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By James Bratt
Every now and then a past American president undergoes a radical change in historical reputation. The starkest case was probably that of Harry Truman who was single-handedly rehabilitated twenty-five years ago by David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson has had rough innings recently at the hands of liberal historians who once lauded him but now focus on his long, profitable—and mealy-mouthed—entanglement with slavery.
The latest candidate for redemption is Ulysses S. Grant. The process has been underway for a couple decades already but surely has hit full stride now, courtesy of America’s favorite biographer, Ron Chernow. Also a Pulitzer winner for his work on George Washington and a prime source for the endlessly popular stage musical, Hamilton,
Chernow with his tome on Grant (and tome it is, at 1104 pages) attempts to right the reputation of the greatest general in the United States’ greatest war and the only president to complete two consecutive terms in the White House between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Between the book’s #1 position on the New York Times’s bestseller list and its convincing narrative, we can assume that this mission is as close to being accomplished as it’s ever going to be.
Drunk All Along?
The old standard story on Grant was that he was a butcher in battle, a font of corruption as president, and a drunk all along. Chernow refutes all three charges. He gives persistent—to me, over-much—attention to the third indictment, concluding that Grant was indeed an alcoholic but one who was sober at all critical moments—and for most of the others, when attended by his closest aide, John Rawlins, or his wife Julia.
When he did stray the results were ugly, a consequence of his being unable to stop imbibing once he started. Chernow shows unflinchingly how this problem caused Grant’s unceremonious resignation (lest he be drummed out) from the army in 1854. That opened the grimmest sequence in Grant’s life, as he faltered through failed ventures as farmer and businessman. He was approaching rock-bottom when the Civil War came to his rescue.
As a military commander Grant was aggressive and confident—sometimes to a fault, but much more often to overwhelming success. On the “butcher” accusation, author and subject agree that Grant was ill-prepared at Shiloh, overly sanguine in charging the battlements at Vicksburg, and horribly wrong at Cold Harbor, where Grant lost 7000 men in a single hour of battle (his self-admitted greatest regret).
But far from his being out-generaled by Robert E. Lee, as the legend has it, Chernow makes a strong case that Grant was quite the superior strategist who forced Lee to play his game rather than frittering away the Union’s advantages as a long row of his feckless predecessors had managed to do. Grant continually saw the big picture, foresaw what his opponent would do, and played two moves ahead accordingly. The war might have ended months earlier had not his subordinates botched the plans he had drawn up to break the Confederate line in the “crater” explosion at Petersburg in July 1864.
After the War
Chernow’s best accomplishment lies in his exploration of the Grant presidency—in accounting for its false starts and aura of corruption, but also laying out its boldness and chain of successes. The corruption did not stem from Grant’s pursuing his own monetary advantages but from some bad choices in appointments and far too great a loyalty to people he trusted.
As shrewd and ruthless as he was on the battlefield, Grant was an innocent at bureaucratic politics. Plus, the memory of his failures haunted him even in his glory days and strengthened his reflex sympathy for underdogs and friends, especially when they were accused of mistakes or wrong-doing. Those weaknesses became particularly egregious, Chernow shows, under the country’s radically new circumstances: its government bloated from having fought a total war, and its economy exploding under the rapid industrialization of the Gilded Age. Even so shrewd a politician as Abraham Lincoln would have found this a rocky road with no few accidents, and politically Grant was no Lincoln.
The core of Chernow’s case for rehabilitation involves racial policy. Grant was born to an anti-slavery family but married into a proudly slave-owning one. He tried to straddle that gap for a while but opted for the North when the Civil War began and then moved steadily from a pro-Union to a forthright abolitionist position as the war ground on. He welcomed blacks fleeing slavery to his camp, and not only endorsed African-American enlistment in the army but praised their courage and conduct at every turn.
His greatest achievement as president was to prosecute and suppress the Ku Klux Klan in its war of terror upon the freed-people in the South. He insisted—both as a prudential policy benefitting the Republican Party and as an American constitutional principle—that African American men be able to exercise their political rights without fear or constriction. He would have continued to enforce that policy to the end of his administration except for the contrary headwinds that arose, North and South, in his second term. Too many Northern liberals grew tired of the cause of liberty as the economy fell into depression in 1873 and as new forms of Southern recalcitrance emerged from under the sheets of the KKK.
Chernow makes the record clear in pages that every American could read: by racist mobs, by defiance of authorized government, by pillaging black farms and settlements, by killings executed one by one under the cover of night or a hundred strong in the full light of day, the white South persistently, viciously, and violently resisted any move toward racial equality and equal opportunity, determined to reverse the verdict of the Civil War. With the North’s compliance, or apathy, or fatigue, and its own forms of racism, they succeeded. The tragedy of Grant’s presidency was that he saw it happening, did his best to resist it, but nonetheless witnessed the tides start to wash away the redeeming achievement of America’s bloodiest war. Soon his own reputation would follow.
With Chernow, the latter injustice has been reversed. The former endures. If the first Reconstruction lasted from 1863 to 1877, the second can be said to have followed a hundred years later, from Martin Luther King, Jr’s great speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 to Ronald Reagan’s presidential-campaign launch at Philadelphia, Mississippi in August 1980. Reagan’s smirking assurance of “states’ rights” on the spot where three college students trying to register black voters had been murdered in 1964 kicked off the ongoing attempt to reverse the second Reconstruction that continues today.
African-American men are not killed in the streets by the score anymore; rather, they are incarcerated by the thousands and picked off one by one at the hands of demented civilians or untethered police. The sitting attorney general, named after the Confederacy’s president and first general, cuts policies to stem these abuses while promoting the suppression of African American voting rights. Who can wonder; at this butt-end of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” an overt and unrepentant racist is in the White House, having taken his first step in that direction by denying the legitimacy of the nation’s first African-American president. A civil war rages–now of words, images, values, and the omnipresent shadow of the gun. Some battles are never over.