by Ron Chernow (Penguin, $40)
With this fine new biography, “the Grant rehabilitation is in full swing,” said David Shribman in The Boston Globe. Not too long ago, Ulysses S. Grant was considered, at best, a fatally flawed hero—accused of drunkenness, of needless butchery during the Civil War, and of inviting corrupt friends and family members into the White House. But in recent years historians have begun stripping away these negative depictions to find a far more admirable figure. At 1,000-plus pages, Ron Chernow’s bio is even more massive than Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses, published last year, and it “requires substantial reader commitment.” But Chernow rewards persistence with a convincing vindication of a pivotal figure in American history.
Chernow, a historian whose fame skyrocketed after Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a musical based on his 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, is at times “defen sive about his hero’s weaknesses,” said Alex Shephard in The New Republic. He struggles to explain away Grant’s strange vulnerability to fraudsters and corrupt allies, and his “odious” 1862 expulsion of Jews from three states under Union control. But much of Chernow’s defense is solid. He frames Grant’s alcoholism as a disease that he strove to overcome rather than a character defect. And he persuasively explains how the Union Army’s top general won the war with an unbeatable command of logistics. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Chernow’s book lies in its insightful treatment of Reconstruction, with Grant marshaling federal power to defend the rights of newly freed African-Americans.
Grant’s deep commitment to America’s ideals is inspiring—especially in this “tumultuous and divisive era,” said Bill Clinton in The New York Times. He used federal power to combat and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan, appointed African-Americans to important government posts, and fought for the 15th Amendment, giving former slaves the right to vote. In this compelling story of a country boy’s ascent to national leadership, Chernow leaves no doubt that “Grant’s contributions after Appomattox were as consequential to the survival of our democracy as any that came before.” ■