Ulysses S. Grant, by Josiah Bunting III
Why has Grant been viewed as being an incompetent president? This short book, written by someone who clearly has a positive view of Grant, gives at least some of the basic context that would later allow other revisionist historians like Chernow to present Grant’s simplicity to full advantage. Indeed, Grant presents an interesting case for the sort of people who are disliked and the reasons why certain people are disliked. Used to being underappreciated and underestimated, Grant was the sort of solid and dependable person who is looked down on by intellectuals and elites but who has a lot to offer because of the strength of will and resourcefulness of character. The bullying that Grant faced throughout his life and his lack of willingness to communicate when it came to creating awkward scenes provides a great deal of explanation of some of the essential patterns of Grant’s life. The author also does a great job of explaining, briefly, the aspects of Grant’s presidency that have been viewed as scandalous and finds them largely wanting as being genuine explanations of Grant’s bad reputation. Overall the author places Grant’s presidency in the very good level of influential presidents like Reagan and Monroe and TR, which seems a fair place to put him.
This book is a bit less than 200 pages, just over 150 pages in fact. The author begins with an introduction that provides the problem of Grant. This leads to a look at Grant’s childhood (1) as well as his military education at West Point and his success in the Mexican-American War (2). The author explores the troubles of peacetime for Grant (3) as well as two chapters that look at Grant’s Civil War experience (4, 5). The author looks at the period that Grant spent as General-in-chief of the army under Johnson, a man with whom there was mutual hostility (6) underneath surface politeness. The author spends a significant amount of space, relative to the size of the book as a whole, in looking at Grant’s attitude to politics (7), his diplomatic efforts with England and other nations (8), his attempts to enforce a just reconstruction (9), and his dealing with the American Indians in a desire for justice there as well (10). The author spends some time discussing efforts at reform (11) as well as the problem of scandals (12), and Grant’s noble exit from the presidency after two terms (13). The rest of the book then discusses the final years of Grant’s life (14) as well as additional material like milestones, a selected bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.
One of the disadvantages of a book like this is the way that the book is so short. This book is a clear case where more would be better. The author spends a few chapters on Grant’s presidency but flies through large parts of the author’s life, spending only one chapter on Grant’s post-presidential existence. This is really the sort of book that is designed to encourage the reader to read more of the works about its subject. And in this case that is certainly worthwhile. If you like this book, then at least two other books are probably going to be of interest, namely Grant’s memoirs (which is a wonderful read) and the Chernow biography (which is on my list of books to read about Grant as well). If you dislike viewing Grant positively, this book is short enough not to be a huge problem, though it does spend a whole chapter addressing the biggest scandals and demonstrating why these do not actually speak poorly about Grant’s character but only his stubborn loyalty to people who did not always have his own best interests at heart but rather their own.