Book Review: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

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American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Ronald C. White
Random House
October 2016


In Ronald C. White’s  magisterial biography of Ulysses S. Grant, he quotes the following from President Grant’s first inaugural address  on March 4, 1869:  “All laws will be faithfully executed, whether they meet my approval or not.” What words could be more applicable to our times?

As White recounts, President Grant rose to prominence and took office at a time where Americans were more divided than at any time in history — the Civil War which led to the death of approximately 6 percent of the male population of this country.  His immediate predecessor in the White House, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to be impeached, due, in part, to his reluctance or refusal to enforce certain laws. President Grant’s statement that he intended to faithfully execute all laws was a signal to the nation that a republic shall only endure if its government and citizens abide by the rule of law, not by the rule of men. And President Grant kept his word.

Over the last eight years, we have witnessed the Obama’s administration refusal to execute laws, or defend in court laws of which it disapproved. Think of the current debate about sanctuary cities:  Obama allowed hundreds of cities to willfully ignore federal immigration laws and to refuse to cooperate with federal authorities in dealing with illegal aliens. An even more blatant example of the Obama administration’s a la carte approach to defending the law was the Department of Justice’s refusal to defend in the highest court of the land the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Senate approved by a vote of 85-14, and was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. Nevertheless, President Obama’s Attorney General refused to defend this law because he and others in the administration didn’t agree with it.  This type of behavior, if it continues, will spell the downfall of the American experiment.

It is rare to read a biography which causes one to alter one’s thinking completely about a leading historical figure. One such book was David McCullough’s superb 1992 biography of Harry Truman. In it, McCullough dismantled the image of Truman as an inconsequential man who landed in a big job for which he was unqualified but was saved by the phalanx of  accomplished statesmen who had emerged during World War II. McCullough elucidated Truman’s generally good judgment about people and events and his willingness wisely and boldly to make critical decisions which affected world history for decades. In the same manner, Ronald White caused me to  change my  view of Grant.

Before reading the book, I followed the conventional view that  Grant was a man small in stature, an average student at West Point, a brave officer in the Mexican-American war, but, leaving the Army, a failure in civilian life. However, as a Union officer, the Civil War provided him with a platform to excel, as his drive for victory in the battlefield and his willingness to sacrifice as many men as necessary led him to prevail over his Confederate rivals. He allegedly had an alcohol problem which led to periodic bouts of drunkenness and was so insecure that it was nearly impossible for him to give a speech in public. Finally, as President, his administration was a failure marked by numerous scandals caused by friends who took advantage of his naiveté.

White demolishes this portrait of Grant. White marshals many facts about Grant’s impeccable behavior as a general on the battlefield and provides superlative quotes from men of good judgment about Grant’s many excellent character traits.

In 1863, as General Grant’s star was ascendant, President Abraham Lincoln had Secretary of War Edwin Stanton send Harvard-educated Charles Dana, former managing editor of the New York Tribune, to visit General Grant during the siege of Vicksburg. Grant treated Dana, who had met all kinds of political and business leaders, as a member of his staff, and Dana soon began to send back reports praising Grant, such as:  “An uncommon fellow – the most modest, the most disinterested and most honest man I ever knew, with a temper nothing could disturb.” Dana also wrote that he found Grant to be “not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered.”

Following the battle of Vicksburg and other military victories, President Lincoln promoted Grant to Lieutenant  General – a rank held previously by only one man, George Washington. In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to Grant, “I believe that you are as brave, patriotic and just, as the great prototype Washington, as unselfish, kind-hearted and honest as a man should be.” White quotes Theodore Roosevelt as follows:  “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.”

Grant had an unassuming nature. Throughout his life, he was a man of humility and modesty. As one military victory followed another, the cry went up for him to run for President in 1864. When he met President Lincoln in 1864, one of the first things he did was to assure Lincoln that he absolutely no interest in being President. Unlike Generals George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur, he had no political ambitions; his goal was to defeat the Confederacy and reunite the country. When we look at the proud narcissists who have occupied the White House since 2009, we realize we have strayed far from presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.

The financial scandals during Grant’s second term, especially the Credit Mobilier affair in 1872-1873, and the financial Panic of 1873, are the focus of most U.S. histories about this period. For most modern historians the financial misconduct of members of his administration and the deep recession which followed the Panic of 1873 outweigh Grant’s vigorous and continuous attempts to counter the efforts of Southern states to deprive African-Americans of their civil rights and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan as a force terrorizing black citizens. White’s emphasis on Grant’s efforts on behalf of former slaves and Native Americans during this stormy period of Reconstruction is a vital chapter on this tragic period in American history.

Ronald White’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is a must-read. It is particularly important to see how Grant behaved at a time when differing opinions and passions were even starker than they are now. Grant’s courageous leadership, his honesty, his modesty and humility, and his steady judgment are sorely needed at this time of the greatest divisiveness in the life of the American Republic since the Civil War.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm.