The History Channel’s recent series about Ulysses S. Grant was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and based on the best-selling biography by Ron Chernow. It concluded on Wednesday and was just about what one would expect from a film created by some of academia’s and entertainment’s biggest leftists.
Although the series did fairly well in rehabilitating and humanizing Grant’s better characteristics, it could not resist hammering home trite narratives about Reconstruction, going so far as to omit well-documented history about Grant and his administration to accomplish the task. He who controls how we speak about the past and what we know about the past controls the future. This show, like much of what is created in academia and entertainment, advances that project.
Let’s start with the good. The documentary shows the hard-scrabble roots of Hiram Ulysses Grant. From the very beginning, we get a glimpse into the poverty and struggles with which the young future president coped while growing up in the old Northwest. We see his withdrawn, humble, yet strong nature—which shined during his performance in the Mexican War, especially at the Battle of Monterrey. It rightly shows the tensions in Grant’s marriage to Julia Dent, the daughter of a Missouri patriarch who owned slaves, amid the gradually escalating and heightening conflicts surrounding slavery and abolition in the pre-Civil War period.
We get a glimpse of Grant’s true heart and patriotism as he decides to get back into the Army in order to fight for and preserve the Union. That’s best summed up in the letter he wrote to his father after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina:
Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is we have a Government, and laws and a flag and they must all be sustained. There are but two parties now, Traitor & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter and, I trust, the stronger party.
By this point, the documentary has basically set up the Civil War as a war fought exclusively over the issue of slavery. It omits the other issues—such as tariffs—which had been a sectional conflict going back for decades; it also omits the fact that Southern legislatures voted to secede from the Union democratically and that most Confederates thought that they were doing in 1860 what their great-grandfathers had done in 1776. The documentary is about teaching the Civil War as a morality play.