In the ancient world, heroes were judged heroic by comparison to their inferiors. With modern heroes, the comparison is with their fellow citizens. This modern democratic setup muddles virtue and makes it harder for us to recognize. Today’s democratic heroes protect but also resemble us—Kal-El is Superman and Clark Kent. Behaving like everyone else, they act episodically—energetic in chase, but inert for capture. As with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, their virtues backfire when turned inward.
A notable lover of Shakespeare, Ulysses S. Grant lit cigars on horseback with more equanimity than that displayed by Shakespeare’s famously vacillating Danish prince. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he was named after Biblical and Homeric kings yet dressed like a common soldier. Benevolent but dogged, General Grant, with his homespun manners, seemed just another face in the crowd. War Secretary Edwin Stanton first met him by handshaking his doctor: “How do you do, General Grant? I recognize you from your pictures.” The flustered Stanton had made the mistake because Grant “wasn’t the prepossessing figure he had imagined,” in the words of historian Ron Chernow.
Grant’s hidden assets, goodwill and grit, met all seasons. Boy Ulysses once bought a colt after confiding in the seller that his father had told him to offer $20, but if “you won’t take that,” offer $22.50, “and if you won’t take that,” yield $25. Yet this overly trustful boy also tamed unruly horses. The grown Ulysses, in the Mexican-American War, purchased an iron-willed Texas stallion to blindfold, saddle, then unblind and spur him for three hours until rider and subdued horse returned to camp.
Superstitious to never walk back any path trodden, he never retreated in battle. Grit entailed midlife toil, military ruthlessness, endurance of political betrayals, and a race with cancer to secure his family’s finances after his death. Charity entailed showing personal loyalty, also postwar magnanimity, and an underappreciated fight for racial justice. His virtues were vicious and victorious: moody drunken benders came with attentive grace under fire.
Active in pursuit, introverted in the absence of a defined enemy, he became heroic to fight for free people. His protean personality of enormous energy and quietude led him through the American rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Mercy toward Lee at Appomattox betrayed naiveté elsewhere, yet his “Unconditional Surrender” ethic, sometimes a political thorn, won wars and wrote classic memoirs. Others were apt to get a misimpression of him—which does bring Hamlet to mind—but it was his modesty, a quality that could also turn foes into friends. Such democratic heroism is difficult to at first notice or historically remember.
Wrath of Henry Adams
“Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” Groucho Marx used to ask gameshow contestants. Sometimes it seemed nobody worthwhile was buried in Manhattan’s General Grant National Memorial. Americans elected Grant their 18th President for parallels “felt between Grant and Washington,” Henry Adams recounted, yet when Grant went to select the members of his cabinet, “A great soldier might be a baby politician.” Resentfully unappointed, Adams distorted the Grant presidency with hyperbole that became the conventional wisdom for generations. While Theodore Roosevelt spoke of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant, “Lost Cause” historians, following Adams, entombed his legacy. In life, a general from obscurity ended civil war, forgave traitors, and fought for freemen—in reputation, an uncultured drunkard butchered conquests and administrated political malfeasance.
But his reputation changed. In the middle of the 20th century, historians ranked Grant the second worst President for political corruption, the Economist reports, but they now rank him midway for “extraordinarily progressive work on race relations.” Even so, stereotypes persist. William S. McFeely of the University of Georgia and Harvard declares that “until [Grant] was nearly forty, no job he liked had come his way—and so he became a general and president because he could find nothing better to do.” There lies his misinterpreted secret: consequential virtues sometimes backfired.
His countless ancillary film portrayals affect a gruff, alcoholic demeanor. The latest one, in Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), gives us Jared Harris as a hardened commander getting a dirty job done, and then gallantly honoring the defeated Robert E. Lee.
Nor have historians ignored him. They have “tended to focus on either the military or the Presidential portion of his life,” Marcus Cunliff notes, but avoid how “the shabby soldier [who] achieved magnificent success” was also mysteriously “the civilian, splendidly attired in his Brooks Brothers suits, [who] made a shabby political record.” Previous historians fragment Grant into contradictions, but popular historians Ronald C. White in American Ulysses (2016) and Ron Chernow in Grant (2017) have done better.
The Contest for History
White and Chernow manifest a new breed of popular historian. Professors and journalists have long contested who gets to be the arbiter of our national history, but popular historians have come to inhabit space that the academics have vacated, Sean Wilentz notes. As the academic historians (due to bureaucracy and ideology) wrote more for their colleagues, and replaced traditional history subfields with neglected studies, the public grew disenchanted. And this opened the field to a generation of journalists, novelists, and filmmakers. To be sure, Wilentz is not happy about what he calls this “latest revival” of “popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle.” But he misses what heroic histories contribute: namely, an antidote to the way that professional historians (so said Alexis de Tocqueville) insist on seeing the individual as “subject . . . either to an inflexible providence or to a sort of blind fatality.”
Hero signifies a man who, Moses Hadas notes, “enlarged the horizons of what is possible for humanity” and becomes “deemed worthy of religious commemoration.” This does not mean perfection—“a flawless man is not apt to possess the determined energy heroism requires.” And Grant needed that dogged energy.
A Princeton-trained minister and historian, White bridges evangelical Christianity and academia (he’s taught at UCLA and a number of other universities). He has written two monographs on the Social Gospel and racial justice, and three books about Lincoln: his Second Inaugural, rhetorical life, and biography. American Ulysses seeks to rectify the legacy of Grant.
Chernow accomplishes this task without training in the field of history. Rather, he is a journalist who studied English literature, especially James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, at Cambridge, learning aesthetic fundamentals, especially how to craft a narrative. He is the chronicler of old Wall Street dynasties—the Morgans, Warburgs, and Rockefeller—and also of Founding Fathers— Washington, and Alexander Hamilton—the latter of which Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted into the hit musical.
Their biographical styles diverge. White is more systematic, with nearly 30 maps and pictures, and is handier for beginners. Chernow is more discursive in his analysis. His style fits a journalist trained in modernist literature. He is also voluminous, writing 400 pages more than White wrote.
Their themes also vary. Chernow thoroughly addresses Grant’s triumphant battle with episodic alcoholism. White briefly mentions it. Unlike Chernow, White discusses the heroic novels young Grant read that developed his moral imagination. Whereas Chernow seems to let his subject die a nominally Christian deist, White shows Grant’s practical piety as a believing Methodist. Accessibly, White emphasizes virtues and glosses weaknesses. Artistically, Chernow builds psychological portraits from meticulous details. These are complimentary books, highlighting underappreciated themes—Grant’s youth, administrative accomplishments, fierce commitment to justice, world travels, and last-minute literary feats—and vindicating an understated leader.
Training and Early Trials
Beyond settled Ohio, a new state on unfurling frontier, “little was known of the topography of the country,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. With Bibles, hatchets, and newspapers, frontiersmen sought their fortune with creative energies to build careers and worlds. The 1830s Midwest made Tocqueville wonder what this “democracy without limits” could produce. In 1838 in Springfield, Illinois, a lawyer gave a talk on perpetuating political institutions—thus, this limitless democracy produced Lincoln, and Grant. Nobody saw coming these Midwesterners who saved the Union.
From a Whig family of Puritan stock, Grant had a quiet Methodist mother and vocal abolitionist father. Boy Ulysses drove coaches and, at age seven, read a biography of George Washington. His father sought every reachable book, and his son read all the ones his father reached. Learning French military strategy and graduating in the middle of his class at West Point, Grant read James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, and Washington Irving. He hoped to teach mathematics, which he taught himself while stationed in St. Louis. There he befriended future Confederate leaders (James Longstreet was best man at his 1848 wedding) and Julia Dent, a romantic daughter of a Missouri slave-owning family whom he visited. He won her hand in marriage as he left for Texas and the Mexican-American War, where he proved his mettle.
A quartermaster, Grant learned the coordination of supplies and arms. He also displayed valor, studied future Confederates, and found a contrast of examples in two generals. “Old Fuss and Feathers” Winfield Scott was always uniformed and saluted, and “Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, was casually dressed, friendly but respected, and itching for the fight. Years later, Grant emulated Taylor.
After the war, a now-married Grant moved about the country, often accompanied by Julia in the Northeast and Midwest, but sometimes not on the West Coast. Depressive isolation begot drinking. Captain Grant determined to try everything to provide for his family, even hauling wood. As the Grants moved to Galena, Illinois, his overactivity brought little success and a personal crisis. Then came another war and, Walt Whitman muses, this “common trader, money-maker, tanner, farmer” became “general for the republic,” then “President,”—“gods” and “destinies” having evidently “concentrated upon him.”
Civil War and Presidency
Grant offered his military services to the U.S. government, feeling indebted for his education but never seeking promotion. His zest for offensive military strategy raised his colonel command in the western armies to general. Against bureaucratic enemies, but supported by William Tecumseh Sherman, his army drove through to Vicksburg in 1863. Upon commanding the eastern armies stalemated with Lee, he exercised his war psychology and quartermaster experience to craft a grand strategy. Knowing Lee would not leave Virginia, Grant pressured him toward Richmond, while Generals Sherman and Phil Sheridan bulldozed Confederate war capacities. As Lee focused on present battles, Grant eroded enemy supply lines and infrastructure. The way he effected his plan to end the war, said Dwight Eisenhower, made him among “the greatest American generals, if not the greatest.” Minimally he ought to be considered the best Civil War commander with efforts comparable to any World War II achievement.
When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Grant acted generously, as Lincoln instructed: clemency for Southerners with legal equality for freedmen. Grant disliked slavery, never owned slaves, and once freed a slave held by his wife’s family, but gave priority to preserving the Union. As the war progressed, it fell to Grant to implement the Emancipation Proclamation, and he appointed John Eaton to aid the former bondsmen. Eventually he, like Lincoln, saw the war as divine punishment for slavery. Frederick Douglass says that in Grant, “the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” Maintaining these roles proved difficult. After Lincoln’s death, Grant defended Appomattox and pardon petitions even as President Andrew Johnson desired punishment. When Johnson reversed, Grant, with Stanton, maintained federal troops in the South. Lincoln left no clear blueprint. President Grant improvised.
He pursued, though ultimately impossible, peace policies toward Native Americans, and made strenuous overtures to American Jews, partly to make amends for his 1862 General Order No. 11. The latter, an expulsion order aimed at cracking down on war profiteering, was reversed almost immediately by Lincoln, and sincerely repented by Grant. He prosecuted the early Ku Klux Klan, and, reluctant to have federal troops occupying the former Confederate states, defended black Americans and Southern Republicans against systematic violence and intimidation.
His naiveté about the corruption of postwar industries and colleagues landed his administration in several scandals—the Whiskey and Indian Rings—but he pursued the prosecution of wrongdoers. He got the big things right: the 15th amendment, appointments of Secretary of State Fisher Ames and Treasury Secretary George Boutwell, creation of the Justice Department, along with sound currency and credit, the Philadelphia centennial fair, restored relations with Britain, and the pursuit of racial justice and national reconciliation, even through the hung presidential election of 1876 that brought his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, into office. In his last message as chief executive, Grant advocated public education: “the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixons but between patriotism, & intelligence on one side & superstition, ambition, & ignorance on the other.” Still, Reconstruction went awry despite his best efforts.
Travel, Bankruptcy, and Deathbed Reflection
After his second term, Grant travelled Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, his progress followed by newspaper-reading Americans. He pioneered a new role for former Presidents as citizen-diplomats. After he came home, it was rumored that he would try for a third term. Caught between his modesty and his ambition, rather than personally campaign he let party bosses champion the idea, as liberal Republicans had abandoned Reconstruction and him in the 1876 election. After losing the nomination, his wealth disappeared in a Ponzi scheme, and his health gave way to cancer of the throat. Desperate to provide for Julia, he wrote.
His friend Twain helped his memoirs see print. In them Grant covered his childhood through the war’s end, revealing writing abilities that Twain fittingly compared to Caesar’s Gallic War. Both works impartially narrate battles with simple diction and evenhanded judgement of mistakes and triumphs, virtues and vices, friends and enemies. Although Caesar published his commentaries to enter imperial politics, Grant wrote having left that world for another, aware that his life sequenced far from what he imagined—as he said, “Man proposes but God disposes.”
Finally baptized, Grant was a lifelong Methodist but an irregular churchgoer. Twain found Dr. Newman, the resident minister, farcical but Newman was tolerated to soothe Julia. When the minister told Grant that God desired to employ him for “a great spiritual mission,” Grant slyly replied, “Can he cure cancer?” Yet Grant inadvertently proved Newman right. Chernow says that Grant believed “a special providence kept him alive to complete his book.” Expecting mathematics professorship, he became warrior and statesman, and a deathbed man of letters. Man proposes. The Almighty has his own purposes.
A Hero in History
The memoirs became a hit, the greatest of Civil War recollections and presidential autobiographies—a history that is read by Americans across political and racial divides. “Death is always in the background for the reader” of the memoirs, observes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “But having Grant acknowledge death is breath-taking,” he concludes. “Grant is splendid to me, and I am sick of keeping score.”
Popular biographies challenge a democratic people to notice contrasts and better themselves. Even Henry Adams, Grant’s powerful detractor, acknowledged that he came alive in danger, lapsed into inertia without threats, and mysteriously reasoned. Adams cynically missed the biographical key: that democratic heroes have method in their madness.