Josiah Bunting’s Grant: A book review by Bob Morris

Ulysses S. Grant: The American Presidents Series: The 18th President, 1869-1877
Josiah Bunting
Times Books (2004)

Every year about this time, probably because of Presidents Day, I re-read brief biographies. This year, I selected Ulysses S, Grant (1822-1885), 18th President of the United States. Bunting’s one of the tw0, the other written by Michael Korda and included among the volumes which comprise the Atlas Books/HarperCollins’ “Eminent Lives” series, with James Atlas serving as general editor. Although both cover much of the same material, there are significant differences between their authors’ respective approaches to the18th president of the United States.

For example, Korda duly acknowledges the problems that awaited Grant after he was elected to his first term in 1869. “What did Grant’s reputation as a president in, however, (and continues to do so today whenever journalists and historians are drawing up lists of the best presidents vs. the worst ones), was the depression of 1873, which ushered in a long period of unemployment and distress, made politically more damaging by accusations that the president’s wealthy friends were making money out of it.” Given that the United States was growing too fast, in too many different directions at once, and the inevitable consequence was corruption and an unstable economy, it would have taken a more astute man than Grant to slow things down or clean them up.”

It is soon obvious in this volume that Bunting disagrees with, indeed resents the fact that Grant is generally remembered “as a general, not a president, [which] explains in part the condescension – there is no better word for it — from which pundits and historians have tended to write of him.” Bunting asserts that if judged by the consequences of Grant’s common sense, judgment, and intuition, his presidency, “so far from being one of the nation’s worst, may yet be seen as one of the best.”

Korda indicates no inclination to view Grant’s presidency as “one of the best.” He duly acknowledges the problems that awaited Grant after he was elected to his first term in 1869. “What did Grant’s reputation as a president in, however, (and continues to do so today whenever journalists and historians are drawing up lists of the best presidents vs. the worst ones), was the depression of 1873, which ushered in a long period of unemployment and distress, made politically more damaging by accusations that the president’s wealthy friends were making money out of it.” Given that the United States was growing too fast, in too many different directions at once, and the inevitable consequence was corruption and an unstable economy, “it would have taken a more astute man than Grant to slow things down or clean them up.”

This last observation by Korda is consistent with a contemporary assessment of Grant by the Edinburgh Review, one which Brooks Simpson quotes in his own study (Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction 1861-1868), and which Bunting also cites: “To bind up the wounds left by the war, to restore concord to the still distracted Union, to ensure real freedom to the Southern Negro, and full justice to the southern white; these are indeed tasks which might tax the powers of Washington himself or a greater than Washington, if such a man is to be found.”

With all due respect to Grant’s admirable personal qualities, I remain unconvinced by Bunting’s eloquent but – in my judgment – problematic endorsement of Grant’s leadership as president. The same “buck” that stops on a desk on a battlefield in Virginia also stops on a desk in the Oval Office.

Those who share my high regard for this volume are urged to check out Korda’s biography as well as Grant’s  Memoirs. Both Korda and Bunting cite a number of other sources worthy of consideration.

 


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