Based on his popularity toward the end of the Civil War it’s almost a wonder he escaped having his face chiseled into Mount Rushmore.
But when workers began carving the granite in 1927, Grant was widely considered one of the very worst presidents up to that time. Yes, even considering such luminaries as Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Johnson…
Grant was a great military leader but he was not a savvy politician or effective president. Fortunately, presidential legacies ebb and flow over time and historians now consider President Grant “less bad” than at least a half-dozen of his predecessors (and several presidents since). Progress!
Author and history professor Sean Wilentz, evidently a fan of the former president, has even suggested that no great American has suffered more cruelly and undeservedly at the hands of historians than Ulysses S. Grant.
In deference to chronology, I’m beginning with my oldest study of Grant: “Grant: A Biography” by William McFeely. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Like most Grant biographies it looks dense and heavy with about five-hundred pages and receives solid, but not exceptional, reviews.
Next is “Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President” by Geoffrey Perret. Published in 1997, it offered one of the first real alternatives to McFeely’s interpretation of Grant. Unfortunately, the book’s reputation is marred by charges that it contains too many factual errors to be considered a contender for “Best Biography of Grant.”
The third Grant biography I’m reading is Brooks Simpson’s 2000 “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity.” Simpson is a well regarded professor of history and a prolific author. But while his biography of Grant is widely considered one of the best, it also seems to be the least popular of the six I will be reading.
Jean Edward Smith’s iconic “Grant” comes next. A 2002 Pulitzer finalist, Smith’s biography enjoys the popularity reserved for a select few presidential biographies. I considered beginning with this book but concluded I might better appreciate it if I first read the older classics. I hope this one is as good as I expect…
Josiah Bunting’s 2004 “Ulysses S. Grant” is a member of The American President Series and comes in at one-fourth the size of the other books. Receiving only fair marks, it is likely to be the punchiest and most efficient but possibly the least penetrating. On poor presidents, brevity and potency can be a good thing. In the case of Grant I’m not sure how it will work out.
I plan to wrap up Grant with H.W. Brands’s 2012 “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.” At over six-hundred pages this is another lengthy read but this biography is both well-read and well-liked. I’m interested to see whether this – as the most recent of my six biographies of Grant – will have anything new to say about Grant, or whether it will just prove to be the same story in a different wrapper.
**It’s worth noting that both Ronald White, Jr. and Ron Chernow are writing biographies of Grant. White’s is rumored to be coming out late 2014 or early 2015, while Chernow’s is “tbd”. Both WILL be on my follow-up reading list.
Rutherford B. Hayes – see you in late September!