Grant has to have one of the most mixed reputations of any of the presidents: as a man and a general, his reputation is almost unblemished (and most people can forgive the drinking); as a president, he is frequently ranked among the worst in US history. Jean Edward Smith’s biography explores what made the man and general great, and why he should be considered as doing a decent job as chief executive.
Grant was a modest man and not obviously destined for greatness. He came from a respectable background and entered West Point where he acquired his name (an administrative error put him down as Ulysses S. Grant, rather than Hiram Ulysses Grant), a lacklustre academic record, and a reputation for exceptional horsemanship. His early experiences in the army did not bode all that well: he acquitted himself well in combat and as quartermaster in the Mexican-American War (and got to observe Zachary Taylor’s leadership and relationship with his men, as well as Winfield Scott’s tactic of living off the land) but he did not agree with the war; his postings after the war caused him unhappiness as he was separated from Julia, his new wife; and he eventually resigned, rumour having it that he was forced to do so after his drinking habit got him into trouble. He fared worse as a civilian, and every year was a financial struggle.
The civil war was the making of him and Smith analyses his role in it with clarity and perceptiveness. Smith highlights Grant’s doggedness, his ability to turn temporary defeat into victory by seizing the initiative, and his commitment to defeating armies rather than seeing wars as being won by capturing strategic locations. Smith also highlights Grant’s weaknesses, particularly his tendency to underestimate his opponents’ willingness to fight. After James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and two Lincoln biographies, I was worried that more civil war analysis would feel repetitive, but since Smith’s focus is on one general’s decision-making, and covers the Western theatre in great depth (largely overlooked when writing about Lincoln since he wasn’t near there), it added much to my understanding of the war.
After the war, Grant found himself in politics, which was not his natural sphere. His administration was rife with corruption, and this will have had much to do with him acquiring a bad reputation. That and his opposition to home rule in the South. But Smith demonstrates that much of the corruption was happening away from Grant’s ability to influence things, and problems where Grant was culpable were more commonly created by his trusting nature and loyalty than any ill will. Grant’s work to stabilise the currency and his efforts on Reconstruction were successful and Smith makes the undeniable point that Grant is unusual in being elected to a second term: he must have been doing something right!
Smith’s biography of Grant is an excellent read. He is constantly analysing Grant’s behaviour in terms of what Grant learned, or how his actions fit with other actions. I got a sense of getting quite privileged access to the man through this book and that in itself is an achievement. I don’t think Grant is an easy topic for a biographer either: he accomplished so much that condensing his life into a single volume without feeling something is missing is a challenge. And because Grant so often responded to situations rather than sought to create them, he must be understood in terms of his character traits rather than his plan or ambition. Smith nagivates these challenges well. I finished impressed with both the man and this book.