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Book Review The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant by Charles W. Calhoun

Discussion in 'Book & Movie Review Tent' started by Pat Young, Dec 26, 2017.

  1. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    presof ulysses S grant.JPG
    The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) by Charles W. Calhoun published by the University Press of Kansas (2017) 39.95 Hardcover 24.88 Kindle.

    The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant is a massive work of scholarship weighing in at over 700 richly researched pages. The product of years of scholarship by Professor Charles W. Calhoun of East Carolina University, this is the most complete modern treatment of the eight years of Grant’s presidency.

    Fraught years those were. The period from 1868 to 1877 saw the impeachment of a president, the election of Grant, violent resistance to Reconstruction, a crippling financial panic, scandals within Grant’s administration, the loss of Republican control of Congress for the first time since Sumter was attacked, and a hung presidential election. Unfortunately, a lot of that seems to get crowded out by Calhoun’s disproportionate focus on foreign policy.

    After briefly discussing the rise of Grant, relying on (and fully acknowledging) Brooks Simpson’s seminal interpretation of Grant’s “Triumph Over Adversity,” Calhoun spends roughly half of the next couple of hundred pages discussing foreign policy issues. Someone could spend three or four hours reading The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and wonder if this was really The Diplomatic History of the Grant Presidency.

    Don’t get me wrong. The foreign policy discussions are masterful and loaded with detail that I was previously unaware of. There are, for example, interesting discussions about the problems created by Grant’s desire to support Cuban rebels without the United States being liable for damages done to Spain because of that support. The United States was, at the time, trying to press the claim in international arbitration that Britain owed the republic money for damage done to United States shipping by the raider Alabama and her sisters. In fact, at one point the U.S. wanted recompense from Britain for prolonging the war. If Britain was liable to the U.S. for allowing the outfitting of the Alabama, then what would the U.S. wind up owing to Spain?

    Just as much attention is given by Calhoun to Grant’s attempt to annex what is now the Dominican Republic as to the Alabama claims and Cuban independance. The United States did not annex the Dominican Republic. This incident is so unimportant that few Americans have even heard of it. Similarly, Grant did not secure Cuban independence. The U.S. war for the island was still three decades off.

    Because of its length, this review will appear in three installments.
     

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  3. Drew

    Drew Captain

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    The U.S. war for control of Cuba pre-dated Grant's presidency by 40 years or more. It is correct the "war for the island was three decades off" of his presidency. It's also true that one of America's most dangerous forays into international affairs would involve Cuba, a full century after U.S. Grant chewed on a cigar at the Battle of Shiloh.

    I'm not letting him off the hook, but to hang this mess solely on Grant is absurd. Look forward to the rest of your review.
     
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  4. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Review Part II:

    Since the Grant Administration was unsuccessful in securing Cuban independence or making Santo Domingo a U.S. territory, it seems like the author might have chosen other areas of the Grant presidency of more interest to the general reader to open the book with. Instead, a reader all afire with a desire to know how Grant implemented the 14th Amendment’s grant of citizenship to former slaves and what efforts he made to protect the newly minted right of black men to vote will have to wait until Calhoun resolves petty disputes between self-interested diplomats in the Dominican Republic.

    Calhoun passes up forefronting the president’s militarization of the White House. Grant’s seemingly excessive use of military staff officers as key components of his official family led to charges of “Ceasarism” by his opponents. How much should any president rely on a bevy of military men for setting domestic policy and implementing presidential directives? Not nearly as important, based on the space devoted by Calhoun, as disputes over fishing rights between New England and Nova Scotian interests.

    So now I have given you my main criticism of the book. Keep it in mind. I am not against the inclusion of foreign policy in a work on the Grant administration. In my own community I was long thought of as a Latin Americanist and I was invited to give talks on different issues about U.S./Latin American relations. I was not put off by its inclusion here. I was just surprised at how much attention the book gives to these often fruitless efforts by Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish and his legion of venal diplomats and representatives. The discussion by Calhoun of rather minor matters of negotiations is so involved that Grant sometimes disappears entirely for pages at a time.

    This book is not a biography of Ulysses S. Grant during his presidential years. It is a history of his administration. The administration was made up of men, many of whom seemed more interested in the main chance, than in either the welfare of their country or the glory of their chief executive. A few were involved in spectacularly illegal schemes, but other seemed content with what George Washington Plunkitt would later refer to as “honest graft.” Plunkitt of Tammany Hall once described the only-almost-illegal actions of the consummate 19th Century political operative when he said of himself “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” That could have been the motto of several of the characters that people Calhoun’s volume.

    Calhoun provides blow by blow descriptions of a number of the scandals that rocked Grant’s administration. When you finish reading the book, you will know all you need to know to run your own Whiskey Ring.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2017
  5. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Part III

    The book also does a good job of describing the growing opposition to Grant by the Liberals, a fractious coalition of erstwhile Republicans who coalesced and fractured around men like Carl Schurz, Horace Greeley, and the various Adamses. Calhoun, though, has a hard time seeing the complaints of the Liberals as much more than the whining of men disappointed at not being invited to Grant’s table.

    Calhoun’s descriptions of the financial panics of the early 1870s are detailed from the economic perspective. Unfortunately, they leave out the voices of the working class critics of the non-response of the administration to the sudden unemployment caused by speculator fueled downturns. The crashes had an impact beyond Wall Street. They set off a wave of union organization among industrial workers, railroad men, and even the landless black rural proletariat that was mobilized during the Great Upheaval of 1877. This strike had its roots in the Grant administration’s inactivity in the face of layoffs.

    This is not to say that Grant was a union buster. His comment after his successor Rutherford B. Hayes used troops to break up the 1877 strikes, which placed the Republican Party firmly on the side of capital against labor in the minds of many union members, gives some indication of Grant’s mixed sympathies:

    During my two terms of office the whole Democratic press, and the morbidly honest and “reformatory” portion of the Republican press, thought it horrible to keep U.S. troops stationed in the Southern States, and when they were called upon to protect the lives of negroes—as much citizens under the Constitution as if their skins were white—the country was scarcely large enough to hold the sound of indignation belched forth by them for some years. Now however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens. (1)

    Calhoun gives adequate attention to Grant’s “humane” Indian “Peace Policy,” which required Native Americans to become White Anglo Saxon Protestants in order to be accepted into the national community. There is some disconnect, however, between the thoughtful Grant and his, at times, exterminationist loyal subordinates Sherman and Sheridan, as well as his disloyal subordinate Custer. Why didn’t Grant have more control over the events that set off the Great Sioux War of 1876 that resulted in the disaster at Little Bighorn? While Calhoun lays out the details of Grant’s Indian policy, I think he should have provided more insight into why it failed so violently.

    In the final part of the book, Calhoun highlights Grant’s final annual message to Congress to provide a framework for how Grant looked back on his eight years as president. Grant wrote:

    It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training.(2)

    This poses a question that Calhoun would have done well to address more. Was the intelligent and humane Grant helped or crippled by his “fortune, or misfortune” to be without long experience in electoral politics?

    A later section of Grant’s final message should have raised questions in Calhoun’s text about whether Grant had become delusional. Calhoun writes:

    At the end of his message, Grant offered a long passage rehearsing his greatest disappointment—the rejection of the annexation of Santo Domingo. “If my views had been concurred in,” he said, “the country would be in a more prosperous condition to-day, both politically and financially.” Again he spoke of the island nation’s resources, its market for American products, the prospect of increased trade with no tariff barriers, the impact of such trade in undercutting slavery in Cuba and Brazil, and the prospect of Santo Domingo as a haven for African Americans that would make “the negro ‘master of the situation,’ by enabling him to demand his rights at home on pain of finding them elsewhere.” In a draft of the message, Grant had stated, “The subject has not been understood and hence ignorant abuse has been heaped upon the Administration,” but in the final version he simply said that he did not aim to renew his recommendation for annexation but “to vindicate my previous action in regard to it.”(3)

    First of all, I was surprised that Calhoun considers the failure of annexation to have been Grant’s greatest disappointment. Secondly, it was disconcerting to think that Grant believed that adding the Dominican Republic to the territory of the United States was a panacea for race relations, trade imbalances, and economic difficulties. The failures of the Grant presidency had little to do with whether or not Santo Domingo was annexed. If Grant thought it was, that might account for some of his presidency's short-comings.

    While I was reading The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant I was constantly troubled by the question of whether I would recommend it to the members of Civil War Talk. The writing is engaging and the research is excellent, but the emphasis is idiosyncratic. I don’t know if the average reader of this review who starts this book will choose to finish it. For those expecting the long-awaited conclusion to the reexamination of Grant as a political actor begun by Brooks Simpson in Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868, disappointment awaits within. Yet I read the whole book, enjoyed reading it, and learned a lot. The book is not the definitive account of the Grant administration, but it did fill in a lot of details for me.

    Notes

    1. Calhoun, Charles W.. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) (p. 571). University Press of Kansas. Kindle Edition.

    2. Calhoun, Charles W.. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) (p. 565). University Press of Kansas. Kindle Edition.

    3. Calhoun, Charles W.. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) (p. 567). University Press of Kansas. Kindle Edition.
     
  6. 8thFlorida

    8thFlorida Sergeant

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    Did the book discuss Grants relationship with Native American tribes. Grant actually was known to have shaped modern ideas about how Native Americans should be treated although thousands were slaughtered during his Presidency unnecessarily.

     
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  7. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Yes, to some extent. I am not sure how modern Grant was though.
     
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  8. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail 1st Lieutenant

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    Grant's American Indian policy is full of lies and contradictions. He talked peace, but made war.
     
  9. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail 1st Lieutenant

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    A question: Did Grant want to annex Santo Domingo with the goal of granting statehood, or to maintain it as an overseas territory?
     
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  10. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Note: Reviewer's Bio:

    Patrick Young, Esq. is Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law where he also co-directs the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of the web series The Immigrants' Civil War. Past-Chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition and current Legal Services Director at the Central American Refugee Center, he has pursued lifelong interests in the phenomenon of domestic civil conflicts and the study of immigration history.
     
  11. 8thFlorida

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    Agreed but that is because the Generals under him such as Sherman and Custer were not so friendly.
     
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  12. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    I will try to get to this after work.
     
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  13. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail 1st Lieutenant

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    Don't forget Phil Sheridan. Grant promoted him consistently. Grant certainly was under no illusions about Sheridan's attitude toward the Indians.
     
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  14. DRW

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    I’m almost finshed with Simpson’s excellent “Triimph Over Adversity.” What additional material is covered by “Let Us Have Peace”, which I see predates “triumph”?
     
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  15. Bee

    Bee Captain Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    Let Us Have Peace is a great follow-up to Triumph Over Adversity, because it offers insight into many of Grant's actions/decisions. There is some overlap, as LUHP is based on Prof Simpson's dissertation (and likely the inspiration for TOA) However, I found the approach/information diverse enough to see value in reading both books.
     
  16. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    As I recall, "Triumph" ends at the end of the war. "Let Us Have Peace" covers some of the same ground from 1861 to 1865 with more focus on Grant mastering the military/political dynamic over time, and then demonstrates that he was a real player from 1865 to 1868. Grant the Washington Heavy Weight is the story that "Let Us Have Peace" tells.

    I read them both back to back a few years ago, so they get mixed up a little in my mind, but I did not have the feeling that I was rereading the same book. Both are really terrific.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2017
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  17. 8thFlorida

    8thFlorida Sergeant

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    Forgot about him. Yep, Sheridan was not friendly to the Native Americans.
     
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  18. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Agreed.
     
  19. DRW

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    Triumph is a model for biography writing. Perfect balance of personal and public, narrative and analysis. Admiring but far from worshipful. An ideal length at just under 500 pages. Scholarly mining of sources but very accessible, even “popular history” writing style; the Appomattox section is actually moving. The handling of Grant’s drinking is effectively suggestive (basically: where there is so much smoke, there must at least be an ember or more) without overdoing it. My only minor criticism is that I can’t figure out how Grant was filling most of his days for those 10 months outside Petersburg.
     
  20. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Smoked.
     
  21. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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