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Ideas

Brainiac

Ulysses’ voyage (to respectability)

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Consensus among historians is hard to come by, but the disastrousness of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency has proved a reliable unifier over the years: The former Union general has a reputation as a drunk who handed his scandal-prone pals the keys to the country, and who was hopelessly at sea at navigating the economic upheavals of the time. When Arthur Schlesinger asked historians to rank each president from “great” to “failure” in 1948, Grant beat only the hapless Warren G. Harding, who once actually admitted, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”

Now comes a rousing defense of Grant’s much abused legacy in the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, in which presidential historian H.W. Brands suggests that drunkenness aside—Grant did enjoy his whiskey—Grant inherited an unprecedented financial catastrophe and handled it with notable sophistication. When the Panic of 1873 hit—one major Philadelphia financial firm crumbled, pulling down other top firms and dozens of banks, and prompting mass layoffs by factories and railroads—there was no reason to think that President Grant, a Civil War hero and a failed businessman, would be equipped to handle the first country’s first national depression. Brands admits it’s hard to know how much Grant’s decisions had to do with the country’s eventual recovery, but he sees evidence of “a more subtle thinker than he was deemed by contemporaries and most historians since.”

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