Ron Chernow’s “Grant”

For years, John and I have defended the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, rated by most historians as a failure and by some as among the worst in American history. This post is, I think, my most extensive commentary on the subject.

In addition to defending Grant’s presidency, my post considers why historians have treated it so unfairly. The answer, I argued, is that historians found it in their interest to slam Grant. Southern historians, whose influence was too large for a long period, hated Reconstruction, which Grant oversaw and took seriously (they also, in many cases, resented the successful war he waged on the Confederacy).

Democrat historians hate the economics of the era Grant, among other Republican presidents, presided over. Unbridled capitalism, and all that.

The fatal blows against Grant’s presidency were struck, however, by a Northern Republican, Henry Adams. The savage attack he launched against Grant in The Education of Henry Adams, published commercially almost 100 years ago, is still quoted today. It reflects the snobbish criticism Adams had articulated privately for decades.

As I tried to show in my post, Adams’ criticism was made in bad faith. Indeed, Adams basically admitted as much in his Education. As he belatedly acknowledged, he turned against Grant because one of the president’s cabinet selections, George Boutwell of Massachusetts, was a political rival of his family. Boutwell’s selection, he complained melodramatically, “cut short the life which Adams had laid out for himself in the future” and “meant. . .the total extinction of anyone resembling Henry Adams.”

In other words, Adams attacked Grant not as good faith political commentator or historian, but as a disappointed office seeker.

Ron Chernow, the distinguished biographer of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, has just published a biography of Grant. One of us, most likely Scott, linked a while back to a review of Chernow’s Grant in the New Yorker. The review is by Adam Gopnik.

Gopnik starts his review just where he should — at the moment when Henry Adams waits breathlessly in the Capitol Building for word of Grant’s Cabinet appointments. This was the moment that determined the accepted narrative of Grant the president, and Grant the non-military personage, until now. Gopnik’s review suggests to me that Chernow’s book may finally reverse the view Adams so successfully promoted.

According to Gopnik:

[Chernow] makes a convincing case that Grant actually behaved nobly, even heroically, while in the White House. He pressed the cause of black equality under the law, and was consistently on the right side of Reconstruction-era issues — winning more heartfelt praise from Frederick Douglass than Lincoln ever did.

The reason Reconstruction failed, and ended with the reimposition of an apartheid system, had to do with an exasperating coalition of self-styled Northern “reformers” and the openly revanchist, anti-Grant Southerners — misguided progressives making common cause with true reactionaries against a well-meaning middle — and also with a general battle fatigue that afflicted the nation.

It’s a case I’ve subscribed to since reading Brooks Simpson’s The Reconstruction Presidents years ago.

Chernow also presses the case against Henry Adams and other snobs who were able to paint the negative picture of Grant that persisted even after historians finally came to recognize his heroic efforts in the Reconstruction Era. Gopnik writes:

With class animosities disguised as high-minded mistrust, Adams’s anti-Grant virus communicated itself to other “reformers,” who saw in Grant’s readiness to use the normal spoils system of civil-service appointments a form of rampant corruption.

What they missed, Chernow notes, was Grant’s remarkable advances in hiring minorities to federal positions. Small incidents of nepotism, Chernow maintains, have “overshadowed this far more important narrative.” Grant’s open affirmative action on behalf of the Jews—he “appointed more than fifty Jewish citizens” at one friend’s request alone, “including consuls, district attorneys and deputy postmasters”—was doubly significant given that, in a fit of anger at a handful of opportunistic merchants in the midst of the war, he had imposed an anti-Jewish ukase in one district under occupation.

They also missed the fact that George Boutwell, whose appointment caused Adams to start beating the anti-Grant drum, was a fine Secretary of the Treasury and an important, though underappreciated, figure throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Boutwell was anything but a hack.

Towards the end of his review, Gopnik veers off into incoherent praise of modern identity politics as practiced by the Democratic Party. He fails to distinguish between, on the one hand, opening opportunities to groups that have largely been excluded from office because of race and religion and, on the other, creating a racial spoils system.

But before going off the deep end, Gopnik makes a compelling case for Chernow’s new book. In light of the review, the subject, and Chernow’s past work, the publication of Grant might well be a landmark event.

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