When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father
Far from being royalty, the descendants of American presidents are the athletic trainers, lawyers, salesmen and executives of everyday life
- By Megan Gambino
- Smithsonian.com, February 17, 2012
(Courtesy of Ulysses Grant Dietz)
Maplewood, New Jersey
As a kid, Ulysses Grant Dietz went by Grant. “I made the decision to call myself Ulysses when I hit my teen years and went to boarding school and decided that having a weird name was cool,” says the great-great-grandson of Ulysses S. Grant.
It was in the 1990s that Dietz really took an interest in the president though, lending his support to the restoration of Grant’s Tomb in New York City’s Riverside Park. “At that point, I realized it behooved me to actually know something,” says Dietz, now 56. He has read Grant’s memoirs and several books on him and gives a speech at Grant’s Tomb every year on the 18th president’s birthday, April 27.
“People assume that because you are a descendant and you have the name that therefore you are an expert on the Civil War,” says Dietz. His expertise, however, is in 19th-century decorative arts. He is a curator at the Newark Museum, where he oversees the Ballantine House, an 1885 residence of a Newark beer baron. “It is not so much Grant’s presidency and generalship but his and his wife’s life as an archetype of the American family in the 19th century that fascinates me,” says Dietz. “They are both born on the frontier. They both come from upwardly mobile middle-class stock. They both hit the big time and the big city. They live in a mansion on Fifth Avenue. Then, they suffer through bankruptcy and Ponzi schemes. They live the whole 19th-century saga in their one lifetime together.”
Dietz has studied the decorative history of the White House and written a book on the topic, Dream House: The White House as an American Home. He argues that first lady Julia Grant really began the transformation of the White House from a middle-class villa to an upper-class mansion. In 1865, the first lady purchased a set of silver flatware, each piece adorned with a Roman warrior on the handle. “Clearly she picked that because of her husband being a warrior. I always thought that was really funny,” says Dietz. There are only two spoons from the set still within the family. “I use one to eat cereal with,” says Dietz. “That I am never going to give away. I love that spoon.”