Hamilton bi­og­ra­pher Ch­er­now releases Ulysses S. Grant book


The Ulysses S. Grant re­vival is in full swing. Long car­i­ca­tured by pos­ter­ity as a piti­less butcher, a drunk and a hope­lessly cor­rupt pres­i­dent, Grant has steadily seen his rep­u­ta­tion climb. Schol­ars have re­con­sid­ered the record of the gen­eral who led the Union to vic­tory in the Civil War, as well as Grant’s two-term pres­i­dency (1869-1877), re­veal­ing a lus­ter long ob­scured by shop­worn ca­nards.

Two sym­pa­thetic takes on Grant have been pub­lished in the past year alone. Ron­ald White struck first with his ex­cel­lent “Amer­i­can Ulysses.” Not to be out­done, Ron Ch­er­now, known for books on Alexan­der Hamilton and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, en­ters the fray with a mam­moth bi­og­ra­phy that as­pires to be de­fin­i­tive. “Grant” swells to nearly 1,000 pages; it’s a de­mand­ing but es­sen­tial read.

Born in Point Pleas­ant, Ohio, in 1822, Grant at­tended West Point and served with dis­tinc­tion in the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can war. But the 1850s brought him low. He failed at farm­ing and rent col­lect­ing. Raised in an abo­li­tion­ist house­hold, Grant would clash se­verely with his slave-own­ing Mis­souri fa­ther-in-law, even as he main­tained de­vo­tion to wife Ju­lia. Ch­er­now’s de­tailed por­trait of Grant’s pri­vate life and strug­gles hu­man­izes a man of­ten de­scribed as sphinx­like.

In 1861, he won a com­mis­sion in the Union army as a colonel. War saved Grant from fail­ure; Grant, in turn, would save the Union from its se­rial fail­ures on the bat­tle­field.

Grant was sur­rounded by a pha­lanx of aides who mem­o­rably evoked Grant in mem­oirs and dis­patches. Ch­er­now uses their tes­ti­mony to al­most Cu­bist ef­fect, bring­ing out dif­fer­ent, con­trast­ing sides of Grant’s char­ac­ter. The gen­eral would pon­der bat­tle plans for hours, seated in a chair, “look­ing like the lazi­est man in camp,” ob­served Ho­race Porter. Yet he could size up a map with an un­canny grasp of ter­rain.

Grant’s pres­i­dency show­cased his best and worst ten­den­cies. Elected in 1868, he saw his novice po­lit­i­cal skills tested. Ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing quick de­ci­sions and not turn­ing back, Grant con­sulted lit­tle.

No is­sue was big­ger than civil rights. Grant’s ad­min­is­tra­tion com­bated the Ku Klux Klan, “crush­ing the largest wave of do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism in Amer­i­can his­tory,” in Ch­er­now’s words. Grant was un­stint­ing in his de­vo­tion to the rights of African-Amer­i­cans — stand­ing, Ch­er­now ar­gues, “sec­ond only to Lin­coln, for what he did for the freed slaves” — even as the North grew weary of en­forc­ing new amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion. There would be many sec­ond thoughts about Grant, but Ch­er­now con­vinc­ingly re­stores Grant to the pan­theon of great Amer­i­cans.

“GRANT” by Ron Ch­er­now; Pen­guin Press (1,074 pages, $40)

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