When Barack Obama’s presidency concludes in January, the war of the historians will begin. Ranking presidents can seem trivial, the political equivalent of arguing over who makes the list of all-time best outfield. But in fact our presidential preferences say something about us, by revealing which social issues are important to us and which qualities we desire in a leader.
Ulysses Grant’s esteem in the eyes of historians has increased significantly in the last generation. That is owing to the fact that the actions of the Civil War general-turned-president — particularly his policies toward African-Americans — have been reinterpreted favorably by scholars more attuned to racial justice than their predecessors.
Ronald White’s magisterial new biography, weighing in at over 800 pages, is the newest heavyweight champion in this movement. White doesn’t explicitly say that Grant was a great president, but instead approvingly cites the favorable judgments of Frederick Douglass and Teddy Roosevelt. The latter, in fact, perhaps overexuberantly ranked Grant with Washington and Lincoln as leaders, ahead of Jefferson, Jackson, and Hamilton.
White is a historian best-known for his much lauded 2009 biography of our 16th president, “A. Lincoln: A Biography.’’ “American Ulysses’’ was seven years in the making, and it shows, with remarkable research — White was the first Grant biographer to have access to all 33 volumes of “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant’’ in addition to other material not in the collection made available to him at the Grant library at Mississippi State.
While White’s biography is indeed both striking and comprehensive, it does leave the reader with less psychological insight into Grant than might be hoped. “Over the course of pondering him, I came to believe that modern psychological studies of ‘introversion’ can offer clues to the nature of his personality,” writes White early on. Much later in the book, he presents a “list psychologists offer as the features of introversion,’’ including a preference to express oneself in writing vs. orally, a dread of small talk, and an aversion to conflict. We are then largely left to connect the dots.
The book does, however, benefit greatly from White’s decision to look closely at the correspondence between Grant and his beloved wife, Julia — the couple having had to endure multiple lengthy separations during Grant’s career.
Admittedly, though, Grant is a complexly tough nut to crack. He was nicknamed “Grant the Silent” and famously answered questions with few words, after long pauses. But he also wrote a revealing autobiography, which White mentions for its popularity but oddly never mines for its revelations.
That book, like “American Ulysses,’’ is recounted as a straightforward chronology. Like a remarkable number of presidents, Grant was born in Ohio. His father was anti-slavery, though Grant himself did not appear to feel strongly about the issue until the Civil War, a transformation he describes movingly in his memoirs. After attending West Point and fighting bravely in the Mexican-American War, Grant retired in 1854, pursued a number of failing business ventures, and developed an alcohol problem.
He rejoined the Army in 1861 after the Civil War began. The first mystery of Grant is how an alcoholic and failed businessman became the victorious leader of the Union forces. “American Ulysses’’ makes a good case that essential to his success was his temperament. Grant managed outsize egos, worked to get along well with his masters in Washington, listened to advice, and learned from his mistakes. It is true that the Union had the advantage of superior resources. But it’s also true that Union generals lost battles despite them. Grant knew how to win, and how to capitalize on victories by pursuing his outmatched opponents, an aggressive strategy that Lincoln relished. Among the best parts of White’s book are his recollections of the mutual affection the two leaders shared. “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible,” Lincoln wrote in a battlefield telegram to Grant. White quotes an observer that Grant laughed and said, “The President has more nerve than any of his advisors.”
The second mystery of Grant is how so bold a general could have been so passive a political leader. Like Warren Harding, Grant was not corrupt himself but allowed his administration to be tainted by those who were. “The specter of scandals in his second term has tended to demolish the accomplishments of both terms,” White correctly notes.
Grant’s presidential accomplishments were simply not very significant. He has gained in stature among present-day scholars for his forward-looking policies on civil rights. Grant was admirably opposed to the Ku Klux Klan and to the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South. But, as “American Ulysses’’ concedes, Grant failed in his efforts to have the rights of blacks recognized nationwide. Thanks to White we do have a fresh view of a good man and courageous general, if not one of our greatest presidents.
A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
By Ronald C. White Jr.
Random House, 826 pp.,
Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single “Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency.’’