4 Presidents Who Were Less Racist than You Might Think

Ulysses S. Grant

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Ulysses S. Grant, working on his memoirs shortly before his death from throat cancer.

These days U.S. Grant is mostly thought of as a drunkard who somehow magically defeated the greatest, noblest, handsomest warrior to ever grace the face of the earth, and also a laughably corrupt president. But he was also about the only president between Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson to hugely, sincerely, forcefully, and successfully stick out his neck in order to achieve better lives for black people in America.

With Lincoln’s assassination coming so quickly after the end of the Civil War, the nation was left in confusion as to what to do about all the former Confederate states. Should they be readmitted to the Union immediately? Should they have to reform? And what about all the freed slaves? Should they be made citizens? Was it a good idea to let a population with 80% or 90% illiteracy vote?

Though Lincoln himself had left a somewhat clear plan as to what he wanted to do with the South, neither of the two political powers that succeeded him believed much in his plan. To Andrew Johnson, his successor as President and a Southerner, Lincoln’s plan was too hard on the South, too punishing, too transformative, and too pro-negro. To the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress, Lincoln’s plan did not go nearly far enough in “reconstructing” the South, punishing the treasonous Confederates, and ensuring the ironclad equality of blacks.

This division led to three years of chaos in which the southern economy teetered on the brink of collapse, southern governments failed to govern much of anything, and the Klu Klux Klan rose from the ashes of the Confederacy to wreak havoc on Federal troops, terrorize the freed and free blacks trying to make a go of establishing a new life in the South, and intimidate southern voters into restoring anti-northern, white supremacist governments to power.

The election of Ulysses S. Grant to the Presidency in 1868, however, put an end to the chaos. Siding more or less with the Radical Republicans, he restored military rule and marched in thousands and thousands of additional Federal troops — many of them black. Grant was determined to restore order to the South, and equally determined to make sure that 13th and 14th amendments which guaranteed the citizenship and voting rights of blacks were dutifully honored.

Sometimes this meant fighting off white supremacist militias, other times it meant ensuring that blacks were able to exercise their right to vote without harassment or intimidation, and occasionally it meant straight-up abolishing state governments that Grant felt had been installed by election fraud and voter suppression. So long as Grant and his troops held sway in the south, the alliance of northern carbetbagging Republicans, southern “scalawag” reformers, and blacks held the reins of political power in the South. Hundreds of African-Americans served in their state legislatures, a dozen were elected to the House of Representatives, two became Senators, and one was even briefly the governor of Louisiana. In the hundred and forty years since Grant, the participation of African-Americans in the government has never reached the same level. Not even today, when the President’s black.

The reforms weren’t just representational, either. Grant’s troops made sure that these state governments were obeyed. Public schools were built to educate the poor and the recently freed, railroads linked more and more southern cities to northern markets, and the first meaningful taxes were imposed on the wealthy landowners who had driven the South to war and ruin in order to protect their human “property.”

Grant also declared open and total war on the Klu Klux Klan.

A cartoon depicting Ulysses S. Grant cutting off the head of the Klu Klux Klan. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

A cartoon depicting Ulysses S. Grant cutting off the head of the Klu Klux Klan. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

For years the Klan had flourished under the protection of whites who sympathized with their cause of avenging the south and preserving white rule. They refused to prosecute Klansman, testify against Klansman, and had a habit of tipping off Klansman whenever the authorities were closing in on them. What Grant did is get a series of bills passed through congress, called “The Force Acts,” which declared the Klu Klux Klan not some sort of hooligan mob of murderers but a full-on “terrorist organization.” This made them a military problem. Instead of having to go through wishy-washy local authorities, federal troops could track the Klan down en masse and shoot them, or failing that prosecute them under far less merciful federal laws. In this way thousands of Klansman were prosecuted, hundreds convicted, and the power of the Klan, which had held such sway in states like North and South Carolina, broken.

Between the founding of the American republic and the triumph of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, there was only one moment in American when black men living in the South could vote freely, hold elected office freely, own property freely, educate their children freely, and aspire freely to an America where they would be the true equals of white men: the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.

So what the hell went wrong?

Grant’s Reconstruction had a fatal flaw: It never actually convinced the white people of the South that they were wrong to believe themselves inherently superior to blacks. Instead of converting white supremacists, it just forced them at gun point to suffer the “tyranny” of living under governments stuffed with northern “carpetbaggers,” treasonous southern “scalawags,” and—abomination of abominations—blacks. It’s hard to argue that Ulysses S. Grant should have been nicer to white supremacists in the South because they were scum, but the brutality with which Reconstruction was enforced alienated large swathes of both northern and southern whites who were otherwise sympathetic to the project of Reconstruction and black equality.

This meant that in the North, even among self-identifying “Radical Republicans,” there was increasing political pressure to end Reconstruction, to withdraw federal troops, readmit the southern states to the Union and let them go about running their own elections. The Confederacy was destroyed, the Klan was destroyed, slavery was abolished, the blacks were illiterate, poor, but ostensibly “free.” “Our work here is done,” they said. So long as Grant held office, he resisted these pressures as best he could, but once he left , the whole thing imploded. As part of a bargain to maintain Republican control of the Presidency, the Republican Party agreed to end Reconstruction in its entirety in 1877. Within only a couple years, southern “Redeemer” Democrats regained control of almost every Southern state and began chipping and then pounding and then smashing away at the rights of African-Americans.

By 1920, a mere generation after the end of Reconstruction, it would be nearly as impossible for a black man to vote in the South as it had been in 1850, the Klan, instead of a few men cowering in the wilderness, would consist of millions, and Ulysses S. Grant’s administration would be defined not by the breadth of its devotion to justice, but by its scandals and the way it ruffled the feathers of men who longed for a return to the glorious, white past.