This week Readers Mine, W3 Wednesday is going to be pretty simple as I’m just going to focus on one book, Jean Edward Smith’s absolutely brilliant Grant. U.S. Grant has long been a hero of mine, and is one of those historical characters that continually fascinates. He has also been one of the primary targets of the so-called “Lost Cause” (or, as Smith unflinchingly labels it: "white supremacist") school of American historiography, which has resulted in a shift in his reputation from being the most famous and respected man in America to being largely regarded as a drunken incompetent. Only within the last 40 years, as the “Lost Cause” has been wholly discredited, have modern historians begun to seriously reexamine Grant’s life and, in the process, challenge the prevalent negative view of the man and his career as soldier and president.
Smith’s Grant is a powerful entry in this revisionist movement. Meticulously researched and annotated, written in an easily accessible, readable, and entertaining style, Grant is arguably the most complete biography of this complex man ever written. Though he admits to having a positive view of Grant, Smith’s lens is absolutely clear, and he unhesitatingly details the aspects of Grant’s life and personality that are less than flattering. Instead of using Grant’s defects of character as a means of demonizing or maligning him, or even as points requiring apologia, however, Smith reveals them to be what such failings usually are: part of the human condition in a man who was much greater than the sum of his parts.
Most fascinating for me was Smith’s careful attention to Grant’s two terms as president, a period that is often curiously neglected by historians and biographers alike. Traditional wisdom paints Grant as one of the most incompetent chief executives in US history, but the facts show something quite different. President Grant emerges as a man determined to insure the execution of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments throughout the United States, and to protect the rights of freedmen under the law, particularly in the postbellum south, long after the American public at large had lost interest in ensuring the civil rights of African Americans. Grant also enacted fundamental reforms in the government’s policy towards Native Americans preferring peace (albeit on American terms) to what he knew could easily become a war of extermination. During the economic crisis of 1873, Grant vetoed a bill to inflate the dollar by pumping unredeemable paper currency into circulation, and enacted legislation to return to a policy of specie-backed currency. His administrations were also responsible for the ground-breaking Washington Treaty between the US and Great Britain, breaking the Whiskey and Gold Rings, and the first survey of the Panama isthmus with the object of digging a canal. Far from being a political nonentity controlled by his cabinet, Grant was instead a deeply involved and tremendously active and effective president, and one who was unafraid to take full and final responsibility for his policies.
With Grant, Smith has written what I believe to be the seminal work to date on U.S. Grant, and done so in a superbly readable style. It is history that reads like a great novel: gripping, intense, and utterly, wonderfully human. Perhaps it is this that sets Smith’s work apart, for Grant is a truly humanistic book which brings its subject to vivid life, and gives the reader a real sense of who he was, not just as a soldier, general, president, and writer, but as a man. Wonderful, wonderful book. Buy it.