That’s what I’ve been doing since the first of the year: Reading Ron Chernow’s 960-page biography of Ulysses S. Grant.
I’ve learned a lot from “Grant,” but mostly this: Crises and cataclysms come and go, and so do the people who make them. America is better now than it was then. History has a way of undoing the truly corrupt, the truly stupid, the truly amoral. It just takes longer than we’d like.
As I said, this book is just south of a thousand pages, so I won’t attempt to encapsulate it. I will mention a few things that I found interesting:
- Grant was a failure at most everything he did, except warfare. Just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War, he’d been reduced to working for his younger brother in his father’s leather-goods store.
- During the war, Grant personally knew nearly every Confederate general he faced in battle. Most of them he’d met as a West Point cadet; some he’d served with in the Mexican War. He said it was one reason he was able to prevail so often on the battlefield.
- Grant does appear to have been an alcoholic, but he was the rare alcoholic who never allowed it to affect his job performance. He’d go for weeks and months without a drink, only falling off the wagon at the close of a battle or campaign. He never drank in the presence of his wife, or under the watchful eye of his chief aide. When he did drink, he became stupid, rather than abusive.
- Grant was in many ways the polar opposite of any American leader today: Stoic, self-effacing, unfailingly honest and very well-read. Most of all, he had a charitable streak that had little to do with political expedience. During the war and during his presidency, he championed the cause of voting, jobs and education for newly freed slaves in a way few of his contemporaries would embrace. Had his policies been allowed to persist, racial animus might not still be so strong 150 years later.
- Grant’s biggest failing was misplaced trust, a blind spot to corruption in others that undercut his presidency and left him swindled and broke in the twilight of his life. He penned his epic “Personal Memoirs” as he lay dying of cancer, so his family would not be left destitute.
I love history, especially when it’s stripped of myth and legend and is supported by so many original sources. As work of history, “Grant” is brilliant. As a portrait of America during the worst decade this nation has ever faced, it seems more than timely.
It’s been a year of unhinged tweets and blatant corruption and Russian skulduggery and resurgent racism. We may never have had a worse president than the current one. But “Grant” is a nice reminder that the country has survived far worse times.
Joan M. Clauss says
Thanks, Dave. I think I needed to hear that.
John H. says
Thanks for this, Dave. I read a review of the book that talked about some of the same things. The part about his drinking was especially interesting – going on benders but otherwise not drinking at all.
History is so fascinating that it’s a tremendous shame it’s made so boring in school. I didn’t really appreciate it until I started my own reading in college.
I don’t want to, but I can’t help thinking about how Obama and Trump will be portrayed to school kids 100 years from now. Will anyone dare to write (in a text for school use) that the Republican House under Obama blocked any and all Democratic legislation purely out of obstructionism? Or that Trump was proudly ignorant and obviously quite stupid? If things continue as they are today, the textbooks will be very different depending on what state the kids happen to live in.
Dave Knadler says
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, John. All through the book, I kept comparing the contemporary criticisms of Grant with what I imagined the same people would say about a man like Trump. And what history might say about a man like Trump 50 or 100 years from now.
My conclusion about the latter is that history won’t say much at all. I think — and maybe this is wishful thinking — that Trump will be rendered pretty inconsequential in the fullness of time. That’s because he has no identifiable ethos or belief beyond his own ego. Such men can make a mess during their brief time in power, but they never produce much that might outlive them.