Exit Gen. Grant – Enter St. Ronald?

Saving the Union by defeating the Confederate army and being elected twice to the presidency is no longer good enough to secure a place for posterity. Republicans, led by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, want to take the portrait of Grant off the $50 bill and replace it with one of Ronald Reagan.

I had forgotten that Grant graces the fifty, but Republicans handle a lot more of those bills than I do, and apparently they want to see Reagan’s face every time they slap one down at a West Hollywood club.
No disrespect to General and President Grant, these Republicans insist, just time to honor Reagan. Again. And they’re right, at one level. This isn’t really about Grant or his bearded face. It is part of a much larger Republican project of rewriting the history of their own party to expunge it of anything that doesn’t conform to their current hard-Right agenda.
Eighteen Republican presidents have occupied the Oval Office since the first, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860. Now, like the relatives nobody wants at Thanksgiving, Republicans don’t want much to do with most of them any more. Of course, some of them we would all like to forget — like the disgraced Richard Nixon, and “Uncle Warren” Harding, and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But when was the last time you heard some Republican politician singing the praises of Dwight Eisenhower or even Teddy Roosevelt?
They don’t want to acknowledge that Eisenhower was perfectly content with most of FDR’s New Deal, or that Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of environmental conservation. They certainly don’t want to be reminded that Richard Nixon tried to create a national health care system.
No, the current Republican Party wants to forget about its own past so it can trace its origins exactly as far back as Ronald Reagan. And over the last 20 years the party, in an almost Vatican-like fashion, has mounted a campaign to have Reagan canonized as St. Ronald. The party regards his presidency as nothing short of immaculate and miraculous. During a 2007 debate, Republican presidential candidates brought up Reagan nineteen different times when answering questions; George W. Bush, the sitting Republican president at the time, came up exactly once.
Still, this current effort to replace Grant with Reagan on the fifty seems particularly perverse and particularly telling. As Lincoln’s general, Grant took what was a faltering Union military effort and turned it around. His campaign was as grim as it was inexorable, and he was determined that the Union army would triumph over the rebellious Confederacy. It does not exaggerate too much to say that without Grant there very well might not be a United States of America.
In the current political climate, however, this is the history that the Republican party wants to repudiate. Tea partiers fulminating about “states’ rights” and Republican politicians, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who talk casually these days about seceding from the Union, aren’t sure that the right side won the Civil War. They certainly don’t want any part of Grant’s legacy.
Likewise, this effort to dump Grant off the fifty represents a symbolic piece of the Republican Party’s “southern strategy,” using race as a wedge issue to attract white voters. As late as the 1930s Republicans campaigned proudly on their history as the party that ended slavery. In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s Justice Department helped move the civil rights agenda ahead.
Then the Republican Party decided to turn its back on racial progress and cast its future with the bigots and Confederate flag-wavers. Nixon was the first Republican to capitalize on the southern strategy, but not the last. Reagan sneered at the “welfare queen” though it turned out she was fictitious; George Bush I used the parolee Willie Horton to strike terror in the hearts of white voters. And so it has gone.
The lily-white Republican party of 2010 wants nothing to do with the man who defeated the Confederacy, and who, as president, oversaw efforts to “reconstruct” a more equitable South.
During the Cold War, experts who watched the Kremlin used to study photographs of official Soviet events to see which Communist Party members were visible and which had been “erased” because they had fallen out of favor. Not content to submit its current members and candidates to ideological purity tests our Republicans have decided that the past too must be purged of all but the true believers.
I wonder if poor Ulysses S. Grant would really want to be a member of party that no longer wants him as a member.

Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.