It’s been a tough winter. But tough winters, with the accompanying housebound syndrome and flu, is perfect for you know what—yes, reading! Here’s my recommendation for keeping the howling north wind and frigid temperatures at bay, “Grant,” by Ron Chernow. I read Chernow’s “Hamilton” and “Washington,” so it was only fair that I should follow up with “Grant.” It’s 1,100 pages long. No fooling. It took me well over a month to read, and my satisfaction is akin to the feeling one gets after completing a 10,000 piece puzzle. Just reading the monster was an accomplishment. But boy, oh boy, did I receive an education.
Like most people, I had a “ho-hum” attitude about Grant, largely formed from my public-school education—that being he was a do-nothing drunk president and Northern Army General whose victories were mainly due to superior numbers. I had even read a book years ago that unabashedly theorized that Grant was complicit in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. God forgive me. Grant hero-worshiped Lincoln and was crushed by his death. Grant’s only goal was to complete the job Lincoln had started. Grant led the charge to ratify the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery, established citizenship, and granted voting rights to all people born in the United States.
British historian James Bryce assigned Grant “the front rank of presidents with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.” The historian Sean Wilentz stated, “The evidence clearly shows that Grant created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.” Grant oversaw the creation of the Justice Department, whose first duty was to bring thousands of indictments against the Klu Klux Klan.
On a personal note, I appreciated all the period language used by Chernow, not only in quotations, but in his normal flow of writing. For example, “raconteur,” “cant,” “quondam,” “strabismus,” “refractory,” “truculence,” “grapeshot,” “schadenfreude,” “gauche,” “brevet,” “panache,” “ennui,” “amalgam,” “patent” (adjective), and “caviling” are just a few of the words that kept my fingers busy calling up the internal Kindle dictionary.
Grant’s father “hornswoggled” a West Point appointment for his son, Ulysses, because it was a free education and Ulysses didn’t seem adept at doing anything else. Ulysses, early on in his military career, showed his gratitude by being drummed out of the army for drunkenness and insubordination. He then tried a series of private business ventures with his father and brother and was a drastic failure at that, also. When the Mexican-American War came along, Ulysses offered up his services as an experienced military officer, and his military career was off and running. It appears that Ulysses had an innate ability to command brilliantly while under fire, but not when the pressure was off—which was when he would succumb to alcohol. An interesting detail about Grant’s alcoholism is that he didn’t seem to be plagued by hangovers. He could go on a four-day bender, come to, dust himself off and take charge without missing a beat. He took the oath of temperance many, many times.
When the South seceded, Grant was appalled. In his estimation, the only sates that had that right were the original 13. The other states had been purchased and were property. Grant’s opinion, however, soon changed to the benefit of the slaves—they had human rights just like everyone else.
Such a respected and popular figure was Grant, that he nearly obtained a third term as president—and would have if he had campaigned. Campaigning for one’s self was generally frowned on at the time.
My next cold-weather challenge, “Leonardo Da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson.
Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at email@example.com or find him on Facebook. Curt’s stories are also read at 106.3 FM in Farmington.