them.
In Jonesborough, Tennessee, they lined up to shake his hand. One former soldier announced to the crowd, “I fought that man pretty hard, but I would like to see him.” Grant assured him, “I would as soon see you as anybody.” He told the soldiers, “In every battle I felt a sympathy for you, and I felt that I was fighting for North and South — for the whole nation.”
Grant had no ambition to be president, but the nation wanted him. Nominated by acclaim, he agreed to run because he felt it his duty to heal the nation. On election night, after the results came in, he returned to Julia and announced, “I am afraid I’m elected.” Pained that the nation hadn’t made much progress toward healing in the four years after the war, he quietly put forth the main goal of his administration: “Let us have peace.”
Grant made the success of Reconstruction the chief mission of his presidency. He saw the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, granting rights and protections to former slaves. He targeted the violent Ku Klux Klan and succeeded in ending its reign (at least until it reappeared in the next century). Many parts of the South were intransigent, but Grant would not stand for violence against Blacks. He sent federal troops to stop the uprisings.
By the end of Grant’s second term, Reconstruction was under attack, not only in the South but in the Supreme Court, which had begun to overturn some of its tenets. The nation was tired of the process, and Southerners were rebelling. When the 1876 election results were challenged in several states, there was fear of a new war. Grant’s final act of peacemaking involved brokering an agreement in the 1876 election that might have saved the nation from another civil war, even as it took away some of the federal protections Blacks relied on. Grant has shouldered much of the blame for the ensuing rise of Jim Crow, but to be fair, the presidents who followed him — all the way to the middle of the 20th century — ignored the plight of Blacks and allowed them to be stripped of their rights.
In a free nation there are going to be divisions, and our leaders do not always make the right decisions in the heat of disputes. But imagine a different type of president during Reconstruction — one who fanned the flames of dissent and tacitly approved of the violence. Could our nation have survived that? It matters who our leaders are.
Historian Jon Meacham, who has often written about presidential leadership, put it this way: “History tells us that presidents who focus on our hopes rather than our fears, who talk about growth not stasis, who open doors instead of building walls are the ones who we look back on most fondly and leave significant legacies.”
It is up to us to choose the right leaders for our times — the ones that favor unity not brokenness. Can we make that choice?