Ron Chernow’s 1,100-page biography may crown Grant’s restoration. The author of defining books on George Washington and Alexander Hamilton—the latter formed the basis for a hit Broadway musical, after Lin-Manuel Miranda read it on holiday—Mr Chernow argues persuasively that Grant has been badly misunderstood. The corruption in his administration never touched him—the soul of integrity—personally. Sometimes portrayed as an ignorant drunk, he was in fact a profound thinker with a sensitivity to suffering that underlay his kindness to vanquished armies and people of other races. His bibulous reputation was exaggerated by his opponents, Mr Chernow believes, and indeed with discipline and the support of his beloved wife, he abstained from drinking almost fully during his presidency.
Grant may have been America’s most improbable president. His early military career showed flashes of brilliance before he resigned from a post in California amid accusations, almost certainly justified, of drunkenness. He then failed at various business ventures, a lifelong tendency that accompanied a penchant for trusting swindlers. Not long before the civil war he was virtually broke, walking the streets of St Louis in shabby clothing selling firewood.
War brought salvation. The Union army was afflicted with generals who hesitated to engage, or failed to follow up victories by chasing vulnerable opponents. Not Grant. “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln supposedly said of him, a year before the general engineered a landmark victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863. Robert E. Lee, his chief opponent, concurred: “He is not a retreating man.”