Hiram Ulysses Grant--mistakenly enrolled in the United States Military Academy as Ulysses Simpson Grant, and so known ever since--was a failure in many of the things to which he turned his hand. An indifferent, somewhat undisciplined cadet who showed talent for mathematics and painting, he served with unexpected distinction in the U.S. war against Mexico, then repeatedly went broke as a real-estate speculator, freighter, and farmer. His reputation was restored in the Civil War, in which he fulfilled a homespun philosophy of battle: "Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on." Given to dark moods and the solace of the bottle (although far less so than his political foes made him out to be), Grant was ferocious in war, but chivalrous in peace, and offered generous terms to the defeated armies of Robert E. Lee. His enemies on the battlefield of politics showed him little honor, and they had a point: Grant's presidency was marked by a legion of corrupt lieutenants and hangers-on who built their fortunes on the back of a suffering people, and for whose actions Grant's reputation long has suffered.
Recent history has been kinder to Grant than were the chroniclers of his day, not only for his undoubted abilities as a military leader, but also for his conduct as a president who sought to rebuild a shattered nation. Jean Edward Smith, the author of fine biographies of John Marshall and Lucius D. Clay, offers compelling reasons to accept this program of revision, while acknowledging the shortcomings of Grant's administration. Surely and thoughtfully written, this sprawling but swiftly moving book stands as a true hallmark in the literature that is devoted to Grant. --Gregory McNamee
Ulysses S. Grant was the first four-star general in the history of the United States Army and the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve eight consecutive years in the White House. As general in chief, Grant revolutionized modern warfare. As president, he brought stability to the country after years of war and upheaval. Yet today Grant is remembered as a brilliant general but a failed president.
In this comprehensive biography, Jean Edward Smith reconciles these conflicting assessments of Grant's life. He argues convincingly that Grant is greatly underrated as a president. Following the turmoil of Andrew Johnson's administration, Grant guided the nation through the post-Civil War era, overseeing Reconstruction in the South and enforcing the freedoms of new African-American citizens. His presidential accomplishments were as considerable as his military victories, says Smith, for the same strength of character that made him successful on the battlefield also characterized his years in the White House.
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This is unquestionably the best researched and certainly the most favorable
biography of Grant written in modern time. Smith, as usual, shows an uncanny
ability to unfold the curtain of time to reveal the personality, faults,
foibles, alliances, and triumphs of a man who possibly remains our most
misunderstood president. The emphasis is on Grants leadership and management
style and his relationships with other leading players of the era. Smith paints
Grant as a man obsessed with doing the right thing and points out, correctly I
believe, his overwealming sense of loyalty to those loyal to him. Therein lies
the tradedy of US Grant: Command on the battlefield (in which Grant excelled)
does not necessarily equate to success in the minefield that was the
mid-nineteenth century political scene. The presidents faith in his cronies and
some (as yet unexplained) faith in business and financial figures seem to have
caused the unraveling of his administration. Smith covers the scandals of the
era thoroughly and concisely without overplaying them the way most previous
biographers have done. There simply is no evidence-as Smith very ably points
out-to implicate Grants involvement in any of the major irregularities happening
around him. Grant-in breaking with the style of his admired predecessor, Abraham
Lincoln-set the pattern for a series of weaker presidents to follow who deferred
to the will of congress on most issues.
The current of historiography
dictates that we interpret (or reinterpret) our past looking through a lens of
the present. If Smith commits any falacies in his analysis, it is the specter
of political correctness which taints so much of modern historiography. We see
a president who was at once sypathetic to the plight of the Native American, a
defender of the rights of the Freedmen in the South, ashamed of Americas role in
its westward expansion and treatment of Mexico in the Mexican-American War and,
in the final chapter of the work, an advocate for the Chinese immigrant on the
west coast. To some degree all of these sympathies may have been true of Grant
personally, he certainly failed to surround himself with capable subordinates
who espoused these views.
Overall, I would deem this the best history of
Grant ever written-a must read for any serious student of the era!