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)