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Rants & Reason

Of President Grant, the Rev. John Brazil and, alas, the legislature

4/4/2018

Reason to worry about Iowa’s desertion of longtime values and principles

Given the course of the Iowa legislature and the damage it has done to public education and the question of church-state relations, there is reason to worry about Iowa’s desertion of longtime values and principles.

That thought came to mind upon reaching pages 811-812 in Ron Chernow’s 1,000-page biography of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union’s Civil War military leader and President from 1868-1876.

You knew about Grant, but what you might not have known, until page 811, was that, as Chernow writes, Grant gave a “landmark statement reaffirming the separation of church and state” and emphatically endorsing the then nascent idea of strong government support of free public education.

In lines we might take to heart today, Grant said, “In a republic like ours where the citizen is the sovereign and the official the servant…it is important that the sovereign…should foster…that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation.” That’s something the presidents of Iowa’s public universities might have told the 2018 Legislature.

In the Sept. 29, 1875, talk, Grant seemed prescient about our 21st Century state of affairs, fearing that future divisiveness in the nation will result not from the slavery boundary of the Mason-Dixon Line, “but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”

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That’s a lot to pack into one talk.

Here’s the clincher: The “landmark” comments were made in Des Moines! Grant spoke at a Civil War reunion of the Union’s Army of the Tennessee, which had included several Iowa regiments.

Grant’s comments drew national attention, too; the New York Times published the text Oct. 1.

Given all this, you’d think there’d be occasional reference to Grant’s speech today, given its political relevance. But references are few — outside the research center of the state historical museum.

The Annals of Iowa had an article — in 1897; the Council Bluffs paper had a feature last August by Iowa historian Cheryl Mullenbach; and George Mills wrote a Register piece on the centennial of the speech in September 1975.
Longtime Register reporter and columnist David Yepsen, now host of Iowa Press on IPTV, acknowledged his surprise at reading the lines on page 811; others (including me) hadn’t recalled even Mills’ article. Mills focused on community excitement about Grant’s visit — listing menus of Grant party meals and folks he visited with, including Iowa’s Major Hoyt Sherman (brother of the Union General William).

That afternoon, Grant spoke to about 2,500 school children in the Moore Opera House at the Southeast Corner of Walnut and Fourth.

The Iowa State Register reported, Grant admonished the children “they were the future hope of Des Moines and sent them home happy…His love for the children is not the least among the many virtues of President Grant.”

Another paper in town, The State Leader, was not as enthused: “The president probably said a little more, but in such a low voice that….none of the audience could understand anything.”

Chernow, however, surmises that Grant’s visit with the children caused him to request some time to go back to his lodging and pen his thoughts about church and state and public education. Much of the press characterized those thoughts as forceful and eloquent, particularly the line, “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.”

Disagreeing with Grant was the Rev. John F. Brazil of Des Moines, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Church and vicar general or chief aide to the bishop of the diocese. He did not question the eloquence of Grant’s talk; he questioned the logic. In a letter to the State Leader published Sept. 30, the Rev. Brazil characterized Grant’s call for “a good common school education unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical tenets” and for separation of church and state an “impossibility,” perhaps even a violation of states rights. “It is to be regretted that our worthy President touched upon these subjects at all,” he said.

One might echo that with regard to the handiwork of the 2018 Legislature, “It is to be regretted they touched upon these subjects at all.” ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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