December 2017, Seattle WA

Every president seems to get his makeover, for the better or for the worse.   

Plain-spoken Harry Truman, whose reputation once suffered in comparison to his predecessor, the urbane FDR, is now highly regarded as feisty and decisive. Dignified statesman Woodrow Wilson has a sinking reputation as the full extent of his racist views has come to light. The revered John F. Kennedy has been recently pegged as “most overrated” of chief executives. Such are the ups and downs of reputation.

Now it may be Ulysses S. Grant’s turn on the wheel. 

Traditionally considered a solid military leader who was promoted above his abilities, Grant may be on the way to a higher standing. A new biography, Grant, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Ron Chernow, casts new light on the 28thpresident as an under-appreciated advocate of emancipation and civil rights. 

A second new book, Ulysses S. Grant in China and Other Stories, by Tom Durwood, features the 18th President in an entirely different context – a young adult adventure story. The story takes place during Grant’s post-White House world tour, specifically his visit with Chinese general and diplomat Li Hung Zhang. Zhang sought Grant’s advice in many matters (civil war among them). 

Zhang asked Grant to serve as arbiter over a dispute between China and Japan as to the conservatorship of the Ryukyu Island Kingdom. What was Grant’s advice? According to John Russell Young, biographer of the world tour, General Grant argued “that China and Japan should make such sacrifices as would settle all questions between them and become friends and allies, without consultation with foreign powers.” 


“Do Not Borrow from European Nations”

While there is no attempt to reinterpret history, author Durwood was interested in showing Grant as a character in a different type of narrative. “I wanted to revisit Grant in this eventful time and this unusual place,” says Durwood. “I felt that Grant had seen so much of war’s destruction, he would want to stamp it out it as he traveled around the world.”

The story’s main action centers on a band of teenagers who are to play a musical tribute to the American President. Even so, the author was happy to depict Grant at a time and location of historic irony – trying to stop war in the South China Sea.

“Do not borrow from European nations either,” added Grant. General Grant said that incurring debt was to be avoided at all costs. “Loans from foreign powers are always attended with danger and humiliation.” Interesting advice, in light of the billions of dollars in American debt which China currently holds.


Crisis in the Study of History

“Ulysses S. Grant in China” is one story in a larger collection which Durwood — who edits an open-access history journal, The Journal of Empire Studies — has published. Durwood’s books come out at a time when history of all kinds is disappearing from our schools. While American students’ deficits in math and science and well-publicized, the decline in history literary is often overlooked. A recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that a mere 18% of eighth graders were proficient in U.S. History.  “We swim in the past as fish do in water,” warns historian Eric Hobsbawm. “We cannot escape from it.”

As to the rise and fall of presidential reputations, change may be the only constant. If the treatment of his fellow presidents is any indication, Ulysses S. Grant can expect his reputation to endure more ups and downs.  

Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press)

Ulysses S. Grant in China and Other Stories, by Tom Durwood (Empire Studies Press)