Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

Grant 3 - Julia

Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

Grant 4 - family

Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

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BARACK OBAMA

President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself —  and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.

Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.

ANDREW JOHNSON

Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.

ANDREW JOHNSON

In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.

Adm. DAVID FARRAGUT

The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.

Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had  tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.

Extraordinary photograph shows Andrew Johnson at a banquet honoring him during the "swing around the circle." This event may have been held at Delmonico's in New York City. Johnson is in the center of the photo, between Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (in the white beard) and Gen. Grant.


ANGELINA GRIMKE

When we learn about history, we learn mostly about men. This is something on the question of time. The curriculum in grade school and high school – and even in college for those who aren’t history majors – skims the surface. With respect to many epochs, that means leaving women out of the story, precisely because women were precluded from participating in what went on on the surface. Oh, we got an occasional glimpse of the other half of the population: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Betsy Ross, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Madame Curie, but the story overall was badly skewed.

This phenomenon is addressed in “Civil War Wives” by Carol Berkin, a book published last year. I read this book because I got  it as a Father’s Day gift from one of my daughters — all of whom, by the way, are special women in their own rights, and that has a lot to do with their mother.

THEODORE WELD

Carol Berkin writes about three women who lived through the Civil War period and were directly affected by the war itself and the events and conditions surrounding it. These women were Angelina Grimke Weld, an abolitionist and feminist; Varina Howell Davis, who was married to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and Julia Dent Grant, who was married to Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and postwar president.

I had some knowledge of Varina Davis and Julia Grant before I read this book, but I had not heard of Angelina Grimke Weld, who was an independent thinker from childhood. She was the daughter of a slave-holding plantation owner and judge in South Carolina, but she never accepted the precepts by which her parents lived — including human slavery, self-indulgence, and the notion that women should be happily subordinate to men.

SARAH GRIMKE

Berkin recounts the process through which Angelina and her sister Sarah moved north and engaged in a prolific campaign against slavery and for women’s rights. Angelina Grimke in the 1830s was arguing for full citizenship for women — up to and including election to the presidency of the United States. (How impatient it must make her, wherever she reposes, to know that the nation still hasn’t chosen a female president.) She was making that argument at a time in which her public appearances, usually with Sarah, were regarded by many people as inappropriate for a woman – particularly when the sisters spoke to audiences of mixed gender and even of mixed race. Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld, and Berkin reports that abolitionist organizations leaned on the husband — who bent a little — to discourage his wife from distracting from the antislavery message by arguing  for women’s rights.

VARINA DAVIS

When Varina Davis first became engaged to Jefferson Davis, she was 17 years old and he was about twice her age. He had been married many years before, but his first wife died shortly after the wedding, and he may never have fully recovered from that loss. Varina Davis was loyal to her husband while they and their larger family were buffeted by illness, death, financial crises, infidelity, and the many shocks associated with the Civil War. However, theirs was hardly an ideal marriage. Varina was also the daughter of a southern slaveholder, but she was an independent thinker and her thoughts were not always in concert with those of her family or her husband. Jefferson Davis did not admire this trait in his wife, and he admonished her throughout their lives together about her penchant for expressing herself on public matters.

VARINA HOWELL DAVIS circa 1890

For Varina Davis, one of the most painful episodes of a life full of painful episodes must have been the imprisonment of her husband for two years  at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia. She tirelessly but fruitlessly campaigned to get President Andrew Johnson to intercede on Jefferson Davis’s behalf. She persisted, however, and eventually succeeded not only in getting improved conditions for the prisoner but in getting permission to move into an apartment at the prison herself so that she could visit him regularly.

After the death of Jefferson Davis, Varina shocked southern society by moving north and associating with folks who were anathema in the former Confederacy. One of them was Julia Dent Grant, whose husband had taken compassion on Varina and intervened for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis. Varina also took up a career as a newspaper journalist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

JULIA GRANT

Julia Grant was like the other two subjects of this book in that she was also the daughter of a slave-holding planter, but she was quite a different personality. She was a homely girl – and had a crossed eye to boot, but she was never allowed to think of herself as anything but a princess, thanks to a doting father. She was raised in leisure, and she celebrated that fact for the rest of her life. She did exhibit independence with respect to one, critical, point in her life. She persisted in her determination to marry Ulysses S. Grant over the objections of parents who didn’t think the soldier could provide the kind of life Julia wanted and deserved. Ulysses did leave the military after the marriage, but he was not cut out to be a businessman, and he failed repeatedly. His return to arms, of course, led to his greatest successes in life — all of them on the battlefield — and also led to his election to two terms as president, terms that were ridden with scandal, thanks to Grant’s friends and even, in one instance, his brother-in-law.

ULYSSES S. GRANT

Julia Grant was spoiled, but she was not petulant, and she weathered the changes in her life brought on by marriage to both an unsuccessful businessman and to a soldier. She reveled in her role as First Lady, and got generally good reviews for her performance as the social leader of the capital. She was not well informed about public affairs, and her occasional attempts to remedy that were not encouraged by her husband, who liked to think of her more as a loving spouse than as a helpmate. One thing was certain, as Berkin emphasizes: Julia and her “Uly” were in love — as much so on the day he died of throat cancer as on the day they were engaged.

Julia Grant, as  a widow, was at West Point when she learned that Varina Davis was staying nearby. Julia went to Varina’s room and introduced herself, and the two became friends. It was a suitable gesture for Julia to make, both because Varina had never forgotten the general’s help for her imprisoned husband and because Grant — once the scourge of the South — had left instructions that his casket be carried to its tomb by equal numbers of Union and Confederate generals.

 

GOV. SARAH PALIN

GOV. SARAH PALIN

I’m the guy who told a couple of generations of reporters and journalism students that a good writer can stop any person on the street and write an interesting story about him. So far be it from me to suggest that there isn’t a good story to be told about Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska. As it turns out, Gov. Palin herself – a former journalism student – is going to take on the job herself after signing a book deal with HarperCollins and Zondervan. She anticipates that the  project will take about a year which, if she can stick to that schedule, would get it into Borders in time for the 2010 gubernatorial election. I’ve seen some cynical references to that in what the governor refers to as “the anonymous blogosphere,” but why begrudge her that advantage – or the kind of money she can command while people are still interested in her? If Richard Nixon could appear on “Laugh-In,” why shouldn’t Gov. Palin write a memoir? It could be time consuming, especially because the governor says that, despite the collaborator assigned to the  book, she wants to write most of it herself. 

 

ULYSSES S. GRANT

ULYSSES S. GRANT

News of this enterprise naturally evokes questions about the content. The governor is a relatively young woman who has had a relatively short – and dare we say largely inocuous – public career. Ulysses S. Grant put off his memoirs until he had been the general-in-chief of the victorious Union Army and twice president of these United States. And Dwight Eisenhower saved his written reflections until he had been supreme allied commander in Europe, general of the Army, and twice president. What will the governor write to hold a reader’s attention for two or three hundred pages? She did discuss that in a general way with a newspaper reporter as follows: “I just really look forward to being able to relate to people through this book, those who are anxious to hear stories about people who are facing similar challenges perhaps. That’s balancing work and parenting — in my case work does mean running a state, and family involves a large and fun and colorful ordinary family that really has been thrust into maybe some extraordinary circumstances.”  See?

I expect Harper has editors to deal with misplaced “perhapses” and “maybes,” but I hope the book clubs are heavy with folks “anxious to hear stories about people who are facing similar challenges.” Perhaps.