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. This is one of two, the other written by Josiah Bunting III that is part of Times Books’ “The American Presidents” series, with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. serving as general editor. Although both Korda and Bunting cover much of the same material, there are significant differences between their respective approaches to the18th president of the United States.
For example, Bunting clearly 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 which 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.”
In his Epilogue, Korda explains that he wrote this book because, from time to time, “it is necessary to remind Americans about Grant, first of all because his is a kind of real-life Horatio Alger story, exactly the one that foreigners have always wanted to believe about American life…and that Americans want to believe about themselves.” Yes, his presidency was severely flawed but as a general, Grant “defined for all time the American way of winning a war”: It must have an essentially moral base to earn and sustain the full support of the American people, it must take full advantage of its great industrial strength and depth of manpower, and it must apply aggressively – without hesitation — all of its resources to achieve the ultimate military objective, total victory.
However, Korda suggests that any politician contemplating the use of military force should first consider lessons which Grant learned from failed Reconstruction initiatives in the South: “armies of occupation are no substitute for political thought, and that generals are not be necessarily the right people to institute basic political reforms or to reconstruct society.”
It remains for others much better qualified than I am to comment on the relevance of that statement to America’s current military involvement in various parts of the world. However, I greatly appreciate Korda’s attempt to provide a balanced view of Grant in terms of his character, talents, and values…all of which served him so well on the battlefield but which proved insufficient to the political challenges which he encountered later as the 18th president of the United States.