Living history impressionist returns to Mt. Lebanon as President Grant
For his portrayal of President Ulysses S. Grant, Kenneth Serfass provided the setting.
“It is 1872,” he told his audience at Mt. Lebanon Public Library. “We’re a month away from the second inauguration. So I’d like to thank you all for your votes, and we’re truly going to make America Grant again.”
As his pun was greeted with hearty laughter and applause, Serfass quipped: “Somebody said that might be funny.”
Serfass interspersed humor with deep knowledge of the life of the 18th president during his living history impression program presented Feb. 15 by the library and the Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon. The groups also hosted his visit last summer, as Gen. U.S. Grant, Union Army commander.
While most historians contend that the man on the $50 bill fared far better in the Civil War than in the White House, Serfass seeks to set the record straight.
“I think there needs to be more emphasis on the good things that Grant did that could be examples for today,” the Gettysburg resident said, switching to the first person to address some of the traditionally reported negatives:
“There are many, many discussions about what’s referred to as ‘all the scandals’ in my administration, much like ‘all the drinking I do.’ A lot of that was a lot of hoopla blown up by the press and by my rivals.
“When I ask folks who point out to me what they call ‘all the scandals,’ if they can name one of them, I’m impressed,” he continued. “And I find that they get defensive when they can’t name any.”
Serfass will admit that Grant’s first-term vice president, Schuyler Colfax, was connected to a Union Pacific Railroad bribery scandal that had its roots in Congress during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
“Many of the things that have erupted and manifested themselves as scandals in my term began in previous terms,” Serfass-as-Grant explained. “But there’s no record of me ever pointing the finger back and pushing it back on someone else. I’m the chief executive when it comes to light, and therefore, it’s my responsibility.”
One of the more noteworthy incidents of Grant’s presidency resulted in “Black Friday”: Sept. 24, 1869, when speculators James Fisk and Jay Gould tried to corner the market on the New York Gold Exchange. Serfass recounted an earlier visit the two had with Grant.
“Immediately, they start trying to push their point of view on me about the price of gold and what the value should be, and whether I should give them a heads-up if the government is going to be buying and how much at any time,” Serfass said. “Now, I’m not having it. One of my favorite ways to dispel that is just light a cigar and talk about horses, which infuriates them, but it keeps things at bay.”
As for his eventual course of action, Grant countered the attempts of Fisk and Gould with the release of $4 million in gold from the U.S. treasury, driving down the price of the commodity.
“We staved off a full-on depression,” Serfass explained, “but it brought about a recession for the last two years of the first term. And I’m pretty surprised that I was re-elected in spite of that happening, but I think people trusted me that I had the best interests in mind.”
Serfass fielded numerous questions about Grant, including an inquiry about he is not acknowledged more for his efforts on behalf of civil rights.
“I think it’s because there’s an ‘R’ after my name,” Serfass replied. “But we were the innovators. The Republican party saw to it that the slaves were freed. The Republican party saw to it that suffrage occurred for the recently freed and now citizens.”
Serfass also noted that Grant appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the first Native American commissioner of Indian affairs, following Parker’s service as an adjutant to Grant during the Civil War.
“In fact, it was in Ely Parker’s hand that the surrender order to (Robert E.) Lee was delivered to him across the room,” Serfass said about the April 9, 1865, gathering at Appomattox Court House. “Parker had the best handwriting of all my officers, so I asked him to write it.”
Such information makes for a good answer to a trivia question, as does this:
“If you’re ever trying to remember presidents and the party they’re from,” Serfass advised, “every president with a beard has been a Republican.”