Chernow’s ‘Grant’ offers measured judgment of the past

Evidence of national discernment, although never abundant, can now be found high on the New York Times combined print and e-book best seller list. There sits Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Simpson Grant, which no reader will wish were shorter than its 1,074 pages. Arriving at a moment when excitable individuals and hysterical mobs are demonstrating crudeness in assessing historical figures, Chernow’s book is a tutorial on measured, mature judgment.

It has been said that the best biographer is a conscientious enemy of his or her subject — scrupulous but unenthralled. Chernow, laden with honors for his biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, is a true friend of the general who did so much to preserve the nation. And of the unjustly maligned president — the only one between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two full consecutive terms. He nobly, if unsuccessfully, strove to prevent the war’s brutal aftermath in the South from delaying, for a century, freedom’s arrival there.

After reluctantly attending West Point and competently participating in the war with Mexico, his military career foundered on alcohol abuse exacerbated by the aching loneliness of a man missing his family. His civilian life was marred by commercial failures. Then the war came. Four years after he was reduced to selling firewood on St. Louis streets, he was leading the siege of Vicksburg. Six years after Vicksburg fell he was president.

And a good one. He was hopelessly naive regarding the rascality unleashed by the sudden post-war arrival of industrialism entangled with government. But the corruptions during his administration showed only his negligence, not his cupidity. More importantly, Grant, says Chernow, “showed a deep reservoir of courage in directing the fight against the Ku Klux Klan and crushing the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history.” He ranks behind only Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson as a presidential advancer of African-American aspirations.

After the presidency, he was financially ruined by his characteristic misjudgment of the sort of miscreants who abused his trust when he was president. His rescuer from the wreckage inflicted by a 19th century Madoff was Mark Twain, who got Grant launched on his memoirs. This taciturn, phlegmatic military man of few words, writing at a punishing pace during the agony of terminal cancer, produced the greatest military memoir in the English language, and the finest book published by any U.S. president.

Chernow is clear-eyed in examining and evenhanded in assessing Grant’s defects. He had an episodic drinking problem but was not a problem drinker: He was rarely incapacitated, and never during military exigencies or when with Julia. Far from being an unimaginative military plodder profligate with soldiers’ lives, he was by far the war’s greatest soldier, tactically and strategically, and the percentage of casualties in his armies was, Chernow says, “often lower than those of many Confederate generals.”

Sentimentality about Robert E. Lee has driven much disdain for Grant. Chernow’s judgment about Lee is appropriately icy: Even after failing to dismember the nation he “remained a southern partisan” who “never retreated from his retrograde views on slavery.”

——

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.