Ever looked at that $50 dollar bill in your wallet (provided you’re lucky enough to have one stashed away in there)? Go ahead, take a peek. Chances are good that your knowledge of Ulysses S. Grant may be limited to his Presidency, a tomb somewhere, and his reputation for being a drunkard. And that bill, of course. Recent efforts to save Grant’s legacy have produced wonderful reassessments of the man, including last summer’s American Ulysses by Ronald C. White. Incredibly, Ron Chernow’s Grant proves we’re not quite done yet.
Chernow, whose mammoth 2004 biography on Alexander Hamilton may have, inexplicably, inspired the most danceable hagiography in American history, now directs his focus on the 6th Commanding General of the United States Army and 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose initials would famously serve double duty as “Unconditional Surrender.” Such a happenstance is illustrative of a man whose very reputation has become secondhand, almost lost in time to rumor and assumption.
Consider that Grant’s middle initial was actually the result of a bureaucratic error that, even when discovered, was never corrected. Grant himself once remarked: “You know I have an ‘S’ in my name and don’t know what it stands for.” Much like the grizzled, bearded fellow on your money bill, it’s probably as good time as any for a revival.
Grant is Ron Chernow’s valiant attempt to rehabilitate the 18th President’s legacy and name, subjects ripe for historical and psychological rebirth, offering an engaging triptych of Grant’s personal, formidable military service, and political lives. An unremarkable youth who would attain remarkable greatness, Grant was (at the time) the youngest man elected President, “a onetime warrior ambushed by a sudden outbreak of peace” who would become the world’s first ambassador for the American spirit abroad.
In many ways Ulysses S. Grant was the logical subject to follow Chernow’s magisterial Washington, which netted him the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It’s nigh impossible to avoid comparisons between these two men; one helped forge a nation, the other helped to save it.
Both rose to prominence – and highest power – from less well-bred beginnings, both commanded the direction and respect of troops serving under them with distinction; Grant, adorned with four stars on his shoulder straps, was the first since Washington to hold the full title of General. Both assumed the Presidency during times of great consequence and change, politically and culturally, and worked to keep the weakened strands of democratic liberty from snapping.
Only Grant was no Cincinnatus, selflessly abandoning political life and its petty squabbles to others. In many ways he became a victim of expectations put upon him, despite what Chernow calls his “native intelligence.” That Grant, so preternaturally gifted in the arts of military strategy and mathematics, would continue to be so “congenitally naive” in business dealings and personal affairs is extraordinary when contrasted with his other accomplishments, and well noted throughout history. “He comes up to the mark so grandly on great occasions,” wrote Grant’s U.S. Attorney General Ebenezer Hoar, “that I wish he were more careful of appearances in smaller matters.” If Washington was the ideal, Grant was our reality.
In spite of these shortcomings – or, as Chernow suggests, because of them – Grant was perhaps better suited for the role of stewarding the painful task of Reconstruction and Reunification with the South than any of his peers. This is especially apparent when contrasted with his predecessor, the openly racist Andrew Johnson (whose rise to the Presidency itself was a misguided attempt by Lincoln at civility between the North and South).
Chernow identifies two areas which may be at the root of Grant’s diminished reputation among both historians and Americans alike. The first is Grant’s perceived ignorance in the ways of business and of cultural matters, of which there is evidence. Labeled a ‘country bumpkin’ (right in Chapter One), Grant lacked both the education and class status on his peers, distinctions reinforced by his unremarkable and often embarrassing dealings in the open market. Outside of his military command, he appeared a fish out of water. Once submerged, however, he became an apex predator of the highest order; a shark.
The other, unavoidably, concerns Grant’s battles with the bottle. Both would serve as easy targets for critics and friends alike, despite attempts to shield the public from his struggles. There’s no way way around this, and Chernow doesn’t shy from giving examples.
Grant’s stewardship of the army during the Civil War and his victories are legendary, and Chernow reconstructs them here in thrilling fashion from the start to General Lee’s surrender following the Battle of Appomattox. I’m not the best to comment on such matters, but in one area let there be no doubt: Chernow’s reportage and personal missives between Lincoln, Grant, his commanders, troops, and politicians make it clear the aim of the Civil War was a total and complete end to the horrid practice of slavery.
The practice, Grant explained, was “a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle”, fiercely opposing any premature end to the war that “would have saved slavery” as “slavery meant the germs of new rebellion.” Emphatically, Grant declared, “There had to be an end of slavery.”
The other, unavoidable, issue is with Grant’s legendary battles with alcoholism. Rather than saturate his biography with reports of Grant’s failures with the bottle, Chernow – rightfully so – treats them not so much moral failings but a crippling physical addiction. Not all stories were false, though many were little more than attempts to impugn his reputation by innuendo. Others are simply unbelievable, yet true. Did you know that Grant, the man who would help win the Civil War and become President, was drummed out of service because of his drunkenness?
We also discover that even if Grant was not a natural writer, he was a quick learner. This won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with his own Personal Memoirs, which still occupy space among the best and most illuminating of military recollections. He even earned the respect and admiration of writers like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the latter of whom paid dearly for his memoirs. That Twain, that most Southern of American writers who briefly fought for the Confederacy, would become Grant’s greatest champion may surprise some.
A man whose own talents with the written word couldn’t shield him from disastrous financial investments (a shortcoming that may have made him sympathetic to Grant’s own), Twain would secure the publishing rights for Grant’s Memoirs while the man he affectionately called “the General” lay dying of throat cancer, feverishly determined to finish his memoirs. Grant would die mere weeks after they were published. Self-serving or not, it’s impossible to not feel a rush of excitement in moments when great biography connects men (and women) of consequence and purpose. Chernow’s Grant is filled with such moments, almost all of which are illuminating.
That said, there are times when Chernow’s rehabilitation efforts tow the line between historical reconciliation and abject apologist, though it’s a line carefully tread. Grant’s administrations were plagued with scandal and embarrassments, though such disasters were almost never attributed to Grant’s moral failings. Still, Chernow concludes, “endings have a disproportionate influence on any narrative and this holds true for presidencies as well.” He notes Grant “could recognize evil in his enemies, but not in those who posed as his friends.”
His was not a perfect record, either; it’s easy to criticize both his naive, possibly ignorant, efforts to ‘civilize’ Native Americans into full citizenry, or giving in to overt anti-semitism of the times. On this, Grant appears to show genuine contrition for his infamous General Order No. 11, which forcibly exiled Jews from Southern districts under his command.
Paradoxically, Grant was accused, at the time, of doing too much to protect the rights of freed blacks and, later, not enough. Critically, Chernow chastises what he calls our “strange national amnesia” on the subject of this historical blind spot, “the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history” during Reconstruction that saw untold numbers of freed blacks tortured and murdered by the Klu Klux Klan and their fellow white supremacists aching to reverse the outcome of the Civil War.
Weaving the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments into the social fabric of American consciousness would take sacrifices in blood and treasure, grim reminders that the bloodiest conflict in US history (a grim fact that still stands) would not have been so easily resolved by mere Presidential edicts or Constitutional amendments. If Reconstruction was indeed a failure, the seeds planted by Grant’s administration would ultimately serve as basis for future civil rights battles to come.
We live in strange times when historical figures are often held accountable to modern standards, some of which would have been incompatible to reconcile out of context. Those attempting to leverage such charges in hindsight are themselves guilty of either profound ignorance or failures to consider just how much history depends on its own failures and disappointments to build a future upon. I’ve no doubt Grant would not only survive such scrutiny, but would come out better for it. If there’s some justice to come from this book let it be to finally acknowledge Grant’s unique character as a whole was prescient, and worthy of admiration.
If merited, great biography can have restorative powers on its subject, allowing future generations to draw their own conclusions, if not wisdom, from its subjects. Chernow’s Grant accomplishes both of these lofty ambitions by delivering a complex overview of an equally complex man who happened to live in times of great crisis, and rose to meet them. If the power of mythology gives men like Washington their almost impeachable reputations, it’s the honest examination of their imperfections that give others like Ulysses S. Grant a well-deserved second look.