Title: Ulysses S. Grant
Date: April 27, 1922
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: Dedication of the monument to General Grant, in praise of role-models and of Grant’s example to the nation
The world has always worshipped power. As in their humblest beginnings mankind stood in wonder before the forces of nature, so now in their highest development they stand in reverence before the figure of genius. It is in response to an increasing sentiment of gratitude and patriotism that national action has set apart this day to observe the centennial anniversary of the birth of a great American, who was sent into the world endowed with a greatness easy to understand, yet difficult to describe: the highest type of intellectual power—simplicity and directness; the highest type of character—fidelity and honesty. He will forever hold the admiration of a people in whom these qualities abide. By the authority of the law of the land, with the approving loyalty of all his fellow countrymen, in the shadow of the dome of the Capitol which his work proved and glorified fittingly, flanked on either side by a group of soldiers in action, looking out toward the monuments of Washington and Lincoln, this statue rises to the memory of General Ulysses Simpson Grant. It is here because a great people responded to a great man.
Such greatness did not spring into being in a generation. There lay behind it a wide sweep of ancestry representing the blood of those who had set the standard of civilization and borne its burdens for a thousand years. Into his boyhood there came little which was uncommon. He had the ordinary experiences of the son of an average home maintained by a moderately prosperous business. He went to West Point, not so much with the purpose of becoming a soldier as from a desire to secure an education. He liked horses and rode well. He did not appear brilliant, but he had industry. He worked. He made progress. He had that common sense which overcomes obstacles. As a student he is worthy alike of the careful consideration of the young men of the present day and of those who are intrusted with their training.
After his graduation he remained in the army for eleven years, rising to the rank of captain. He served through the Mexican War, part of the time as quartermaster and commissary of his regiment. He demonstrated his personal courage by bearing despatches, on horseback, over a course which was under heavy fire. In 1854 he voluntarily retired from the army, and the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, refused to reconsider the acceptance of his resignation. Destiny sent him to private life, where he could better feel the rising tide of freedom.
The next few years he spent as a farmer and a business man. He still worked hard, but he did not prosper, scarcely making a living. He had little taste for small things; it required an emergency to call forth his powers.
The great crisis found him in Illinois employed in his father’s leather business. “Whatever may have been my political opinions before,” he declared, “I have but one sentiment now. That is, we have a government and laws, and a flag, and they must all be sustained.” He engaged in recruiting, and offered his services to the War Department, but received no reply. He sought an interview with McClellan, but was unable to see him. Soon, however, being appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Regiment by Governor Yates, he took command in a speech of five words: “Men, go to your quarters.” Within four years he was to be recognized as the greatest soldier in the world.
His regiment was soon disciplined and he was on the march. During the summer Lincoln commissioned him a brigadier-general of volunteers. In the following February, he captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. This was one of the first important victories, and it was received with wild enthusiasm. Grant was at once made a major-general of volunteers. During the remainder of 1862 he fought the somewhat ineffective battle of Pittsburgh Landing. A little later he was placed in command of the Department of Tennessee, and was soon making his advance on Vicksburg. This town was surrendered on the morning of the Fourth of July, 1863. Within a week the Mississippi River was under Union control. The nation celebrated the double victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Grant was made major-general in the regular army.
The campaign for the year closed with the battle of Lookout Mountain and the heroic storming of Missionary Ridge, relieving Chattanooga. Here Grant demonstrated his great military genius, both of plan and execution.
The following March he was called to the White House and made lieutenant-general of the Armies of the United States. He took command of the Army of the Potomac. Then followed blow on blow from the Wilderness to Appomattox. A campaign of a year brought success and victory. His losses were great, but they had been greater during three years of failure. The sacrifices of life had been larger when the result had been little more than a call for more men than they were now, when at last the bands could play “Home, Sweet Home.”
He immediately hastened to Washington where he was received by the President and the people with those expressions of joy which only the end of a war can bring. His work finished, though the President had invited him to attend the theatre, he left the city on that fatal evening of April 14. He mourned the loss of Lincoln, but his first allegiance was to his country. His attitude toward Johnson was all that could be required of a general toward his commander-in-chief, until the President, seeking to embroil him in his own political disputes, charged him with bad faith. Although he had received from him a commission as general of the Armies of the United States, and acted a short time as his secretary of war, he was thereafter in sympathy with those who sought to impeach the President. While Johnson sank in the public estimation, Grant rose, being unanimously nominated and handsomely elected President of the United States.
He had little taste for political manœuvres. He found his eight years fell on a time of confusion, both of thought and action. He worked as best he could with the contending elements which made up the Congress. “I shall have a policy to recommend,” he said, “but none to enforce against the will of the people.” He secured a settlement with Great Britain for the Alabama claims, and an apology from Spain for the Virginius affair. Although he broke with a well-meaning reform element of his party, which supported Horace Greeley, he was triumphantly re-elected. One of the important contributions which he made to the public service was his veto of the bill which provided for the inflation of the currency by issuing $400, 000,000 in greenbacks. At a time when the political ideals of the country were very low, President Grant held to his own high standard of honorable public service. Through the contested election of Hayes and Tilden, in 1876, he took a course marked by a high spirit of patriotism. “No man worthy of the office of President,” he said, “should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result. The country cannot afford to have the result tainted by a suspicion of illegal or false returns.” When the man who knew how to command armies took this position for the enforcement of the law, the country stood behind him and peacefully accepted the decision of the electoral commission.
His closing years were marked with great tragedy. Betrayed by one whom he trusted, he saw his property dissipated and large obligations incurred. A lingering and fatal malady added anguish of the body to the anguish of his soul.
Never was he greater than in these last days. With high courage, without complaint, on a bed of pain, seeking to retrieve his losses, he was preparing his memoirs. Congress hastened to restore him to the rank and salary of a retired general of the army. At last his writings were finished. He was still thinking of his country, not as a partisan but as a patriot, not even as the general of the armies he had led but as an American. “I have witnessed since my illness,” he wrote, “just what I have wished to see since the war—harmony and good-will between the sections.” While he was thus longing for the peace of his fellow countrymen, the great and final peace was bestowed upon him.
Great as he had been, his armies had been greater still. He had been served by officers of commanding ability. He never appeared to maintain for them anything but the most kindly feeling. The greater their ability, the greater was their attachment to him. But the rank and file were more wonderful still. In intelligence, in bravery, in patriotism, and, during the latter years of the war, in military capacity, no armies had ever surpassed those who fought the battles of the war between the States. Their ranks are thin now, but their spirit is undiminished. At an age when others would have quit the field, they remain still holding positions of commanding authority in the service of their countrymen, the soldiers of Lincoln and of Grant. As they supported him in the field, their bronze forms support him here.
Men are made in no small degree by their adversaries. Grant had great adversaries. They fought with a dash and a tenacity, with a gallantry and an enduring purpose which the world has known in Americans, and in Americans alone. At their head rode General Robert E. Lee, marked with a purity of soul and a high sense of personal honor which no true American would ever stoop to question. No force ever quelled their intrepid spirit. They gave their loyalty voluntarily or they did not give it at all. It is not so much the greatness of Grant as a soldier but his greatness as a man, not so much his greatness in war as his greatness in peace, the consideration, the tenderness, the human sympathy which he showed toward them from the day of their submission, refusing the surrender of Lee’s sword, leaving the men of the Southern army in possession of their own horses, which appealed to that sentiment of reconciliation which has long since been complete. It was not a humiliation but an honor to remain under the sovereignty of a flag which was borne by such a commander.
It was Lincoln who said of Grant: “I cannot spare this man. He fights.” It was Grant himself who said: “Let us have peace.”
Our country and the world may well consider the simplicity and directness which marked the greatness of General Grant. In war his object was the destruction of the opposing army. He knew that task was difficult. He knew that the price would be high; yet amid abuse and criticism, amid misunderstanding and jealousy, he did not alter his course. He paid the price. He accomplished the result. He wasted no time in attempting to find some substitute for victory. He held fast to the same principle in time of peace. Around him was the destruction which the war had wrought. The economic condition of the country was depressed by a great financial panic. He refused to seek refuge in any fictions. He knew that sound values and a sound economic condition could not be created by law alone but only through the long and toilsome application of human effort put forth under wise law. He knew that his country could not legislate out its destiny but must work out its destiny. He laid the foundation of national welfare on which the nation has stood unshaken in every time of storm and stress. His policy was simple and direct, and eternally true.
In the important decisions of his life his fidelity and honesty are equally apparent. He was a soldier of his country. His every action was inspired by loyalty. “Whatever may be the orders of my superiors and the law,” he wrote, “I will execute. No man can be efficient as a commander who sets his own notions above the law and those whom he has sworn to obey.” When the conflict between President Johnson and the Congress became so acute that it threatened to result in force of arms, being asked which side he would take he replied: “That will depend entirely upon which is the revolutionary party.” He never betrayed a trust and he never deserted a friend. He considered that the true test of a friend was to stand by him when he was in need. When financial misfortunes overtook him he discharged his obligations from whatever property he and his family could raise.
Here was a man who lived the great realities of life. As Lincoln could put truth into words, so Grant could put truth into action. How truly he stands out as the great captain of a republic! There was no artifice about him, no pretense, and no sham. Through and through he was genuine. He represented power.
A grateful republic has raised this monument not as a symbol of war but as a symbol of peace. Not the false security, which may come from temporizing, from compromise, or from evasion, but that true and enduring tranquillity which is the result of a victorious righteousness. The issues of the world must be met and met squarely. The forces of evil do not disdain preparation, they are always prepared and always preparing. General Grant gave fifteen years of his life to the military service of his country that he might be prepared to respond to a great crisis. The welfare of America, the cause of civilization will forever require the contribution of some part of the life of all our citizens to the natural, the necessary, and the inevitable demand for the defense of the right and the truth. There is no substitute for a militant freedom. The only alternative is submission and slavery.
The generations shall pass in review before this symbol of a man who gave his service, who made his sacrifice, who endured his suffering for the welfare of humanity. They shall know his good works. They shall look to him with admiration and reverence. They shall be transformed into a like spirit. What he gave, America shall give.
Citation: The Price of Freedom
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Joan Boren, who prepared this document for digital publication.