By Dan Sewell
CINCINNATI -- Bugler, sound the charge! Folks in southern Ohio are mounting a counterattack against a congressional proposal to replace native son Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill.
Politicians have passed resolutions, businesses have put up signs, letter-writing campaigns have begun, and, of course, a Facebook page has been created for the cause of leaving Grant's image just as it is on the currency. A bill pending in the U.S. House seeks to replace Grant with Reagan, the late 40th president and conservative icon.
Grant's backers will try to drum up more support today with speeches following a 21-gun salute at his birthplace in Point Pleasant, and Civil War reenactments in his nearby boyhood hometown of Georgetown, part of annual celebrations of his April 27, 1822, birthday.
"Don't mess with Grant!" is the battle cry of Bob Proud, a commissioner in Clermont County, the county of Grant's birth just east of Cincinnati. Commissioners in Clermont and Brown counties passed resolutions opposing the U.S. House bill.
Probably shouldn't mess with Loretta Fuhrman, either. The caretaker of the Grant birthplace museum for the past 44 years is steaming about the proposal.
"It was terrible," she said. "I just don't understand why all of the sudden someone from North Carolina can try to change that. Why in the world aren't they just leaving it as it is?"
She's referring to Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who in March introduced the bill to put Reagan on the 50. McHenry said Reagan renewed American self-confidence, beat the Soviets and transformed American political and economic thinking.
"Every generation needs its own heroes," McHenry said.
He has 17 co-sponsors for the bill, which will have to go through committees. Its backers' goal is to have it passed in time for the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth next Feb. 6.
McHenry, who faces a May 4 primary, wasn't available this week to discuss the Ohio reaction. His Washington staff said most opposition they have heard about comes from liberals who didn't like Reagan's policies, and McHenry's office pointed out that Grant was a Republican, too, and said it's not a partisan issue.
Brooks D. Simpson, an Arizona State University history professor who's written extensively about Grant, suspects part of the proposal "is a Southern thing."
Grant has been an anathema to some in the South. As a general, he was dubbed "the Butcher" and won ugly, with sieges, property destruction and staggeringly high casualties on both sides in many of his battles. As president, he forcefully pressed Reconstruction, and his presidency was also marred by corruption.
"There has been a recent revival in interest and a re-evaluation of Grant as president," said Simpson. He said some historians now put the criticisms of Grant in a broader context -- other administrations of the era were dogged by corruption; as a general, Grant succeeded where others failed in preserving the Union; and as president, he championed civil rights.
Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor who wrote a book on the Reagan era, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that while Reagan deserves posterity's honor, taking Grant off the bill "would dishonor the nation's bedrock principles of union, freedom and equality -- and damage its historical identity."
Historians also say Grant, a two-term president, was highly popular in his day, and the National Park Service says as late as the 1920s, Grant's Tomb outdrew all other national monuments in New York City.
Many in Grant's home area don't like pitting him against Reagan. It's a conservative region with plenty of love for Reagan, too.
Bruce Pfaff, spokesman for Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Republican who represents Grant's home counties, said she is a huge admirer of Reagan but has told McHenry she won't support his bill.
"Reagan was a fine president," said Stan Purdy, a Georgetown lawyer and president since 1996 of the U.S. Grant Homestead Association. "But Grant was put there (on the $50 bill) to recognize his position in the history of our country, and his role as president and the winning general of the Civil War. I'm sure there is some other way that President Reagan can be honored."
Many have suggested putting Reagan or others on bills since the current set was standardized in 1929, said Darlene Anderson of the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. But she said redesigns of currency primarily come about to fight counterfeiting, "not for aesthetic, historical, or sentimental reasons."
Purdy figures the controversy might turn out to be another hard-won victory for the old general.
"It's stirred a lot of interest," Purdy said. "Really, it's been a good opportunity to talk a lot about all the positive things about Grant."