Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Today

Having heretofore avoided reading a book about Reconstruction, one of the worst periods in American history, I decided to read a book about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, two of the worst periods in American history (on the theory that reading a book about Reconstruction and something else would dilute the nevertheless disturbing account of Reconstruction).

The book was The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, by Stanford University historian Richard White. It’s one of nine volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. It’s got 872 pages of text and weighs 3 1/2 pounds.

It wasn’t what you’d call a “fun read”. This is part of the publisher’s summary:

At the end of the Civil War the leaders and citizens of the victorious North envisioned the country’s future as a free-labor republic, with a homogenous citizenry, both black and white. The South and West were to be reconstructed in the image of the North. Thirty years later Americans occupied an unimagined world. The unity that the Civil War supposedly secured had proved ephemeral. The country was larger, richer, and more extensive, but also more diverse. Life spans were shorter, and physical well-being had diminished, due to disease and hazardous working conditions. Independent producers had become wage earners. The country was Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant, and increasingly urban and industrial. The “dangerous” classes of the very rich and poor expanded, and deep differences — ethnic, racial, religious, economic, and political — divided society. The corruption that gave the Gilded Age its name was pervasive.

One thing that summary leaves out is that the period also included “taming the West”, more appropriately described as inflicting cultural devastation and mass murder on the American Indians. It also leaves out the horrors inflicted on former slaves (and some of their white supporters) in the South, the stunningly successful effort to undo the results of the Civil War using a biased legal system and more mass murder (there were places in states like Alabama and Mississippi where maybe 1% of black citizens cast ballots).

Two of the big political issues of this period were tariffs (what taxes should be applied to imports) and money (whether it should be based on gold or silver). Corruption in government, recurring financial panics and the economics of farming were also major concerns. But in some ways, American politics looked a lot like today, with inequality, the power of big business and limits on immigration being major issues. 

These two illustrations show something else that hasn’t changed. The first shows the presidential election of 1896; the second shows the one we had last year. 

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The big difference between the two maps, of course, is that between 1896 and 2020 the two parties switched sides. Partly because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern racists became Republicans (not what you’d expect from the Party of Lincoln) and Northern and west coast liberals became Democrats.

American Hero: Why They Gave Him a Giant Tomb

You might not want to read a 1,000 page biography of one of your heroes. After months of reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, I’m more aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s mistakes. But I’m more appreciative of his accomplishments.

A low-ranked graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican War while later condemning it as “one of the more unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. He left the military under a cloud, failed at farming and ended up working as a clerk in his father’s store. When the Civil War began, he took command of some Illinois volunteers and was made a colonel. After a series of victories, Abraham Lincoln made him General of the Army, the army’s senior officer, responsible for directing the Union’s entire war effort. In his final campaign, he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee and respectfully accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

In 1868, the Republican Party, back when they were the liberals, chose him as their presidential candidate. He served two terms, rare for presidents in the 19th century. His administration was plagued by scandals, but none involved him personally. As president, he oversaw the South’s re-entry into the union while protecting the rights of former slaves. He overcame political resistance in order to suppress horribly violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He sought peace with the Indians, admitting that white settlers were often the source of conflict in the West. He was the president who most attempted to reform the South in the process known as Reconstruction (which ended when he left office). As the victor in the Civil War and a popular former president, he took a triumphal tour around the world, was the naïve victim of a serious financial scandal, and wrote one of history’s best memoirs while suffering for months from throat cancer.

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These are some of the final pages of that very long biography. They show what the people who knew him best thought of him:

Characteristically, the dying Grant was stoically concerned with his family’s well-being after he was gone, saying, “I hope no one will be distressed on my account.” . .  At 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died so gently that nobody was quite certain at first that his spirit had stolen away. . . .

With flags lowered to half-mast across America and mourning symbols swathing the White House, the Grant family conducted a private funeral . . . on August 4. Two days later Grant’s casket began a journey southward from Albany to New York City, where three hundred thousand people filed past the open coffin as it lay in state at City Hall. People descended on Manhattan in record numbers for the public funeral on August 8. They poured on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, descended from elevated railroad stations, and slipped into the city through Grand Central Depot. The 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history. At 8:30 a.m. on August 8, Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque that had black plumes sprouting at each corner. Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses . . .  Every protocol for a military funeral was followed, including the riderless horse with boots facing backward in the stirrups. The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored.

The grandeur emphasized the central place that Grant had occupied in the Civil War and its aftermath. “Out of all the hubbub of the war,” wrote Walt Whitman, “Lincoln and Grant emerge, the towering majestic figures.” Whitman thought they had lived exemplary lives that vindicated the American spirit, showing how people lifted from the lower ranks of society could attain greatness. “I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.”

The procession streamed up Broadway until it reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, where it took on a veritable army of dignitaries, including all the members of the Grant family except for [his wife] Julia, who remained secluded . . . President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet, and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage, sending fifteen U.S. senators, twelve congressmen, eighteen governors, and ten mayors to pay their respects. From city halls across America, eight thousand civil and municipal officers converged to participate in the march.

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Nobody doubted that William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan would serve as honorary pallbearers, but Julia Grant knew her husband would have wanted two Confederate generals to balance their northern counterparts, so Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner represented the South. Predictably, northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. . . . Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Rabbi E. B. M. Browne acted as an honorary pallbearer . . . At Grant’s death, Philadelphia’s Jewish Record observed, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew, and . . . in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

Southern reaction to Grant’s death signified a posthumous triumph. His onetime image as a fierce warrior of the Civil War had been replaced by that of a more pacific figure. As the News and Courier of South Carolina editorialized, “Had his life ended but a few years since, the mourning for the great leader would have been more or less sectional in its manifestation. Dying as he now dies, the grief is as widespread as the Union.” Grant had won over unlikely southern converts. When John Singleton Mosby learned of his death, he was bereft: “I felt I had lost my best friend.” In Gainesville, Georgia, a white-bewhiskered James Longstreet emerged in a dressing gown to tell a reporter emotionally that Grant “was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage.

Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Church bells tolled and muffled drums resounded as the funeral procession glided past buildings shrouded in black, The New York Times likening the uninterrupted flow of humanity to a giant “river into which many tributaries were poured.” The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site. . . . 

By midafternoon, in bright sunshine, the funeral cortege reached the small temporary brick tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. Warships floating in the Hudson River let loose a cannonade in tribute to Grant. A lone bugler blew taps at the vault—the same tune that had floated over Grant’s army camps during the war. As the notes drifted over the crowd, Sherman stood ramrod straight, his body shaking with tears. It was a memorable sight: the bête noire of the South, seemingly impervious to softer feelings, overcome with profound emotion.

A dozen years later, on a cool spring day, with more than a million people in attendance, President William McKinley presided over the dedication of the General Grant National Memorial—“Grant’s Tomb” in popular parlance—financed by public contributions. Leading the fund-raising drive had been the lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, which would have pleased Grant. An opulent domed affair of granite and marble, Grant’s Tomb was the largest mausoleum in North America. When Julia Grant died of heart failure in 1902 at age seventy-six . . . she and Ulysses were entombed together. They lay encased in red granite sarcophagi housed in an open structure much too monumental for these two simple midwestern souls. The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.

Perhaps nobody had watched the funeral procession on August 8, 1885, with a wider range of emotions than Mark Twain, who stared down for five hours on the somber pageantry from the windows of his publishing office at Union Square. He would always be indescribably proud to have published Grant’s Personal Memoirs . . .  At the end of the funeral, when the crowds had dispersed, he and William Tecumseh Sherman retreated to the Lotos Club, where they sat down over liquor and cigars to wrestle anew with the mystery of Grant’s personality—a source of never-ending wonder to both men. Sherman always insisted that Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he had never encountered before.

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Looking Back at Another Age of Acrimony

I’ve got two big books in a holding pattern. First, there’s Grant, Ron Chernow’s enormous biography of Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve read most of it, but now that the Civil War is over and Grant’s been elected president, I’m having trouble going forward. The other one is the almost equally enormous The Republic For Which It Stands by the historian Richard White. Its subtitle is “The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896”. I’m only a few pages into that one.

The problem is that White’s book and the next 300 pages of Chernow’s both deal with Reconstruction — the failed attempt to give Black people equal rights in the South after the war — and the Gilded Age — the period from around 1870 to 1900 that featured rapid economic growth and increasing inequality in the whole country. It might be too much to read further about that important and relevant period while living through our own version of the Gilded Age, with its astounding inequality and troubled politics (now featuring dangerous attacks on voting rights).

Anyway, Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article about the same period. It’s by Jon Grinspan, the author of The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915. The article is much shorter than any of these books. Here’s most of it: 

. . . Most people don’t often think about the politics of the late 1800s. Call it “historical flyover country,” an era stranded between more momentous times, when U.S. presidents had funny names and silly facial hair. But for our current political crisis, this period is the most relevant, vital and useful. The nation’s wild elections saw the highest turnouts and the closest margins, as well as a peak in political violence. Men and women campaigned, speechified and fought over politics, in a system struggling with problems all too familiar today. . . .

American democracy held revolutionary new promise in the mid-1800s. For all its flaws, the nation was experimenting with a bold new system of government—one of the first in world history to give decisive political power to people without wealth, land or title. Working-class voters predominated at the polls. Poor boys grew up to be president. And reformers fought for votes for women and Black Americans.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, with slavery dead, the old aristocracy vanquished, and four million formerly enslaved people hoping for new rights, Americans began to talk about “pure democracy.” That concept was never well defined, but for many activists, it meant that it was time for the people to rule. But how to get a busy, distractable, diverse nation to participate?

Decades earlier—from the 1820s to the 1850s—campaigners tried to engage voters by building bonfires, holding barbecues and offering plenty of stump speeches while handing out booze. Then, on the eve of the Civil War, supporters of Abe Lincoln’s hit on a new style. Lincoln’s Republican party introduced the “Wide Awakes” clubs to America. Gangs of young partisans, wearing dark, shimmering martial uniforms and armed with flaming torches, stormed through towns and cities in midnight marches. For the half century after 1860, every political campaign worth mentioning borrowed this approach, organizing massive rallies of tens of thousands of uniformed, torch-waving marchers. Diverse crowds turned out, from boisterous veteran voters to rowdy boys, from grandmothers to young women, from journalists armed with pens to political rivals armed with their revolvers.

Such public politics became, in the words of one comedian, “our great American game.” Political rancor grew precipitously. Saloons resounded with heated debates. On train cars, Americans took straw polls to see how strangers would vote. At dinner tables, families bonded—or broke up—debating an upcoming race. Even when exhausted Americans threw down their newspapers, they looked up only to find partisan broadsides slathered on every wall. “Ignorance is bliss now,” complained one woman as she canceled her political newspapers, weary of the whole spectacle.

For voters, participation meant an even deeper immersion. Election Day was a communal, combative, boozy bacchanal. White’s metaphor was apt, when people voted, they literally got drunk on Election Day. One Norwegian wrote home from Chicago, remarking that “it was fun to see” crowds of workers leaving their factories to go vote, “either before or after stopping at a bar.” During the 1876 election, which drew an unprecedented 81.8 percent turnout—Rutherford B. Hayes’s campaign handed out massive oversize beer steins, despite the fact that Hayes and his wife were devout teetotalers.

All the carousing culminated at a rambunctious polling place, when a voter selected a colorful ticket from his party’s ballot “peddlers,” made his way past the opposing party’s intimidating “challengers,” and placed his vote in a wooden or glass ballot box. Amid singing, shouting and heckling from the other voters in his community, it was a scene of heated, convulsive political theater. The system seemed designed to take over life, distort opinions, attract bad actors, raise voices and destroy civility.

In northern cities, a sneering establishment worried that the system was dominated by a working-class majority who could always outvote them. The celebrated Boston aristocrat Francis Parkman famously complained that democracy didn’t work in his 1878 “The Failure of Universal Suffrage,” a screed that claimed that the voters were “a public pest” and that the real threat to America came not from above, but beneath. Belief in equality and majority rule, Parkman argued, was destroying America.

Equal suffrage met even more aggressive attacks in the South. White supremacist ex-Confederates, who lost the war and had remained on the fringes of politics for most of a decade after, used the Democratic party to terrorize Black voters, end Reconstruction and dramatically suppress voter participation. Within a few short years of the end of slavery, one million formerly enslaved Americans became voters, but most lost their rights nearly as quickly as Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow era began.

In the North, voter turnouts peaked from 1876 to 1896, and elections were never closer. No president in this period came to office by winning a majority of the popular vote [i.e. the presence of multiple candidates in the elections from 1876 to 1892 meant nobody got more than 50% ]. Even with racial issues falling out of the national spotlight, fights over money and inequality fired up voters.

Though the electorate turned out in huge numbers, marchers filled squares and newspapers attacked rivals, politics failed to bring real change. This system—overheating and yet standing still—led only to anger and agitation. In 1881, the mentally ill drifter Charles Guiteau, who had campaigned for President James Garfield at torchlit rallies, felt slighted and decided that America would be better off if the “President was out of the way.” So Guiteau bought the largest pistol he could find, and shot Garfield—the murder was the second assassination of a president in just 16 years. Within two decades, another madman would gun down President William McKinley. And every seven years, on average, a sitting congressman was murdered.

American politics had hit on an amazing ability to mobilize citizens, but also to agitate them to unspeakable violence. Citizens looked for someone to blame. Presidents were criticized, but really the executive branch was so weak that they could do very little. Powerful party bosses often nominated friendly, malleable do-nothings to the job. More people blamed politicians as a class. Brilliant cartoonists like Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler mocked politicians as snarling beasts, overfed vultures, sniveling rats and thuggish bosses. Others attacked the rising immigration rates, like Francis Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who blamed America’s out-of-control politics on “alien illiterates.” Others still aimed (more accurate) attacks at railroads, corporations, robber barons and lobbyists who seemed to be buying up America. The muckraking reporter Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that “liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.”

. . . Some well-to-do reformers blamed, not individuals or groups, but the culture and etiquette of American democracy. All those noisy rallies were nothing more than a “silly sort of show,” those busy polling places were “vulgar,” “venal” and “filthy.” American democracy, a growing upper middle-class movement argued, needed an intervention, and in an era of Temperance politics, reformers knew just how to achieve it.

First, they went after the booze. Reform organizations pulled the liquor licenses from political fundraisers, closed saloons on Election Day and passed prohibition laws on the county and state level. Voters were more clearheaded, but those partisan saloons had been key institutions for working-class men. Shutting them down meant shutting many out.

Cities banned marches without permits and used police and militias to punish unlawful assembly. And parties desperate to win over “the better class of people,” as one reformer put it, stopped paying for torches, uniforms, fireworks and whiskey. Campaigners shifted from thrilling street-corner oratory to printed pamphlets. To some, these changes looked like innovations. The Los Angeles Times cheered the citizens who had spent previous elections “on the street corner shouting, or in the torchlight procession,” but could now be “found at home” reading quietly.

Starting in 1887, state after state switched to the secret ballot—a dense government form that was cast privately—and dispatched with party-printed tickets. By isolating each voter “alone with his conscience” in the polling booth, or behind a voting machine’s curtain, he was certainly made more reflective, but also more removed. Those who could not read English, who had previously voted by color-coded ballots, were out of luck with the complicated machines, text-heavy ballots or unsympathetic poll workers. And those who participated in Election Day because they enjoyed the day as a nationwide happening, with its the sense of community and membership, saw little appeal with the new confessional box style.

Predictably, turnout crashed. In the 1896 presidential election, 80 percent of eligible Americans were still voting, but by 1924, voter participation plummeted to fewer than 49 percent. Voters who were poorer, younger, less well-educated, African American, or immigrants or children of immigrants were especially shut out of the political arena. White, middle class Americans cheered the trend, with some even bragging about the low turnouts. “It was gratifying,” reported an Augusta, Georgia, newspaper in 1904 “to see voting booths free of noisy crowds.”

The revolution lasted for a century. What Americans now consider “normal politics” was really stifled Democracy, the post-intervention cool, calm model—lower drama but lower participation. Now, however, those old tendencies may be creeping back.

. . . Tribalism, division and “general cussedness” (as they used to call it) is up, but so is attention and turnout. The two might go hand-in-hand; the 2020 election was the first since 1900 to boast turnouts above 66 percent. . . .

Unquote.

I agree with the author that more democracy would be a good thing. The question is whether more democracy can be achieved without more political turmoil and strife (and more bullshit peddled by one of our major parties).

Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.

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.