From Hamilton To Grant: Ron Chernow Paints A 'Farsighted' President in New Biography

Originally published on October 16, 2017 12:24 pm

It was an improbable story, and yet, it's true. Ron Chernow's 2005 biography of a Caribbean orphan who became a Revolutionary War hero, and then one of the nation's most consequential founding figures, became not just a bestseller but the catalyst for one of the most successful Broadway hits of all time — Hamilton.

Now, Chernow has a new book, just out this week, which also aims to revise our understanding of a figure he sees as overlooked and misunderstood: The 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. In it, Chernow aims to rehabilitate the way Americans think about the man who not only led the Union Army into victory during the Civil War but also led the country during the tumultuous era that followed.

Chernow says that after writing about Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, he decided to give the Founding Fathers a rest. "And I had always had a fantasy about doing a big, sweeping saga about the Civil War and Reconstruction. And Ulysses S. Grant is really the central figure that unites those two periods, and it fascinates me that there are so many Americans who know about the Civil War battles in intimate detail, but they know nothing about Reconstruction," he says.


Interview Highlights

On why Grant was demonized after the Civil War

In many ways, the North won the Civil War militarily and then lost the peace. You know, a group of writers, included many Confederate generals, began a school of thought called the Lost Cause in which they began to romanticize the Confederacy. They said that the slaves had all been happy. They said that the war was not caused by slavery, the war was caused by states' rights. They said that Robert E. Lee was the great general. And not only the greater general, but he was a perfect Christian gentleman, and he embodied all of these noble values. And the more that Robert E. Lee was elevated by many, particularly Southern historians, you know, part of that was really tearing down and denigrating Ulysses S. Grant.

On Grant's modesty and hatred of war and bloodshed

I think that was one of the most becoming traits of Ulysses S. Grant, in fact. You know, everyone knows him for the famous memoirs that he wrote in the last year of his life. And Grant only wrote those memoirs under duress. The only reason that he decided to write the memoirs was a year before he dies, two things happened almost simultaneously: Number one, he becomes the victim of the Bernie Madoff of his day, a young man named Ferdinand Ward, who was running a Ponzi scheme. Grant thought he was a multimillionaire. He woke up one morning and found out that he was worth exactly $80 and had been wiped out. Around the same time, he's diagnosed with cancer of the throat and tongue, so he's petrified that he's going to die and leave his wife destitute.

So he writes the memoirs, again in agonizing pain, his mind often fogged by painkillers. And his publisher is Mark Twain. It becomes the great bestseller. And Twain said that his own role — contrary to myths that he wrote it — Twain said that his own role was restricted to relatively trivial matters of punctuation and grammar. And I actually went down to the Library of Congress and went through every page of the manuscript just to verify that it was in Grant's handwriting. And it was, except for some passages at the very, very end when he was close to death, and you could see he was dictating to his son or a stenographer.

On Grant's views about the dignity of all people

Well, it's a fascinating story because Grant grows up in an abolitionist family in southwest Ohio. He marries into a slave-owning family in Missouri. So he finds himself in the middle of his own private civil war between the Grants and the Dents. So what happens, you know, during the war with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army can begin to recruit and train black soldiers. And Grant, who was a very honest man, sees at a place called Milliken's Bend in 1863 that, in fact, the black soldiers are extraordinarily courageous and disciplined. And, of course, their motivation could not have been higher. So Grant becomes the major force in terms of recruiting black soldiers.

People don't realize — you know, we had an attorney general going back to George Washington, but there was no Justice Department until Grant's first term in office. And the very week that the Justice Department was created, Grant appointed a crusading man from Georgia named Amos Akerman. And Grant was the major force behind something called the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Amos Akerman brings 3,000 indictments, gets more than a thousand convictions and crushes the Klan at a time when no Southern sheriff would arrest a member of the Klan. No Southern jury would acquit a member of the Klan. No Southern white would testify against the Klan.

On his hopes for Grant's reputation

The caricature of his presidency was that it was, you know, stained by corruption, and nepotism and cronyism. But to my mind, the big story of his presidency is he's really farsighted in courageous action in terms of protecting those four million former slaves who are now full-fledged American citizens, but who were under constant threat from the Klan in the South. And, you know, when — in 1948, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did a poll of presidential historians, asking them to rank them in order. And Grant was down next to the bottom. In fact, I think Warren Harding was last, and Grant was next to last. Well, in the most recent ranking, Grant was 22, which meant that he was right in the middle. And I think that in the stock market of historical reputations, Grant's stock is definitely rising.

This story was produced for radio by Jennifer Liberto and Matthew S. Schwartz, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was an improbable story, and yet, it's true. His 2005 biography of a Caribbean orphan who became a Revolutionary War hero, and then one of the nation's most consequential founding figures, became not just a bestseller but the catalyst for one of the most successful Broadway hits of all time, a hip-hop musical no less.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF PLAY, "HAMILTON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) And the world's going to know your name. What's your name, man?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Singing) Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.

MARTIN: We're talking Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton has sparked a massive reevaluation of America's first treasury secretary. And now, Ron Chernow has a new book, just out this week, which also aims to revise our understanding of a figure he sees as overlooked and misunderstood, the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. In it, Chernow aims to rehabilitate the way Americans think about the man who not only led the Union Army into victory during the Civil War but also led the country during the tumultuous era that followed. And Ron Chernow is with us now from our studios in New York City. Mr. Chernow, thank you so much for being with us.

RON CHERNOW: Oh, it's such a pleasure to join you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, how did you decide what your next project would be after the incredible success of "Hamilton," which is not something that - forgive me - I don't know that anyone could have predicted that.

CHERNOW: (Laughter) Well, I thought that, you know, having done Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, I should probably give our Founding Fathers a breather from me for a while. And I had always had a fantasy about doing a big, sweeping saga about the Civil War and Reconstruction. And Ulysses S. Grant is really the central figure that unites those two periods, and it fascinates me that there are so many Americans who know about the Civil War battles in intimate detail, but they know nothing about Reconstruction. And if you don't know anything about Reconstruction, you've walked out in the middle of the play.

MARTIN: Why is it that Grant has been so demonized? I mean, I'll tell you, as a kid who grew up in New York City, I remember going to Grant's tomb. And I remember that it was in disrepair, not well kept at all. I won't go into the details of how it kind of smelled.

CHERNOW: New Yorkers know what you're talking about (laughter).

MARTIN: You know what I mean? How - why is it? And then I go to, say, Gettysburg, which is in Pennsylvania, which was part of the Union. And you would not think the Union won the war given the Confederate kind of presence there. So how is it that Grant became the goat?

CHERNOW: You know, in many ways, the North won the Civil War militarily and then lost the peace. You know, a group of writers, included many Confederate generals, began a school of thought called The Lost Cause in which they began to romanticize the Confederacy. They said that the slaves had all been happy. They said that the war was not caused by slavery, the war was caused by states' rights. They said that Robert E. Lee was the great general. And not only the greater general, but he was a perfect Christian gentleman, and he embodied all of these noble values. And the more that Robert E. Lee was elevated by many particularly Southern historians, you know, part of that was really tearing down and denigrating Ulysses S. Grant.

MARTIN: Well, the other point you make is that although, for whatever reason, people decided to depict him later on in life as this kind of bloodthirsty buffoon - that he hated war - he was actually grieved by the loss of life. And he was modest in a way that I think many modern members of our military will recognize. He did not like to boast. He did not like to - he didn't like to talk about it.

CHERNOW: I think that was one of the most becoming traits of Ulysses S. Grant, in fact. You know, everyone knows him for the famous memoirs that he wrote in the last year of his life. And Grant only wrote those memoirs under duress. The only reason that he decided to write the memoirs was a year before he dies, two things happened almost simultaneously.

Number one, he becomes the victim of the Bernie Madoff of his day, a young man named Ferdinand Ward, who was running a Ponzi scheme. Grant thought he was a multimillionaire. He woke up one morning and found out that he was worth exactly $80 and had been wiped out. Around the same time, he's diagnosed with cancer of the throat and tongue, so he's petrified that he's going to die and leave his wife destitute.

So he writes the memoirs again in agonizing pain, his mind often fogged by painkillers. And his publisher is Mark Twain. It becomes the great bestseller. And Twain said that his own role - contrary to myths that he wrote it - Twain said that his own role was restricted to relatively trivial matters of punctuation and grammar and actually went down to the Library of Congress and went through every page of the manuscript just to verify (laughter) that it was in Grant's handwriting. And it was, except for some passages at the very, very end when he was close to death, and you could see he was dictating to his son or a stenographer.

MARTIN: So tell us more about Grant. What were some of the things - again, we can only scratch the surface. I'm really curious about where Grant's philosophy came from in regard to his views about the dignity of all people. I mean, his own wife owned slaves.

CHERNOW: Well, it's a fascinating story because Grant grows up in an abolitionist family in southwest Ohio. He marries into a slave-owning family in Missouri. So he finds himself in the middle of his own private civil war between the Grants and the Dents. So what happens, you know, during the war with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army can begin to recruit and train black soldiers. And Grant, who was a very honest man, sees at a place called Milliken's Bend in 1863 that, in fact, the black soldiers are extraordinarily courageous and disciplined. And, of course, their motivation could not have been higher.

So Grant becomes the major force in terms of recruiting black soldiers. And Frederick Douglass said, let the black soldier carry a musket and have bullets in his pocket, and nothing can prevent him from earning citizenship after the war. And he was right. So the 13th Amendment abolishes slavery. The 14th gives African-Americans full benefits of American citizenship.

And then the 15th Amendment, most importantly, most controversially, gives blacks - at least, black males - the right to vote. And Frederick Douglass said - and I quote - "to Grant the negro owes more than any other man, you know, his enfranchisement." But this is what triggers off a violent backlash in the South for the simple reason blacks make up more than a third of the Southern population. And there were states like South Carolina and Mississippi, where blacks make up the majority of the population. And this is where the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan comes in.

MARTIN: And not only that. I mean, he oversaw creation of the Justice Department. One of its aims is to bring indictments against the Ku Klux Klan, to try to crush the Klan.

CHERNOW: Yeah, absolutely. People don't realize - you know, we had an attorney general going back to George Washington, but there was no Justice Department until Grant's first term in office. And the very week that the Justice Department was created, Grant appointed a crusading man from Georgia named Amos Akerman. And Grant was the major force behind something called the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Amos Akerman brings 3,000 indictments, gets more than a thousand convictions and crushes the Klan at a time when no Southern sheriff would arrest a member of the Klan. No Southern jury would acquit a member of the Klan. No Southern white would testify against the Klan. And, Michel, there had been thousands - I mean, literally thousands, of blacks murdered without a single prosecution.

MARTIN: Given the prominence that you now have both as an historian, but as a popular culture figure, you know, what are you hoping will happen when people reconsider Ulysses Grant?

CHERNOW: The caricature of his presidency was that it was, you know, stained by corruption, and nepotism and cronyism. But to my mind, the big story of his presidency is he's really farsighted in courageous action in terms of protecting those 4 million former slaves who are now full-fledged American citizens, but who were under constant threat from the Klan in the South. And, you know, when - in 1948, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did a poll of presidential historians, asking them to rank them in order. And Grant was down next to the bottom. In fact, I think Warren Harding was last, and Grant was next to last. Well, in the most recent ranking, Grant was 22, which meant that he was right in the middle. And I think that in the stock market of historical reputations, Grant's stock is definitely rising.

MARTIN: That is Ron Chernow. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for a biography. His latest book is "Grant." Mr. Chernow joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us. It's been a pleasure.

CHERNOW: Such a deep pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.