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.