Was Ulysses S. Grant a Socialist?

In an earlier post on this blog, I pointed out some similarities in the writings of U.S. Grant and H.G. Wells, specifically in the way Grant attributed the outbreak of war to the spread of populations and the rise of new forms of communication. “In the early days of the country,” Grant wrote in the Conclusion to his Memoirs, “before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind.”

The riverboat and the railroads changed all that, leaping over walls in the same way that Wells foresaw scientific progress threatening–or maybe promising?–to make national borders obsolete, thereby necessitating the creation of a one-world state. (See, e.g., The War in the Air.) The Civil War started, it is said, not because the North and South came apart, but because they came together.

But now I’d like to focus on the rest of that quote from Grant:

But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution. (Emphasis added.)

And, elsewhere in the Conclusion, he writes:

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed; and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution.

In other words, the South didn’t secede because it feared the Federal Government wanted to abolish slavery–indeed, Lincoln said several times that it wasn’t his intention–but because it recognized a growing disinclination on the part of the Government to continue to support it. “They saw their power waning,” writes Grant, “and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law.”

In this scenario, it is the slave power that is, in fact, in power, and their complaint boils down to decrying the “tyranny” of government oversight while simultaneously relying for their existence on systems created and supported by that very same government, albeit systems that they needed to keep surreptitious.

It sounds like Grant was reading his Karl Marx.

In an article called “The North American Civil War,” written in 1861, Marx had written:

The Union was still of value to the South only so far as it handed over Federal power to it as a means of carrying out the slave policy. If not, then it was better to make the break now…The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders.

The same charge is laid at the feet of libertarians, as late as 2018, by Adam Kotsko, Assistant Professor in the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College. In his book, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital, Kotsko writes:

Though politicians of all stripes [have] at times used libertarian rhetoric to sell their policies, the most clear-eyed advocates of neoliberalism realized that there could be no simple question of a “return” to the laissez-faire model. Rather than simply getting the state “out of the way,” they both deployed and transformed state power, including the institutions of the welfare state, to reshape society in accordance with market models.

So the idea that there is a self-functioning economic system outside of the government, and to which government exists as a threat, is a well-crafted myth. As Grant realized, the cries of “tyranny” ring hollow, and he was able–like Marx–to pierce the smoke screen that all oligarchs deploy in the name of “liberty.”

I don’t know if Grant was ever exposed to the writings of Marx. It’s possible: Marx’s article on the Civil War was published a quarter century before Grant’s Memoirs. But it’s equally possible that his politico/economic self was shaped by his working class upbringing. He was, after all, known as the “plain business man of the Republic.” And the historian John Keegan, in his book on the Civil War, writes that “[t]he Grants were old colonial stock…Like most early settlers they had made their way by honest labor, eked out by paid public service.”

In any case, the more I read, the more I’m impressed by Grant’s insights.

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