George F. Will: A measured judgment of Grant
Evidence of national discernment, never abundant, can now be found high on The New York Times' best-seller list: Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Arriving at a moment when excitable individuals and hysterical mobs demonstrate crudeness in assessing historical figures, it is a tutorial on measured, mature judgment.
It has been said the best biographer is a conscientious enemy of the subject — scrupulous but unenthralled. Chernow, laden with honors for his biographies of Washington and Hamilton, is a true friend of the general who did so much to preserve the nation. And of the unjustly maligned president, who nobly, if unsuccessfully, strove to prevent the Civil War's brutal aftermath in the South from delaying, for a century, freedom's arrival there.
After reluctantly attending West Point and serving in the war with Mexico, his military career foundered on alcohol abuse exacerbated by the loneliness of missing his family. His civilian life was marred by commercial failures. But four years after he was reduced to selling firewood on St. Louis streets, he led 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 postwar 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 Lincoln and LBJ as a presidential advancer of African-American aspirations.
After the presidency, he was financially ruined by misjudging the sort of miscreants who abused his trust as president. His rescuer was Mark Twain, who got Grant launched on his memoirs. This military man of few words, writing at a punishing pace despite terminal cancer, produced the greatest military memoir in English, 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: rarely incapacitated, and never during military exigencies or when with his wife. Far from being an unimaginative military plodder profligate with soldiers' lives, he was by far the war's greatest soldier, tactically and strategically, and casualties in his armies were, 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.”
Chernow leans against today's leveling winds of mindless egalitarianism — the belief that because greatness is rare, celebrating it is undemocratic. And against the populist tear-them-down rage to disparage. Chernow's “Grant” is a gift to a nation much in need of measured judgments about its past.
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.