Book Review: Grant, by Ron Chernow
The eve of Martin Luther King Day seems an appropriate time to write a review of Ron Chernow’s new biography of US Grant, the commander of Union armies and two-term president. Chernow’s book shows that Grant’s life and posthumous reputation are tied up in the struggle for racial equality.
During and after his life, Grant has been subject to a great deal of criticism. He has been portrayed as leader of a corrupt and ineffective presidency. He was also characterized as a military leader who clumsily overwhelmed his more skillful adversaries with massive force, generating massive casualties in the process.
Chernow’s lengthy but very readable biography provides a different portrait. He shows that the denigration of Grant, like the deification of Robert E. Lee, (and the associated statues), were both part of a political project to rehabilitate the Confederacy and justify the Jim Crow racial caste system that emerged in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Grant was a man who seemed made for his historic moment. A mediocre student at West Point, he showed promise as a young officer during the Mexican War. In peacetime, though, he was forced out of the army on charges of excessive drinking. He then proceeded to fail miserably at a variety of businesses.
When the Civil War broke out, Grant was able to enlist as a Captain. Within three years he was made Lieutenant General (a rank not bestowed since George Washington) and commander of the entire Union army.
Chernow shows that Grant had certain qualities that facilitated this remarkable rise. He possessed great clarity of thought, even in high-pressure situations. He was aggressive and innovative, rarely allowing ego to cloud his strategic judgement. While he had an iron determination, his essential humility appealed greatly to the troops and to President Lincoln as well.
Grant’s struggle with alcoholism is an interesting part of his life story. He was able to overcome this addiction with help from his wife Julia and from John Rawlins, his aide-de-camp and close friend.
If Chernow’s book had concluded with the end of the Civil War, it would have been a story of personal and national triumph. However, the post-war years contain the more sobering lessons.
The story of Grant’s presidency is to a great extent the story of Reconstruction, the attempt to bring the South back into the Union on a foundation of racial equality. Grant was born into an abolitionist family, and from early on he strongly encouraged the recruitment of African American soldiers. He went on to become the country’s most important white advocate for the rights of freed slaves, though ultimately his efforts stumbled and failed.
After the Civil War, many Southern whites fought a campaign of violence, terror, and armed resistance to legal authority in order to reestablish, if not slavery, then something as close to it as possible. Grant used military force to contain what he saw as an attempt to undo the results of the Civil War. Under his watch, the Justice Department was created, and its initial focus was to successfully crush the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.
However, Northern white opposition to Reconstruction grew rapidly during Grant’s presidency. Partly it was war fatigue, partly racism. Most political attacks on Grant were motivated, directly or indirectly, by opposition to Reconstruction. Meanwhile, atrocities committed by Southern whites (and there were many) elicited little concern in the North.
Democrats, then the party of white supremacy, used discontent with Reconstruction to make electoral gains. And Republicans were shifting from being primarily an anti-slavery party to being primarily a pro-business party.
By the end of his second term, Grant himself was turning his back on the battle. His Republican successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, withdrew the last federal troops from the South, and Reconstruction came to an end.
Chernow argues that Reconstruction was doomed because it needed a large and long-term federal military presence in the South, and the North simply did not wish to maintain such a presence.
I feel Chernow goes too easy on Grant, but it’s true that he was eventually hamstrung by an unsympathetic Congress and a racist U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a series of rulings eviscerating the newly passed 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. And the Southern resistance to Reconstruction was ferocious – the White House was flooded with death threats when Grant intervened to help Blacks in Louisiana.
Historians generally praise Lincoln and Grant for their magnanimous treatment of the defeated Confederacy, but I wonder if that magnanimity was what truly doomed any chance that Reconstruction had. The Confederate officers who were allowed to go home were, before long, leading the violent resistance to Reconstruction. And allowing the Southern aristocracy to keep their plantations gave them the economic means and motivation to support what amounted to a counterrevolution.
Lincoln and Grant must have thought that after the devastation of the Civil War, white Southerners would be chastened and reasonable. In truth, they were nothing of the sort. They remained implacable in their desire to establish a system of white supremacy.
Grant may have fallen short in the defense of racial equality, but African Americans at the time still saw him as their most valuable ally, and many urged him to run for a third term in 1876 or in 1880. One historian noted that Grant did more for civil rights than any President between Lincoln and LBJ.
Chernow’s book helps restore our appreciation for a pivotal figure in American history.