Grant: Ron Chernow

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wausaubob

Major
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Penguin Press, New York 2017.
The book's strength lies in making it plain that Grant drank to excess at times, most likely due to a genetic susceptibility to alcohol, and that his wife, his friend, William Sherman, and Grant's father were aware of this.
Chernow also makes it clear that Grant mainly controlled this weakness. The story of Grant's drinking is not relevant to what he was able to achieve as a person.
Alcohol was part and is part of American culture, and singling out Grant as a drunk is perhaps of a reflection of how desperate his critics were to find a avenue of attack that had some traction.
The issue of corruption during Grant's two terms in office is not adequately addressed. What is corruption and how much corruption was there between 1800 and 1900? Who made money on government deals? Which major votes, such as votes on 13th Amendment, the purchase of Alaska, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, were determined by cash bribes and the promises of post government jobs?
How many of the legislators were used to state level corruption? Was all government spending corrupt or only spending on areas in which there was a political dispute?
Simon Cameron, Lincoln's original Sec'y of War was allegedly corrupt, and the Lincoln administration leveled corruption charges at John C. Fremont.
Nineteenth century corruption is a large subject and most Democrats during the second half of the 19th century were cautious about investigating corruption less it lead back to Democratic officials.
The most corrupt scheme of the nineteenth century was funding the transcontinental railroad with the land grant system, with no audit procedure in place. This was a scheme advocated by Illinois politicians such as Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
The scheme did result in the railroad being built, but the owners of the contracting companies made fortunes on the project and congressmen got some of that money from their railroad friends.
But how did the business Republicans get control of the federal government in a manner in which they could implement such a flawed scheme? A large part of the Democratic party left Congress in 1861 and challenged the United States to maintain its territorial integrity. Without the Civil War, the Republicans may have more careful about their economic development plan.
No one volume book can address why political activity was so corrupt in the nineteenth century.

I would also say as the allegation that Grant was a butcher of some sort, this book does not confront the issue head on. Brooks Simpson's more recent lectures make it clear that the campaign which occurred between May 1, 1864 and July 31, 1864 was mainly Abraham Lincoln's campaign. Grant wanted to do something else.
That campaign was not similar to what Grant had done before coming to Virginia and after 5 months in overall command, the movements ordered by Grant led to a series of United States' victories which left no escape for the Confederates.

Overall, this is a necessary corrective biography.

Grant, presented as an ordinary man, who rose to do extra ordinary things, is a viable story.
However, Grant as a man committed first to his wife and children, and secondly to his career and nation, to the extent they would provide for his family, is just as good a story. Chernow covers them both.

The scholarship and writing in this biography are excellent. It is a pleasure to read.
 

wausaubob

Major
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The definitive "corrective" biography came out in 2000. It is called Triumph Over Adversity, by Brooks D Simpson.
Two entirely different books. Simpson was a working professor who had time and money constraints.
Other writers, in addition to Chernow, wrote about issues that Prof. Simpson could not cover, if his initial biography of Grant was to be marketable.
Chernow had a lot more financial independence, and less editorial pressure.
Simpson and Scatturo start the process of viewing Grant other than through the eyes of 19th century Democrats.
Be that as it may, my typing speed is not sufficient for me to dispute these issues.
Without Prof. Simpson's book, Chernow would have been handicapped, but Chernow creates a more human Grant.
 
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Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
Chernow's diagnosis that Grant suffered from alcoholism still sticks in my craw. Chernow is in no way qualified to make this kind of diagnosis. If true, that makes Grant truly astonishing as the most functional alcoholic in all of human history.
 
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