One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today—May 17, 1877—recently retired President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant departed on what would be a two-and-a-half year, round-the-world trip.
“The trip began as a personal adventure,” says historian William McFeely in his Pulitzer-winning biography Grant. “The Grants had had eight years in the White House, and they had come under a crescendo of criticism for the corruption of the administration. Since they had nowhere to go and nothing to do, it was natural for them to take a vacation, one that would get them away from all the hectoring.” Historian Michael Fellman says Grant also took the trip “to stay out of the hair of his successor, a mean he heartily disliked, yet he wished to remain in the public eye in some politically unthreatening but highly visible manner.”
There’s also the possibility that Grant, at 55, still felt like he had a lot of living left to do. Like Teddy Roosevelt would do after his presidency, Grant decided on a big adventure.
John Russell Young, a reporter for the New York Herald, accompanied the Grants on their trip. He would eventually publish a two-volume account, Around the World with General Grant, which appeared in 1885 and 1886. Young was startled by the almost instant transformation that overcame Grant once their ship, the Indiana, shipped out: “That reticence which had characterized the manner of the Ex-President during the many years of his onerous and toilsome employment in the service of his country, dropped from him as though it were a mask. . . .”
Their trip would take them first to England and Europe, but they would also visit the Holy Land, Egypt, India, Burma, China, and Japan. (He wanted to hit Australia, too, but couldn’t find steamer service.) They arrived in San Francisco on September 20, 1879, and finally made their way back to Philadelphia—from whence they’d started—on December 16. Three hundred and fifty thousand people greeted his return, which they celebrated with a parade.
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McFeely quote and image of Grant the traveler comes from pp. 252-3 of Grant: A Biography, New York: Norton, 1981.
Fellman quote comes from pg. xi in Around the World with General Grant, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.