After completing the Buffett biography last week, which I savored with a relish that epitomizes why I love reading (I loved this book!), I didn’t miss a beat in picking up another large and promising tome: Ron Chernow’s “Grant,” about famed Civil War general and two-time president Ulysses S. Grant.
I very much enjoyed reading Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” last year (yes, the book that inspired the hit musical), so I had positive expectations of this one. Also, I always admired Grant, from the Civil War reading I had done in the past. However, I was a little bit weary of starting another large book, only because in the past year I put down at least a half dozen books because I could not get into them. Not only that, but it appears I rebelled against reading during this time, perhaps as an act of protest from trying to force myself to read things I didn’t want to. I feared this happening again.
I am pleased to say that I am very much enjoying “Grant” ! In particular, I have been repeatedly moved and fascinated by Chernow’s depiction of Grant as a flawed but honorable human being, as well as a highly sensitive person (something I identify with).
Firstly, I should mention that Grant is depicted as a man who struggled with drinking, was naive when it came to money and business, and basically failed at all his business endeavors. Also, while he did free the one black slave he inherited from his father-in-law (a slave owner), his wife still kept slaves at least into the 1850s (which is as far as I have read). Despite these flaws (or maybe partly because of them?), the Grant’s humanity repeatedly shines through. Here are a few gems that portray Grant’s highly-sensitive, kind-hearted spirit:
1. As a child, Grant bonded with horses, and became a daredevil and expert rider. ” ‘If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness,’ Grant once observed, ‘they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man.’ (p13)
2. Grant’s had humble and simple ambitions. Writes Chernow,
Unlike many great historical figures, Grant brooded on no vast dreams, harbored no spacious vision for his future, and would have settled for a contented, small-town life. Something solitary about farming pleased him, and he was happiest when riding, plowing crops, sawing wood, or milking cows.”(p15)
3. Grant as a parent was not a natural autocrat! In fact, “With none of the disciplinarian in his nature, Grant tolerated the rowdy behavior of his sons, sometimes to the dismay of straitlaced friends.” (p97)
4. Despite persistent money woes, Grant handled his debts honorably. For example, at one point, future Confederate general James Longstreet ran into Grant while he was in an especially needy and down-trodden state. Writes Chernow, “Grant accosted him and passed a five-dollar gold piece into his palm to repay a debt now fifteen years old. ‘You must take it,’ Grant said, even after Longstreet refused. ‘I cannot live with anything in my possession that is not mine.’ To allow Grant to save face, Longstreet reluctantly accepted the money. The two men would next meet at Appomattox Court House, when Longstreet was Robert E. Lee’s Chief Commander.” (p98)
5. Grant suffered from a chronic “weakness” of highly-sensitive people everywhere: an inability to be an asshole! Thusly:
While eager for her husband to find work, Julia suspected he lacked professional aggression and would overly sympathize with debtors. “I cannot imagine my dear husband ever thought of going into such a business, as he never could collect a penny that was owed to him.”… If he dunned an old army comrade, he ended up lighting a cigar and whiling away the afternoon with reminiscences [instead of collecting the rent, presumably]. Grant also lacked administrative skills and kept untidy records.p104
6. Grant had no gift for self-promotion, and took rejection very hard. In fact, he shied away from it completely. At one point, while struggling to support his family, he tried for a job as county engineer in St. Louis. “Throughout his life, Grant shrank from applying pressure to obtain positions and now conducted himself in gentlemanly fashion, refusing to lobby the commissioners.” He lost the bid for the position, yet “the sensitive Grant reeled from his defeat.” (p107)