Ron Chernow writes big biographies. I’ve read three. Washington was my first, Hamilton was my second and I recently finished Grant. It took me just over two months to summit this third peak in Chernow’s biographical mountain chain (John D. Rockefeller looms somewhere ahead in the mist). Allow me to recount the journey.
It’s difficult to know where to begin - Chernow gives you so much information to sift through. Let’s keep it simple. Pre-reading, my knowledge of Ulysses S. Grant was largely limited to his Civil War career. Post-reading, I can now drone on about his presidency, death from a baseball-sized throat tumor, and childhood spent riding horses while getting whacked about the head by a circus monkey. Get ready school groups!
The narrative’s central thread is Grant’s inherent goodness. There were flaws, however; he struggled mightily with alcohol and his naivety blinded him to the machinations of unscrupulous subordinates during his presidency - the result was a tenure among the most scandal plagued in history. Still, Grant’s decency and dogged persistence carried him through. Perhaps Walt Whitman said it best,
When did [Grant] ever turn back? He was not that sort; he could no more turn back than time! … Grant was one of the inevitables; he always arrived; he was invincible as law; he never bragged — often seemed about to be defeated when he was in fact on the eve of a tremendous victory.
The first act of Grant’s life was marked by disappointment. A promising army career was derailed by drinking and he seemed destined for obscurity until the Civil War broke out. His past military experience garnered him an early command position. Qualified officers were in short supply and he soon made the most of his opportunity.
There’s no need to recount Grant’s Civil War exploits here. Chernow’s not that interested either (at least from a standpoint of detailing tactics and troop movements). He focuses instead on personality, storytelling and the saga of how such a fundamental and astounding conflict transformed Grant into an indispensable man - as necessary to ensuring his country’s future as Washington had been.
Another important thread in Chernow’s writing is Grant’s belief in equal rights. He strongly supported the use of black soldiers and his presidency was marked by repeated efforts made on behalf of African Americans. He used Federal power to de-fang the Ku Klux Klan and enforce a revolutionary wave of reconstruction era legislation while simultaneously appointing an astonishing number of blacks to prominent governmental offices. Sadly, this legacy has been largely forgotten. Chernow resuscitates it.
Plus I got to learn about Grant’s failed attempt at a third term (a story I truly knew nothing about). He might have been an FDR for the Gilded Age! Darn you James Garfield.
Reading this book requires commitment - but so did Ulysses S. Grant. He always delivered in the end, and once again, so does Chernow.