New York: Penguin Press, 2017
Ulysses S. Grant is one of the archetypal Americans. A brilliant general who would only accept unconditional surrender. A modest president who eschewed pomp in favor of simple, democratic attire. A downcast alcoholic who rose from obscurity to greatness. He both made a fortune and lost a fortune. While considered a great general, he’s considered at best a mediocre president.
But that consensus is starting to change. More historians and journalists now consider Grant the most underrated president. This change is less due to an increased appreciation for his competence; it owes more to Grant’s commitment to racial liberalism. He firmly supported Reconstruction and wanted blacks to be fully incorporated into the body politic. That alone, regardless of his actual record, makes him a great president according to modern opinion makers.
There’s no better example of this newfound appreciation for President Grant than Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography. Chernow is best known for his biography of Alexander Hamilton, which served as the inspiration for the horrible Hamilton musical. His Hamilton biography was not nearly as cringe as the musical. It was a level-headed book that admired its subject, but did not worship the first Treasury secretary. Grant isn’t that kind of book. Chernow attempts to defend every blemish of the general and pedestal him on every page. His enemies are irredeemable villains, while Grant boasts nearly every virtue. Chernow’s apologetics go so far as for the writer to dispute most stories of Grant’s drunkenness and excuse the many swindles he fell victim to. The biography is very polemical.
But even with its faults, it reveals much about why Grant is now considered both a great general and a great president. It showcases several types of Americans that continue to exist to this day. It also upholds the popular mythology of Reconstruction and diminishes the greatness of Confederate heroes. Just like Hamilton, the book reaffirms the liberal historiography of the United States. Grant was a modest striver who only wanted America to live up to its egalitarian values.
Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant to a prosperous Methodist family in 1822. His father, Jesse Grant, was an ardent abolitionist who was involved in local Ohio politics. Jesse Grant was successful in business, a trait his son never obtained. Also unlike his son, he was a braggart. Grant followed his stoic mother, who never showed off and never displayed overt emotion.
The future general shipped off to West Point in 1839, even though he was reluctant to go and doubted he had the qualifications to make it. He gained the name Ulysses S. Grant at West Point. The congressman who nominated him mistakenly wrote his name as such and it stuck. He was mocked as “Uncle Sam” Grant at the academy, but he preferred U. S. Grant to the initials H. U. G. He proved to be a mediocre, but passable student who found ways to demonstrate independence from his superiors. He was an expert horseman, but he was relegated to the infantry. He served in the Mexican-American War with distinction, with both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott noticing him as an exemplary officer. But his notable service didn’t get him too far in the antebellum Army.
Grant married Julia Dent, a Missouri slave owner’s daughter, after the war’s end. Dent’s father treated Grant in an unbearably patronizing manner and his family hated the Dents as evil slavers. The two families never got along, but Julia and Ulysses’s marriage proved to be a happy one. The two had four children and were married until Grant’s death in 1885.
Grant’s military career faltered after the war. He was assigned to a remote outpost in California and got in bed with liquor. Chernow tries to assert that Grant controlled his drinking except for a few occasions, but the prevalent drunkard reputation casts doubt on the claim. His drinking caused him to resign his commission to avoid a court martial, leaving the army under a cloud of shame. Civilian life proved to be even worse for Grant as he was constantly swindled by con artists and failed at every venture he tried. He eventually returned to his family and took a lowly job as a clerk at the Grant leather goods shop in Galena, Illinois. The job was demeaning, but it provided an income for Grant and his family. At one point in the 1850s, an economically downtrodden Grant supported the nativist movement due to competition with foreign workers. He regretted this later on and felt immigrants could be just as good of Americans as the natives.
Then history intervened. The Civil War erupted, giving Grant another chance at his true calling. He struggled to obtain a commission due to his suspicious resignation and widely rumored alcoholism. But he eventually obtained his desired commission as a commander of an Illinois regiment–largely thanks to Republican congressman Elihu Washburne, a close ally of Abraham Lincoln. Washburne would go on to become Grant’s political patron throughout the war.
Grant, as all readers probably know, turned out to be a brilliant military leader. He captured several key Confederate forts and averted Union disaster at the Battle of Shiloh. His crowning achievement came at the Battle of Vicksburg, where he was able to take an impregnable city through innovative tactics. That victory made him the preeminent general in the Union ranks and led to his appointment as the commander of the whole army. Most readers will know that this elevation pitted him against the great Robert E. Lee, whom he eventually wore down and forced to surrender at Appomattox. The review won’t dwell too long on the details of Grant’s military accomplishments.
There are a few things to discuss about Grant’s time in the Civil War. One, he was the foremost advocate of “unconditional surrender.” He even earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. This policy stuck with America to disastrous consequences in later wars. We destroyed Germany and Japan to obtain unconditional surrender. We then had to entirely rebuild them to stave off the communist threat. Much blood and treasure would have been saved if our leaders hadn’t imitated Grant.
Grant thoroughly hated the Confederate cause, but he opposed a harsh punishment after the war. He promoted reconciliation between the two sides and offered generous surrender terms to Lee and others. While he did not share the radical Republicans’ thirst for vengeance, he did share their racial egalitarianism. He became an eager convert to the idea that the war should abolish slavery, championed black soldiers in combat, and supported granting them full citizenship after the war. More on that subject later.
But Grant wasn’t as thrilled about the Jews. In 1862, he expelled all Jews from his military district due to unscrupulous Jewish merchants who preyed on his soldiers’ money. The order is considered one of the most anti-Semitic acts in American history. Chernow, who is Jewish himself, tries to exculpate Grant and argues the general only did this after getting angry at his father for getting into business with some of these Jewish peddlers. Grant later made amends with the Jews in his presidential campaigns. Despite being a very tiny percentage of the American population in 1868, Grant made a special effort to crawl before the Jewish community and beg for forgiveness. Republican leaders worried this tiny minority — in 1868, before mass immigration from the shtetls of Eastern Europe — would tip the election for the Democrats. According to Chernow, the apologies worked, and Jews supported Grant. Grant would later work to promote Jews in his administration, and a rabbi served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral nearly 20 years later.
While Grant was certainly a brilliant military commander in the Western theater, he gained a reputation as a cold-hearted butcher in the Eastern theater. Popular perception sees Grant through sheer numbers and a willingness to sacrifice them. While Chernow disputes that, the actual text shows this to be the case. Grant was willing to sacrifice plenty of men to defeat the Confederates. Many of his assaults on Lee proved fruitless and cost the lives of thousands. Chernow claims Lee was not even Grant’s equal, yet the Confederate general managed to win several battles against insurmountable odds and held off against Grant’s massive army for many months. He also inspired a devotion in his men that the slovenly-dressed Grant could not. Modern historians and journalists like to argue that Lee was somehow a mediocre general. Their usual claim is that he couldn’t be good if he lost the war. (Napoleon would count as a terrible general in that case.) The arguments are inane and based solely on the idea that the villains of liberal history can never have any good traits. They were all terrible generals, writers, thinkers, humans, etc. Lee suffers the same fate, even though Chernow still admits he was a good tactician.
Grant’s victories depended on able lieutenants like William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. Both men were vicious fighters who made the South fear their names. Both generals were harsh on Southern “treason,” but they held views that made them less complimentary to contemporary liberalism. Grant is easier to paint as a modern liberal with his views on blacks and Indians. Sheridan was equally harsh on Southern whites as Indians, while Sherman was more like the Southerners he fought on racial questions. All three personify various types of American soldiers. Grant is the managerial type who easily assimilates to the ruling liberal elite. Think of someone like David Petraeus, who shares all the same views as Democratic politicians. Sherman is the secretly based soldier who privately grumbles about the government but follows orders anyway. He may get the truth, but he stays loyal to the government. Sheridan is the gung-ho militant who believes all of America’s enemies need to be napalmed. He will gladly put to the torch any who dare threaten the government, whether it is a Klansman or a Sioux tribesman. He’s a loyal warrior the government can always count on to fight its battles and will never question why.
Grant’s generous surrender terms paved the way for a mild Reconstruction. Grant saved Lee and other generals from criminal courts, but he eventually sided with radical Republicans. President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, pursued a light Reconstruction that favored white Southerners over blacks. It let the region’s best and brightest assume leadership and didn’t insist on radical social changes. That didn’t sit well with the radical Republicans, who wanted Confederates disenfranchised and blacks put in charge. Grant largely supported these efforts. He felt that America could never be a free country until it raised up blacks to complete equality with whites. Grant opposed the racial separations white Southerners wanted and demanded white and black intermingle as one.
As General of the US Army and as President, he oversaw the suppression of Southern resistance to Reconstruction. Troops were sent into statehouses to remove white Democratic control and impose black Republican rule. He helped subject the South to military rule and ensured the region never fully recovered from the war. His firm belief in the need for black equality — no matter the cost — put him at odds with President Johnson, who wanted to keep America a white man’s country. Grant was disgusted by Johnson’s racialist rhetoric and attacks on radical Republicans. Chernow describes Johnson as the most racist president in American history. In truth, he stifled many of the excesses of the radical Republicans and prevented the South from being permanently ruined.
Grant campaigned on full racial equality in contrast to his Democratic opponents. He faced Horatio Seymour, a peace Democrat during the War, and his running mate, Francis Blair Jr., a war hero for the Union. Democrats ran on the motto: “This is a white man’s country, let the white man rule.” Blair filled his speeches with racial appeals to white Americans. He called Grant’s Reconstruction governments “usurpations over the eight millions of white people at the South, fixed to the earth with his bayonets.” As vice president, he vowed to “prevent the people of our race. . . from being driven out of the country or trodden under foot by an inferior and semi-barbarous race.” Chernow quotes another historian who called the Democratic ticket the most explicitly racist presidential campaign in American history. The Democrats, of course, lost, and Grant won. But that wasn’t a sign Americans voted against white man’s government. Eight years later, the American people voted to end Reconstruction.
President Grant got to work upholding his racial egalitarianism. He appointed numerous blacks to government jobs and set out to crush the Ku Klux Klan. Deploying unprecedented federal resources and a flagrant disregard for civil liberties, Grant’s Justice Department arrested several klansmen and convicted hundreds. But all this suppression didn’t convince the white South to abandon its racialism. Klans ditched their gowns and formed rifle clubs to fight against Reconstruction. Eventually, they won and reestablished white rule.
Grant came to believe that the way to prove the greatness of blacks was to allow them to settle their own country. He eagerly supported the annexation of the sparsely populated Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and wanted to fill it with former slaves. He believed the new US territory would prosper and prove racist Southerners wrong. (Considering Liberia’s history, this prosperity would’ve never materialized.) The project was different from past colonization efforts in that blacks would gain American citizenship and stay within American territory. The purpose was less to separate blacks from whites, but to give blacks the opportunity to prove they could be great citizens. Critics opposed it on the grounds of anti-imperialism and the wish to not incorporate tens of thousands of non-whites into the American body politic. The annexation treaty died in Congress.
Grant was also liberal on the Indian question, at least according to Chernow. He hoped Indians would drop their ancestral ways and become just like the white man. “They can be civilized and made friends of the Republic,” he said of the tribesmen. He proposed putting them on reservations where they would learn to be Christians and farmers. The Indians didn’t take well to this, and bloody battles continued throughout his administration. The famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, where an entire US cavalry regiment was wiped out, took place in his final year of office. Sherman and Sheridan did not share Grant’s enthusiasm for the Indians. Sheridan described them as “enemies of our race and of our civilization.” He famously quipped that the only good Indian was a dead one. Sherman felt that the more Indians “we kill this year, the less we would have to kill the next year.” This “exterminationist” mindset appalled Grant, who believed all races could be like the white man.
Grant’s administration was famously mired in corruption scandals that the trusting general could never discern. Grant was never personally implicated in any of these misdeeds, but it did speak to his character of always being duped by conmen. The many scandals, some involving his own family, stood as a lasting memory of his administration.
As the 1870s wore on, the American people, both North and South, decided they had enough of Reconstruction. They saw the black governments as corrupt and incapable of providing order. They were tired of the calls for more troop interventions and more disregard for the Constitution. Grant caved to this public sentiment and became more hesitant to use federal troops against white militias. Chernow, like most modern historians, disputes that blacks committed any crimes or outrages during Reconstruction. He even portrays a brutal home invasion committed by blacks as an alleged event and the culprits’ assault of a white woman as just a bump on the head. Seeing modern crime figures, it’s not hard to believe white Southerners’ stories of rampant criminality.
The 1876 election pitted a Democratic Party that explicitly wanted to revoke Reconstruction against a Republican Party that only implied it. In the most disputed election in American history, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes managed to win through a compromise. He would gain the electoral votes of three disputed Southern states in exchange for an end to Reconstruction. Democrats and radical Republicans were not pleased with the result, but the compromise averted another civil war. The 76 election bears some similarities to recent electoral frauds, especially since Hayes only won due to dubious black Republican practices in the South. Grant feared that if Democrat Samuel Tilden would’ve won, the Civil War would’ve been all for naught. In any case, the White South regained its freedom after the election.
Grant left the White House in 1877 and toured the world as an unofficial American ambassador. He met with such luminaries as Bismarck and Disraeli, all of whom saw him as a great general on par with Napoleon. (Grant despised Napoleon and saw him as one of the worst tyrants in history.) Returning from his trip, he threw his hat in for the Republican nomination in 1880. He felt he needed to run to restore Reconstruction and win back Southern states for the GOP. The retired general was aghast over news that white Southerners were once again in control over their own governments. But his third presidential bid failed in a close nomination battle.
He then went into business, where he and his family were swindled out of a massive fortune by their business partner, Ferdinand Ward. Grant never learned to stop trusting conmen. Dead broke and dying from cancer, the former president reluctantly agreed to write a memoir to ensure his family was not destitute after his death. He died shortly after completing it and it became one of the bestsellers of the 19th century. His death in 1885 was mourned by both the North and the South, indicating the reconciliationist spirit that swept the country after his departure from office.
Chernow intends for the reader to see Grant as the loyal and unassuming American gentile. The kind of soldier we can count on to stand up for liberal values and always live up to the elite’s conception of America. Reconstruction is now pedestaled as a “bold experiment” that should’ve been carried out more forcefully. In light of that, Grant’s presidency is now seen as a high water mark in our history. The only problem is that he didn’t use the troops more often to kill American citizens and install black governments. The ideal Reconstruction, according to modern liberals, would have executed Southern leaders, permanently disenfranchised Confederate soldiers, and allowed carpetbaggers, scalawags, and blacks to rule forever. Grant, to his credit, was more committed to reconciliation instead of retribution. Despite his commitment, he still believed that everyone — regardless of color or creed — could be just like white Americans.
Grant is like many of our people today. They’re trusting types who see their country and government as one and the same. They will gladly fight and die for America, a nation they see as an idea rather than a people. They have many of Grant’s admirable traits, such as his modesty and hard work ethic. But their total belief in the public school propaganda version of America renders it impossible for them to ever wake up. They also can never believe that other people would try to con them. They, like Grant, see little white Americans inside all people, yearning to be free and make money. They also can’t comprehend an American people outside of the government. The state and the people are the same — and the people are defined by nothing more than a piece of paper.
Grant’s great adversary Robert E. Lee was different. When given the choice between his government and his people, he chose his people. Grant could’ve never made that choice — he recognized no people outside of his government. To him, the American people were an idea. And his efforts in winning the Civil War and guiding Reconstruction cemented that delusion in the nation. That’s his legacy, and that’s why he’s now beloved by liberals today.