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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Grant's Tome

Since retiring more than a dozen years ago, one extravagance has been more time to read. During my frenetic career, I fed this passion mostly on vacation or on the rare occasion of a lull in the action.
I’ve had my blog since December 2009; writing about travel, economics, and politics. Today I’ve decided to add another “label,” “Good Reads,” to convey thoughts that were provoked from some of my best books. These posts won’t be reviews, more mind opening connections the authors have triggered in me.

“Grant,” by the wonderful biographer Ron Chernow, chronicles the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. Chernow is one of the world’s best; his generous use of the contemporaneous quotations of his subject, friends and foes insures that his narrative is not just his voice telling the story, rather the principals.  Here are my takeaways:

First, my impression of Grant was of a lackluster and drunken two-term president steeped in Gilded Age corruption. His signature post-Civil War policy of Reconstruction was a failure, with northern carpetbaggers and southern scallywags dividing up the spoils, with na├»ve newly freed slaves acting as their foils. These impressions didn’t come from fake news or Russian re-tweets, it was from my school’s history classes – my education.
I don’t recall being taught much about Grant’s military achievements in the Civil War and the humanity of Appomattox, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the early civil rights progress of the Reconstruction, the slaying of the original Klu Klux Klan, the peaceful settlement of the “CSS Alabama” claims with England, and Grant’s humane but badly misguided Indian policy in the west.
Chernow paints a painstaking and well documented revisionist portrait of this man. A principled individual flawed by an almost childlike loyalty to family, friends, and associates; many of whom badly took advantage and unforgivingly sullied his reputation. Although most likely an alcoholic, Grant recognized this; and through associates and family, stayed a teetotaler for most of this life. And certainly, whenever facing responsibilities in war or governance, was sober. He was perhaps the world’s best military strategist, understood trade and diplomacy, and was a brilliant writer. It turns out he wasn’t an oaf, rather a tragic hero.
We need to question ourselves when we think we are sure of the facts; that they are simple and straightforward. We shouldn’t assume there is no counter argument just because we haven’t run across it. And we must all have more of a stake in school curriculum – as parents, grandparents and citizens. We cannot let history be owned by only the winners.

Second, the intractable conflict and brutality of the Civil War, of the reconciliation of slavery, of the plight of American Indians during this hellish 50-year period should give us some solace as we live through the current political and social turmoil.
In retrospect, our problems look small. We need to push hard, but also need to understand the necessity for patience. The amendments of 1865, 1868 and 1870 are still not fully inculcated into our society, and are still a work in progress. But it’s better than it was, is getting even better in fits and starts; and could have been much worse. That we as a nation made it through the Civil War is a miracle longshot.

Lastly, we should more fully appreciate the genre of biography as a powerful tool of learning, not just entertainment. Its practitioners can unlock the past unlike any similar text of history. Chernow is a master, famous for his “Hamilton,” adapted to the blockbuster Broadway show. Grant was not as good as a celebrity, but in every way as complex and tragic. And the book, at 1,104 pages, certainly can be called “Grant’s Tome,” pardon the pun. 

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