The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands

Ulysses S. Grant has been called “the most underrated American in history”. But he wasn’t underrated by his contemporaries. His achievements during the Civil War made him a national hero. He was elected President twice and probably would have been elected a third time if he’d chosen to run. He was celebrated around the world as the greatest living American. His death was mourned throughout the nation, even in the South. Eulogists compared him to Washington and Lincoln.

Yet he is mostly known today (if he is known at all) as a drunk, a relatively competent general, a terrible President and the occupant of Grant’s Tomb. It isn’t clear why his historical reputation suffered. One theory is that his enemies were better writers than his supporters.

In recent years, however, Grant’s reputation has improved, partly as the result of two biographies: Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and this book, The Man Who Saved the Union, by H. W. Brands. It’s hard to know how accurate any biography is, but Brands’ book suggests that Grant was a true American hero. Aside from Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for winning the Civil War. As President, he was the person most responsible for unifying the North and South. 

The strongest impression I got from reading The Man Who Saved the Union, especially from reading Grant’s own words (which Brands frequently quotes), is that Grant was an extremely decent and sensible man. He seems to have always chosen the honorable course over the expedient one, for example, by using the power of the federal government to protect the rights of the freed slaves, over violent opposition in the South, and by seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Indians in the West. 

As you would expect, Brands’ book loses some momentum when it gets to Grant’s post-war career. Still, it’s a wonderful, highly-readable biography of someone who was beloved in his own time and deserves to be appreciated in ours.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

According to The Great Agnostic, there were two great opponents of religion and proponents of naturalism in American history: Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Strangely, hardly anyone today has heard of Ingersoll. (For that matter, few Americans today know that Tom Paine had anything to say about religion.)

Robert Ingersoll was a world-famous lawyer and lecturer who lived from 1833 to 1899. He was considered perhaps the greatest orator of his day. He had an extremely successful career traveling all across the country, lecturing to large, appreciative crowds, among whom were many ordinary, religious Americans. He was a member of the social and political establishment, but his public statements opposing religion insured that he never held political office.

In Susan Jacoby’s words, Ingersoll “explained the true meaning and value of science … in a more understandable fashion than any scientist, even the brilliant popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley … Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him.” 

Among the targets of Ingersoll’s scorn were slavery, capital punishment, the subjugation of women, debtor’s prisons, the mistreatment of animal and Social Darwinism. He believed that “there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role” — for example, in the belief that the existence of the poor was God’s will, and the idea that men should exert authority over women. 

Jacoby suggests that Ingersoll’s primary purpose was to remind his countrymen that the United States was founded by men who rejected the idea of theocracy: “the glory of the founding generation was that it did not establish a Christian nation”. Ingersoll rejected all supernatural explanations for human behavior and the world around us, while hoping that science and reason would eventually lead us to a world of peace, justice and prosperity. Quoting him: “Man through his intelligence must protect himself. He gets no help from any other world…. Let the ghosts go. We will worship them no more”.

Ingersoll came to be known as the “Great Agnostic”, even though he saw no significant difference between agnosticism and atheism. It isn’t clear why his fame diminished over the years. Although his collected works comprise 12 volumes, perhaps his written words weren’t as powerful as his oratory. Maybe if he had written a good summary of his views, he would be as famous today as Thomas Paine is for writing “The Age of Reason” (which, unfortunately, isn’t very famous at all).

One of the virtues of The Great Agnostic is how it shows that our current cultural battles over religion are hardly new. The 19th century featured the same kinds of conflict, on topics like evolution, birth control and government support for religious education. We haven’t made as much progress as we should have. If there had been someone with Ingersoll’s convictions and abilities speaking out during the 20th century, and now in the 21st, we might be a better country today.

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis

History Man is the biography of R. G. Collingwood, a 20th century English philosopher best known for his work on the philosophy of history and aesthetics. Collingwood has been called “the best known neglected thinker of our time”. Although he was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, he stood apart from the main flow of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. For example, he criticized some academic philosophers for engaging in philosophical parlor games instead of dealing with real-world issues, such as the rise of fascism in Europe. 

In addition to teaching philosophy for many years, Collingwood did historical and archaeological research, especially on the history of Roman Britain. He emphasized the importance of a contextual approach to philosophy in which earlier thinkers are understood to be answering questions of their own time, not necessarily the same questions that current philosophers are interested in. 

Collingwood deserves to have his biography written, since he lead a more active life than most academic philosophers. Unfortunately, he died after a series of strokes at the age of 53. History Man does a decent job of telling Collingwood’s story, but is relatively weak as an explanation of his philosophy. The author is a professor of cultural studies, not a philosopher. The book is marred by some idiosyncratic syntax that requires occasional re-reading, but enlivened by the author’s cultural and political observations.  (3/26/13)

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller

Examined Lives tells the life stories of some famous philosophers. There are six ancients (Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine) and six moderns (Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, Nietzsche), but no one who lived after 1900. 

Some of these philosophers had lives that were relatively interesting, since national leaders and religious authorities used to care about what philosophers had to say. Some of them were hired to give advice and some were persecuted for the advice they gave. But even these twelve philosophers are mostly interesting because of what they said, not because of the lives they led.

The author is mainly concerned with whether the philosophers lived up to their ideals and their advice. Did they live the way they said a person should live in order to have a good life? Not very often. His main conclusion is that being a philosopher and examining your life is no guarantee of having a life worth living. Or, to be a little unkind: having a life worth reading about.  (4/27/12)