American history, biographies, book reviews, Geoffrey Perret, H.W. Brands, Jean Edward Smith, Josiah Bunting, presidential biographies, Ronald C. White, Ulysses S Grant, William McFeely
Despite the pivotal role he played in the Civil War and the importance of his administration to Reconstruction, I don’t recall spending any meaningful time studying Ulysses S. Grant in school.
My only brush with his presidency involved memorizing his name as one of the then-forty presidents during a high school trip to the Texas State History Fair. During that drive to Austin we had to do something.…so those of us on the trip decided to learn the presidents’ names in order. Sad, really.
When I finished reading a dozen biographies of Lincoln a couple months ago I assumed I would be in for a slow spell until my encounter with Teddy Roosevelt sometime early in 2015. Fortunately, Grant and his biographers proved me very wrong!
Ulysses Grant’s life story is astonishingly fascinating. There are certainly stretches of his life which proved dull and uneventful – and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful. But biographers tended not to linger on those moments and taken as a whole, Grant’s sixty-three years are almost inspirational.
Grant certainly seems to prove the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. He was that kid we all knew who sat in the back of class, paid little attention to the day’s lesson, never had much to say and would befriend almost anyone who would make even a modest effort to get to know him. Incredibly unpretentious and modest, no one could have foreseen that Grant was destined to become a spectacularly successful military leader…and president of the United States.
A cursory review of the ebb and flow of Grant’s presidential legacy over time reveals a remarkable evolution in opinion. After a enjoying an early period of spirited acclaim, Grant’s reputation suffered within a few decades of leaving office and did not recover until the last two decades of the twentieth century. Each of the Grant biographies I read was published during this recent period of re-evaluation and each, save the first, judged his reputation unfairly tarnished.
* My first biography of Grant was William McFeely’s 1981 “Grant: A Biography.” Knowing little of Grant’s story when I began this Pulitzer Prize winning biography, I found it educational and thought-provoking. But I also found it somewhat limiting. McFeely focuses too tightly on Grant and provides little historical context – background which could have explained Grant’s actions in connection to his surroundings rather than leaving them in isolation as if somehow random or detached.
In addition, McFeely is well-known for his negative opinion of Grant. Although I could not detect it at the time without broader exposure to Grant, McFeely’s perspective of the general now seems flawed and unreasonably jaundiced. I can’t recall a single mention of praise or adoration toward Grant…but surely there must have been one somewhere.
Possibly more important to me than objectivity is writing style. After all, I’m seeking the best and most enjoyable presidential biographies; thoughtful and transparent bias can be tolerated. But McFeely’s writing style is anything but smooth and fluid. Important messages, except those key to his take-down of Grant, have to be teased from the text and when something could be said clearly, McFeely often seems to choose a more abstruse path. (Full review here)
* Next was Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 “Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President.” Often described as fatally riddled with factual errors, I found Perret’s survey of Grant’s life much more interesting than McFeely’s. Although the errors I spotted (or read about) are generally minor and of relatively little consequence to most readers, they would be acutely annoying to a professional historian.
But my issue with Perret’s book is that it seems too casual at times – and filled with excessive hyperbole. And in contrast to McFeely, who was reluctant to praise Grant, Perret is liberal with applause. But overall, the biography is captivating, a bit provocative and capable of holding my attention to the very end. (Full review here)
* My third Grant biography was Brooks Simpson’s 2000 “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.” This was the first in an anticipated two-volume series and covers Grant’s life only through the end of the Civil War. Simpson’s analysis is more sober and serious than Perret’s but more forgiving (and balanced) than McFeely’s. But because the second volume to this series has never appeared, Simpson’s coverage of Grant is restricted to his pre-presidency and is therefore incomplete. (Full review here)
* My next biography was “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith. Published in 2001, this was the biography of Grant I had been waiting for. This book starts off with a bang – six or eight of the most thoughtful and potent introductory pages to a presidential biography I’ve seen – and rarely slows down from there.
For the first three-fourths of the book (until Grant’s presidency) I could not put this biography down. Smith’s narrative is fluid, colorful, captivating and insightful. The Mexican War comes to life in a way that even Zachary Taylor’s biographers could not match, and Smith’s review of Grant and the Civil War is excellent.
Only Grant’s presidential years slow the book’s pace (there’s little a biographer can do about this, I’m afraid) and the book ends far too abruptly. Given Jean Edward Smith’s excellent introduction, I’m surprised the book’s conclusion isn’t equally penetrating and revealing. But while reading this book I quickly knew I had found a favorite, and the imperfect ending did little to upset that view. (Full review here)
* Fifth on my list was Josiah Bunting’s 2004 “Ulysses S. Grant.” A member of The American Presidents Series, this biography is exactly what you would expect: short, straightforward and entirely comprehensible. Nearly every important message about Grant’s life is provided and nearly every crucial detail is included. Left behind, of course, is much of the nuance and flavor of Grant’s life – the granularity that makes his story really come to life.
Although geared toward an impatient reader and excellent for such a concise biography, I can’t help but believe that anyone who appreciates this book would find Jean Edward Smith’s biography even more compelling – despite the extra pages. But for readers committed to a balance of brevity and insight, Bunting’s biography of Grant succeeds remarkably well. (Full review here)
* Finally, I read H.W. Brands’s 2012 “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.” As the sixth biography of Grant I had read in as many weeks I feared there was little new I could learn about Grant unless Brands uncovers something unique about Grant. He does not, and I felt as though I was re-reading much of what Bunting, Smith and Simpson had previously written.
What is different is Brands’s writing style, but not the substance of what is put on the page. Other than simply fulfilling a desire to write about Grant, I’m not sure of this biography’s raison d’être. In many respects, coming so late in the Grant renaissance and with little new to say, this seems just another sympathetic and thoughtful biography.
And although it lacks the fluidity and narrative charm of Jean Edward Smith’s biography, the drama of Perret’s and the brevity of Bunting’s, Brands’s biography of Grant is comprehensive, methodical, deliberate and objective. (Full review here)
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–>On my “Ulysses Grant follow-up list” (yes, it already exists) I am including Grant’s Memoirs as well as the three-volume Lewis/Catton series. Oh…and Ron Chernow’s upcoming biography of Grant as well!
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[Added April 2019]
* Two years after I completed my initial round of reading related to Ulysses Grant, Ronald White’s “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” was published. Between late March and early April 2019 I finally had an opportunity to read this highly-anticipated and well-regarded biography.
While I found “American Ulysses” to be good, it’s not quite great. White is the first biographer afforded access to the complete collection of “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant” and yet there is relatively little which stands out as particularly new or revelatory.
Jean Edward Smith’s narrative is more colorful, engaging and insightful. Bunting’s biography packs more “punch” in far less space. And Brooks Simpson’s treatment of Grant’s pre-presidency probably provides the most detailed (if not exciting) exploration of Grant’s early life.
To his great credit, White includes an extensive collection of invaluable charts and diagrams in this biography, and his positive reassessment of Grant’s image is compelling. But the narrative is probably a better historical work than a literary one, and Grant’s personality is never fully dissected.
As a comprehensive, and certainly more-than-satisfactory, review of the life of Ulysses S. Grant this biography succeeds. But for anyone who has already navigated Grant’s life there is probably not enough new insight or analysis to make this a truly compelling read. (Full review here)
[Added June 2020]
* Three years after I completed my initial journey through the best biographies of Grant, Ron Chernow’s “Grant” was published. By far the longest of the Grant biographies I’ve read, it is also one of the very best.
Some have argued that Chernow’s biography is late in the “rehabilitation” game for the 18th president and that nothing new is revealed. I am somewhat sympathetic with this argument; the dust jacket claims Grant’s life “has typically been misunderstood” but Chernow is hardly the first biographer to reveal the more nuanced Grant. And no bombshell revelations appear in this book.
But this biography provides a far more fulsome, vivid and nuanced portrait of Grant than the more concise reviews of his life found elsewhere and Chernow undertakes a more exhaustive and thoughtful exploration of Grant’s alleged alcoholism than I’ve seen.
Casual consumers of presidential history may be inclined to turn to shorter treatments of Grant’s life; in that case, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Grant is an excellent alternative (and a fantastic choice in any case). But anyone with a keen fascination in Ulysses S. Grant – or who revels in Ron Chernow’s literary fluency – will want to pass on this excellent biography. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Ulysses S. Grant: tie between
————–> Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” (2001) and
————–> Ron Chernow’s “Grant” (2017)
It will be interesting to see if Jean Edward Smith can also take home best bio awards for FDR and Ike. I’ve read both and they are every bit as good as his Grant bio.
Billy Watson said:
Chernow working on a Grant bio? This is good news. Good news indeed
I’m shocked that you didn’t read UCLA Professor Joan Waugh’s 2009 book U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. You’re obviously well read. How do you select the bios?
Almost half the biographies on my list were recommended by readers of this site. Waugh’s bio is simply one I missed the first time through (though it wasn’t yet published when I started collecting bios to read)…but I am planning to read it as part of a follow-up list which, for Grant, also includes the Lewis/Catton series.
Sorry for getting to this so late, Steve, but one you may consider adding to your Grant follow-up list is Charles Bracelen Flood’s “Grant’s Final Victory.” It is a relatively quick and easy read, so you will not need to set aside a long time to read it.
Thanks; I like the concept of this book – I’ll have to add it to my list!
John Pippin said:
This book is limited to the last, mostly sad, years of USG’s life. It focuses on his financial woes, the writing of his Memoirs, the great aid provided by Mark Twain, and his death and its impact. Not a bad read, but hardly a competitor as a full biography.
Jeff Jensen said:
I just finished this one last week. It’s a quick read due to its length, but I found it worth reading. I read it immediately after finishing Ron White’s “American Ulysses” and I found that it added some great details of Grant’s final year that I hadn’t read in other bios. I did feel that it ended too quickly after Grant actually died, I was hoping it would have more on the funeral.
Fernando Ortiz Jr. said:
Reblogged this on stillness of heart.
Compelling reviews. Informative & thoughtful. Thank you.
David Bristow said:
Did you read Grant’s own memoir? It is eminently readable compared to some of his biographies.
I have not read memoirs or autobiographies as part of this first pass through the presidents, but I am planning to create a comprehensive collection of them for my next trip through. I’ve heard from several people that Grant’s memoirs are quite interesting and offer an interesting perspective on his life.
Kaye Green said:
Actually Grant’s Memoires are better than any Biography I have ever read, Grant was a very lucid and graceful writer, remember all the comment on what good orders he wrote. I just came across a new biography of mainly the war years call Grant The forgotten hero. E book by Charles Edward Vesey. Very partisan on Grants gentle nature. I enjoyed it for all the research from military sources referred to in full.Relating to some of the more stressful periods in his war service. I can’t seem to find out anything about the author,anyone heard of him ? Kaye
Thanks for your note – I’ve been told before that Grant’s Memoirs should be my first stop when I’m done with pure biographies. I have to admit I’m looking forward to Grant’s in particular!
Kaye Green said:
All the memoirs of the leading generals are good and repay reading. I am reading Civil war generals at the moment .Despite the lack of primary school there is a surprising high literary level. Kaye
Jeff Jensen said:
I’m on my 4th Grant bio in as many weeks, but so far my favorite has been the newest, Ron White’s “American Ulysses,” particularly its treatment of Grant’s world tour, which was by far the best treatment of that phase of his life (aside, of course, from Edwina Campbell’s excellent “Citizen of a Wider Commonwealth: Ulysses S. Grant’s Postpresidential Diplomacy,” which focuses solely on that period of Grant’s life).
Joan Waugh’s bio will be my next and 5th Grant book this month…well, I’ll spill into February…no way will I finish Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” by tomorrow! I still have a few hundred pages. But so far, it’s close between Smith’s and White’s bio on Grant for what I feel is the best. I didn’t know until hearing on this blog that Chernow was doing a Grant bio, though I’m sad there’s no release date yet, which means it’s still probably at least a year off. I can verify, however, that Brooks Simpson is working on his second volume on Grant, to follow-up “Triumph Over Adversity,” and complete that set. I met and spent time with Simpson about two years ago and he confirmed he was working on it, and it would be released, though he did not have a timeframe yet.
I really liked JES’s “Grant” but I can’t wait to read White’s and Waugh’s bios of Grant which were published after I had already completed my 6-biography tour of Ulysses Grant. White has proven to be one of my favorite authors so I have high hopes! Thanks for your tip on Simpson; although I wasn’t in love with his first volume, I’ll be eagerly awaiting – and will definitely read – his second volume!
General HUG. I was going to read Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, but I went with Ronald White’s newly released American Ulysses. Overall I enjoyed the biography, the history of his childhood and Mexican War experience was very well written and thorough, then came the Civil War. Although this is obviously the critical component of Grant’s life, I feel like White focused too much on this time period, leading to lackluster coverage of his presidency. White obviously wanted to keep this one volume, I believe if he had been willing to add an additional 100 pages (allegedly Chernow’s length) or broken it down to two volumes he could have absolutely improved the details on Grant’s presidency. I will eventually search out another Grant biography, with more of a presidential focus, in the future or more likely read his Memoirs.
J.L. Jensen said:
The second volume of Brooks Simpson’s dual volume biography will focus heavily on Grant’s presidency, as it will pick up shortly after the Civil War and only spend a chapter or two pre-presidency before spending the bulk of the text on his presidency, with a couple chapters post-presidency. Granted, this is info from a few years ago and could have changed, but my last communication with Brooks was that this volume is still being produced, but he didn’t have a timeframe. Hopefully the recent Grant renaissance will offer him some encouragement!
J.L. Jensen said:
Forgot to mention that Paul Kahan’s bio currently scheduled for release in May of this year (I’m betting it will get pushed back, however), is entitled “President Grant” and will focus on his presidency. It was originally titled “Let Us Have Peace,” and is, as described by the author, “a narrative history of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency.”
Pat McKim said:
I would concur with Jean Edward Smith’s bio. It is excellently done. there was one area where Brand’s book stood out more in my mind–that is Brands description of Grant’s veto of the inflation bill. Brands said this was one of Grant’s most proud accomplishments or stands. I would agree. I also agree on McFeely’s negativity. It always amazes me how so many people would like to denigrate Grant.
Finally, there should be some discussion of Grant’s autobiography which itself shows how lucid and thoughtful this man really was, particularly as he sat dying of cancer.
J.L. Jensen said:
Has anyone read “President Grant Reconsidered” by Frank Scaturro? It was published in 1999, and is only 150 pages. I’m curious if it’s worth a purchase, or if its central theme is similar enough to more modern works that it now seems redundant.
I have been reading the White book. I don’t think I will finish it, despite the encouragement of several of your contributors. That is because it is conspicuously a cut and paste job.
So I have turned to Bunting’s book. (I have the rather silly, self-imposed, requiremnt that the book must be on Kindle.) This is a revelation. Of course the author has used the same episodes as other writers, from the same sources, how could it be otherwise? But he comes over as a thinker who has assimilated the available information and used it to create a coherent picture of the man and his life and times. There is, in addition, a running conversation between Bunting and the reader, in which the author invites the reader to consider and reconsideer the interpretations he offers.
The book is short, but I am not aware of any omission or skimping. Perhaps the other “best presidential biographies” are too long, padded out to add weight and dignity?
I will try some others in the “American Presidents” series to see if they are up to the standard of this one.
I’m curious to see what you think (thought?) of Bunting’s bio of Grant. I haven’t read too many from this series but expect that I would get the most from “American Presidents” biographies of the “tedious” presidents and would find the series falls short when trying to cover presidents like Washington, Lincoln and FDR where they would probably be too brief to be worthwhile?
Alec Rogers said:
Don’t be dissuaded from White. At the end of the day, I suspect his will emerge as the best single Grant bio if only because unlike Smith and Chernow, White lives in the 19th century and knows its complicated politics better than most of the others who flit in on occassion.
Roger H said:
Well, I still feel the same way.
I read both White and Bunting. White’s book is excellent, but it still reads to me as if the several aspects of Grants career are considered in isolation from one another. (Cut and paste is a bit hard, but you know what I mean.) In Bunting’s account on the other hand, Grant comes across as a person with an integrated persona!ity. He has the virtues of his faults and the faults of his virtues. His successes and his relative failures stem from that fact
Chris Kempley said:
I just finished the JES book. I found it more than almost inspirational, it was truly moving to me. Unfortunately for me, in order to assure myself that the inspirational aspect wasn’t driven by the author’s love of his subject, I’m now going to have to read at least one more off your list. However, that has to await more progress down the list of presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes awaits.
One more note, I wasn’t too put off by either the descriptions of the presidential years or by the abruptness of the ending. I was touched by the notion that Grant’s essential character showed through from beginning to end. The quotation to the effect that Grant so rose to the occasion in times of big crises but failed in smaller situations, while apparently true, does no more than reveal human limitation. It doesn’t diminish my newly found respect and admiration for him
N.B. 25 cigars a day may eventually lead to throat cancer
Hi, i am choosing Only between Jean Edward Smith and HW Brands. May i know which one covers the Presidency of Grant better?
From what I remember I preferred JES’s biography overall but thought Brands’s treatment of the presidency was slightly better. You probably can’t go wrong but given your angle I would probably choose the bio by Brands… Good luck!
J.L. Jensen said:
Brands has long been one of my favorite biographers, ever since his work on Benjamin Franklin, “The First American.” His Grant biography is no exception to his high quality, and is very good. With that said, however, I would actually recommend JES’s Grant bio over Brands. Not that Brands is inadequate, but I felt Brands spent significantly more time on context than JES did, and thus had less material devoted solely to Grant. If you are unfamiliar with this period of history, then I may recommend Brands, but if you have a rudimentary background on this period, JES devotes more time strictly to Grant. Both authors devote almost as much space to Grant’s presidency (Brands 154 pages, JES 147, albeit JES has more words per page).
I also felt JES was easier to follow since his chapters have themes, whereas Brands only uses numbers, and can occasionally jump back in time so it’s not strictly chronological. I also felt that JES excelled on discussing Grant’s Native American policies, something that seemed of only minor consequence in Brands. Brands does, however, excel at his description of the Inflation Billl, as someone else has mentioned. So while they are both exceptional, for me I would confidently recommend JES as the one to read between the two. I just did a comparative reading of them both last month and felt confident of that opinion as soon as I finished Brands, which I read after reading JES. But again, you can’t go wrong with either (or Ron White’s new one either, but why complicate things!). They are both exceptional biographies that convincingly argue that Grant is a highly underrated president.
Thank you for the recommendation 🙂
Pat McKim said:
One area where Brands’ exceeds Smith’s in my opinion (I’ve read both of them and McFeely’s as well a few more) is that Brands’ goes into Grant’s veto of the inflation bill that so many writers have ignored. This is one area where Brands’ exceeds Smith’s. Both are a little confusing on breaking up Gould’s gold play. I think Steve is right
There is one book that I must also recommend and that is The Best Writings of US Grant Edited by John F. Marszalek. Grant’s correspondence now contains 32 volumes of correspondence, rivaling George Washington’s. Marazalek who also wrote the excellent biography of Gen’l Sherman called Sherman: A Passion for Order, edited this as the head of what is essentially the Grant Presidential library. Usually the best way to understand someone is to read their correspondence, particularly when they don’t think they are writing for history. This book is exactly that. It covers his whole life. about half is from post general in the presidency and beyond.
Thank you for the analysis and recommendations! I really really appreciate all the help 🙂
J.L. Jensen said:
Of course, since the presidency of Grant is only about 150 pages in each volume, you could read one complete bio, but then just read the small section in the other that covers just the presidency, if that fits in with your plans.
J.L. Jensen said:
Thank you for directing us to Marszalek’s work “The Best Writings of U.S. Grant.” I hadn’t heard of that, but will be adding that to my growing collection on U.S. Grant. I thought I had a good size one at 6 books…and I’m now at 14. With some of these great presidents, there’s just too much great material out there.
And I have to confess…an unexpectedly rich source of wisdom & future reading for me has proven to be the comments section for each president. Many thanks to all of you who contribute your thoughts, making this journey more interesting for me and more valuable for visitors to this site!
Pat McKim said:
your welcome. It really is AS good as the best biographies and I think you get a feel for the man who is so simple that many think he is complex. I think he was a good, honest man who understood battle and fighting quite well despite the fact that he wasn’t a fighter, just someone who wanted to get the war over very quickly to the advantage of the Union. It really is an excellent read.
enjoy it. I certainly did.
Pat McKim said:
Another thought…. I recently watched an hour presentation by Josiah Bunting about Grant. I had no need, or so I thought to read this book, but Bunting’s lecture at the Army War College or Staff and Command School (I’m a Naval Academy / Naval War College guy, so I don’t get all the Army stuff right) at Carlisle Barracks was excellent. He understood Grant like only a military vet could. His thoughtful presentation was a pleasure and honestly as least as good as all the biographies I have read. I will read this as well. Bunting is a graduate of VMI and served in the Army for some time and then the Virginia militia. he also was a Rhodes Scholar.
I am reading “American Ulysses” right now, and I’m gushing over it. But it is the only Grant bio I have undertaken, so I can’t compare it to others, and much of my gushing is over Grant himself, rather than White’s presentation. But I did not like White’s “A. Lincoln”, so this is definitely redemption for him, with me. I am anxious to know your thoughts, but I can wait a couple of years. 🙂
I really can’t wait to read it. It’s near the very top of my list to get to once I’m on to my follow-up list!
Normally I choose my presidential Bios based solely on your recommendations. I grabbed American Ulysses by White based solely on Amazon reviews and author reputation. It is an impressive work. Very well written. It is detailed, but never dry. He paints an incredible picture of Grant across the various phases of his life. Based on your other recommendations, you will really enjoy this one. Now, do we also read Chernow’s when it comes out? Washington, A Life was one of my favorite presidential bios up until American Ulysses….
I think you should definitely read Chernow’s biography of Grant asap (and let me know how you like it)! If I allowed myself to read notable new biographies of presidents I’ve already completed I would have “diverted” several times over the past couple years…but instead I’m dutifully adding them to my “follow-up” list and looking forward to getting to them as soon as I finish my first round with each of the presidents. I’ve heard great thinks about “American Ulysses” and I suspect Chernow’s biography will be excellent as well-
Chris Kempley said:
I have been proceeding in a one book per president approach. For Grant, I read JES and was truly amazed by it and Grant. I now see that I will have to have a follow up list and am pretty sure that Chernow’s bio of Grant will be on it, since his Washington is probably my favorite of all the books so far. I’m finishing up Brodsky on Cleveland right now and I think going back to Grant at some point will be necessary, if just to offset the negative presentation given to him in that book.
Torin Cowles said:
Thank you for your excellent summary. I picked up a copy of Jean Smith’s book last summer and just recently got around to reading it. Like you, I have always thought of Grant as a lackluster historical figure, and sort of stumbling into his role in the Civil War basically on the coattails of his failed predecessors. I now have a new hero and find it difficult to understand how history seems to have treated Grant so unfairly. It seems to me that among other things, he should have been featured on Mount Rushmore, certainly ahead of Roosevelt.
Today I picked up H. W. Brands book, but I think it will be a bit of an anti-climax.
J.L. Jensen said:
I read Brands’ bio right after Smith’s as well. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I read it before issued instead.
John R said:
At high school in Australia in the early 1960s the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the United States’ role in both WWs were prominent in our study of Modern History. I came away from that perplexed as to why Grant was not one of the foremost heroes of the US. I subsequently did my undergraduate studies at Princeton (and continued to live and work in the US) and became increasingly more baffled by Grant’s inexplicable obscurity. I inclined to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1900 assessment that the “mightiest among the mighty” Americans were Washington, Lincoln and Grant. I think a catalyst in the significant reevaluation of Grant that is taking place was Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS in 1990. I have read several of the biographies mentioned here and my favorite is J. E. Smith’s, with honorable mentions to Brands’ and White’s works. I am eagerly awaiting Chernow’s. Another enlightening book on Grant (not mentioned here and not a biography but an evaluation of his generalship) is Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship by the British military historian J. F. C. Fuller. Of course, Grant’s Personal Memoirs is a masterpiece. Thanks for the engaging discussion.
I’m surprised and impressed that the Australian curriculum included such a focus on America’s various wars / conflicts!
In my case, Ulysses Grant’s status as hero (or villain) was barely explored during my high school education – despite attending high school in The South (where Robert E. Lee was certainly considered a hero).
I really did like JES’s “Grant” and I’m looking forward to reading Ronald White’s bio of Grant as well as Ron Chernow’s and Charles Calhoun’s. And Grant’s Memoirs are definitely on list of things to read soon – there seems to be unanimous consensus that it’s a great read.
Elizabeth Wingett said:
I have been enjoying reading these comments on biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. I have been studying Grant’s life for the last 10 years. If I could make a suggestion, if anyone would like to get some first hand accounts of USG read Campaigning With Grant by Horace Porter. Chernow has mentioned what a great help it was to him on writing his book on Grant. As a primary source it is outstanding.
Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll have to check it out! Given your fascination with Grant and the fact you’ve presumably read everything I have (as well as the White and Chernow biographies?) I’m curious which your favorite all-around bio of him is?
Larry Dickerson said:
I did most of an audible book of White’s biography. I was generally disppointed although did learn much of this president. Disliked the audio book’s obsessive pronunciation of Mexican place names with a Spanish accent. Difficult to follow when a voice breaks out of English — the same bio would not pronounce Paris as Paree so it seems to be motivated by political correctness.
I had purchased the audible book when it first came out and Chernow’s work was not available. But while progressing through the presidential years, I opened Chernow’s book in a museum shop and read the passage on Appomattox. Chernow did such a better job on describing this event vs. White who merely recited facts, that I quit the White biography. Only upon discovering this website am I now motivated enought to take on Chernow’s own 1000 page work.
J.L. Jensen said:
Can’t remember exactly what thread, but recall some comments speculating on whether Chernow’s “Grant” would be optioned for a musical or film. Chernow said in an interview I posted somewhere that he felt it was more conducive to a film, and it appears that is indeed going to happen now.
Amanda Witmer said:
I have recently read both White and Chernow’s biographies on Grant and was in love with both. I found that over all, Chernow was better. He gave a more rounded, complete view with out sacrificing detail. I appreciated his take on USG’s post civil war life and his willingness to come head to head with Grant’s drinking rather than defending, dismissing or ignoring it.
However, I was a little disappointed with his take on Grant’s youth. I felt that White gave color, creativity and life to Grant as a human; he dwelt on what Grant read as a youth and even included photos of paintings and sketches made by “Sam” at West Point. Having read other Grant biographies, this was a whole new side to him that I had never discovered.
I have always admired Grant for his marriage; he loved her dearly and deserves the adjective uxiorous given him by Shelby Foote. As quoted from Ken Burn’s “Civil War,” he might have been considered a “failure at everything except marriage and war.” Both, I say are incredible feats. Chernow’s treatment of Julia is sporadic; he approaches her from a modern interpretation, but it is also just. White is more gracious and merciful of her faults and saw her a human being who was loved by Ulysses despite her “rose colored glasses.”
In short, I enjoyed both works for what they gave and do not see them as competing. I would highly recommend both.
Thanks for your tremendously insightful and thoughtful comments. Because those two bios were published after I wrapped up Grant, I obviously haven’t read them yet but am looking forward to reading both! Once I get through Obama and start my “follow-up” reading I’m planning on reading them almost back-to-back so I can update my “Best Bios of Grant” post and can not only compare these two against each other but also against the others I’ve read. As I recall, I found Grant to be a mediocre president but an absolutely fascinating individual so I almost can’t wait!
John Pippin said:
Very helpful comments, Amanda. I have been debating which to get, and after bouncing back and forth I have to conclude that both are worthwhile. I have several other bios and topical works on USG, and these two will surely round out my collection.
Larry Dickerson said:
Read my earlier comments on the two bios which are not based upon a full reading of either work. However I wad disappointed in the white biography and much more hopeful that Chernow did s better job. If you read both start with Chernow and then you can be prepared to bail on White if he doesn’t hold up.
John Pippin said:
Good idea. I’ll start with Chernow.
Pat McKim said:
Dear Amanda and Steve,
Thanks for your comments Amanda. I have read most of Grant’s bios from the second half of the twentieth century and twenty-first that include Smith’s, McFeely’s (why are so many Pulitzer Prize winners are really biased and write historically biased stuff?), Brands, much of Bruce Catton’s stuff, and many others like his correspondence edited by Marszalek and a great book called Grant and Twain. Yet I haven’t read these two new ones, so your thoughtful comments were helpful. I agree with you very much about Grants relationship with his wife, although I think she was not always looking out for his best interests in the White House which I suspect Chernow mentions, as he did not want a third term. I am reading Chernow’s bio on Washington and find it excellent as well.
Steve, I am a bit surprised to see that you have fallen into the traps with regards to the rating of Presidents like Grant that followed war Presidents. Grant’s time in many respects was as difficult as Lincoln’s, but not as obvious. As John Steinbeck said in the Acts of King Arthur, “Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; that tranquility, rather than danger, is the mother cowardice; and that not need, but plenty, brings apprehension and unease.”
Grant and the other General Presidents may have trusted others from wartime hardships, but they saw While many aren’t wild about Brand’s bio, I believe more than most biographers, he got what many missed about Grant’s Presidency. That was the time and that the country needed to heal, and yet at the same time the country risked sliding back into an antebellum state where people were stripped of their rights and dignity. Grant well intuitively understood this desire for peace, but not wanting to let his soldier’s lives be used up for naught, as so often happens after wars, he made a large and mostly unpopular campaign to try to clean up the Reconstruction South. This was a dirty and unpopular job, as most in the North including many strict antislavery campaigners wanted to forget the war and leave the South to its own devices. Grant felt for the blacks and the honor of his dead comrades and kept after that. This took courage and perseverance with no post war popular support. His successor and those after him tacitly left the South to its own devices as it was too tough a problem, much like the way the Democrats and many Republicans have forgotten poor workers in the Rust belt areas today where drug epidemics enrich drug companies at the expense of a huge segment of the population. Brands also brought out that many of the scandals were NY Democrat scandals in Tamany Hall that had nothing to do with Grant and Republicans. The scandals of Grant’s administration were relatively small and inconsequential, but, again as only Brands observed were blown out of proportion, particularly given what have seen in the later part of the 20th century and into this one. The Gould scandal was corrected by Grant when he figured out what was going on. Speculators were hammered, on Wall St., but Grant caught on rather rapidly. In Laisser-faire philosophy of the time (as it should be now) this was the right thing to do. Had Grant not done a good job, he would have not been reelected by such a landslide, and he would not have been so close in the running for a third term only his wife wanted.
Brands is the only one that I know of that brought up something else. That the Republicans and the Democrats of the day didn’t like this independent President. It is interesting to me that intellectuals in general, which includes writers, are often hard on practical leaders that deal in a real world of life and death, and not one of feelings and ideas. For example, the Adams family of brilliant intellectuals all denigrated the Presidents that were practical career general in their time. John Adam’s ripped into Washington regularly when Washington was President (well noted by Chernow in Washington’s bio); his son, JQ Adams allowed Andrew Jackson and his wife and marriage to be terribly savaged in their contests; and finally his great grandson Henry who was so down-to-earth that spoke of himself in the third person, also savaged Grant in his own biography the education of Henry Adams, which received a Pulizer—another questionable receipt.
It is ironic that Grant wrote what many believed to be the finest autobiography through the 19th century, one of the classics of Americana non-fiction, while his good friend Mark Twain (another fine Grant Presidential book — Grant and Twain) was the finest truly American fiction writer this country has produced. And yet Adams received a Pulitzer for a very spiteful piece. This is the irony that these two men of common backgrounds were the greatest writers of their time and beyond, while Henry Adams the intellectual is mostly forgotten. Ironic that practical men that were supposedly “uneducated” were more accomplished than literati who criticized them. Brands recognized this and first brought this to my attention.
It is also interesting to note that Grant’s veto of the Inflation bill probably prevented an even greater separation of rich and poor than occurred during the Gilded Age. As a former Wall St. guy, Steve you would understand this. Most wise Presidents like Reagan don’t want to take on too much. I think that is what these General Presidents did. They only took what they thought they could finish.
Having read biographies of many General Presidents, one sees a pattern. They are all denigrated to some extent in this modern era because they aren’t intellectuals or progressives. They didn’t try to change the world, they just tried to hold it together and make it better than when they took charge without further disenfranchising the middle class that this country has always depended upon. I give credit to Brands, who’s stuff is usually good, but not great in style or readability, to see this better than the others.
“Then Arthur learned,” says the legend, “as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, nor war, is the destroyer of men; that tranquility, rather than danger, is the mother cowardice; and that not need, but plenty, brings apprehension and unease.”
By the way did you spell uxiorous right?
Thanks for the review. After reading Chernow’s Washington and your review I will need to read that as well.
Larry Dickerson said:
Thank you for your comments.
There is one part of Grant’s administration that I would like to know more about and my Google research has not gotten me anywhere. Owing to corruption in the bureau of Indian affairs, the Grant administration came up with the idea of having churches administer aide to the various tribes. I believe White indicated that this was based upon success Grant had witnessed with churches dealing with certain welfare issues of Union soldiers during the War. The various protestant denominations split up the Western tribes (White gives a count of the number each Church received) and a smaller number were given to the Roman Catholics. It seemed to me that the allocation was based upon the politic influence of each denomination rather than size.
The Churches, in addition to administration, established missionary activities. For instance, the Episcopal Church had the Sioux tribes and on maps of leading religion by county (that I saw from several decades ago) the only counties in America with majority Episcopalians were a couple in Western South Dakota.
Did you find any information on this program in the Grant materials you read about?
Amanda Witmer said:
Today I have taken my chances (as a mom with young kids running around) with trying to sit at a keyboard and type this out rather than fat-thumbing it on my phone!
Uxorious – thanks for catching my typo. Again, fat thumbed phone composition.
I actually started with HW Brands when my journey with USG began. While I was pregnant with my first child I was working night shift. Needless to say, I was nauseated and tired all of the time. I took to laying on the couch and watching Ken Burns “The Civil War” on Netflix because it was interesting when I was awake, but soothing enough to fall asleep through. I watched it over and over again (because I fell asleep for so many parts, it took a bit to truly catch it all). The parts about Grant always fascinated me; he reminded me in some ways of my husband, especially his war-time friendship with Sherman. I read some things about him on the internet, but that was about it. I wanted to read more, but then… well, labor, baby, sleeplessness, diapers…you get the drill.
When I had my second child, my husband bought me a Kindle; I greatly prefer holding a real book to a device, but suddenly I could read books easily while sitting and nursing a baby for all those long hours! One of the first books that I purchased was HW Brands bio on Grant. I was hooked. Since it was my first bio, and it was a few years ago when I read it (mostly in the dark, during the night while feeding a baby), I am hesitant to compare or give a detailed breakdown of the work. But I remember an over all feeling of justice served to a very, interesting, complicated, and misunderstood human being.
I will admit that in some ways I feel a little behind and inadequate while reading this thread. Jean Edward Smith, the Lewis/Catton trilogy, Charles Calhoun’s American Presidency Series work, Joan Waugh, Mark Perry, and even Bonekemper’s “The Myth of the Lost Cause” are all sitting here in a pile waiting to be read… I’m working towards them, slow and steady. And there are others waiting patiently on my wish list. I only decided to start reading more on Grant in earnest in early 2017. White’s bio had just been released the previous fall. Once I had it in my hands, I asked myself, “Why wait?” So I dove into it. Chernow came later that year, and I read it right away. So it may appear that I’m on the up and up on this thread since I have read BOTH of the latest works, but I’m quite backlogged with the others and feel weak to make comparisons as of yet.
Circling back to my uxorious comment. I feel that the term is best applied from a historical view. It often has a negative connotation; being TOO submissive. By the standards of the time, he definitely doted on her too much. But in many ways, for better or worse, he was before his time as a modern husband. The time period generally discouraged a man from submitting to his wife in any regard, yet we are also called to “submit to one another” (Eph 5:21). I feel that he was always in charge of that relationship and the family when it counted. He let her get away with a lot, but I feel that it was calculated. He had to delegate power to her and enfranchise her within the relationship; as he was often away from the family unit being a soldier. When she would argue, protest or (for lack of a better term) nag, he would just say, “Julia, you amaze me,” and walk away. In regards to your comment about her not always having his best interests at heart, who does in a marriage? At least not perfectly or all of the time. She believed in him during the lean years before the war even when he didn’t believe in himself. Of course she wanted to stay in the White House! For eight years she got to live in one place, and what a place! She was “Queen of America.” She had respect and power. She hadn’t truly had that combination of security and predictability since she moved from her childhood home. It was selfish, yes, but humanly understandable. And after he declined a third term, she continued to love him and believe in him; she was not spiteful and the relationship never suffered. If you can’t let your selfishness and weakness show a little to your best friend and spouse, then who can you let it show to?
As for my comparison of White and Chernow, I do think that Chernow was better over all. He doesn’t tire towards the end of Grant’s life, especially in regards to his presidency. What is the mark of a “good” vs “mediocre” vs “terrible” president? Is it what they were able to accomplish? Or what they would have liked to accomplish? Chernow highlights Grant’s attempts and intentions in what he was able to do or not do.
I try to be mindful when reading biographies of when the author is taking history and applying modern interpretation to it. It is always done, in every work, but one needs to be able to recognize it objectively, because they are opinions. And opinions differ. Grant’s modern status is colored by time removed and changing analysis. Each author will look at the history and apply their own interpretation to it. Chernow is a more narrative and engaging writer. Because of this superior ability to entertain, it is easy to just assume his interpretations as part of the facts within the story. White is more of a blunt historian. While he too applies his own assumptions and interpretations, I feel that he tries to stay within the historical context more than Chernow. Someone else on this threat said that White “lives in the 19th century,” while I feel like Chernow is a modern man looking back. One has the flowery, engaging language to suck you into the arc of the story, while the other simply writes history. Neither are bad. White’s writing style is not as engaging, but his “cut and paste” bluntness made it very easy for me to see where he was generously giving me raw history and where he was applying his own interpretation. Chernow required me to fight to see the difference. If you are looking to be entertained (and wonderfully so) and you only have time for one big work on Grant, I would recommend Chernow. If you are a fan of U S Grant, and are looking to expand you knowledge of the man, Then I recommend both. White has great stuff to give.
Wow, that was longer than I intended. But I was only interrupted seven times by a child! Win!
Pat McKim said:
thanks so much. I will read Chernow’s first, but I do have a large backlog as well. I am doing research for a book, while still conducting my regular business. Your analysis of Grant’s fits with my thoughts on his marriage. Julia literally saved him. I would have called him a devoted husband. Both Grant and Washington had selfish, one sided parents. Yet both seem extremely devoted to their wives and their wives were very devoted to them, not as a partnership like the Clintons or the Roosevelts, but in a loving relationship and partnership going through life. Grant was a late 20th century type of Dad with a large brood. I find it interesting to read about you breast feeding you babies and seeing the same thing in relationship in history. As the Aussies would say good on you.
J.L. Jensen said:
Pat, I agree that Grant should be considered a great president, as both White and Chernow argue in their new bios. When I first began researching presidents many years ago, I made my own preliminary list of rankings and had Grant in the 20s, but he is now in my top 10.
I like how you point out that he was very independent minded, so much so, that in his 1872 re-election campaign he faced off against another Republican! The Democrats didn’t even field a candidate, choosing instead to ally themselves with disaffected liberal Republicans and nominate the Liberal Republican candidate, who ran on the slogan “Anything to beat Grant.” This shows how dedicated Grant was to doing what he believed to be right, without being beholden to political parties and bosses.
Henry Adams was an extreme partisan, unfortunately. His attacks on Grant were vehement and pointed. He couldn’t even fathom how such an uneducated, common man could rise to the presidency. Adams lamented that Grant polluted the office, since he believed Grant was only “a primitive,” and a marvel of a man who could go so “completely against evolution” and was more akin to wearing skins and should live in a cave, for Grant was a “pre-intellectual” who could hardly even think at all, at least according to Adams. McFeely’s looks like a Grant supporter when compared to Adams, despite his obvious bias and disdain for his subject as well.
I do believe you will enjoy both White and Chernow’s bios, as they both give Grant his due as president and illustrate how he really was effective at keeping the country together when it was literally tearing itself apart with bloody massacres throughout the south. They both further illustrate Grant’s strength of character in the face of multiple partisans vying for his support and attention. He wasn’t perfect, but he managed to walk a very perilous path with an admirable degree of honesty and rightness.
Pat McKim said:
I think the moral courage of Grant is shown when he first told his countrymen to stop cheering after the Appomattox surrender and then to threaten resignation if Johnson went after Lee for treason. Your words about his honesty are what I think confounds people about Grant. They expect politicians to be duplicitous to achieve their ends and Grant wasn’t. I believe that this factor, as it was with all the General Presidents, was a chief reason that people voted him.
But Grant obviously wasn’t uneducated. His USMA education was far better than most, but not a Harvard education, although he sent one of his kids there. His auto biography shows he could write lucidly. I think it was because Grant lived in the real world, not in a world of ideas in the heads of intellectuals and because he was successful and paid little attention to people like Adams.
The sad thing is that so many intellectuals are historians and their biases run against men like the General Presidents and why the receive damning by faint praise.
What I find somewhat humorous is that many literati say that Grant was a complex man. I found him to be less complex than just straightforward that again is hard for people to accept. What I have found difficult to fathom, as did General WT Sherman, was Grant’s belief in himself, given a father who continually put him down and a line of less than successes before the Civil War.
Looking forward to both. thanks.
J.L. Jensen said:
I agree that Grant doesn’t come across to me as complex as some claim him to be. He seems pretty straight-forward and genuine. He was a simple westerner who really doesn’t seem too difficult to figure out. He was driven by principles that remained consistent throughout his life.
for reading on Grant for the first time,even though both are good would you reccommend going with White or Chernow for starters?Also other than White seeming to cover Grant’s youth better are both pretty similar in how they cover the rest of his life from West point-death?Just didn’t know if one would be better or an easier read to start with
Pat McKim said:
I would enjoy seeing your rankings. my thoughts have changed considerably over time. Many I thought were good presidents showed excesses that have caused the future successes of the country to now be very much in doubt. The end of an empire so to speak.
J.L. Jensen said:
It’s amazing how my thoughts and opinions have shifted over the last 30 years or so, and how influenced they were early on simply by the opinions of whomever was the one teaching me in school or sharing their own opinions with me. Once I got into college and started thinking more independently I began questioning more and more and trying to find truth, as far as possible, through rigorous research and academic integrity regardless of where the facts took me.
I also learned pretty early on that there are a couple different views out there on what America is, and depending on what view one chooses to believe, that colors how they rate the presidents. As you point out, one of the most prevalent views is that of a “progressive” America, which has been a dominant view for 100 years now. But given these shifting standards by which to judge, I tried to find a barometer of measurement that could be as consistent as possible, so I began with their oath to the Constitution, and how faithful they were to that oath in defending and preserving the Constitution. I also take into account not just their policies as president, but the totality of their life–including successes and failures outside of the presidency, and even their character and moral aptitude. Were they honest in their dealings? Were they faithful to what they believed to be right?
I must admit as well that while there are some presidents I obviously like more than others, I can find pros and cons for all of them. I can see some good and some bad in the lives and accomplishments of every man that has been president. I don’t hate any of them, though I don’t love all of them, while I do love some. Washington & Lincoln have always been my top two, and in recent years as the research has become more objective and vetted and consistent, Grant and Reagan have climbed higher on that list. Reagan was already in my top 10, but Grant was in the 20s about 10 years ago. His shift is probably the most dramatic on the list.
Chris Kempley said:
I haven’t tried to do a comprehensive ranking, at least not yet. But I will say that several presidents have gained and some have declined in my appreciation as I have undergone the exercise of reading biographies. Washington and Lincoln are still my standouts. But my appreciation for both John and John Quincy Adams has grown immensely. Add Grant to that list. Perhaps the president suffering the most from additional knowledge has been Jefferson.
I look forward to seeing where I am as I progress further in my reading. Just about to start Coolidge.
One of your comments brought something back to me (I was going to say triggered, but that word has developed a different meaning recently): Have you read or flipped through Brion McClanahan’s ‘9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her’? (Regnery, 2016) According to his intro: “McClanahan’s ranking of the presidents is surprising—because he judges them on the only true standard: whether or not they kept their oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It is good reading and while I do not agree with him, he generates a lot of critical thinking.
The presidents who tried to save America: Jefferson, Tyler, Cleveland, and Coolidge.
The other list is comprised of Jackson, Lincoln, TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ, Nixon, and Obama.
Pat McKim said:
I agree with finding good and bad. Washington is more and more obvious the #1 choice. I have issues with Lincoln the statism that he brought into the US and the beginning of the destruction of state’s rights which was really a lynchpin of the US. EAGLE and the SWORD: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America is very good at examining this with a background of State’s rights. What people today don’t understand is that up to the 1830’s the US was not strong enough to withstand any of the aggressive European powers, all of whom had a presence at some point in time in the 19th century, that is France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Washington had a hell of a time bringing the US together.
I don’t think slavery could have ever gone easily, as it was a way of life for the gentile southerners. Texas to me is always a surprising slave state given its assertive culture. But I wonder if Zach Taylor had lived through his term if he could have limited slavery and maybe figured a way to buy out the slave holders, which was the only way end slavery with both sides happy.
Having served in the Senate during Reagan’s term and met him and been a resident of CA during his tenure as Gov, i can say I did love that man, but his selection of Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve was a problem. I agree with Kempley about Jefferson as he was so duplicitous, but one thing I didn’t like about JQ Adams was the way he treated Jackson. The attacks on Jackson’s wife, which essentially killed her were unconscionable for him to allow, And yet after 4 Presidents from Virginia, where succession was pretty pre-ordained and a father-son from Mass, the US could have easily fallen into crony capitalism. Jackson, while not likeable (in reading) was a necessary westerner who was extremely straight forward. His veto of the 2nd US bank and subsequent defunding likely saved the in the 19th and early 20th century of being worse than it became. FDR recognized that Jackson was the last independent President.
J.L. Jensen said:
@HBM, interesting book you recommended. I haven’t heard of that one, though I see it was recommended by Thomas DiLorenzo, who is an author I have little respect for. His views are often extreme, as are his analytical methods, and I am curious then how similar this book might be to DiLorenzo’s own radical views.
@Pat, thank you for your service in the Senate! It’s exciting to have someone on these boards to converse with who has first hand experience in the U.S. Congress and working with former presidents. Reagan is the president I have researched the most. Over the last 15 years, I’ve read over 30,000 pages on him, spent days in the Reagan Library archives, and just last year was invited to be a guest speaker at the library. It was an amazing experience, and one I will cherish forever. What years were you in the Senate? If you are familiar with California politics during his governorship, you may know my own relative, John Harmer, who served with Reagan and was his Lt. Governor at the end of Reagan’s second gubernatorial term.
Also, you bring up an interesting point about Zachary Taylor and slavery. It’s amazing how close the country came to splitting apart during his presidency, despite the fact he was a Southerner. In February 1850 President Taylor had a conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that, if necessary to preserve the Union and enforce its laws, he would personally lead the Army into the South, despite himself being a Southerner and current slave owner. Persons “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang … with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” Ever since learning about this events a few years ago, I’ve often wondered what would have happened had he not died just a few months later, paving the way for Millard Fillmore to ease tensions and strike a compromise (albeit, Congress was working on their compromise before Taylor’s death, and we can only speculate if he would have reacted to it). Here’s a good article from the Miller Center that I enjoyed about his domestic policies:
It is fairly close to DiLorenzo’s thinking. [Please note my caveat: “It is good reading and while I do not agree with him, he generates a lot of critical thinking.”] I picked up a copy from a local library when it was published as I had to find out how someone could put Tyler, Cleveland, and Coolidge in their top 4.
Chris Kempley said:
Pat, I appreciated your response here. I was perhaps more effusive towards JQA than I intended. The John Adams biography had a profound effect on my awareness and opinion of him. That impact was less profound as regards JQA, although I thought more highly of him afterwards than before. The impact from reading about Grant was closer to that I experienced on John Adams. I do have to say, though, that I don’t think much of John (and Abigail) as parents.
J.L. Jensen said:
@HBM, I did note that indeed! I certainly agree that critical thinking is a must, and I won’t fault anyone for thinking critically. I also would be as curious as you to see the reasoning for the selections that were made, and based on that alone I would probably check it out to at least peruse it and glean his conclusions. I can’t say I’ll buy it, but if I find it in a library, I may check it out.
My experiences with DiLorenzo go back several years, and he is one of the only authors I genuinely have a hard time with…and as I write this, I actually can’t even remember the others. So I should clarify my biases against him are in and of themselves biased as they were born from my own unique experiences, so I won’t fault anyone who, through their own unique experiences, have come to respect and believe him.
E Mullally said:
Hi Steve, I just finished Chernow’s biography, and I loved it just as much as I have loved his other books. I came away with a much bigger appreciation for Grant, both for his contributions during the Civil War and as president.
As I read through Chernow’s biography, I would also cut to Grant’s own personal memoirs to get his “take” on the events Chernow described. Grant focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War in his memoirs (nothing on his Presidency), but I found this an enjoyable way to cover off both of these monumental works.
Continued good reading!
Pat McKim said:
To JL. Thanks much. I was Defense LA to Senator Pete Wilson in 83 – 84. I also served him afterwards as a member of his kitchen cabinet and as head of his Academy appointments since I was a USNA grad. I was appointed from CA, and knew of Reagan’s Presidency and saw the changes he brought about. I had hoped that Trump might do that as well, but he doesn’t have confidence that Reagan had to be disliked. I find Reagan to be most like the General Presidents of Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Ike. He had a confidence that allowed to do things that those Presidents did as well. His membership in the Democratic Party, allowed him to be bipartisan in a similar way.
While I was very young when Reagan was Governor, I was impressed by his moral courage not to be pushed around by students and his energy, that is forgotten when he was President.
I was also fortunate to have been stationed in the Pentagon in OPNAV during the election in ’80, and was part of the transition from the Navy’s standpoint. I was but a LT, but in a role in the Navy’s internal consulting and evaluation arm, so I have a nice perspective.
I find Taylor fascinating in his influence on so many Civil War generals, particularly Grant. They were cut from similar cloth, but Taylor was a better delegator and a better judge of his staff. He seemed to get the most of them, while still wanting to be in the thick of things. No President General every won all his battles as outnumbered as Taylor, or as successfully. Like Grant he is put down by one of his two primary biographers Bauer, for what reasons I don’t understand. Taylor as a general in underappreciated and if he had been President for his full term would have a been a cross between Jackson and Grant, as he shared characteristics of each, but more of Grant.
To Chris: I think to understand Jackson one must understand JQA’s Administration. I know little of him now. A recommendation would be good (I guess I should look him up on this site.) One does not really appreciate (although FDR did) that Jackson was critical in producing the first independent Presidency and it was becoming a hand me down affair with the gentry from Virginia and Mass–father and son. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe was starting to be a dynasty. Jackson, like Trump, is not very likeable, but his accomplishments are pretty incredible.
J.L. Jensen said:
While searching for reviews on Calhoun’s “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant” from last May, I discovered Nick Sacco’s website with reviews on Grant related books. I have found it very informative and helpful, particularly regarding Grant as he has worked at some Grant historic sites full-time and seems very familiar with Grant’s life and the literature about him.
Pat McKim said:
Dear J. L. Thanks for the hat tip. I just bought Grant Reconsidered at a great discount. Another place to look is at the Amazon reviews, many of which are very good.
J.L. Jensen said:
I also purchased that one recently. I received it this week and have already read most of it. I gave up on ever getting a hardcover copy, and settled for a paperback one I got for under $4 in like new condition. I also received “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” this week and have nearly finished it. It is an amazing work by a Jewish historian who acknowledges how horrible the order was, but also that Grant was not an anti-Semite and he ended up more doing far more good for the Jewish people as a whole and that they should be grateful for his results.
J.L. Jensen said:
For those excited about Ron Chernow’s “Grant” being slated as a biopic, here’s some good news, it appears Steven Spielberg may be involved, and this may be a priority project. If Spielberg does get involved, I hope the same care is given to this film that he gave to “Lincoln,” one of (in my opinion) the best presidential biopics ever made.
J.L. Jensen said:
Now it appears we may have the biopic AND a mini-series. History Channel has announced a 6 part mini series, also based on Chernow’s “Grant,” in addition to the film.
have a question for some one that can be of some help to me.Are both the biographies on Grant By Ron Chernow and Ronald White are both easy reads and would either be good starter book on Grant and are they both equally accurate?
J.L. Jensen said:
If those two books were in a race to the finish line, it would be a photo finish, I don’t feel either one would have a clear advantage. While the general consensus in previous comments is that Chernow’s would come out ahead, if only slightly, it seems that White’s is given the nod for a better treatment of Grant’s youth and early years. Don’t discount Jean Edward Smith’s bio as well, that is right up there in the running as well for single best Grant biography. Those that have issue with Chernow’s typically feel he spends too much time on Grant’s alcoholism, and while he does so without condemnation, treating it more as alcoholism the disease rather than Grant simply being a drunk, some feel it is brought up too often. I’ve read all 3 and frankly enjoyed all of them immensely. If you had to choose one, I don’t think you could go wrong with any of them.
Amanda Witmer said:
I agree. I found Chernow to be thorough, and I appreciated his honest re-evaluation of Grant’s alcoholism. But it did seem to be the “thesis” of his work – to thoroughly revisit every accusation of drunkenness and prove alcoholism rather than moral failure. But it is an exhaustive theme within the work. White’s bio may be an easier read as a “gateway” USG bio. It is a little shorter (slightly) and to the point. He rounds out Grant the general and president with the art and humanity of Ulysses the young man, husband and father. You can’t go wrong with either one.
Pat McKim said:
I know a few alcoholics, probably even more that I know, but don’t know they are alcoholics. None defines their lives as an alcoholic. Most have gotten past that. The question for many of these intrusive biographers is should you accentuate some characteristic out of it proper place, and for what reason. I think all the alcholic talk does a disservice. Yes it makes the portrait more colorful, but does it make more accurate. Meacham’s book of Andrew Jackson is similar. He brings up what I consider to be extraneous stuff. Each of these guys has to do something different with the same stuff. Marzalek’s book of Grant’s writings is at least as telling as these bios in a much better way.
Both books are long, so hard to call them intro books. Chernow is far superior. I’d call by our bloggers scale, White a 3.5, and Chernow a 4.5.
Pat McKim said:
I have started Chernow’s and agree. I find it disappointing. I liked Chernow’s Washington very much, but even there I had some issues because Washington was something of a stoic and accepted what other people did that were not under his command like Lee and didn’t go after him. Chernow said that this was brilliant political maneuvering. I felt it was stoic and in Washington’s words, he left it up to Providence. With regard to Grant. I went through the bibliography and found tons of current references on alcoholism. That tells me he prejudged this. One of the problems with follow on but new biographers is that they all feel like they have to come up with something new. McFeely did on Grant and won a Pulitzer and won a Puliizer. Ironically now Chernow didn’t use this biography because it is accepted now as a hack job. Meacham did the same thing with his most recent Jackson biography that also won a Pulizer. I think it was a bore, but he wanted to show case new information that was about the family infighting with his neice and nephew. I found it tedious and he left out a lot of important things. I have only started Grant and I see a trend with the alcholism stuff, which is probably why it is supposedly picked by Spielberg. I think this is disappointing. I really like Jean Edward Smith’s piece. I fear that Speilberg with use this put down Grant. One reviewer on Amazon was very critical becuase he said Chernow was looking behind every bush and tree to find Grant tempted by drink. I have read perhaps 20 biographies and Civil War books and think that it was a problem but obviously not a disabling problem, but this is an intrusive era with lots of creative license that we live in. Sad
Thank you for everybody’s help.White’s it seems is best for youth and early years.Now when comparing White’s and Chernow’s far as covering military career,civil,war presidency and post presidency do White and Chernow seem to cover all that pretty close to the same?
John Pippin said:
This l-o-n-g and compelling thread has been itself an interesting take(s) on USG’s life and times. As often happens when a topic is batted back and forth by intelligent people, too much can be made of minor differences. I think the White-Chernow-Smith debate is such an event. I suspect that the real answer is “jump in, they are all good.” Each reader can then decide who is stronger in what areas.
I would recommend Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant. This is a long book, very detailed, but well worth the read. I did not have an appreciation as to how decent a man Grant appears to have been nor understood his role during Reconstruction and attempts to protect the newly freed slaves.
Great to hear. I’ve got this new Chernow biography on my “follow-up” list (I wasn’t able to read it when I went through Grant since it hadn’t been published yet) and I’m really looking forward to it. This is going to have to be one of the first books off my follow-up list I read 🙂
J.L. Jensen said:
For those interested in Chernow’s “Grant,” one thing that sets it apart is his treatment of Grant’s alcoholism, spending more time on it than others and also treating it more as a disease akin to alcoholism than Grant being a drunkard, a distinction he makes throughout the book.
But the claims of Grant truly being an alcoholic are tenuous and often decades after the fact and in some cases by second hand or third hand recollections. Here’s an excellent article by a Grant scholar who is an on site historian and ranger at one of the Grant national parks. While I love Chernow’s biography for many reasons, it’s not perfect, and this is one of the reasons why. The article is a little long, but it goes through 13 specific claims made by Chernow and analyzes the sources he cited in making them. His last point, #13, is interesting because he points out how all other recent Grant biographies haven’t even used the specific source because it’s so questionable.
Pat McKim said:
Excellent piece. Thanks for raising it. Grant was wise not dignify these accusations. One of the parts of the Grant story that is interesting is that he had many vicious enemies. I believe this was because he had power and respect and was an outsider. Lincoln loved him because they “got” each other and Grant performed magnificently for Lincoln. He understood Lincoln’s strategic requirements and worked with them. He respected Lincoln and was happy to work for him, and not compete with him. In addition Grant wasn’t a Washington DC “kinda guy,” and he certainly wasn’t an intellectual, particularly the way Nassim Taleb accurately describes many of them as intellectual as idiots. He was a judicious man and not prone to succumb to political games. In short, he couldn’t be “had.” This is why he had so many enemies. And these enemies would go to many lengths to go after him. Read the Education of Henry Adams and you will think Grant was orders of magnitude worse than trump.
I agree that Chernow’s bio is excellent so far. (I’ve read just about all of them.) Extremely well researched. As Smith said Grant was an easy or a quick drunk. once the rep fit….. He doesn’t seem to have been affected by it and none of the biographies or first person accounts that I have read hint at a drinking problem. For example Campaigning with Grant.
Have a question about the Grant Trilogy By Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton are they considered a good place to start out?
Having not yet read that trilogy I’m not equipped to answer the question, but I’m interested to see if anyone chimes in. One person undoubtedly able to shed some light on that issue is Nick Sacco whose website is: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/
J.L. Jensen said:
Nick’s website has excellent info and analysis, but can be tricky to navigate. To save you some time searching, here’s a brief comment addressing this trilogy: “I’d put the trilogy in the “good” section, but only because the research is a bit dated. Both authors, but especially Catton, were marvelous writers and it’s well worth the ten or twelve dollars to purchase the entire trilogy.” FYI, he also has Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” in that category, so it’s in good company. He only has a few in the “great” category, including Brooks Simpson’s work and “When Grant Expelled the Jews”. Here’s a link to his specific article addressing various Grant bios and books, which his comment about the trilogy coming in the comments at the end since he didn’t address it specifically in the article. I haven’t read the whole trilogy, but own it and have used it several times to look up specific things and every time I’ve gone to it, I’ve enjoyed it very much.
Thanks – very helpful overlay!
Christopher Saunders said:
Catton’s books are pretty typical of his style: very well-written narrative history, but light on analysis. That, and they cover his military career without really touching on his presidency or civilian life, so they aren’t really a full biography.
I was all set to get Jean Edward Smith’s bio of Grant, but then Chernow had to go and publish one, too! I’m absolutely torn. Can anybody recommend which would be a good first biography to read on our 18th president? Thanks!
Steve, I love the site by the way. Truly a godsend.
Thanks! I’m sure someone will respond to your question, but I can happily endorse the approach I would take to that conundrum: read them both! I just don’t know which I would choose first… (This seems to be one of those situations in life where you can’t go wrong 🙂 )
Chris Kempley said:
I read the JES volume just before the Chernow piece was published. I can endorse it as a great read. Then, I bought the Chernow book and have it as the first book to read as soon as I get through one bio on each President. (The only caveat is that I may read the Shelby Foote 3-volume history of the Civil War first).
Mark Dumaine said:
I started reading Grant by Ron Chernow a couple weeks ago. I have so far read Smith’s books on Eisenhower and FDR, and Chernow’s books on Hamilton and Washington as well. I admit I do not yet own Smith’s bio on Grant, but being well into Chernow’s and I can say with ease that this is my favourite of his works I’ve read, and that while both authors are great picks I think Chernow is the better author and historian overall.
J.L. Jensen said:
They are both very good. The caveat with Chernow’s is discussed in a reply of mine from November 8, above in this thread. The one thing that sets Chernows apart is his treatment of Grant’s alcoholism. While he approaches it differently than past historians who focus on it, it is still a distraction. Most historians have treated his alcoholism negatively (notably McFeely’s bio), while most recent ones simply address it briefly, acknowledging it is overblown. Chernow, however, chooses to spend an inordinate amount of time on it, but he does so to prove his point that Grant wasn’t a drunkard, but suffered from alcoholism in a clinical sense, so shouldn’t be denigrated for it.
Overall, his bio is still excellent, but I did begin to roll my eyes a bit every time alcohol was brought up as it felt like it was more frequent than it needed to be. Chernow’s overall conclusions about Grant, however, are harmonious with the many other recent scholars who conclude Grant was truly a great and highly underrated president who has gotten the short end of the stick the past hundred years.
Between the two, I would give the slight edge to Smith’s, but you honestly can’t go wrong with either.
With White’s new biography out now is his biography called American Ulysses is it considered better than Smiths or just as good and the best?
Pat McKim said:
I have read Smith’s awhile ago. I am reading Chernow’s and White’s book right now at the same time. I would agree that Chernow’s Grant is better than his Washington. One of the things you need to think of is the length of these books. Chernow’s is 960 while Whlte’s is 660 and Smith’s 620. I really liked Chernow’s but I started White’s I think I like it better so far. The story is more natural. White goes into things, like what Grant read to understand him better. Smith’s I read awhile ago was excellent as well. Right now I would say White’s is the best of the three. I will post when I finish.
J.L. Jensen said:
Pat! Good to hear from you on the boards again! It’s a good reminder I need to follow-up on our communications! I agree with your points, especially when you point out the length. As good as Chernow’s is, it’s 300 pages longer, and I think the impact per page isn’t much greater, and may even be greater in White’s and Smith’s because you come away from those with just as deep of an appreciation for Grant, but with less pages. I just scanned White’s again a couple weeks ago to prepare for a lecture and was reminded just how much I loved it. I’m just grateful to have enough quality biographies about Grant to even be having this discussion! It’s good to know there are 3 exceptional bios out there!
Christopher C Kempley said:
Oh my, now I have to go back and at least skim the JES book again. I’m 350 pages into Chernow and find it fascinating. I know I loved JES’s, but that was over a year ago so I owe it a reprise before I draw a final comparison. This is my first book after concluding my one biography per president series at Ford. My plan has been to move on with Shelby Foote’s Civil War series, but I find Grant a compelling subject.
I’m grateful for access to all the commentary on this website and am thankful that Steve started it and that I have access.
I have found the running commentary on Grant absolutely fascinating and it’s great to get insight from so many well-informed people. Grant (not unlike others like Washington, Lincoln, TR and Hoover, in my opinion) makes a particularly compelling biographical subject. And although I’m now seven books into my Grant “study” I’m definitely looking forward to the Chernow bio later this year!
Lawrence Dickerson said:
I may have made this comment before, but I was well into the White book and thought it a little listless. I think I was visiting the Hermitage in Nashville and noticed that the gift shop had bios for sale from many of the Presidents. I looked at Chernow and turned to the description of Appomattax. Unlike White’s brief recap, Chernow placed you in the room. Couldn’t understand how White didn’t realize that this was perhaps the key moment in any Grant bio and that he couldn’t have given the event its due.
Agree that the to and fro on this thread is nice. It has inspired me to read a third bio. I do have a first edition of his Memoirs that my Grandfather left me so I should probably hit that.
I loved White, but will give Smith a try. I loved Smith on Ike and FDR. White is generally my preferred author for anything on the Civil War era b/c he specializes in it and seems to grasp the times very well.
Part of my “issue” is undoubtedly sequencing…I read White most recently, having already established a good understanding of Grant. As a result, there wasn’t really anything new for me…and I preferred JES’s literary style. I also think White’s biography of Lincoln was comparatively more fluid and engaging.
But I do feel like a bit of an outlier; when I checked the Goodreads ratings/score I was a half-star lower than consensus…
Pat McKim said:
It is interesting that this thread is probably the longest of any other President — Steve can you confirm? Much of that is due to the flurry of new bio’s of Grant. I read JES years ago and thought it was fabulous. I am Chernow’s and White’s along with rereading Grant’s Memoirs (annotated by Marzalek. Brooks Simpson seems to be a leader in a real revisionist view of Grant based on facts. I am reading all of this for a book I am researching, and it is like you want a job to be. I look forward to reading each new version. What I am learning is that you can tell the bio quality by what the writer leaves out almost more than he puts in, and then the way they color certain facts.
If you want to get a real view of Grant, instead of reading Chernow, White and Smith, instead read some other personal observations of Grant.from other bios. Specifically the following:
Three Years with Grant.
Sylvanus Cadwaller was a reporter who reported on Grant. One of the huge bonuses with this book is a forward to the Bison Books Edition.by Brooks d. Simpson. Given the amount of research Simpson has done from the Civil War and Reconstruction, I believe he has an excellent feel for the characters of the era. Better than Chernow and likely slightly better than Smith. He discusses Grant’s drinking in some detail in this introduction and believes that Grant did not have a drinking problem that interfered with his job and assignments. What I found interesting is that Simpson understood all the potential players who wrote books or made statements at the time. He seems to refute Chernows discussion of Grant’s drinking issues and backs up Smith’s. Simpson believes the Cadwaller lied about Grant’s drunken incident and believes that Dana politely hinted at this as well. Simpson backs it up as he always does. (I personally don’t believe that Grant had a drinking problem certainly not worse than the average general in a hard drinking profession during a hard drinking time. Simpson’s writing is a bit confusing disproving some people’s lies as it always it, but it is pretty darned definitive. I get the feeling that Chernow started out intending to write about Grant’s drinking and used every statement to that effect without valuing the accuracy of the judge. What one does realize that the number of eyewitnesses that were unfriendly to Grant, who impresses me as being antagonistic towards few people. This to me is one of the mysteries of Grant that I don’t yet understand. I have not yet finished this book
Recollection of teh Civil War with the Leader…… Charles Dana. Dana was a newspaper editor that became an Assistant Secretary of War initially to be firefighter for distant problems. later he came to observe Gran (supposedly to see if he had a drinking problem which he refuted to Lincoln — not covered in this book. Grant, unlike Sherman allowed Dana in to his entourage and used him to provide his views to Lincoln and Stanton. The book is a fast read.
Campaigning with Grant Horace Porter. This is an outstanding book that provides many details about Grant and the way he led and working with his peers. Porter was on Grant’s staff as assistant and during battles would represent Grant on scene when Grant couldn’t go. I believe Grant had to trust Porter. Porter got a job a very good job in Grant’s presidential administration, and acquitted himself well to his boss and his country. Really good to understand some of Grant’s nuances. It is ironic that a non-press person would writing a more thorough and detailed book about Grant than the two press guys listed above.
The Best Writing of US Grant Marzalek. An excellent book showing Grant’s analysis and thoughtful side as well as his love of his falmily.
Around the World with General Grant. Young. If you want see Grant relaxed and reflect thoughtfully on his life in combat and out, this is a must reed. the writing is excellent, the description of the world at that time is outstanding and Grant’s straightforward view of the world is disarming and informative. I am not finished with this yet, but the gems that I have extracted are “priceless” in a way. If you read these books, particularly Porter’s and Young’s and maybe Dana’s because it is so fast you will find an appreciation of Grant that you could not find in his bio’s. Rather than read a second bio of grant read Whileor Smith and either Younf or Porter.
Pat, I believe this is the longest running thread on my website, as you suggest(!) And thanks for your contributions to making this an interesting topic! I’ll be looking into the books you mention above…and your note reminds me just how much I need to prioritize reading Grant’s Memoirs (even if sneakily, on the side).
Steve, have you read Shelby Foote’s three-volume series on The Civil War? Strongly considering getting it as I start to make my way through each president.
I have not yet read Foot’s series, but it has been sitting on my shelf just waiting to be perused. I would have felt more strongly about dropping everything else to read the volumes except that the biographies I read of Lincoln and Grant, in the aggregate, seemed to give me a thorough introduction to what he covers. Having said that, since I live on/near land that was part of at least two Civil War battlefields (Chancellorsville and Wilderness) – and just up the road from the Bloody Angle and Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse – I really do need to read the series to get a more complete perspective.
Christopher C Kempley said:
I’m just finishing up Chernow’s Grant right now. Much earlier, when I finished Smith’s book on Grant, I made the decision that the Foote set would be my first add-on as soon as I finished my one bio per president series.
I lived in Arlington for 7 plus years, my first foray into the east coast. I was astonished by the proximity to all the Virginia Civil War sites. Reading the Lincoln and Grant biographies only heightened my interest.
I’m hoping that Foote will help. As an aside, in watching Ken Burns’ Civil War videos, Foote’s commentary was truly helpful.
Pat McKim said:
If you haven’t read Whilte’s try reading his and Chernow’s side by side. Young’s Grant around the world is fabulous.
Have you read Grant by Rob Chernow? Wondering how it compares to Jean E. Smith’s book. Thanks for all your work. Exhausted just reading your adventures!
I have not yet read Chernow’s bio of Grant (since it was published only after I’d gotten through all my Grant biographies the first time through) BUT I am scheduled to read it this Fall! I really can’t wait.
I read this one and thought it tremendously good, although I haven’t read Smith’s and generally Smith’s are my favorite (Ike, FDR, Marshall). Haven’t felt the need to read Chernow as a result, even though I’m a big fan of his Washington.
If you are in the area of Saratoga Springs, NY, I would recommend visiting Grant’s Cottage. This is where he finished his memoirs and died. We visited recently and found it very worthwhile. The hours are limited so i would check the web site before visiting. https://www.grantcottage.org/
Wish I thought of this idea last year when I drove from Virginia to Lake George and, seemingly, drove right past Grant’s Cottage without realizing it… 😦
It’s not too far from VanBuren’s Kinderhook but we enjoyed Grant’s Cottage more.
J. L. Jensen said:
Sad news regarding the author of some of the best biographies out there, including ones about Grant and FDR.
Christopher C Kempley said:
Sad news indeed. His was the first Grant biography I read and it was outstanding. Changed my view on Grant in a significant way and helped persuade me to read Chernow’s Grant biography and start on Shelby Foote’s 3-volume Civil War History. While I truly enjoyed Chernow’s book, I can’t say that it was better than JES’s, I loved both.
Which book would you say covers his presidency most thoroughly? I have read extensively on his CIvil War years. I am going through your articles and reading a book on each President. Thoroughly enjoying your website! Thank you!
My “go to” biographies on Grant are the ones by Jean Edward Smith and Ron Chernow. Either does a nice job withhis presidency…but if you are interested in a really thorough treatment of his two-terms in the White House I suspect you’d do even better with a book I have NOT yet read: “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant” by Charles Calhoun. If you do happen to read it, I’d love to know what you think!
Amanda Witmer said:
If you are looking at exploring his presidency thoroughly, I’d suggest a book on that topic as opposed to a full biography. I found Charles W. Calhoun’s “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant“ excellent, though it is admittedly as long as some of the biographies on him. It breaks things down by subject or policy rather than tackling the chaos of chronological order in an administration. Frank J. Scaturro’s shorter work “President Grant Reconsidered” is also great, but out of print, and difficult to find. It is less a thorough study of his administration‘s than a look at historical misconception and why President Grant is thought of modern lay as he is.
I am conflicted about whether or not I should buy Chernow’s “Grant.” My interests lie in the obvious, more famous presidents. . . Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and I am worried that Grant will be a slog because I’m not interested in war or military issues. I do like to read about the personal lives of the presidents, but I just don’t know if I can motivate myself to read it. By all accounts, “Truman” by McCullough is one of the greatest biographies ever written, but I just have no interest in Truman, especially since he came after one of the most interesting presidents to serve. Should I take a chance with “Grant?”
Chris Kempley said:
For my money Grant was among the most interesting and underrated presidents. The Chernow book is a good read and, if memory serves has plenty of non-war interest. Grant’s life before the war was interesting, if a bit depressing. I’ll be curious to see what Steve has to say.
Hey Chris! Thanks for the insights. Your words are a great motivator. I am very interested in Steve’s view, although I suspect that he will bring up a few of the excellent points that you made.
pat mckim said:
May I comment on that. what I have found most interesting that I didn’t expect is how the five commanding generals who became president matured as presidents. Smith, one of Grant’s best biographers compared Grant and Ike, as he should have. What most people don’t realize, and these generations that live now certainly should is that winning the war is really the easy part, particularly WWII and the Civil War, given the industry in the US (or North). But bringing about a lasting peace was difficult when no one was interested (look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc etc) Sadly Grant had to give up what he did to allow for the country to continue. Grant focused much of his presidency on Reconstruction that with his predecessor Johnson, reverting to a confederate, almost lost all that was gained in that bloody war.
Grant had a huge task on his hands, much greater than Kennedy (who was in long enough to create some dreams, but not long enough to do anything.–the Cuban Missile Crisis was a direct result of the Bay of Pigs disaster that Eisenhower would never have let happen). Creating a lasting peace quietly is much more difficult than winning a war when you can suspend habeas corpus and many other rights. Grant had a most difficult job. The problem is that many of his biographers don’t understand him that well and focus on the transition.
The author of the Age of Eisenhower makes a point that I saw in all of the five commanding generals that became president, saying, “None of these authors effectively captures the acidic contempt with which the intellectuals of the era viewed Eisenhower.” I would sadly say that this is true with Grant even more so with the privileged intellectual Henry Adams stating that Grant was a pre Cro-Magnon man, all because Grant wasn’t interested in that Adams, but was in his brother. All of these generals lived in reality where people like Kennedy and FDR often didn’t. Prof Morgenthau, a post WWII international relations professor said, “… In the world of the intellectual, ideas meet with ideas, and anything goes that is presented cleverly and with assurance. But in the practical world, ideas meet with facts, facts which make mincemeat of wrong ideas and throw the pieces in the ashcan of history.”
Grant lived in the real world and was incredibly successful as a general–his Vicksburg campaign was brilliant and was the model and inspiration for Sherman’s march through Georgia. Grant was simple and yet complex. I personally found I became attached to him for his simplicity that is so necessary in complex situations, but that intellectuals hate, because they can’t show off their great intellect.
Grant was a fascinating and brilliant man, and yet an every-man as well, and that is one of the wonderful things about this country that we have so many every-maen ready to step up and do the right thing. His moral courage was as strong, or stronger than his physical courage, something that so many men can’t manage.
I can’t see what Kennedy actually did that would compare with Grant. His presidency was too short to show the results, and Johnson gets the blame for continuing what Kennedy started, but most historians are captivated the romance. His was a world of ideas meeting with ideas, not of ideas meeting with reality. Grant was in reality all of his life and yet inspired people with his commonality.
Great analysis and food for thought! I’m becoming more interested in “Grant” as we “speak.” You are, of course, correct in your thoughts about Kennedy. Let’s see what Steve has to say, but I am certainly taking your well thought-out response into consideration!
Pat McKim said:
I think you will appreciate him more if you read a full biography. I would recommend Jean Smith’s bio of Grant and then read his bio of Eisenhower. I just wrote an article comparing Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez Crisis as compared to Biden’s handling of the Russo-Ukraine war. While I thought Grant was an incredible strategic general and doesn’t get credit for his continental strategy, he was a very good president handling one big (impossible) problem. Reconstruction as best he could when the populous wanted to forget the War, the South, and blacks. That is why there was a lingering problem for so long. Eisenhower on the other hand was a political general and a mediocre one at that, but an outstanding president trying to hold things together. He had the Korean War, the loss of Europe’s prestige and their attempt to regain their colonies while trying to stop the Communists from taking them (China and Vietnam), he vitalized the US with the interstate highway system that he realized was problematic in his trip through the US with an army convoy back in 1917. Like Grant he was not a wizard like Napoleon, but understood people like most Westerners (in one way) and mid-westerners (in another way) did. Both are taken to task for things they weren’t responsible for. Both, particularly Grant, we humble and practical people You might want to read the both of the Jean Edward Smith bios and then read the Age of Eisenhower. I have not yet read Calhoun’s book on Grant’s presidency, but look forward to it.
I think you will find that you like these men, particularly Grant, unless you are an intellectual that doesn’t like down to earth people. I found both of them to be warm and, while enigmatic, each in their own ways, likeable and good basic people. This was why they became presidents, in difficult times.
If you really just to get know Grant, read Around the World with General Grant. It is as good as his autobiography and you will see him meet other and see the world. It is fascinating.
Eliot, it has only been a few hours since your thought-provoking question and I already see some interesting perspectives. Let me weigh in and add my one or two cents!
First, my passion for presidential biographies is fueled primarily by my enthusiasm for wonderfully-written narratives that also provide real-life insight and lessons. That means I’m seeking the kind of engagement with a biography that one might expect to get with fiction.
I’m looking for biographies that sweep you to the character’s time and place, allow you to see the world through his or her eyes, offer insight into how and why that person did the things he or she did…and is nearly impossible to put down. And I truly believe a well-written biography about almost any important historical figure can be as captivating as a book in the Harry Potter series.
And it doesn’t need to be a biography about Washington or Lincoln to be compelling. My introduction to presidential bios was McCullough’s bio of John Adams which mesmerized me immediately. Nothing against Adams, but he’s not exactly someone I’d normally want to have a beer with or sit next to on an airplane for several hours. And yet McCullough created an irresistible narrative I couldn’t put down.
So…how does this inform my view of your question about Grant?
Like Adams, Grant was not the liveliest personality in any crowd. And the backbone of his professional success was his military career…so if you’re completely uninterested in military affairs you might imagine this would be someone to avoid. And yet…
I think *anyone* reading the story of Grant’s life will be impressed: by his humble origins, by his remarkable lack of ego and by how unplanned and almost accidental his success seems to have been. Ironically, I find his presidency the least interesting aspect of his life – I find it a chore to re-live. But even the story of his military career – when best told – is more about how he saw the world, and reacted to it, than a tedious account of troop movements or casualty counts. And in the end, for all the fame he may have enjoyed, you realize he was just incredibly human, like the rest of us. (For what it’s worth, Eisenhower strikes many of the same chords for me.)
I found Grant to be one of the surprises of my presidential journey and if you can’t quite imagine navigating the nearly 1,000 page narrative of him by Chernow then I would recommend JES’s shorter biography – or even Ronald White’s or H.W. Brands’s. They’re all quite good.
Finally…Truman. I believe Harry Truman owes McCullough a great deal. And I believe McC’s bio of Truman proves that even a relatively dull individual can be remarkably profiled by a skilled biographer. If you’re looking for great *biographies* to read, I wouldn’t miss that biography – it’s among the top 10% of presidential biographies I’ve read. But if you’re looking to read about fascinating *individuals*, I can understand your reluctance to start with Harry T 🙂
But by all means, please let us know what you decide to do and how it turns out!
The reason your site is renowned and respected lies not only in the fact that your reviews are spot-on, but also because of the respect you show to those who write in for your advice. You never disregard, negate, or “blow off” anyone’s opinions, but instead reply with well-considered responses that take into consideration the writer’s (to your site) perceptions, interests, concerns, and approaches towards reading these biographies. You really care and I thank you for it. I can tell you that my reading for the near future will be Grant, Truman, and Eisenhower. You and your site friends have really excited me towards going in a completely different direction as pertains to presidential biographies.
Thank you so much, good sir!