Review of “Grant” by Ron Chernow

Chernow’s book follows closely on the heels of a similarly weighty biography by Ronald C. White. The question is, why do we need two new books of this depth? The answer is: both have the goal of “rehabilitating” Grant’s reputation from its historical downward slide, but each has a slightly different emphasis. Chernow’s book is more thorough [in the audio version, 38 compact discs unabridged versus 22] and is less complimentary to Grant. Nevertheless, it seems clear Chernow would agree with White that Grant’s diminished reputation is not commensurate with his great achievements for the nation, nor with the magnanimity of Grant’s character.

White is less focused on explaining why Grant’s reputation has receded over time, and more on setting forth a new way to evaluate him. Chernow not only provides more historical context for Grant’s life, but frequently interjects theories as to the reasons why Grant’s reputation became (unfairly) tarnished. “Pernicious stereotypes,” Chernow argues, “grossly impede our understanding of the man.”

In the main, Chernow notes three factors. Notably, all three of them were loudly bruited by those who were either hurt personally by Grant’s decisions, or who objected to his policies.

The most salient was the accusation, endured throughout his life, that Grant was a drunken sot. Apparently, in his younger days, he did have a problem with drinking, but largely overcame it in later years (an accomplishment Chernow compliments often). Nevertheless, whenever anyone was opposed to Grant, the accusations resurfaced. In particular, during the Civil War, when Grant undertook an effort to remove incompetent political appointees from positions of military power, there were quite a few such detractors.

Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Va., headquarters

Secondly, when Grant was president, there were a number of scandals in his administration. Chernow observes:

“It is sadly ironic that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest. . . The mystery of Grant’s presidency is how this upright man tolerated some of the arrant rascals collected around him.”

Not only could he not see the “swampiness” of those around him, but he also believed those in his inner circle who were attacked were innocent dupes, “showing the sympathy for human frailty was his tragic undoing.”

President Grant, 1869

There are a number of theories about Grant’s naivety. For one thing, because of his own fundamental decency, he too often expected that others would act as he would. In addition, because he was acutely aware of the unfairness and lack of veracity of the accusations made about him over the years, he was inclined to give those around him the benefit of the doubt.

Chernow writes:

“The world of politics was filled with duplicitous people and Grant was poorly equipped to spot them, remaining an easy victim for crooked men. . . . Again and again he was stunned by scandals because he could not imagine subordinates guilty of such sleazy behavior.”

But Chernow wants us to be aware, not only of Grant’s better cabinet picks, but of Grant’s many accomplishments as president in spite of the distracting scandals. He points out that as a president coping with the aftermath of the Civil War, Grant “wrestled with herculean challenges,” from restoring a sense of one nation to the North and the South, to integrating four million blacks into the society as new citizens.

Hamilton Fish, Grant’s Secretary of State, was an excellent choice & beyond reproach

It was this last achievement that contributes to the third reason Grant’s reputation suffered: the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. As Chernow indicates, for years the Reconstruction Era was excoriated, viewed as a “catastrophic error, a period of corrupt carpetbag politicians and illiterate black legislators, presided over by the draconian rule of U.S. Grant.” It is only quite recently that historians, led by Eric Foner, have recast that time as “a noble experiment in equal justice for black citizens in which they made remarkable strides in voting, holding office, owning land, creating small businesses and churches, and achieving literacy.”

In addition, what is not often revealed, especially in history books for schools, is the shocking and inhumane violence employed by many whites throughout the South. Unable to countenance the freedom of their former slaves, white Southerners tried to suppress blacks in every way they could, with many joining the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to ensure that blacks stayed “in their places.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate Army General and 1st leader of the KKK

This quasi-military organization and its offshoots throughout the South attempted, as Grant said himself:

“. . . by force and terror . . . to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and of the right to a free ballot, to suppress schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery.’”

The Klan in essence launched a new civil war by clandestine means. Grant, to his lasting credit, took up this new battle as unrelentingly as he did the fight to save the Union. Chernow writes: “Klan violence was unquestionably the worst outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history and Grant dealt with it aggressively, using all the instruments at his disposal.”

Chernow astutely observes that the incidents in the South:

“. . . showed the fundamental weakness of a political revolution that had relied heavily on force applied by outsiders in Washington – something that couldn’t be maintained indefinitely.”

Those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of the Klan. And unfortunately, there arose “a certain moral fatigue” in the North, where racism remained widespread in spite of an opposition to the institution of slavery.

From Harper’s Weekly, 1876

Chernow does not flinch in recounting horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder in the South, especially around the time of elections, with Grant responding vigorously at first, but then retreating in the final stages of his administration. Grant later confessed that pulling back was a mistake, but he was bowing to pressure from party bosses, who in turn were bowing to pressure from their constituents. But Grant knew the situation for blacks in the South was indefensible. In 1875, he predicted that the northern retreat from Reconstruction would lead to Democrats recapturing power in the South: “It requires no prophet to foresee that the national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost….”

Chernow emphasizes:

“This wasn’t a minor statement: the victorious Union general of the Civil War was saying that terror tactics perpetrated by southern whites had nullified the outcome of the rebellion. All those hundreds of thousands dead, the millions maimed and wounded, the mourning of widows and orphans – all that suffering, all that tumult, on some level, had been for naught. Slavery had been abolished, but it had been replaced by a caste-ridden form of second-class citizenship for southern blacks, and that counted as a national shame.”

After Grant’s presidency ended, Reconstruction ended as well. Northern troops were withdrawn from the South. “Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free rein to exercise police power over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age. These practices persisted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.


Furthermore, Southerners, producing the greatest volume not only of textbooks and histories but also pictures, statuary, and movies, purposefully structured a mix of information laden with emotional impact that reinforced the view they chose to promulgate of the Civil War and its aftermath. These commemorative patterns came to inform the dominant narratives of American history, and thus kept alive the misunderstandings about Reconstruction. They have also become embedded in the subconscious of the American mind, helping to legitimate discriminatory political policies and practices over the years. And they have contributed to a negative impression about the accomplishments of Grant.

As for Grant, he didn’t stop caring about the fate of freed blacks, but he was no longer in a position to act directly on the matter. Thus he left politics aside for a while and went off on a tour around the world, to widespread acclaim abroad.

After two years, out of money, Grant and his family returned. Grant died on July 23, 1885, after losing his final battle, this time against cancer.

Ulysses S. Grant working on his memoirs just weeks before his death in 1885. Photo: Library of Congress

The book ends with William Tecumseh Sherman (Grant’s lifelong friend) and Mark Twain (the editor and publisher of Grant’s memoirs) at a bar after the funeral: drinking, smoking, and trying to make sense of Grant’s life. But it was Frederick Douglass, speaking at a memorial service in Washington, D.C. that same August, who may have summed up best who Grant was and what he meant to the country:

“He was a man too great to be envious of the fame of others; too just to detract from the merits of the most brilliant of his companions in arms; too enlightened to be influenced by popular prejudice; too humane to despise the humblest. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)

Discussion: Chernow’s thorough coverage of Grant’s life especially excels during the period of the Civil War, when Chernow takes us on a riveting tour of the most important battles. He reveals Grant’s devotion to the idea of Union, his implacable calmness in adversity, his indomitable will, his rarely failing instincts, his courage under fire, and his unwillingness to back down. He also shows Grant’s less admirable qualities, especially his fixation on loyalty during his presidency, but doesn’t believe they should detract from his achievements.

Chernow concludes that “Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves. He got the big issues right during his presidency, even if he bungled many of the small ones. . . . In the words of Frederick Douglass [in 1890], ‘that sturdy old Roman, Benjamin Butler, made the negro a contraband, Abraham Lincoln made him a freeman, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen.’”

Evaluation: As with his other books, Chernow does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched portrayal of an important figure in American history. Chernow’s detailed exposure of the horror of the Reconstruction Era in the South, not only for blacks but for whites who dared sympathize with them, will be eye-opening for readers not familiar with the outstanding scholarship of Eric Foner. And truly, it is a history about which Americans should be aware.

This excellent history is highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover in 1104 pages by Penguin Press, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, had strong competition for finding Grant’s “voice” because of the excellent job done by Arthur Morey in the Grant biography by Ronald C. White. Bramhall too managed to master all the different voices he presented, such as those of Lincoln, Sherman, and even Julia Grant. After a time I could pick out the person by the voice, even before Bramhall identified the speaker.

Published unabridged on 38 CDs (approximately 48 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2017


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4 Responses to Review of “Grant” by Ron Chernow

  1. Beth F says:

    I love biography and both Grant books were on my list but I was not sure which to listen to. I’m probably going to go with the Chernow … but it might depend on which eBook is available from the library so I can check out the photos etc. while I’m listening.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m not much of a history buff so I’m not sure I could make it through 1100 pages about Grant. I’m so impressed that you did.

  3. Heather says:

    I have to admit that I read Chernow’s Hamilton because of my obsession with the musical. And I thought it was really great, but it took me FOREVER to get through. I’m not sure I can do a similar experience again.

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