Ulysses S. Grant was renowned as a hero and savior of the Union in his day. Yet modern historians are likely to recall him as a president who barely survived one scandal after another.
Call it a profile in courage: in this contribution to Arthur Schlesinger’s American Presidents series (and the best written of the 32 volumes to have appeared thus far), novelist and historian Bunting (All Loves Excelling, 2001, etc.) attempts to rescue Grant from “the clichés of the Grant Myth” by examining their origins. Unlike many politicians and commanders of his era, Grant was inclined to a commonsensical, economical attitude that was easily mistaken for taciturnity and opacity; his fellow students at West Point, for example, remembered him a silent and awkward, though one praised him as having “the most perfect regard for truth . . . not a prominent man in the Corps, but respected by all.” No one back home expected him to survive the Military Academy, much less to become a hero of the Mexican War, a conflict he regarded from the outset as unjust but served in nonetheless, writing to a friend, “Experience proves that the man who obstructs a war in which his country is engaged, no matter whether right or wrong, occupies no enviable place in life or history.” Not that Grant was particularly ambitious to earn glory in life or history; rather, he seems to have thrived in doing his duty quietly and efficiently, moving, like Caesar, to the next task when one was finished. Such qualities endeared him to Abraham Lincoln, whose champion he became; indeed, writes Bunting, as president, “Grant would labor to fulfill what he took to be Abraham Lincoln’s vision for a nation made whole.” And what of his failure to stem corruption in his government? Bunting explains, quite reasonably, that Grant accepted some of it as political necessity—and argues as well that some of what we regard as corruption today was not judged as such in Grant’s own time, adding that “the best-known scandal of the Grant era had nothing to do with Ulysses Grant.”
A splendid, short-form introduction to Grant’s life and career.