The 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
book review / power

Ulysses Grant's America and Ours

Ron Chernow’s biography reminds our 21st-century selves of the distinction between character and personality.
As president, Grant did his best with Reconstruction; he suppressed the Ku Klux Klan and encouraged freedmen’s rights and promoted their full citizenship. As a champion of black rights, Grant was much admired by Frederick Douglass and others, and bitterly denounced by whites who organized the Jim Crow resistance that restored so much of the totalitarian status quo ante. After 150 years, the country is still sorting out the interrupted business of Reconstruction and the terms and conditions applying to the citizenship of black people. We live among the aftershocks, Charleston and Charlottesville and Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and the rest.

Chernow creates an interesting effect, working in a kind of fourth dimension: The reader’s mind keeps jumping from Grant’s 19th century to Trump’s 21st, making uneasy connections. It’s as if Grant’s story might be an allegory, a worst-case premonition, an origin myth, and a flash of déjà vu. Charlottesville and the fight about Confederate monuments have agitated old hatreds, so that just now the Civil War and its aftermath, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age and the reversion of the conquered South to the KKK and other Confederate ways, cast an odd shadow.

Chernow never mentions our current troubles. But the connection (as with Chernow’s Hamilton) is there, in the corner of the eye, as if the divisive forces that brought on the Civil War and called forth Ulysses Grant were stirring again in the American mind, as if fanatics on either side half-hoped to repeat the experience.
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