By Ron Chernow, Head of Zeus, 2017, ISBN 978 1788 541 602, 1074pp
I had seen this book in Moruya Books some months ago and bought it not because I was particularly interested in Ulysses S Grant, who from 1869 to 1877 was the 18th US President, but because I already had on the waiting-to-be-read pile another book by Ron Chernow.
This other book is (the also massive at 818 pages) Alexander Hamilton who was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was killed in 1908 by the then Vice President of the United States, and about whom there is now a Broadway musical. Now, buying one book because you have another book by the same author that you have not read is not perhaps the best reason to buy a book, but regular readers of my reviews will know that I hold that money spent on a book is never money wasted. And, after all, I knew nothing of U S Grant except that he had a set of particularly apposite initials. In fact, he was named Hiram Ulysses Grant (he was not baptised until just before his death in 1885). When he went to West Point in 1839 his sponsor mistakenly wrote down "Ulysses S. Grant", which became his adopted name because West Point could not change the name of the appointee.
I am not sure what it is about US Presidents that demand that they have weighty biographies. Perhaps it is because their authors feel that their subject’s contributions to the world about them can only properly be reflected in a volume of great length and, it has to be said, weight. In my library I find David McCullough’s brilliant, and readable, biography of Harry S Truman weighing in at 1,115 pages. This is a wonderful book about a remarkable fellow and if you are remotely interested in the only fellow who ever pushed nuclear button in anger then you should read it. Michael Korda’s “Ike: American Hero” at 779 pages is another good read and one that deals with a period closer to my own lifetime. Then, when I was thinking about writing this review, I found Lou Cannon’s epic “President Reagan: The role of a lifetime”. This one was clearly too much of an epic for me as the position of its bookmark shows I only got to page 338 of 883. But if David McCullough’s book on Truman is perhaps the best of its kind, Chernow’s story of Grant is not far behind. It is nothing if not comprehensive and it is readable if you are in for the long haul.
Grant’s life falls into four pieces and each piece is dealt with by Chernow as a separate section. The first and last sections are far shorter than the second and third. Born in 1822, the early years of Grant’s life were undistinguished. He went to West Point and after some initial uncertainty about Army life decided that he could cope with it. He left the Army because of a drinking problem. Grant was an alcoholic and stories about his drunkenness (which were usually not true) plagued him all his life.
He married Julia Dent in 1848 with whom he had four children: Fred, Ulysses Jr, Nellie and Jesse. He also gained a father-in-law, Frederick Dent who styled himself Colonel and was a Confederate man and could not be described as happy about his daughter’s union with Grant. Grant’s own father, Jesse Root Grant, was a man who unashamedly tried to trade on his son’s success. Grant wrote several stiff letters to his father telling him to desist. On the other hand, Grant’s mother Hannah was continually dismissive of her son’s achievements.
After leaving the Army he tried his hand at several occupations and succeeded in none of them. Indeed, we might say that he failed in all of them. Chernow dispatches the early years in 80 pages. Grant’s productive life, and the reason we should remember him, started with the American Civil War in 1861.
Grant was ready to fight and was offered a commission as a captain but felt that he was entitled to a more senior rank. He worked hard at raising troops for the Federal Army mustering 10 regiments. Eventually he was appointed Brigadier General and his war began. The long and short of it is that he turned out to be a brilliant general. He had the ability to read a battlefield and to direct operations with usually effective results. The federal military effort was often confounded by incompetent generals and the fact that Grant was manifestly not incompetent often meant he found it difficult to make headway through the military bureaucracy. But he did make way with help of Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois who was a critical sponsor. Lincoln noticed that Grant was a man who delivered, and it was Lincoln who ensured his promotion to Major General in 1862 and then to Lieutenant General in 1864. He was the first General of the Army (a four-star rank) since Washington. Two people played a crucial role in Grant’s life. The first, perhaps not surprisingly, was his wife Julia Grant. The second was John Rawlins (later Brigadier General) who became Grant’s assistant adjutant general early in the civil war. Between them Julia and Rawlins ensured that Grant stayed away from liquor.
General U S Grant
Not long after the Civil War ended Lincoln was assassinated and his replacement as President was the rather less than competent Andrew Johnson against whom impeachment proceedings were begun in 1869. He was acquitted but probably only because the alternative, the Ohio senator Benjamin Wade, was even less acceptable. In addition, there was already a groundswell of opinion growing that Grant would be a good nomination for President and that a Wade presidency might prevent that. Grant’s popularity in the country as a whole and it the corridors of power in Washington was enormous. His credibility rested on his military successes; he had no political experience. He was viewed with rather less equanimity in the South but even there he was recognised as fair minded. He was elected to the presidency in 1868 and took office in 1869. He went on to serve a second term as President. In his first administration his most notable achievements were the passing of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which, at least in principle, ended slavery by ensuring that blacks had the vote and were no less citizens than anyone else.
Grant was a man who trusted people and it was this trust that led to his second administration being marred by a series of scandals. There is no evidence that Grant knew about the various rorts that members of his government were engaged in, but the mud stuck to him nonetheless. He was relieved to complete his second term although his wife was less happy. She had delighted in her role as the premiere hostess of American society and was disappointed when it all came to an end. Four years later when Grant was pipped at the post for his third nomination she was again disappointed. Grant, on the other hand, was quite happy. It is difficult to judge the relative qualities of the Presidents of the United States. There are many historical rankings most of which, probably rightly, place Washington, Lincoln, and F D Roosevelt at the top of the list. Kennedy generally comes in the second group of ten. There is only one survey that includes Donald Trump; he comes last.
Grant weighs in between number 28 and 38 (out of 45). Without a detailed study of all 45 I cannot say whether this is a reasonable ranking but after reading Chernow’s book I think it is rather low. Grant was an abolitionist, he fought for black people and he was an early supporter of women’s suffrage. He was less consistent on the Native American questions of the day. He had to fight, politically, entrenched Southern opinions and he had some measure of success. He improved the lot of black people in the South only to see many of his improvements undone by his successors. We all know the rather tawdry story of US civil rights. But I suspect that story would have been even worse were it not for Grant. Chernow makes the point that at the end of the nineteenth century popular opinion would pick out two Presidents: Lincoln and Grant. Perhaps we need to find a way to measure a politician’s success against the metrics of his time rather than against those of our time.
President U S Grant
After completing his second term as President Grant embarked on a world tour where he was fêted by the great and the good. He dined with Queen Victoria (who Chernow refers to as “Her Highness”; Chernow is, of course, an American so we might excuse this social faux pas). He met Disraeli and Bismarck … his fame, even in those days, was truly global. But these were days before former Presidents received a pension and Grant had forfeited his Army pension on becoming President. In the last chapter of his life his tendency to trust people too willingly and without any sort of due diligence led to his being financially ruined. He needed to start again and, interestingly enough, it was Mark Twain who was the agent of the recovery of his financial fortunes. Twain saved him from agreeing to a rather less than profitable deal by a publisher for writing his memoirs. Instead Twain secured him a better deal (and, of course, Twain benefitted as well). Grant wrote over 300,000 words in his final few months while he was dying from throat cancer. He churned out almost perfect prose in spite of being in incredible pain most of the time. In the end his memoirs netted his widow almost $500,000 (in late nineteenth century money).
So, I suppose the question is: should you read this book? The answer is probably no unless you have an interest in American history and like reading long books. It is also, due to its weight, an uncomfortable book to read in bed. Am I sorry I bought it and read it? Absolutely not. I am the better man for the effort.