Evidence of national discernment, although never abundant, can now be found high on The New York Times combined print and e-book best seller list. There sits Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Simpson Grant, which no reader will wish were shorter than its 1,074 pages. Arriving at a moment when excitable individuals and hysterical mobs are demonstrating crudeness in assessing historical figures, Chernow’s book is a tutorial on measured, mature judgment.
It has been said that the best biographer is a conscientious enemy of his or her subject – scrupulous but unenthralled. Chernow, laden with honors for his biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, is a true friend of the general who did so much to preserve the nation. And of the unjustly maligned president – the only one between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two full consecutive terms. He nobly, if unsuccessfully, strove to prevent the war’s brutal aftermath in the South from delaying, for a century, freedom’s arrival there.
After reluctantly attending West Point and competently participating in the war with Mexico, his military career foundered on alcohol abuse exacerbated by the aching loneliness of a man missing his family. His civilian life was marred by commercial failures. Then the war came. Four years after he was reduced to selling firewood on St. Louis streets, he was leading the siege of Vicksburg. Six years after Vicksburg fell he was president.
And a good one. He was hopelessly naive regarding the rascality unleashed by the sudden postwar arrival of industrialism entangled with government. But the corruptions during his administration showed only his negligence, not his cupidity. More importantly, Grant, says Chernow, “showed a deep reservoir of courage in directing the fight against the Ku Klux Klan and crushing the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history.” He ranks behind only Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson as a presidential advancer of African-American aspirations.
After the presidency, he was financially ruined by his characteristic misjudgment of the sort of miscreants who abused his trust when he was president. His rescuer from the wreckage inflicted by a 19th- century Madoff was Mark Twain, who got Grant launched on his memoirs. This taciturn, phlegmatic military man of few words, writing at a punishing pace during the agony of terminal cancer, produced the greatest military memoir in the English language, and the finest book published by any U.S. president.
Chernow is clear-eyed in examining and evenhanded in assessing Grant’s defects. He had an episodic drinking problem but was not a problem drinker: He was rarely incapacitated, and never during military exigencies or when with Julia. Far from being an unimaginative military plodder profligate with soldiers’ lives, he was by far the war’s greatest soldier, tactically and strategically, and the percentage of casualties in his armies was, Chernow says, “often lower than those of many Confederate generals.”
Sentimentality about Robert E. Lee has driven much disdain for Grant. Chernow’s judgment about Lee is appropriately icy: Even after failing to dismember the nation he “remained a southern partisan” who “never retreated from his retrograde views on slavery.”
Chernow’s large readership (and the successes of such non-academic historians as Rick Atkinson, Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jon Meacham, Erik Larson and others) raises a question: Why are so many academic historians comparatively little read? Here is a hint from the menu of presentations at the 2017 meeting of the Organization of American Historians: The titles of 30 included some permutation of the word “circulation” (e.g., “Circulating/Constructing Heterosexuality,” “Circulating Suicide as Social Criticism,” “Circulating Tourism Imaginaries from Below”). Obscurantism enveloped in opacity is the academics’ way of assigning themselves status as members of a closed clerisy indulging in linguistic fads. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who is impatient with academics who are vain about being unintelligible, confesses himself mystified by the “circulating” jargon. This speaks well of him.
Chernow leans against today’s leveling winds of mindless egalitarianism – the belief that because greatness is rare, celebrating it is undemocratic. And against the populist tear-them-down rage to disparage. The political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, Harvard’s conservative, says education should teach how to praise. How, that is, to recognize excellence of character when it is entwined, as it always is, with flaws. And how to acknowledge excellence of achievement amid the contingencies that always partially defeat good intentions. Chernow’s “Grant” is a gift to a nation presently much in need of measured judgments about its past.
George Will is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @georgewill