The underappreciated presidency of the military man who won the Civil War and then had to win the peace as well
As a general, Ulysses S. Grant is routinely described in glowing terms-the man who turned the tide of the Civil War, who accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and who had the stomach to see the war through to final victory. But his presidency is another matter-the most common word used to characterize it is "scandal." Grant is routinely portrayed as a man out of his depth, whose trusting nature and hands-off management style opened the federal coffers to unprecedented plunder. But that caricature does not do justice to the realities of Grant's term in office, as Josiah Bunting III shows in this provocative assessment of our eighteenth president.
Grant came to Washington in 1869 to lead a capital and a country still bitterly divided by four years of civil war. His predecessor, Andrew Johnson, had been impeached and nearly driven from office, and the radical Republicans in Congress were intent on imposing harsh conditions on the Southern states before allowing them back into the Union. Grant made it his priority to forge the states into a single nation, and Bunting shows that despite the troubles that characterized Grant's terms in office, he was able to accomplish this most important task-very often through the skillful use of his own popularity with the American people. Grant was indeed a military man of the highest order, and he was a better president than he is often given credit for.
This study is among the best in the notable series of short presidential biographies presided over by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. While recent biographers have taken a more sympathetic view of Grant than formerly, Bunting goes further to show that Grant possessed that rarest quality among American presidents: nobility of character. He acknowledges Grant's youthful tippling and the defects of his presidency. But as a veteran military officer himself, Bunting (An Education for Our Time) captures Grant's brilliance as a strategist, his quiet compassion, his firm judgment and his humanity as the Union's principal military leader. Then, where other historians hold Grant's administration responsible for many of the failures of Reconstruction, Bunting believes Grant was in his era "the central force in the achievement of civil rights for blacks, the most stalwart and most reliable among all American presidents for the next eighty years." What's more, Bunting does as good a job as possible in making sense of Grant's difficult presidency. If at times the author excuses Grant too much for his handling of scandal and for the consequences of his unwavering loyalty to friends, his defense is well within the bounds of credibility. This superb book should support those who are gradually moving Grant from the lower to the upper half of rankings of chief executives.