Wednesday, March 06, 2019


I'm not that big of a biography guy. I've probably read fewer than a dozen in my entire life, vastly fewer than the number of, say, time-travel science-fiction stories or Wheel Of Time novels. But when I do pick up one, I usually end up enjoying it.

My most recent excursion was with Grant, the latest book from Ron Chernow. A disproportionate number of my biographies are of American presidents and statesmen, many from Chernow himself: I've previously devoured his Hamilton and Washington books. While reading Grant, though, I found myself most often thinking of a book from another author: David McCullough's Truman biography. Neither book even mentions the other person, but I thought the arcs of their lives were remarkably similar. Both led fairly mundane and unremarkable lives, then were propelled into greatness around their middle age and turned out to have enormous talents, unrevealed until a crisis thrust them into action.

Both men lived in the shadows of giants, with Truman succeeding FDR and Grant carrying out Lincoln's war and then winning the following election. Both are, perhaps in part because of their close association with superior men, somewhat underrated by history; however, both played crucial roles in cementing the achievements of their predecessors, turning goals into policy and controversial laws into settled reality. Interestingly, both men also incorporated racial justice into the military, with Grant raising the first black regiments and repeatedly proving their equal worth, and Truman integrating the armed forces across regiments.

Grant's life was very different from Hamilton's or Washington's, both of whom started achieving great things from very young ages. But one way that this book is similar to those is in Chernow's deep understanding of financial and economic matters. Chernow briefly but authoritatively covers a bunch of interesting topics over the course of the book. There's the transition from greenbacks to a gold standard, which was a foundation of Grant's Presidential policy as a "hard money" man. There's the "inflation bill" that was designed to combat a financial crisis; Chernow sketches out the advantages and disadvantages of the bill with aplomb, pointing out how modern economic theorists would consider the bill versus how Grant's contemporaries would. He spends a long time describing the Alabama claims, a long-forgotten but, in Chernow's view, critical disagreement between America and Britain over indirect support for the Confederacy. Chernow ultimately makes the point that settling these claims cleared the way for British capital to expand American infrastructure, just as railroads and factories were ascending, and thus directly led to the enormous expansion of the late nineteenth century and the rise of the United States as a global power.

Also like the earlier books, Chernow pays a lot of respectful attention to his subjects' wife and to specific valets, aides, and other people who have been invisible in many histories. He makes it clear how valuable these contributions were, with enormous respect paid in particular to John Rawlins, who was constantly by Grant's side throughout the Civil War and singlehandedly kept the general from descending into drunkenness over many, many, many long and stressful years.

The biography presents a sympathetic look at Grant's alcoholism. Chernow treats it as a disease Grant battles against and not as a moral weakness, reflecting a more modern understanding of alcoholism. Chernow spends a lot of time correcting the historical record on Grant's drinking, which gets a little tedious over time: it feels like he raises every single accusation of drinking in Grant's entire life, and each time thoroughly analyzes the account and offers judgment on the veracity. A few are likely true, particularly early accounts during his remote Army postings; some are likely exaggerated, making an incident that likely occurred seem to have more dire consequences than it probably did; and many, especially from later in life, were almost certainly fabricated. Chernow believes that Grant had a very specific pattern to his drinking: he would imbibe when he was traveling away from home, without his wife Julia or trusted friends looking over him. Only a few sips would be required for him to be strongly affected. When he got drunk, he would slur his speech, revert to childlike behavior, and act silly. You get the idea very early on, and I'm not sure if it needed quite as much repetition throughout the book.

Based on my own prior knowledge of Grant, I suspect the two things most casual history readers know about Grant are "He was a talented drunk general" and "He was a mediocre corrupt President". Roughly the first 2/3 of the book are addressing the first, and the last 1/3 addresses the second. The military sections are really thrilling; for some reason, I've tended to think of the Civil War as kind of boring, but accounts like the Vicksburg campaign are really thrilling and fantastically well-told. It's also very cool from a personal standpoint to see Grant's redemption from earlier failures: after being drummed out of the military for drinking, failing at farming, failing at wood-selling, and finally being forced to accept the charity of a low-status clerking job from his brother, the onset of the Civil War suddenly pulls this sad shell of a man into a milieu where he personally thrives, and also provides so much for his country, steadily winning the respect and love of Abraham Lincoln and the entire nation.

I'd expected a come-down in the long stretch of the book after Appomattox, as the glories of the war fade and the hard job of governing sets in. The book looks a lot at the scandals and corruption that swirl around Grant after he becomes the most powerful man in the country. Chernow is at pains to point out that Grant himself was unaware of these scandals before they erupted, and did not personally profit from them. On the other hand, though, Grant did openly and publicly benefit from the largesse of plutocrats who gave him houses and money, ostensibly for his service during the war. Grant didn't see anything wrong with accepting these gifts, viewing them as reasonable compensation for the sacrifices he'd made; nor does he have qualms later about implementing policies friendly to the same plutocrats who enriched him. Chernow presents this as evidence of Grant's naivete, but I imagine another author could make those same actions seem more sinister.

The book as a whole takes a similarly sympathetic look at Grant, both the man and his actions. You can tell that Chernow likes and admires him, and wants to raise him from the "mediocre president" label that has hung over him for 150 years. Chernow doesn't really present himself as unbiased, but I like his biases: Chernow and Grant are aligned on the morality of freeing African-Americans from slavery, recognizing and protecting their rights, and bringing them into American society as full citizens. Chernow sees the good Grant accomplished as so great that he should be forgiven for the mistakes he made, which impacted far fewer people for far less time.

Again, I've tended to view the Civil War era as relatively boring, and reading through this account in depth, I was kind of amazed at how contingent the legacy of the war was. I've tended to think of the Civil War as leading directly to suffrage, but it didn't: even after the Union victory, many northern Republican politicians were opposed to extending the vote to former slaves. There was an interesting period, lasting for years, during which the South, under what was effectively a military dictatorship, allowed black people to vote, while the North did not. I usually think of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as being one package deal, but they weren't: each were fought for separately, required enormous political capital, and made powerful electoral enemies. Reading this account, it seems very likely that without Grant leading the way, the 15th amendment might not have passed, and the fruits of the war would have been much murkier.

Of course, though, history doesn't always progress forward, and it is very depressing to see how much is given back after the war. There's a brief period where black Republicans vote in large numbers across the South and we see representation, but that quickly gives way to domestic terrorism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, Rifle Clubs, and White Leagues. These groups mercilessly torture and kill blacks across the south, not so much out of specific hatred as to enact a political outcome: make these people so frightened that they will not dare show their faces and vote. Those white-power groups carried out stunning coups, whether forcibly seizing statehouses or cold-bloodedly executing elected black sheriffs or flagrantly destroying ballot boxes from majority-black counties. Grant's great achievement was fighting back against this surge, using the newly-formed Department of Justice to enforce federal law over terrorism within the states, deploying the military to defend New Orleans and other cities against insurrections, and maintaining a visible presence of troops to ensure safe access to the polls. But there's an increasing weariness on the part of northern white Republicans to continue enforcing Reconstruction, and Grant is increasingly abandoned by much of his party. Everyone wants to return to normalcy and let the southern states govern themselves, but Grant is one of the few who is unwilling to do that if it means African-American effectively losing the franchise. While he was famously low-key and reserved, you can see his fury and despair at what's happening: what was the point of the years of war, hundreds of thousands of men slaughtered, vast wealth lost, suffering throughout the nation, if at the end of it all Americans are placed back into bondage under another form?

It's even sadder to see how this is all unwound further after Grant's presidency, with subsequent administrations withdrawing from Reconstruction, and it's absolutely infuriating to see the Supreme Court effectively strike down the 15th amendment. Again, when something so hard-fought-for is taken away, the blow is especially strong. I found myself thinking a lot about the recent repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the immediate push for disenfranchisement of African-Americans across the South, with many of the same states like South Carolina leading the charge for the very same reasons: the old establishment is wary of a large black population, and will use whatever tools it can acquire to keep them from the ballot box and keep their own power intact. 150 years later, things are definitely better, but they are certainly not solved, and I am reminded once again that we do not automatically progress towards greater justice.

The arguments about states' rights are, of course, eternal in the United States, and as those played out here I was reminded once again of a theme from Chernow's Washington biography. When I was younger, I tended to think of government and liberty as being opposed to one another: a stronger government implying fewer personal freedoms and vice versa. But episodes like Washington's Newport address paint a much more nuanced and interesting picture. A strong federal government helps protect individual rights against the tyranny of the majority. In an overwhelmingly white and Christian nation, minority communities and individuals can be shielded from local prejudices and violence by a disinterested and powerful federal force. Grant was very much of this same line of thought: where others saw him using federal power to bully weaker states, he saw himself as protecting the far weaker people who those same states were abusing. One of the joys of this book is seeing Grant's gradually dawning statesmanlike mind, as he transforms from a nonpolitical military professional into an empathetic and passionate promoter of racial justice and equality. It's a powerful legacy; in spite of all the disappointing setbacks and reversals after Reconstruction, we're still in a better place now than we would have been without him.

No comments:

Post a Comment