by Ron Chernow
Penguin Press, 2017
Grant, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow, excels as both biography and history. Years ago, in my somewhat inexplicable fascination with the American Civil War, I read Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were clearly and honestly written by the man himself, but covered his life only through the end of the war in 1865. Thus, Chernow’s new biography, encompassing Grant’s entire life, caught my interest when it was reviewed last Fall in Time magazine.
Grant is my first exposure to Ron Chernow as a writer and biographer. (Chernow also authored Alexander Hamilton, which is the basis of the blockbuster play Hamilton.) Grant is without a doubt the best written biography I’ve read – ever. Chernow brings Grant and many of the characters surrounding him to life. And I learned more nineteenth century and Civil War history reading Grant than I had reading James McPherson’s classic Battle Cry of Freedom.
It seems that it can take a hundred years or more to properly assess the legacy of an American president. This is certainly true in Grant’s case (and will probably be true of Barack Obama, if our republic lasts that long). Although Grant actually enjoyed high regard during his lifetime as both a general and president, subsequently his reputation was tarnished, helped in part by Southern revisionism. The short version is that he was a butcher and a drunk and a corrupt politician. It is true that he struggled most of his life with occasional but infrequent bouts of alcoholism, but these lapses never interfered with execution of his responsibilities either as general or president. It is also true that his approach to battle against the Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy was aggressive and often resulted in high casualties. His two terms as president were marked by corruption and scandal, but this originated lower down in his administration, and he did much to rein it in once it was exposed. Often he made unwise political appointments, as one of his flaws was an lifelong naivete in matters of business and capital.
But despite these faults, he was a man of impeccable integrity and honesty. As a leader, he possessed a near-perfect balance of confidence and humility. (In another post, we will see that this balance of confidence and humility is of paramount importance in our politics today.)
And in reading Grant, I learned several things that surprised me. First, Grant was very likely our greatest civil rights president in terms of commitment and achievement, with the possible exception of Lincoln. He was also, in my view, one of the greatest presidents of the nineteenth century, and arguably among the top five or six presidents in American history.
At 960 pages, the book’s sheer length will discourage many from reading it. This is unfortunate. I found Grant compelling, enlightening, uplifting, and ever relevant to where we find ourselves today as a nation.