A Speech Worth Revisiting

It’s probably a sign of just how suspicious I am these days of quotations on the Internet, but when I saw a post on Daily Kos that purported to be a lengthy portion of a speech by Ulysses Grant, I checked with two separate academic sites to confirm its accuracy.

It turned out it was accurate–and prescient.

Grant might have been commenting on our current national woes when he spoke in Des Moines in 1875.

I do not bring into this assemblage politics, certainly not partisan politics, but it is a fair subject for soldiers in their deliberations to consider what may be necessary to secure the prize for which they battled in a republic like ours. Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence.

The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Now in this centennial year of our national existence, I believe it a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundation of the house commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago, at Concord and Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.

Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support, no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that the State or Nation, or both combined, shall furnish to every child growing up in the land, the means of acquiring a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistic tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.

Grant eloquently addressed what I have called “civic literacy”–the need of a “sovereign people” to be both patriotic and informed. As is clear from the context of his words, Grant’s definition of “patriotic” is very different from the jingoism displayed by today’s MAGA Republicans. True patriotism requires an allegiance to the principles of America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, an allegiance based upon a proper understanding of those documents and the philosophy that animated them.

Grant was very clearly aware that such allegiance and understanding comes from instruction “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistic tenets”–that such religious precepts must be left to the family, the church and private schools “supported entirely by private contributions.”

An eon ago–in 1980–I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I even won a Republican primary.  Despite the fact that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, among other things, I was considered–and considered myself– to be a conservative. Then and now, I believe the proper understanding of that label includes a commitment to conserve the values that Grant enumerated in that long-ago speech.

I continue to believe that labeling today’s GOP “conservative” is a travesty that works to normalize what is a truly frightening and very unconservative approach to politics and American governance.

True conservatism requires a commitment to uphold the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and press, Separation of Church and State, freedom of conscience and personal autonomy, among others.

I don’t know the proper label for the MAGA fanatics who have taken over what was once my political party. Culture warriors? White Christian Nationalists? Fascists? Today’s GOP is probably a blend of all those, together with a heavy sprinkling of people who are too civically-illiterate to understand how very unconservative–and dangerous– their party has become.

Grant eloquently defended the extension of “equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.” Today’s Republicans would call him “woke,” and angrily reject him (along with Lincoln) as “anti-American.”


  1. Grant was the good soldier. He fought for what he believed in. IMHO, both he and Lincoln were wrong in their decision to let the leaders of the rebellion off the hook. If there had been public trials, we might not have the mythical “War of Northern Aggression.” Subsequently, we might not have the MAGATS.

  2. What Peggy said.
    But, that was then / this is now. And as far as education goes, it’s the key. So, let us be aware that most of us with even a remnant of a basic education still know most of the truth.
    And the un-educated, even thought thay might have a Yale degree? We can always tell because the definition of truth is facts. Lies? Always based on falsehoods.

  3. The Indiana General Assembly is considering a bill to help overburdened school counselors. Sounds great. They want to do it by allowing schools to hire chaplains! I can only assume they intend these to be christian chaplains.

    This should not have passed any kind of legal muster and while the bill has passed out of committee, I hope it never gets a vote on the floor.

  4. Personal bias rules over everything for most people. Most people will believe the sources they _want_ to believe. And no amount of evidence against the source/information will be enough to dissuade most of them, often working simply to entrench them otherwise.

    As I’ve said before, I think one of the most critical skills that can be learned in college is the evaluation of sources and an understanding of bias. These skills are needed whenever one writes a paper or researches a topic.

    So, here we are on definitions. I agree with Sheila fundamentally, but it’s useless. As a simple example, I hate the current understanding of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, which currently means to overcome substantial obstacles and succeed, whereas its original meaning was to attempt something actually impossible. But it doesn’t matter what it used to mean, only what it means now.

    The same is true for “conservatism”. It no longer means what it used to; it now defines a mindset or worldview that is against (even fearful of, and violently so) progress and change. They are conserving the past, and the rules and mores that they _like_ from those times. To all those adherents, they _are_ conservative. An argument against this would be seen as an attack by a progressive iconoclast bent on destroying their world by the devious twisting of words and definitions. It would entrench them. Twenty-plus years of Faux has conditioned them to react this way.

    And, a lot of that comes back to Christian nationalism, racism and other bigotries, because… of course it does.

  5. I was reminded by an English friend, after I may or may not have overstepped the bounds of respect for our Constitution, that the roots of Democracy go back to the Magna Carta of 1215. The knowledge of what is or is not Democracy is black and white, as Ulysses S Grant told his audience in 1875.

    Yet a tyrant has taken over the Republican Party, and the party faithful relish giving him power rather than keeping it themselves. This is here in the US and now.

    My brain is ill-equipped to process such treason.

  6. Pete, you may have a hard time processing it, but you have named it correctly: treason!
    Mr. Tyrant, who could not abide hearing a truth about him, in a court of law, yesterday, is
    worshipped, literally by some, who do not understand what Democracy is.
    Going back to, at least, St. Augustine, education for the masses has been seen as a bad thing,
    as it might allow them to think/decide for themselves. Allowing Chaplains into the public schools is a further whittling away of a democratic system, convenience be damned.

  7. As I have often written, had I been around during the days of Lincoln and Grant after the Republican Party was born from the ashes of the pro-slavery Whig Party in 1854, I would have been a Republican, but the Republican and Democratic parties exchanged fundamental philosophies in the early 20th century leading to FDR’a activist New Deal efforts, and I have been a lifetime Democrat ever since. I didn’t change my personal political philosophy; the parties attended to that detail on my behalf long before I achieved voting age.

  8. Sheila, you say “I don’t know the proper label for the MAGA fanatics . . .” May I make a suggestion?


  9. Since ya all are part of the 33% who approve of Biden and are terrified of Trump, here’s a little thought provoking perspective from the esteemed Victor Davis Hanson:

    “ What Are “They” Afraid That a “Dictator”/President Trump Might Do?

    As Joe Biden’s political viability implodes, the exasperated Left has yet a new narrative: front-runner Trump and his extremist/semi-fascist/Ultra MAGA 160 million are out for “revenge” and “retribution—and that Trump might well become a “dictator” and “trample” the Constitution.

    Ok, let’s examine what a supposed dictator Trump might do if he were to be elected this November?

    1) Will he hide the fact that in 2024 he attempted to hire a foreign ex-spy to work with Russian sources to create a fake anti-Biden dossier (while sneakily hiding his payments behind three paywalls), seed it with the media, and hatch lies that Biden was a “Putin poodle” and “Russian asset”?

    2) Would a Trump president weaponize a vengeful FBI to begin contracting with X and Facebook to suppress stories he feels will hurt MAGA candidates? Would his FBI alter FISA warrants to go after his leftwing opponents? Would he and his FBI henchmen have leftwing newspapers blacklisted from X?

    3) Would Trump’s future Secretary of State round up 51 right-wing ex-CIA “authorities” to swear and lie on the eve of the balloting that the Russians created the Stormy Daniels nondisclosure agreement?

    4) Maybe Trump will get his DOJ to go easy on any future accusations of tax fraud on behalf of his sons by weaponizing the IRS.

    5) Maybe Trump will dictatorially cancel student loan debt on the eve of the 2026 midterms. Or would he dare by fiat drain the strategic petroleum reserve merely for Republican advantage in the midterms?

    6) Maybe a dictator Trump might appoint a special counsel to investigate the entire Biden family. Would his legal counsel consult with local and state Republican prosecutors to coordinate 90 or so more indictments against ex-president Joe Biden? Will he order the FBI to sweep down on one of the Biden residences to hunt for more missing classified files that Biden removed as a senator and vice president?

    7) Will he postfacto declare the 2020 riots to be an armed “insurrection” and retroactively start trying, convicting, and jailing the some 14,000 who were arrested and released—on charges of rioting, looting, arson, murder, and assault, in addition to “illegal parading” and conspiracy to burn a federal courthouse, a city police precinct, a historic church? Would dictator Trump keep in preventative detention indefinitely those arrested in 2020 for rioting and violent protest?

    8) Maybe dictator Trump will refuse to discuss all medical questions concerning his 78-year age.

    9) Will Trump minions in the media and military start talking about rooting out “leftwing rage”, or Antifa and BLM “domestic terrorists” from the military ranks? Would Trump order the Pentagon to discharge any soldier who refused to get one of his Operation Warp Speed COVID mRNA boosters?

    10) Will dictator Trump protect some 500 “sanctuary cities” from ignoring federal laws—as they nullify the endangered species list or federal gun registrations statutes?

    11) Would dictator Trump’s America destroy the southern border deliberately and invite in 10 million illegal aliens from countries he thought would ensure new conservative voters?

    12 ) Would dictator Trump’s America start seeing red-states removing the names of Democratic candidates from the ballot?

    13) Would dictator Trump start jailing ex-Biden officials who refused Republican congressional subpoenas?

    14) Would dictator Trump’s America turn over $50 billion in weapons and supplies to terrorists like the Taliban?

    15) Would dictator Trump’s America see an epidemic of big-city lawlessness, as conservative prosecutors deliberately let out felons convicted of smash and grab and car-jacking, and exempted theft and shoplifting from punishment?

    16) Would dictator Trump start shaking down foreign governments to send $30 million into the Trump family coffers?

    17) Would dictator Trump camp out at Mar-a-Lago for 3-4 days a week, and turn the presidency into a pastime job?

    So what exactly would a “dictator” Trump do that our “civil libertarian” Joe Biden already has not done?”

  10. Hmm. Nary a word wrt the recent ICJ rulings. I wonder what Grant would think of a US President sending arms to a country without the approval of Congress? Would Grant condone genocide?

    After all,we are spending more to extend genocide than we have ever spent on subsidizing school vouchers.

    Four More Years of War!
    Biden-Harris 24!

  11. The way that you and I are made at a cellular level determines that any actions we take are either caused by just memories of experiences we’ve had or that plus chemical reinforcement that we call (among other things) fight or flight response. Anger or fear.

    Entertainment media that follows the Murdoch Family business plan take advantage of fear/anger to recruit Republican/conservative voters. It’s not clear to me the degree that occurs as an incentive to start being entertained by that media or the result of consuming it.

    Whichever it is the toxicity is the same. They become needy of a strong leader above the law to follow. Democracy and it’s resultant equal freedom for everyone becomes not valuable to them.

    That’s the 2024 political decision that US voters will have to make.

    Retribution by royals versus equal freedom among all voters. Aristocracy versus democracy. Leadership by blood line or by the Constitution.

  12. gail. Too much conspiracy theory crap in your post to bother answering point by point. We will see in November what percent of voters prefer Biden to Trump if tfg isn’t in jail or a padded cell.

  13. gail. That’s right. I still haven’t. But I do see it in Trump. Also I’ve seen no evidence that Biden is corrupt, but Trump’s dishonesty is apparent for all to see. I’m glad to see the law is finally catching up to him.

  14. Thank you Sheila. An important blog from you again,

    I also am concerned about the possibility of legally allowed religious based Counselors in our public schools. Which religions?

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