American Hero: Why They Gave Him a Giant Tomb

You might not want to read a 1,000 page biography of one of your heroes. After months of reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, I’m more aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s mistakes. But I’m more appreciative of his accomplishments.

A low-ranked graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican War while later condemning it as “one of the more unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. He left the military under a cloud, failed at farming and ended up working as a clerk in his father’s store. When the Civil War began, he took command of some Illinois volunteers and was made a colonel. After a series of victories, Abraham Lincoln made him General of the Army, the army’s senior officer, responsible for directing the Union’s entire war effort. In his final campaign, he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee and respectfully accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

In 1868, the Republican Party, back when they were the liberals, chose him as their presidential candidate. He served two terms, rare for presidents in the 19th century. His administration was plagued by scandals, but none involved him personally. As president, he oversaw the South’s re-entry into the union while protecting the rights of former slaves. He overcame political resistance in order to suppress horribly violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He sought peace with the Indians, admitting that white settlers were often the source of conflict in the West. He was the president who most attempted to reform the South in the process known as Reconstruction (which ended when he left office). As the victor in the Civil War and a popular former president, he took a triumphal tour around the world, was the naïve victim of a serious financial scandal, and wrote one of history’s best memoirs while suffering for months from throat cancer.

ulysses-s-grant

These are some of the final pages of that very long biography. They show what the people who knew him best thought of him:

Characteristically, the dying Grant was stoically concerned with his family’s well-being after he was gone, saying, “I hope no one will be distressed on my account.” . .  At 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died so gently that nobody was quite certain at first that his spirit had stolen away. . . .

With flags lowered to half-mast across America and mourning symbols swathing the White House, the Grant family conducted a private funeral . . . on August 4. Two days later Grant’s casket began a journey southward from Albany to New York City, where three hundred thousand people filed past the open coffin as it lay in state at City Hall. People descended on Manhattan in record numbers for the public funeral on August 8. They poured on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, descended from elevated railroad stations, and slipped into the city through Grand Central Depot. The 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history. At 8:30 a.m. on August 8, Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque that had black plumes sprouting at each corner. Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses . . .  Every protocol for a military funeral was followed, including the riderless horse with boots facing backward in the stirrups. The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored.

The grandeur emphasized the central place that Grant had occupied in the Civil War and its aftermath. “Out of all the hubbub of the war,” wrote Walt Whitman, “Lincoln and Grant emerge, the towering majestic figures.” Whitman thought they had lived exemplary lives that vindicated the American spirit, showing how people lifted from the lower ranks of society could attain greatness. “I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.”

The procession streamed up Broadway until it reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, where it took on a veritable army of dignitaries, including all the members of the Grant family except for [his wife] Julia, who remained secluded . . . President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet, and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage, sending fifteen U.S. senators, twelve congressmen, eighteen governors, and ten mayors to pay their respects. From city halls across America, eight thousand civil and municipal officers converged to participate in the march.

download (1)images (1)

Nobody doubted that William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan would serve as honorary pallbearers, but Julia Grant knew her husband would have wanted two Confederate generals to balance their northern counterparts, so Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner represented the South. Predictably, northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. . . . Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Rabbi E. B. M. Browne acted as an honorary pallbearer . . . At Grant’s death, Philadelphia’s Jewish Record observed, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew, and . . . in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

Southern reaction to Grant’s death signified a posthumous triumph. His onetime image as a fierce warrior of the Civil War had been replaced by that of a more pacific figure. As the News and Courier of South Carolina editorialized, “Had his life ended but a few years since, the mourning for the great leader would have been more or less sectional in its manifestation. Dying as he now dies, the grief is as widespread as the Union.” Grant had won over unlikely southern converts. When John Singleton Mosby learned of his death, he was bereft: “I felt I had lost my best friend.” In Gainesville, Georgia, a white-bewhiskered James Longstreet emerged in a dressing gown to tell a reporter emotionally that Grant “was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage.

Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Church bells tolled and muffled drums resounded as the funeral procession glided past buildings shrouded in black, The New York Times likening the uninterrupted flow of humanity to a giant “river into which many tributaries were poured.” The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site. . . . 

By midafternoon, in bright sunshine, the funeral cortege reached the small temporary brick tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. Warships floating in the Hudson River let loose a cannonade in tribute to Grant. A lone bugler blew taps at the vault—the same tune that had floated over Grant’s army camps during the war. As the notes drifted over the crowd, Sherman stood ramrod straight, his body shaking with tears. It was a memorable sight: the bête noire of the South, seemingly impervious to softer feelings, overcome with profound emotion.

A dozen years later, on a cool spring day, with more than a million people in attendance, President William McKinley presided over the dedication of the General Grant National Memorial—“Grant’s Tomb” in popular parlance—financed by public contributions. Leading the fund-raising drive had been the lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, which would have pleased Grant. An opulent domed affair of granite and marble, Grant’s Tomb was the largest mausoleum in North America. When Julia Grant died of heart failure in 1902 at age seventy-six . . . she and Ulysses were entombed together. They lay encased in red granite sarcophagi housed in an open structure much too monumental for these two simple midwestern souls. The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.

Perhaps nobody had watched the funeral procession on August 8, 1885, with a wider range of emotions than Mark Twain, who stared down for five hours on the somber pageantry from the windows of his publishing office at Union Square. He would always be indescribably proud to have published Grant’s Personal Memoirs . . .  At the end of the funeral, when the crowds had dispersed, he and William Tecumseh Sherman retreated to the Lotos Club, where they sat down over liquor and cigars to wrestle anew with the mystery of Grant’s personality—a source of never-ending wonder to both men. Sherman always insisted that Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he had never encountered before.

G5MRVU3V2FHS7G4WNEATO5YFLM

BN-HC001_nygard_P_20150223153240

Pandemic Cash Made a Difference

Millions needed help and got it. From The New York Times:

In offering most Americans two more rounds of stimulus [or relief] checks in the past six months, totaling $2,000 a person, the federal government effectively conducted a huge experiment in safety net policy. Supporters said a quick, broad outpouring of cash would ease the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Skeptics called the policy wasteful and expensive.

The aid followed an earlier round of stimulus checks, sent a year ago, and the results are being scrutinized for lessons on how to help the needy in less extraordinary times.

A new analysis of Census Bureau surveys argues that the two latest rounds of aid significantly improved Americans’ ability to buy food and pay household bills and reduced anxiety and depression, with the largest benefits going to the poorest households and those with children. The analysis offers the fullest look at hardship reduction under the stimulus aid.

Among households with children, reports of food shortages fell 42 percent from January through April. A broader gauge of financial instability fell 43 percent. Among all households, frequent anxiety and depression fell by more than 20 percent.

While the economic rebound and other forms of aid no doubt also helped, the largest declines in measures of hardship coincided with the $600 checks that reached most people in January and the $1,400 checks mostly distributed in April.

“We see an immediate decline among multiple lines of hardship concentrated among the most disadvantaged families,” said H. Luke Shaefer, a professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored the study . . .

Given the scale of the stimulus aid — a total of $585 billion — a reduction in hardship may seem like a given, and there is no clear way to measure whether the benefits were worth the costs. . . . Still, the aggressive use of stimulus checks coincides with growing interest in broad cash payments as a tool in social policy, and the evidence that they can have an immediate effect on the economic strains afflicting many households could influence that debate.

Starting in July, the government will mail up to $300 a month per child to all but the most affluent families in a yearlong expansion of the child tax credit that Democrats want to make permanent. . . .

“Cash aid offers families great flexibility to address their most pressing problems, and getting it out quickly is something the government knows how to do,” Mr. Shaefer said. Extrapolating from the survey data, he concluded that 5.2 million children had escaped food insufficiency since the start of the year, a figure he called dramatic.

The experience of [Chenetta Ray], a warehouse worker at a recycling company in Houston, captures the hardships that the pandemic imposed and the varied ways that struggling families have used stimulus checks to address them. Earning $13 an hour, Ms. Ray had an unforgiving budget even before business closures reduced trash collection and cut her hours by a third.

Her car insurance lapsed. Her lights were shut off. She skipped meals, even with food pantry aid, and re-wore dirty work clothes to save on laundromat costs. When her daughter discovered that they owed thousands in rent, she offered to quit high school and work, which Ms. Ray forbid. A stimulus payment in January — $1,200 for the two of them — let her pay small parts of multiple bills and restock the freezer.

“It bridged a gap,” Ms. Ray said, while she waited for slower forms of assistance, like rental aid.

Then she got cancer. To confirm the diagnosis and guide her treatment, she had to contribute $600 to the cost of a CT scan, which she did with the help of a payment in April totaling $2,800.

In addition to providing for the test, Ms. Ray said, the checks brought hope. “I really got down and depressed,” she said. “Part of the benefit of the stimulus to me was God saying, ‘I got you.’ Spiritual and emotional reassurance. It took a lot of stress off me.”

“Purity” and “Quality”: A Crisis in the Making

More than 100 experts on democracy, from John Aldrich to Daniel Ziblatt, have issued a “statement of concern” regarding the imminent crisis in American politics:

We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.

When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral. In the process, violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

State legislators supporting these changes have cited the urgency of “electoral integrity” and the need to ensure that elections are secure and free of fraud. But by multiple expert judgments, the 2020 election was extremely secure and free of fraud. The reason that Republican voters have concerns is because many Republican officials, led by former President Donald Trump, have manufactured false claims of fraud, claims that have been repeatedly rejected by courts of law, and which Trump’s own lawyers have acknowledged were mere speculation when they testified about them before judges.

In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

Democracy rests on certain elemental institutional and normative conditions. Elections must be neutrally and fairly administered. They must be free of manipulation. Every citizen who is qualified must have an equal right to vote, unhindered by obstruction. And when they lose elections, political parties and their candidates and supporters must be willing to accept defeat and acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome. The refusal of prominent Republicans to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, and the anti-democratic laws adopted (or approaching adoption) in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and Texas—and under serious consideration in other Republican-controlled states—violate these principles. More profoundly, these actions call into question whether the United States will remain a democracy. As scholars of democracy, we condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms as a betrayal of our precious democratic heritage.

The most effective remedy for these anti-democratic laws at the state level is federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections. Just as it ultimately took federal voting rights law to put an end to state-led voter suppression laws throughout the South, so federal law must once again ensure that American citizens’ voting rights do not depend on which party or faction happens to be dominant in their state legislature, and that votes are cast and counted equally, regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which a citizen happens to live. This is widely recognized as a fundamental principle of electoral integrity in democracies around the world.

A new voting rights law (such as that proposed in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) is essential but alone is not enough. True electoral integrity demands a comprehensive set of national standards that ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.

It is always far better for major democracy reforms to be bipartisan, to give change the broadest possible legitimacy. However, in the current hyper-polarized political context such broad bipartisan support is sadly lacking. Elected Republican leaders have had numerous opportunities to repudiate Trump and his “Stop the Steal” crusade, which led to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Each time, they have sidestepped the truth and enabled the lie to spread.

We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.

Unquote.

The two Democratic senators who seem most reluctant to suspend the filibuster in order to protect democracy should read this statement.

Senator Joseph Manchin
306 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Senator Kyrsten Sinema
317 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Biden’s Budget Would Make a Difference

Presidents present a proposed federal budget every year, but it’s Congress that decides what the budget will be. Nevertheless, President Biden’s budget is a welcome change. From Paul Krugman of The New York Times:

Many reports about the Biden administration’s budget proposal, released Friday, convey the sense that it’s huge. President Biden, scream some of the headlines, wants to spend SIX TRILLION DOLLARS next year. . . . It takes some digging to learn that the baseline — the amount the administration estimates we’d spend next fiscal year without [Biden’s] new policies — is $5.7 trillion.

In fact, one of the most striking things about Biden’s budget initiative — arguably about his whole administration — is its relative modesty in terms of both money spent and claims about what that spending would accomplish. He is neither proposing nor promising a revolution, just policies that would make Americans’ lives significantly better.

And I, for one, find this hugely refreshing after Former Guy’s achievement-free bombast.

Now, the Biden plan is by no means trivial. The budget proposes spending 24.5 percent of G.D.P. over the next decade, up from a baseline of 22.7 percent. That increase, mainly driven by increased expenditures for infrastructure and families, is bigger than it looks because so much of the baseline is devoted to the military, Medicare and Social Security. But it’s not socialism, either. It would still leave the United States with a smaller government than most other wealthy countries’.

Still, the extra spending would make a huge difference to some economic sectors, notably renewable energy, and vastly improve some American lives, especially those of lower-income families with children.

Notably, however, the administration is not claiming that these policies would dramatically accelerate economic growth. Former Guy’s economists predicted that their policies would produce sustained G.D.P. growth of 3 percent a year, which would have been extraordinary in an economy whose working-age population is barely growing. Biden’s economists are projecting growth of less than 2 percent after the economy has bounced back from the pandemic.

Why this modesty? Part of it may be political strategy: Biden likes to underpromise and overdeliver, the way he did with vaccinations. The administration’s economists are actually quite optimistic, for example, about the possibility that child care and other family policies would expand labor force participation and that investing in children would yield big economic returns in the long run.

But they also know history. Governments can do a lot to fight short-term recessions (or make them worse), but the fact is that it’s very hard for policy to make a big difference to the economy’s long-term growth rate.

This is something the right has never understood. (It’s difficult to get people to understand something when their salaries depend on their not understanding it.)

Conservatives are constantly pushing the claim that tax cuts, in particular, will supercharge growth; they love to cite the supposed economic triumph of Ronald Reagan. But Reagan presided over only a couple of years of very rapid growth, as the economy recovered from a severe recession. Over the course of the 1980s, the economy grew only 0.015 percentage points faster — basically a rounding error — than it did in the troubled 1970s.

And looking more broadly across history at both the national and the state levels shows predictions that tax cuts will produce economic miracles have never panned out — not once. Neither, by the way, have predictions that tax hikes, like the increased levies on corporations and the wealthy that Biden is proposing, will lead to disaster.

So it makes sense for the Biden administration to avoid making big claims about economic growth. But does this mean that its plans are no big deal? Not at all.

. . . While government policies rarely have major effects on the economy’s overall growth rate, they can have huge effects on the quality of people’s lives. Governments can, for example, ensure that their citizens have access to affordable health care; they can drastically reduce the number of children whose lives are scarred by poverty. The Biden plan would take big steps on these and other fronts.

And this is the sense in which the Biden plan, despite its relatively moderate price tag, represents a radical departure from past economic policy.

For the past four decades, U.S. economic debate has been dominated by an ideology fundamentally opposed to spending money to help ordinary citizens: We can’t borrow more, lest we provoke a debt crisis. We can’t raise taxes on those able to pay, lest we destroy their incentive to create wealth.

The Biden budget, however, reveals an administration free from these fears. The budget doesn’t propose huge deficit spending, but it does point out that the burden of federal debt, properly measured, is minimal. And administration officials have made it clear that they don’t buy into low-tax propaganda.

You could say that the most important thing about this budget isn’t so much the dollars it would deliver as the dogma it dismisses. And if Biden’s presidency is seen as a success, this ideological liberation will have huge consequences.