American Ulysses (Ronald C. White, Jr.) - A Review

AMERICAN ULYSSES: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. By Ronald C. White, Jr. New York: Random House, 2016. Xxvii + 826 pages.

                Rarely, if ever, do I offer a review on this blog of a book that I purchased on my own. As a rule, the books I review have been provided to me by the publisher. In the case of this book, when I saw it in the store, I had to have it. I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to write a review, except I think this is a book that is perfectly timed for our moment in history. This is the story of a President whose reputation has been tarnished over time, but a President who was respected and even beloved in his own day. We are fortunate to have this biography, written by a historian who knows how to tell a story in compelling way. As a church historian, myself, I’m pleased that the author of this book is by training a historian of American Christianity, having written several books on the Social Gospel movement.

                At one point in my life I was a graduate student in American history, with a focus on the Civil War era. In my study at home hangs a print of Tom Lovell’s “Surrender at Appomattox.” I have always had a predisposition toward the Union side in the War Between the States, a war that was finally won by the Union Army under the command of Ulysses S. Grant.

                In the hands of Ronald White, a different sort of Grant emerges. We discover a complex man, who struggled with civilian life, but when crunch time came he showed dogged leadership and a willingness to adapt to changing situations. His reputation has been tarnished by the actions of some around him, whom he trusted, but who abused his loyalty. What we discover here is a man of unassuming integrity. In an age when we expect our leaders to have an outsized ego, Grant was not that kind of man. He didn’t seek power, but was willing to use it for the good of the nation and his fellow human-beings when it was placed before him.

                The author of this biography, Ron White, is the author of a best-selling biography of Abraham Lincoln (A. Lincoln). This is sort of a sequel to that book. White is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and Princeton University (Ph.D.).  He is a historian who has taught at secular universities and at seminaries. He is the author of three books on Lincoln, and several books on the history of Christianity. I have had the pleasure of meeting him and talking some history over the years. I loved his biography of Lincoln and I think this might be an even better book than the Lincoln one. At least, I think if fills an even more important place in our historical literature. Lincoln is ranked among the greats. Grant is not. But perhaps Grant’s life and contributions need to be re-evaluated. Yes, he was a great general, but perhaps he was also a very good president and perhaps the best President we had between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
                 This is a full orbed biography that takes us from Grant’s birth to his death, just days after completing his memoirs, which were published by Mark Twain, memoirs that have are seen as one of the great contributions to American literature. While we may know him as a general, we may know less about Grant the President, other than that his tenure was tarnished by scandal on the part of some of his closest associates, including cabinet officers. What we may not know is that Grant pursued a Reconstruction policy designed to extend and protect the rights of recently freed African American slaves. Even more than Lincoln, for African Americans of that era, Grant was their champion. He also pursued policies toward Native Americans that he hoped would protect them. He had great empathy for their plight as the nation expanded West.
                In the course of the book, we encounter a complex and self-effacing man.  The son of an abolitionist father living in southern Ohio, he married into a Missouri slave-owning family. This made for a complicated view of race and slavery, but it also allowed for an evolving understanding. Grant was never a great student, but he was able to gain admission to West Point, where he was a middling student. He was an avid reader and lover of horses, but perhaps he lacked the drive to reach the top of his class. Of course, he would later serve with and against classmates during the Civil War. Grant was an avid reader, but a middling student at West Point. In the book, we encounter a man who served in the Mexican War, with bravery and diligence. During that war, he came to respect the Mexican people and the beauty of their land. He came to admire the demeanor of General Zachary Taylor, who showed respect for his men, and who was not too concerned about his appearance, something that would mark Grant as a Union General. We also discover that he found civilian life difficult to manage. Having an aptitude for organization, he still found it difficult to be successful in business. Perhaps it is because the author is a historian of American Christianity, we learn that Grant was a committed, if not always devout Methodist. One of his pastors founded the Chautauqua Institute and he was a supporter of the establishment of a national Methodist church in Washington D.C.  While he is often seen as a binge-drinking drunkard, such drinking came in spurts and largely when he was apart from his beloved Julia. There is no evidence that he was drunk during his tenure of leadership in the Civil War.  

                Having left the army several years prior to the advent of the Civil War, Grant didn't have an easy road to leadership. He finally was appointed a colonel over Illinois volunteers. Nonetheless, he worked his way up the ranks, showing a willingness to lead and gaining the respect of his men and fellow officers. His success in the West led Lincoln to bring him east to oversee the war effort. What made Grant distinctive was his drive. Whereas many other generals were afraid to pursue their quarry, Grant was dogged. He also brought in generals he could trust to lead, men like Sherman and Sheridan. What is interesting is the change that occurred in Grant as the war progressed. Starting out as ambivalent about slavery, by the end of the war he had become an advocate not only for emancipation but full civil rights. He would carry this into his Presidency.

                While he was a champion of civil rights for African Americans, Grant was also known for his magnanimity toward his defeated enemy at Appomattox. Recognizing the need to bring a nation together he chose not to impose harsh terms on Robert E. Lee. Over time he would gain the respect not only of people in the north but of the south as well. In fact, one of his life-long friends was a Confederate General, James Longstreet, who had stood up at his wedding to Julia Dent, the love of his life. It is telling that at the time of his funeral his pall-bearers included William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, but also Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner.

                As President, he attempted to pursue Reconstruction in a way that would improve the lives of African Americans in the south. He strongly opposed groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacist efforts, and was dismayed at how his successor allowed supremacist efforts to reemerge. While his time in office is tarnished by the unfettered pursuit of wealth that marked post-bellum America, an era that Mark Twain dubbed the “Gilded Age.” While cabinet members, people he trusted, abused his trust and loyalty, there is no evidence of his own corruption. 

                Although he remained very popular at the end his second term, he decided not to pursue a third term. Instead, after leaving office he cashed in some investments and went on a multi-year tour of the world, circumnavigating the globe. During this trip, he served as a good will ambassador to the world, but he also gained a greater appreciation for the broader world. He built relationships with world leaders, including leaders in China and Japan. In fact, he was asked to help mediate a conflict between the two Asian countries. At the same time, he warned these leaders to beware of interference by Western powers, who would have little concern for their welfare. He also showed great respect for the people of Mexico, and sought to invest in its infrastructure—making good friends with the leaders in that country. From the time of his service in the Mexican War, which he came to believe was wrong-headed (interestingly the President at the time, James Polk, is considered one of America’s great Presidents, but Grant had little respect for his expansionist policies).

                We learn as well that Presidents in that era didn't have pensions. So, he had to earn a living after he left office. He tried his hand at business, but was betrayed by one he thought was a friend, losing everything. He was able, however, to provide for his wife with the proceeds from the memoirs he wrote at the encouragement of Mark Twain, who not only published them but made sure that he got a proper return on the investment of his time. It was during the writing of his memoirs that he was diagnosed with cancer. He was determined to fulfill his promise to Mark Twain, and despite his ill-health, he committed himself to completing the memoirs, finishing only days before his death. These memoirs, detailing his war years, have been considered among the great pieces of American literature.

                At the time of his death Grant was still highly regarded. His burial was the largest gathering in United States history to that point. Unfortunately, his reputation has suffered over time. That's probably to be expected. We have short memories. But in the late 19th century he was ranked with Washington and Lincoln, as the greatest of American Presidents. We can be thankful that Ron White, a careful and thoughtful historian, who understands American political history as well as American religious history, has told this story. Yes, Ron White is a church historian as well as a general historian, and that shows in the way he treats Grant's religious commitments. White makes much use of Grant's own letters, as well as the letters of friends. He visits sites that are linked to Grant. He reads the papers and letters of others who engaged with Grant. He brings his knowledge of Lincoln to the table as well. Some might criticize White for being overly optimistic about Grant. I don’t know about that. Perhaps he is, but considering how Grant has been portrayed, perhaps we need a more nuanced telling of his story.  As for me, this was a pleasure to read. It is good history and good story.  Take and read. It might be the perfect tonic for a time like this!


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