November 4, 2017

RIGHT MAN, RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME:

Hysterical mobs are crudely judging history. One book offers a better way. : a review of Grant by Ron Chernow  (George F. Will, November 3, 2017, Washington Post)

He was hopelessly naive regarding the rascality unleashed by the sudden postwar arrival of industrialism entangled with government. But the corruptions during his administration showed only his negligence, not his cupidity. More importantly, Grant, says Chernow, "showed a deep reservoir of courage in directing the fight against the Ku Klux Klan and crushing the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history." He ranks behind only Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson as a presidential advancer of African American aspirations.

After the presidency, he was financially ruined by his characteristic misjudgment of the sort of miscreants who abused his trust when he was president. His rescuer from the wreckage inflicted by a 19th-century Madoff was Mark Twain, who got Grant launched on his memoirs. This taciturn, phlegmatic military man of few words, writing at a punishing pace during the agony of terminal cancer, produced the greatest military memoir in the English language, and the finest book published by any U.S. president.

Chernow is clear-eyed in examining and evenhanded in assessing Grant's defects. He had an episodic drinking problem but was not a problem drinker: He was rarely incapacitated, and never during military exigencies or when with Julia, his wife. Far from being an unimaginative military plodder profligate with soldiers' lives, he was by far the war's greatest soldier, tactically and strategically, and the percentage of casualties in his armies was, Chernow says, "often lower than those of many Confederate generals."


Sentimentality about Robert E. Lee has driven much disdain for Grant. Chernow's judgment about Lee is appropriately icy: Even after failing to dismember the nation, he "remained a southern partisan" who "never retreated from his retrograde views on slavery."

Geoffrey Perret makes the point, in his fine Grant bio, that his reputation as president suffers because he was the first to oversee the massively enlarged government that the Civil War left behind.  So the scandals of his administration, which seemed unique at the time, became routine in ensuing decades.

Posted by at November 4, 2017 10:17 PM

  

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