Some historical figures maintain their reputation, whatever our contemporary concerns. George Washington has remained one of our most admired Presidents for the entire history of the Republic. James Buchanan settled in the doghouse as soon as he left office and has stayed there ever since. But the assessments of most Presidents and public figures lying between these poles of excellence and of failure wax and wane depending on our current preoccupations. Biography can be the most presentist of historical disciplines.
No subject exemplifies these vicissitudes more than Ulysses S. Grant. When the nation wanted to emphasize the reconciliation of the South and North and forgot about civil rights for African Americans, Grant was derided both as a general and as President. He was said to have defeated Robert E. Lee only because of his greater willingness to sacrifice the lives of ordinary soldiers and the greater industrial might of the North. His Presidency was treated as a travesty almost as bad as Buchanan’s—that of a man in office over his head with a high tolerance of scandalous behavior of subordinates.
But today we see more of American history as a struggle for civil rights and thus Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography attempts to raise Grant to the pantheon of American generals and to a more than respectable position among American Presidents. Chernow is more successful in promoting a reassessment of his career as a warrior than as a statesman.