I was not disappointed. Indeed, I loved this book!
What do you think of when you hear the name Ulysses S. Grant? If you're like I was before starting this biography, the thumbnail sketch you remember from school goes something like this: Great Civil War General (the General who Lincoln had been waiting for, finally, someone willing to fight). But had a drinking problem. And was a lousy President whose administration was rife with graft and corruption. Well, I no longer believe that thumbnail sketch, and I hope this book helps to restore Grant to his once vaunted and now long forgotten reputation. Clearly, he's been shortchanged, and clearly, this author came to love and admire him. Here's what I didn't know about Grant that I know now:
- The drinking claims were mostly rumor and innuendo, spread by military and political rivals. Other than a brief period of depression early in his military career, while stationed far away from his wife, Grant seems to have relied more on the consolations of literature than liquor to get through life's stressful patches.
- After marrying he inherited a slave from his Father-in-law. At a time when his poor economic condition might have been remedied by selling the slave, he instead took him to the courthouse and emancipated him.
- He was the first President to mention Native Americans in his inaugural address, and he reformed the governmental agencies overseeing Indian affairs in an attempt to protect Native American rights.
- He was fiercely committed to civil rights for African Americans living in the South and to the dream of a nation where all Americans were treated equally before the law. Frederick Douglas considered him superior to Lincoln in this regard. 75 years before Presidents like Eisenhower and JFK sent the national guard to enforce desegregation rulings in Southern cities, Grant was sending federal troops to the region to protect black citizens from the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and from white attempts to suppress their votes. Alas, he was ahead of his time. The viciousness of white Southern Democrats and the apathy of white Northern Republicans meant that these policies ended with the end of his second term, as Americans were more concerned with a return to normalcy than following Grant's lead in supporting the rights of freedmen.
- He was a trailblazer in establishing international tribunals to mediate disputes between nations, setting the example by agreeing to submit America's Alabama claims against Britain (for having built and sold raiding ships to the Confederacy) to such a tribunal.
- Having learned his military skills in the Mexican war, which he came to see as unjust, he sought to improve economic conditions in Mexico and supported efforts to establish a republican form of government in the nation.
- Yes, his second term was marked by the discovery of graft and corruption among certain of his appointees. But he was never implicated himself, and his own insistence that his administration investigate and prosecute corruption is what brought many of the scandals to light.
- His quiet leadership in the disputed election which occurred at the end of his second term, reaching out to both parties and both campaigns, and to the Republican controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House, to agree upon the appointment of an independent commission to determine the outcome, averted a Constitutional crisis in a time when feelings about the Civil War were still strong enough to have otherwise led to a new bout of regional and political violence.\
- A private trip he and his family took around the world at the end of his time in office turned into an unofficial goodwill tour for the United States, which substantially increased the standing of the nation abroad.
- His memoir, written to provide for his wife, in a race against death as he was succumbing to throat cancer (shouldn't have smoked all those Cigars), was an economic sensation in its time, and is still considered today to be of landmark importance both as history and literature. Virtually every President who has written a memoir in the years since has mentioned Grant's memoir as the high mark against which all other entries in the genre are inevitably judged.
- His funeral procession became the largest public gathering to that time in American history. It was also a moment of national reconciliation, with many confederate veterans in attendance. The four leading pall bearers were two Union Generals and two Confederate Generals.
- For many years after his death, he was considered as part of a triumvirate of the three most important Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Grant. But in subsequent years, Southern scholars criticized the Union's march to the sea and the loss of life Grant was willing to impose and suffer to secure Union victory; and played up the scandals of his second term; while a nation not much interested in Civil Rights forgot his advocacy on behalf of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The old saying that the victors write the history, isn't always true. I'm glad I got to read this.