Presidents Day evokes a chafe-inducing question: The Northwest has produced a president or two, yes?
The reflexive answer – that we're too authentic to churn out presidents and, by the way, California ex-pats hail from Nixon country – is too 20th century. It's time we adopt a president as One of Ours, someone who actually lived and labored in the Northwest.
Thankfully, at least one chief executive meets the worked-here criterion, a depressive Army captain stationed for 15 months at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. He was a whiskered, underappreciated alcoholic, a failed businessman, a Mexican War hero who condemned the imperialism of that conflict, an advocate of our nation's first national park, and a vigorous supporter of civil rights for African Americans.
I speak, of course, of the Northwest's very own Ulysses S. Grant.
Shush now. Grant had an extraordinary public career. He was committed to serving his country, however mediocre his West Point class rank. Like so many Westerners, Grant dabbled and failed miserably in the private sector. In a 2003 HistoryLink essay, Kit Oldham writes:Like many soldiers of his day, Grant attempted to go into business for himself on the side. However, in a pattern that would be repeated throughout his life, the business ventures he entered with fellow officers proved to be failures despite his high expectations for them. The officers cut ice on the Columbia and shipped it to San Francisco for sale, but it melted before arrival. They rounded up cattle and pigs to ship to San Francisco, but lost money on the enterprise. They leased land and started a farm, but a river flood wiped out most of the crops. They rented space in a San Francisco hotel to run a billiard club, but the manager they hired absconded with their money.
Grant's subsequent redemption dovetails with a broader Northwest narrative: Through bust and boom and post-presidential bust, character matters. Grant was a depressive who fought the KKK, saved the Union at the Battle of Vicksburg, and, to ensure that his family avoided the poor house, scribbled the best-written presidential memoir in American history, despite suffering the ravages of throat cancer.
Who better to call one of ours?