Real presidents

by chuckofish

Lightly tinted image by Charles H. Crosby of the profiles of Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington in a medallion.

It’s President’s Day. In Missouri, while Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is still a state holiday, falling on February 12 regardless of the day of the week. Today the holiday is observed, honoring both presidents, Washington and Lincoln.

Nevertheless, I am at work, while my husband is home. So some work places observe it, others don’t. Hmmm.

Anyway, all hail to Washington and Lincoln–two great presidents. However, I am thinking of another president, Ulysses Grant.

Or “Cousin Ulyss” as we call him in our family. He was our great-great grandfather John Simpson Hough’s cousin through Grant’s mother, Hannah Simpson, a Quaker, originally from Pennsylvania. According to family tradition, Grant, while a cadet at West Point, spent school vacations with the Houghs. Also according to family legend, John Hough was offered the office of U.S. Postmaster General when Grant was president. Supposedly he turned down the job, saying (rudely), “I’ll not work for that Republican!”

John Simpson Hough

Funnily enough, Grant refers to the familial political rift with his typical rye wink in his memoirs.

“…She [his mother’s sister] thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860…Her brother…was a supporter of the government during the war, and remains a firm believer, that national success by the Democratic party means irretrievable ruin.” (p. 8 Personal Memoirs)

(It has taken us generations to admit that our ancestor came down on that side of the division. Nobody’s perfect.)

Anyway, I am a great admirer of U.S. Grant, as a general, defender of the union, president, family man, and writer. If you have not read his aforementioned Personal Memoirs, you really should. According to British military historian John Keegan, they are “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.” And they are so well-written! What incredible powers of recall he had and what determination it took to write them. Faced with terminal throat cancer and the loss of his fortune, he set out to write them, backed by Mark Twain who knew they would be a best-seller, in order to leave his family enough money to live on. He wrote them by hand. He could not dictate them, because he frequently could not talk. He was a hero up to and including the day he lay down his pencil and died.

Grant has been portrayed in many, many movies and television shows, by the likes of Harry Morgan, Jason Robards, Anthony Zerbe, James Gregory, Rip Torn, Rod Steiger (!), Aidan Quinn, and even Kevin Kline. But there never has been a movie about him. He has been the victim of every negative kind of stereotyping, most commonly that of alcoholic. In truth he drank when he was separated from his wife Julia and only then. During the war, John Rawlins, his chief of staff, guarded him zealously and kept him from drinking. Once the war was over and he was reunited with his wife, he did not drink.

He was also, contrary to popular opinion, a good student, graduating in the middle of his class at West Point. And he was also one of the finest horseman ever to graduate. He had been handling horses all his life and really loved them. When he was “seven or eight years of age” he began hauling all the wood used in the house and shop from land where trees were cut down. He could not “load it on the wagons,” but he could drive them. Can you imagine? Can you imagine this boy driving a wagon load of timber?

WRC 1994

Well, Maybe. Again, read his Memoirs. You’ll be glad you did.