Sean Wilentz, a Princeton U. professor of history, tells us why we need to give U.S. Grant more respect. In “Who’s Buried in the History Books?” Wilentz writes:
“To honor Reagan’s genuine achievements by downgrading those of Grant would deepen our chronic historical amnesia about the Civil War and Reconstruction, the central events of the first 250 years of American history, and their legacy of nationalism, freedom and equal rights.”
The resurgence of interest in Grant is due in no small part to the attempt by a North Carolina member of the House to replace the portrait of Grant on the $50 bill with that of Ronald Reagan. Wilentz ably draws attention to how, after Grant’s administration left office and Reconstruction came to an end, the next generation of American writers and thinkers threw Grant under the Lost Cause bus. His reputation emerged in the 20th century in tatters, which is how most of us who are now adults came to know him.
What we’re seeing here is historiography, or interpretation, in the making. Same as how in Texas, school board conservatives are able to move Thomas Jefferson out of world history standards. The debate over the meaning and contribution of the historical figures in our past continues.
Why, even today, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev is revisiting the meaning of his perestroika program, 25 years later.
The battle over history never stops.