Triumph of Ulysses S. Grant
George Washington was the father of America, Abraham Lincoln was its savior and Ulysses S. Grant was its defender. With the publication of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” (Random House, 2016), author and historian Ronald C. White has written a biography for the ages. The prose is compact and forceful. The storytelling is energetic from beginning to end. And at 826 pages in length, “American Ulysses” reaches deep into the historical record to resurrect Cadet, General and President “Ulys” Grant as one of the most commanding figures in American history. By the end of this book, “readers will see how fortunate the nation was that Grant went into the world – to save the Union, to lead it, and, on his deathbed, to write one of the finest memoirs in all of American letters,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles. The following is a transcript of RealClearBooks's recent conversation with Ronald C. White.
You have written extensively on Abraham Lincoln. What initially interested you in Ulysses S. Grant?
Abraham Lincoln. Within the Lincoln story I discovered Grant; the one general Lincoln found that he could trust. As the 150th commemoration of the Civil War approached in 2011, I believed that Grant was due for an upgrade. After the first year of living with Grant, I had to confess that in writing about him in my Lincoln biography, I did not really know the man. And I suspected most Americans did not know him either. I set out to make him known.
The personalities and events of the Mexican War are often overshadowed by the Civil War. However, like many military leaders of his generation – Robert E. Lee, George Meade, James Longstreet and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, among others – Grant first saw combat in Mexico. How did Grant’s first combat experiences shape him?
Grant graduated from West Point not at all sure he wanted to pursue a career in the army. At his time, there was no compulsory time period one needed to serve. The Mexican War became an epiphany for him. He discovered his own courage. He liked the bonding with other officers. Importantly, Grant observed combat leadership firsthand. He contrasted General Winfield Scott – old “fuss and feathers” – who was a top down commander, with General Zachary Taylor – old “rough and ready.” He was drawn to Taylor; so approachable, a true bottom up commander. I believe Taylor became Grant’s first model of what leadership was all about. Taylor’s example helped form Grant’s own understanding of leadership—as general-in-chief and as president.
How do you characterize the relationship between President Lincoln and General Grant?
It was a mutual admiration society. Unlike previous generals with whom Lincoln dealt, Grant was very deferential to civilian leadership. He neither asked too much nor complained. And Grant’s modest demeanor endeared him to Lincoln.
For a dogged combat leader, Grant also was a staunch advocate for the rule of law during his presidency, despite the well-documented ethics scandals that have hobbled his legacy. In particular, President Grant sought and received damages through international arbitration for the destruction of Union merchant ships by Confederate Navy vessels built by Great Britain (Alabama claims), and he forcefully backed civil and voting rights for African-Americans. Did his wartime experiences foster or enhance his faith in the power of law and democratic institutions?
Grant was always averse to “big Me” personalities, and he met one in President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Lincoln. Previously non-political, he was drawn not to the president but to Congress and the Reconstruction laws they passed. Grant was determined to carry out these laws.
If during the Civil War Grant was angry about Great Britain’s role in building Confederate raiding ships, then after the war he saw the need to come to an agreement over the Alabama Claims. Furthermore, Grant believed, along with his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, that the treaty with Great Britain could set in motion the principle of international arbitration based on international law.
I believe the attribute of Grant’s presidency that most speaks to today’s politics was his strong defense of the right of African-Americans to vote.
Today we see a resurgence of voter suppression, as at least 17 states try or have tried to restrict the voting rights under the false charge of voter fraud. Similarly, Grant had to contend with his own epidemic of voter suppression. The Ku Klux Klan, often in league with the Democratic party, was a terrorist group that through violent intimidation sought to suppress the votes of African-Americans who they knew would vote overwhelmingly Republican. Grant appealed to the Constitution and the Reconstruction amendments to protect these rights.
What was Grant’s greatest weakness? What was his greatest strength?
His greatest weakness was the obverse side of one of his greatest strengths: trust. He trusted his commanders, even ones like Ambrose Burnside, who had failed in previous commands. Serving under Grant, Grant’s trust brought out the best in Ambrose.
But he trusted too much as President, both men whom had served under him in the military, and cabinet officers he did not know well. He found it hard to believe that power could corrupt in Washington, but it did.
Civil-military relations have become frequent topics of discussion since President Trump selected three retired generals to serve in his administration. There is some fear that the ex-generals are usurping civilian control of the military. How might you characterize the relationships between generals and their commanders-in-chief during the Mexican War and through the Civil War period?
Grant was a strong believer that the military needed to be subservient to civilian leadership. This proved problematic in the Mexican War when President James Polk worried that Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, both Whigs, could use their war hero status to run for President.
However, this worked well for Grant under the remarkable leadership of Lincoln, and he tried to make it work with the often-acerbic personality of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Grant was extremely self-conscious about his high-profile past as a combat leader; he worked vigilantly to present himself as a civilian president.