During an episode of the current television rebroadcast of the 2013-2014 C-SPAN series "First Ladies: Influence and Image" last week, the discussion about Julia Grant — wife of President Ulysses S. Grant — unwittingly touched on history's judge of an individual that is being played out today in the destruction of statues and monuments across the country.
The exchange on Grant centered on how her family owned slaves and her husband's family were avowed abolitionists and how the future president was once given a slave by his father-in-law. Grant did not immediately set him free but used him for a time in service to their young family.
Grant was the general who decisively turned the tide of the Civil War toward the Union with victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga and in 1864 was given command of all Union armies. He accepted the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia in 1865 and in 1868 was elected the 18th president of the United States.
As president, he enforced Reconstruction, backed the 15th Amendment that prohibited the federal government and states from denying anyone the right to vote based on their race, oversaw the passage of laws to allow Black people to serve on juries and hold office, and saw to it that his Justice Department collapsed the Ku Klux Klan.
And yet, the mobs of today, at least those who have any sense of history, would say, "... But he was a slaveholder."
Indeed, according to the U.S. Army release, "Grant and the Black Soldier," written by Dr. Robert G. Lambert in 1985 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, Grant "was not a strong advocate of liberties and rights for black people," initially opposed the use of Black troops in the Civil War and expressed reservations about using them as regulars in the full-time army after the war.
To further muddy his record, as a Civil War major general, his General Order No. 11 expelled all Jews from his military district (areas of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee), saying they were "violating every regulation of trade."
But later, Grant wrote that the order expelling Jews "was ... sent without any reflection" and did not bear up well under close scrutiny. And as president he, among other things, appointed more Jews to office than anyone who preceded him in the office, vociferously backed Jews on church-state separation when public funds were being sought for parochial schools and was the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue.
So, is Grant, whose bust was recently toppled by protesters in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a bigot for his brief life as a slaveholder, his thoughts on Black people and his Jewish order, or a hero because he led the fight to bring down the Confederacy, pushed for civil rights laws and appointed more Jews than any of his predecessors?
What of slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Do their positive deeds — significant in forming today's free and prosperous U.S. — outweigh the fact of their keeping people as property? What of Winston Churchill, Francis Scott Key and Capt. James Cook, whose images in places across the globe have been vandalized or removed?
The truth is one could take any world leader, any U.S. president, any individual born with Earthly parentage and find fault. Billy Graham, Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony, for instance, all were flawed.
Should we judge President Donald Trump by his myriad of insults or by the fact prior to COVID-19 he had the economy humming and black unemployment at its lowest point in history? Shall President Barack Obama be judged by his repeated lies about the Affordable Care Act and his Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservatives or by the significant achievement of being the first Black president?
Should President George W. Bush be known as the man who calmed a frightened nation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the one who took the nation into two wars in supposed retaliation for those attacks? Shall Bill Clinton be known as the president who with a Republican Congress helped engineer the country's last balanced budgets or the man who disgraced his family and the nation over an affair with a White House intern?
We could go through the pantheon of presidents with pluses and minuses. No president and no regular American is without them.
The desire for monument removal is understandable from the standpoint of taking action, but destroying monuments simply from the standpoint of a desire for action — let's do something! — displays a lack of understanding of history, underlines the need to confront all of history and empowers a selfish sense to create one's own history.
Grant, a name Chattanoogans know because of his history here, must be judged like the rest of us, not on part of our biography but on all of it. Wouldn't we all prefer that of ourselves?