The North East and its Presidential Connections: Ulysses S Grant

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Carlton Reid explores the connection between the North East and 18th President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant, a leading general during the American Civil War and a popular figure beyond the United States.

The 18th President of the United States, taken between 1870 - 1880. Credit: Library of Congress

A “reputational and relationship recovery tour” could be one way the defeated Donald Trump will aim to secure what he may feel is his legacy, writes New York Magazine staffer Olivia Nuzzi. The reality TV star and one-term US president might therefore soon set out on a series of truth- and virus-defying rallies deep in Trump heartlands, with zero intention of taking the tour overseas, where the real estate magnate is likely to remain deeply unpopular.


It was all so different for a previous US president, the Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant. He departed for a wildly successful promotional world tour soon after his second presidential term in 1877.


With one eye on re-election in 1880 (back then, there were no limits on presidential terms of office), Grant and his large entourage visited Europe, Africa, India, Japan, and the Middle East, meeting with dignitaries such as Queen Victoria, Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Emperor Meiji of Japan and the pope.


Unlike Trump, Grant was feted everywhere he visited, including, it just so happens, Tyneside and Wearside.



Grant was celebrated as the hero of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) and the president who had tried — in the aftermath of that great and hopefully not to be repeated schism — to reunite the United States.

The former president was most especially lauded in Newcastle — long a centre for the abolitionist cause — as the destroyer of slavery. Grant estimated that 150,000 people turned out to see him on Tyneside. The Times called it the “greatest demonstration as regards numbers and enthusiasm that has been witnessed in Newcastle for a number of years.”


In an early presidential rollout for what would much later be called “fake news,” Grant joked that American newspapers would not report how positively he had been received on Tyneside: “They will think that the correspondents of [the British] Press have made it all up.”


Grant arrived at Newcastle Central Station on 20th September 1877, greeted by a cheering crowd of thousands and met officially not just by the Mayor but also the industrialist Sir William Armstrong, creator of the personal pleasure gardens in Jesmond Dene which he would later donate to the city.


Photograph of the US President and Lord Armstrong, a famous name on Tyneside for both his industrial and philanthropic ventures.

That evening Grant was honoured with a banquet in Newcastle’s Mansion House, the Mayor’s official residence. In 1877, this was at 1 Ellison Place in the centre of town (it’s now a Northumbria University building, just off John Dobson Street).


The following day, after touring the city’s castle and the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Grant’s party visited Armstrong’s sprawling armaments factory beside the Tyne at Elswick.


Famously, Armstrong was believed to have sold guns to both sides of the American Civil War. Mocked in 1862 by the satirical magazine Punch as “Lord Bomb,” Armstrong had started his manufacturing career by fabricating the clever hydraulic cranes he had invented, but it was the manufacture of weapons of war which secured the greater part of his fame and, of course, his fabulous wealth.


There’s no record of Grant making any snide comments about Armstrong’s sale of guns to the Confederacy.


After the morning visit to Elswick, Grant and his party returned by the steamer Commodore to the Quayside, the sound of guns and cheers ringing in their ears. "The General was the object of an almost uninterrupted ovation," reported the Newcastle Daily Journal. "It must be recorded," continued the newspaper that "never was there in honour of any occasion, or body, or individual, such a real and enthusiastic demonstration as that which the American ex-President received on his progress down the Tyne."


From the Quayside Grant's party joined a parade through the city to the Town Moor, where dignitaries made laudatory speeches in front of 80,000 people, estimated the Evening Chronicle.


The crowd was packed with workers, a fact acknowledged by Grant who, in his speech, said:


“We all know that but for labour we would have very little that is worth fighting for, and when wars do come, they fall upon the many, the producing class, who are the sufferers.”


The Chronicle’s report of the event said that “never before did any military chieftain so truly fight the battle of labour.”


(The dais from where the dignitaries and Grant gave their speeches was erected where the Palace of Arts would be built for the North East Exhibition of 1929, and which is now Wylam Brewery.)


Grant described himself as “always a man of peace.”


He added: “I never willingly, although I have gone through two wars, of my own accord advocated war. I advocated what I believed to be right, and I have fought for it to the best of my ability in order that an honourable peace might be secured.”


The Chronicle described a Black man who watched Grant speak, “his face glowing with intense excitement, the whole soul within him shining out through his sable skin like a red-hot furnace seen through a dark curtain.”


When Grant finished his speech, “those who have bellowed themselves hoarse, [made] themselves still hoarser,” reported the Chronicle.


Should President Obama or President-Elect Biden ever come to Tyneside they would no doubt be greeted with similar scenes of adulation; President Trump not so much.


Carlton Reid is a senior transport contributor on Forbes.com and a regular contributor to The Guardian. He was the Press Gazette's Transport Journalist of the Year, 2018. He is also an historian with his recent books including "Roads Were Not Built for Cars" and "Bike Boom," both published by Island Press, Washington, D.C.


New York Mag link:


https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/11/donald-trump-presidency-election-week.html


Mansion House link: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1320379


Wylam Brewery link: https://www.wylambrewery.co.uk/the-grand-hall/


Illustrations


1 Ulysses_S._Grant_Library of Congress.jpg — Ulysses S. Grant, Library of Congress.


2 Ulysses Grant address at newcastle.jpg — General and ex-President Ulysses S. Grant addressing the crowds in Newcastle. Source: "Around the World with General Grant," John Russell Young, 1879.


3 Ulysses Grant LEFT with Lord Armstrong RIGHT — Ulysses Grant, left, with his party at Sir William Armstrong's armament factory at Elswick. Sir William is on the right. From Newcastle Libraries.