Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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9 thoughts on “Review 1491: Grant

  1. katknit April 6, 2020 / 10:34 pm

    Having read several other Grant bios, I concur with your assessment wholeheartedly. Grant was a great man, despite his very human foibles.

    • whatmeread April 7, 2020 / 12:10 am

      Yes, it’s a shame what has been done to his legacy.

  2. Cynthia April 7, 2020 / 7:20 am

    Art didn’t care for Chernow’s style of writing in the Alexander Hamilton biography, but everyone else whose opinion I trust has really liked it. I think I’ll have to give it a try.
    Do you read other reviews before you write your own?

    • whatmeread April 7, 2020 / 10:19 am

      Not usually. The only time I do is when I am reading a book and I can’t figure it out or think I’m missing something. Then I will read a review from, say, NY Times to see if they say anything about what’s bothering me. Or sometimes I’ll do that if I think a book has been uniformly admired, and I don’t admire it, to sort of verify whether I’m the only person around who doesn’t like it.

    • whatmeread April 7, 2020 / 10:20 am

      I don’t remember noticing his writing style, which is usually a good thing.

  3. Lark April 9, 2020 / 11:19 am

    This is one I really want to read! (As soon as my library reopens.) Great review. 🙂

      • Cynthia April 9, 2020 / 1:50 pm

        Through our library in Austin, I download and read e-books using the Libby app and one other one. They also have RBDigital for reading e-magaizines. And audio-books. Your library might have those, too.

      • whatmeread April 9, 2020 / 2:34 pm

        I don’t know what app they use, but we have ebooks, too. Right now I have a huge stack of books in my reading pile, but I may look for some ebooks in time. I prefer reading hardcopy books, though.

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