Much like the tide at Long Branch, N.J., where Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, spent eight languid summers in a seaside cottage, presidential reputations outside the hallowed Washington-Lincoln-FDR circle rise and fall. Right now Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush are up, and Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson are down. Andrew Jackson has surged for President Trump and his supporters and plummeted for never-Trumpers and liberals.
But few White House occupants have bobbed like a buoy on stormy seas as has Grant, sometimes within a single decade. Revered as the architect of Union victory in the Civil War, he was swept into the presidency in 1869 on a wave of affection and admiration. The only president between Jackson and Wilson to serve two consecutive terms, he left office bathed in scandal, his reputation nearly drowned for generations because of his fondness for — sometimes reliance on — drink. But the Grant rehabilitation is in full swing. It began with Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 “Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President.” This fall it continues with Ron Chernow’s massive biography of the 18th president.
Chernow is the man whose biography of Alexander Hamilton spawned an unlikely but unfading musical at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York. Like his Pulitzer-winning biography of Washington (904 pages) as well as his lives of Hamilton (818 pages), John D. Rockefeller Sr. (800), and J.P. Morgan (812), this Chernow work, at 1,074 pages, requires substantial reader commitment. Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, or Chester A. Arthur (the new Arthur biography, out in September by Scott S. Greenberger at 336 pages, is just about right) wouldn’t be worth the effort or investment at Chernow length. Grant most certainly is.
Chernow rewards the reader with considerable life-and-times background, clear-eyed perspective, sympathy that stops short of sycophancy, and gritty and intimate details, not the least of which is a description of the general’s breakfast of a cucumber soaked in vinegar during the Battle of the Wilderness.
Chernow bows to the customary themes of Grant’s drunkenness (not as bad as in the public imagination) and to his early and late financial distress (perhaps even worse than the customary view). But he also lingers on Grant’s inspired generalship (especially his ties to, and concern for, his men); his charity in victory (and here the legend is true to the facts); his reliable moral vision (especially toward blacks and Native Americans); his determination to render the Reconstruction South into a model of racial reconciliation (never realized); and his gracefulness in apologizing for an 1862 diversion into anti-Semitism that banned Jewish traders from areas his army controlled (paying for his sin by sitting respectfully in his later years through a three-hour Jewish service, completely in Hebrew, then leaving unobtrusively without speech or spectacle).
Few American lives have touched on so many critical elements of the American story or intersected with so many of the vital figures of our history. His West Point contemporaries included George B. McClellan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and a callow cadet who would later be known as Stonewall Jackson. He served under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and as he lay dying he worked with Mark Twain on perhaps the only presidential memoir worth reading. His Mexican War experience as a quartermaster provided him with lifelong mastery of military equipment and transport. Peerless in reading the enemy and impatient with procrastination, he was, as Chernow describes Lincoln’s assessment of his principal general, “the president’s beau ideal of a general: one who regularly beat the enemy while endorsing the expanded war aims.”
The conquering hero of Vicksburg was the gentle victor at Appomattox, perhaps history’s most generous battlefield triumph. That spoke to an inner sweetness to Grant that Chernow explores repeatedly, admirable in his tender, enduring, and utterly faithful love for his wife, disastrous in his unremitting loyalty to associates who betrayed his values (by advocating the brutal elimination of Native Americans) and his trust (by bilking the public during the White House years). Chernow argues that Grant was “bamboozled” by those associates and points out that Grant’s administration brought more than 350 indictments in the Whiskey Ring federal bribery episode alone — “a feat for which Grant seldom gets credit.”
Along with industrialization, continental expansion, and the rise of mass consumerism, the principal theme in this biography, as in the years of Grant’s life, is the role of the African-American in our history, culture, and economy. Here Chernow is unambiguous. Grant, who married into a slaveholding family and owned a slave for a time, regarded slavery as an irredeemable evil. He knew what the 1861-65 war was about, moved away from President Johnson and toward the Radical Republicans on Reconstruction, and in Chernow’s estimation emerged as something of a guardian of the legacy of Union victory and Lincoln’s values.
As president he tried mightily, with some exceptions, to side with blacks in the struggle for the hearts — and legislatures — of the states of the old Confederacy. In this he sometimes faced what Chernow describes as “a choice of political poisons: either intervene in state politics and invite a northern outcry or stand back and allow thuggery to reign supreme.” Though the “Redeemers” by the end of his presidency had wrestled back control of every Southern state, Chernow provides an unambiguous verdict: “It was Grant who helped to weave the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments into the basic fabric of American life.”
All of this has fresh relevancy for our time. In this era, when the meaning, impact, and statues of the Civil War-era are undergoing fresh evaluation, Grant very likely will emerge unscathed. The Chernow biography assures his place in the American pantheon for decades to come.
By Ron Chernow
Penguin Press, 1074 pp., illustrated, $40
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.