Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Grant: A Biography, by Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow’s expansive Grant: A Biography (2017) makes use of a wide range of documentation: memoirs, letters, military records, interviews, government documents, newspaper accounts, and more. The central thesis is that Grant was and remains an underrated figure in the Civil War who deserves more respect and admiration not only for his wartime achievements but also for his defense of freed slaves, his service as president, his life after his presidency, and his personal life and struggles. Chernow stresses this point repeatedly in the biography and often compares Grant favorably to other figures such as McClellan, Lee, and Andrew Johnson.

Chernow’s mostly succeeds in redeeming Grant’s reputation.  Grant certainly exercised occasional bad judgment of character, based on some of the figures he appointed to his cabinet, and on his willingness to defend them almost to the bitter end. He made some bad decisions (the good ones outweigh them). He was immersed in corruption, of which, according to Chernow, he was mostly unaware.  He couldn’t believe that friends and cabinet members would deceive him. The standards for corruption were much lower in the 1860s and 70s than they are today (or maybe not).  Grant engaged in some cronyism, appointing occasional relatives to various posts and friends who had supported him or whom he wanted to do favors. He rewarded loyalty. But this was de rigeur for the times. I was never much aware of his role promoting Reconstruction, protecting and promoting the rights of freed slaves.  When the country seemed on the verge of falling apart after the war, not only because of discord in the defeated Southern states but also because of fierce dissent within Congress and the political parties, he encouraged reconciliation and tried to promote order.  Although some Federal troops did occupy parts of the South after the war, for the most part he hoped Southern states would self-govern. (This was a mistake, in my opinion: hundreds if not thousands of freed blacks and Republicans in the South were killed in the decade following the war.  Civil insurrections continued in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina.  The North should have occupied the South for a longer period than it did). Chernow’s description of the disorder in the defeated South during Reconstruction was one of the most revealing, and disturbing, aspects of this book.

Chernow never really acknowledges that Grant seems often to have glossed over and even lied about his problems with alcohol.  During the years before his presidency, Grant sometimes told people he did not drink at all when in fact he was subject to periodic spells of drinking which would last a few days at most.  He rarely if ever drank during military operations.  By the time of the Civil War his binges had significantly diminished in number, and even more so during his presidency.  Critics who described Grant as a drunken president were drawing from his reputation in his earlier military career, where his difficulties with alcohol were more obvious.  With some encouragement from commanding officers, he retired from the military in 1854.

I didn’t know of Grant’s two-year trip around the world after the end of his presidency. Twain is prominent in the final chapters because of his role in publishing the memoirs—did Twain never say anything that wasn’t a preconceived sound bite? Chernow describes Grant’s memories as the greatest military memoir in world history.  I’m not widely read in military memoirs.  There’s no doubt that Grant’s memoirs have an extremely strong reputation.  But such statements seem overreach and difficult to prove. They invite disagreement.

Grant was a heroic figure, but an odd one.  Taciturn, socially inept, probably insecure, he came from a middle-class Midwestern background.  He was the son of an unusually reserved mother and an overbearing father. He had a limited education, though he graduated from West Point.  He read voraciously, including military histories but also literature.  Like Lincoln, his rise to fame seems unlikely.  But along with Lincoln he helped save the nation.  I wish the biography had been more revealing about his personality, but given his reticent, private nature (his memoirs do not reveal much about his family life, his inner life), Chernow did the best he could.
Andrew Johnson in his behavior towards people he disagreed with anticipates Donald Trump.  He suppressed information he disagreed with, south to undo Reconstruction, and there were fears that he would order the federal militia to prevent Congress from convening in 1870 when an overwhelming victory for Republicans in the mid-term election threw the Democrats out of power.

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