Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow (Four Stars)


Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

(Four Stars)

“I thought I could run the government of the United States as I did the staff of my army. It was my mistake, and led me to other mistakes.” US Grant

A readable and informative, if exhaustive biography of our eighteenth president, our nation’s youngest at the time. Though contemporaries viewed him as a unite-er and reconciliator, history has been less kind. Chernow raises and examines the charges of drunkenness, corruption, and insensitivity. The Grant who emerges is deeper and more human than even he described himself in his famous memoirs.

The Civil War was “largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations like individuals are punished for their transgressions.” US Grant

For a quarter century Chernow has redefined America through huge, deeply-researched biographies of prominent historical figures. His books are best sellers and award winners and one became a pop culture event through a Broadway musical. His writing is improving.

Chernow’s point of view reflects the modern liberal slant to be expected of a New York academic: “It was liberal Republican–self-righteous, good government folks–not conservative business men and Stalwarts Party bosses who decided that black citizens were suddenly expendable.” Who did Chernow have in mind, “If [Grant] could have been deprived temporarily of the power to wield his pen … it would have been better for his reputation.”

“Grant tend[ed] to view war as a hard-luck saga of talented, professional soldiers betrayed by political opportunists plotting back in Washington.” Chernow

In addition to the usual political and military viewpoints, Chernow draws on Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, famous literary figures who knew Grant personally. He delves deep into the family tree of Grant and his wife Julia. Inputs found from former foes, John S. Moseby and James Longstreet.

“When did [Grant] ever turn back? He was not that sort; he could no more turn back than time.” Walt Whitman

What pained him most in his career? “To be deceived by friends.” He would know; he’d been betrayed often.

“They call me a butcher, but do you know I sometimes could hardly bring myself to give an order to battle when I contemplated the death and misery that were sure to follow. I stood appalled.” US Grant