When I was in school, I got the impression that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk and a terrible President. Everyone agreed he helped the Union win the Civil War, but I assumed he must have been lucky. Maybe he was in the right place at the right time.
Some years ago, however, I learned that Grant’s autobiography is highly regarded by both historians and literary critics. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about it:
I had been comparing [Grant’s] memoirs with Caesar’s Commentaries… I was able to say in all sincerity, that the same high merits distinguished both books—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness, and avoidance of flowery speech. I placed the two books side by side upon the same high level, and I still think that they belonged there.
Grant began writing his memoirs after being diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Hoping to provide for his family, he worked quickly, although he was in constant pain. He finished five days before he died.
I’ve got a copy of Grant’s autobiography, but have never gotten around to it. Recently, however, I began reading The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands. It’s hard to know how accurate a biography is, but so far Grant is appearing in a very positive light, as a flawed but highly admirable human being.
Part of Grant’s appeal comes from his own words. For example, in regard to the Constitution:
It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies… The fathers would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.
And after the attack on Fort Sumter:
Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is, we have a Government and laws and a flag, and they must all be sustained. There are but two parties now, Traitors and Patriots, and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter.