Tuesday, September 24, 2013


The latest installment in Brands' "American Series" (my designation, not his or his publishers') of biographies of important figures in U.S. history takes on Ulysses S. Grant, whose status as one of America's leading military figures has long since been assured, but whose two-term Presidency (1869-1877) has generally been denigrated as a cesspool of incompetence and corruption.  Brands' book is virtually "all torso," concentrating on Grant's military exploits in the Mexican and Civil Wars and his eight years as President while paying relatively little attention to his boyhood, family life, and home life.  Just about the only "extraneous" part of the biography that rouses any real interest from the reader is the story of the cancer-stricken, dying Grant's struggle to finish his memoirs (and, by so doing, to make up for bad investments that had left him virtually penniless and thereby provide for his family after his death).

Brands doesn't gloss over Grant's mistakes as a military commander but makes it clear why he was such an effective leader of men.  Grant was the type of leader who picked intensely loyal subordinates (William T. Sherman being only the most famous) and relied upon them to do their jobs with minimal interference.  Alas, the good judgment that had served him so well during the war let him down at crucial times when it came time to pick associates and choose policies in his Presidential administration.  Brands argues that Grant deserves more respect as a far-sighted leader in the area of civil rights, supporting civil rights bills, using the military to protect the right of Southern blacks and Southern Republicans to vote, and crushing the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan.  Grant also tried to do right by Native Americans in various ways during his two terms.  The problem was that he was unable to convince a sufficient number of followers that his more progressive approach to the problems of Reconstruction and Indian relations was the best way to proceed.  Famously reticent as a speaker, Grant lacked the ability or the willingness to use the "bully pulpit" to its fullest, which, given his heroic stature as the general who saved the Union, seems a great shame.  On the economic front, Grant's hard-money response to the Panic of 1873, while understandable in light of the strong desire to get back to "sound money" following the use of paper currency during the war, may have prolonged the hard times.  The scandals that all but ruined Grant's second term (none of which were directly Grant's fault, except insofar as he trusted some individuals who turned out to be untrustworthy) only added to the popular image of Grant as a financial ignoramus.  Even with all of the troubles, Grant ended his second term as a popular icon and was widely credited with helping to heal at least some of the wounds from the civil conflict by his sheer gravitas.

Brands' semi-revisionist work won't necessarily convince you that Grant deserves to be ranked among the greatest Presidents, but the author's more nuanced portrait of the soldier and the statesman may increase your respect for Grant as a humble man of integrity who too often poured his faith in fellow men into flawed vessels. 

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