Ron Chernow's latest U.S. history lesson: From Hamilton to heroic 'Grant'

Matt Damsker
Special for USA TODAY

It’s a safe bet that Ron Chernow’s monumental new biography, Grant (Penguin Press, 959 pp., ***½ out of four stars), won’t inspire a rapping, rocking Broadway juggernaut the way his earlier best seller, Alexander Hamilton, did.

'Grant' by Ron Chernow

But just as no one could have predicted Hamilton’s pop trajectory, Chernow’s deep dive on Ulysses S. Grant may defy the odds — just as the Union’s Civil War general and our 18th president overcame his humble origins, inward personality, the demons of drink and scandal to emerge an American paragon. Or, as Walt Whitman described him, “nothing heroic … and yet the greatest hero.”

Grant’s ultimate heroic status has been a hard-fought matter for historians. Long before he found glory as Abraham Lincoln’s military savior, he had resigned from the Army amid accusations of drunkenness that dogged him throughout his career and presidency.

Chernow’s exhaustive research and nuanced assessments portray a Grant who struggled with alcohol at key points in his life, but who rose, superbly, to the challenges of war and executive leadership, shouldering the cause of civil rights in the late glow of Lincoln. Upon passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, preventing the denial of voting rights based on race or color, Chernow writes: “For Grant this last amendment symbolized the logical culmination of everything he had fought for during the war.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Va., headquarters in June 1864.

Still, this anvil of a book — at nearly a thousand pages of narrative — may prove a lumbering journey for casual consumers of American history, even though Chernow writes with grace and builds momentum. But where his Hamilton sprang freshly from the page in all his exotic, mercurial, nation-inventing dimension, Chernow’s Grant must remain the stolid, deeply shadowed figure of past biography.

Indeed, some of Chernow’s thunder was stolen by last October’s American Ulysses, Ronald C. White’s more concise yet comparably measured Grant study, which arrived at similar conclusions about the man and aroused similar sympathies.

Both biographers memorably recount Grant’s poignant final days spent dutifully composing his Personal Memoirs (with the publishing help of Mark Twain) as he was dying, painfully, of throat cancer in 1885. Grant’s book, never out of print and viewed as an American masterpiece, was a last-ditch effort to ensure his family’s financial security after he had been swindled out of his investments.

Biographer Ron Chernow.

Chernow has all the details, of course, and relies on letters and solid chronicles rather than interpretive leaps or glib psycho-history. The evidence shows how Grant grew up in an emotionally muffled Ohio family, how his even temperament guided him, and how his moral stature far overshot his compact frame.

The proof is in the deeds, and in Grant’s case there’s no disputing the discipline and clarity of his generalship during the Civil War, when his early experience as a quartermaster in the Mexican-American War shaped his logistical genius in terms of supply lines and broad strategy.

Nor is there any doubt that at a time of unbridled racism and the post-slavery corruptions of Reconstruction, the shy Ohioan fought fiercely as president to affirm the political rights of African-Americans.

He also sought a better Indian policy, battled voter suppression, and demonized the Ku Klux Klan. Chernow notes, importantly, how Frederick Douglass called Grant “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”

If there’s any comparison to Chernow’s Hamilton, it lies in Grant’s intense dedication to an American legacy — and to not throwing away his shot.

U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in an undated photo.