Ron Chernow is a national treasure. Now there will be yet another reason to deeply admire him as we head to our favorite bookstore.
Sunday’s New York Times newspaper will feature a book review of Grant, the latest historical read the nation will be talking about. What makes this review all the more interesting is due to it being penned by President Bill Clinton.
For all its scholarly and literary strengths, this book’s greatest service is to remind us of Grant’s significant achievements at the end of the war and after, which have too long been overlooked and are too important today to be left in the dark. Considered by many detractors to be, as a general, little more than a stoic butcher, Grant, in the written terms of surrender at Appomattox, showed the empathy he felt toward the defeated and downtrodden — conditions he knew from harsh personal experience. The terms presented to Robert E. Lee carried “no tinge of malice” and “breathed a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” He notably allowed the exhausted and starving Confederate regulars to keep their mules and horses, knowing from the rough experience of his failed Missouri farm (Grant presciently named its log cabin “Hardscrabble”) that only by putting in a crop as soon as they returned home would these destitute farmers — and their families — have a chance to survive the coming winter. Grant also knew that if the country had any chance of being brought back together, it needed something other than a harsh peace. In making national healing a priority, he — like Lincoln — took the long view.
Chernow shows a fine balance in exposing Grant’s flaws and missteps as president, and the ill-fated turn that Reconstruction took after a promising start, while making it clear that Grant’s contributions after Appomattox were as consequential to the survival of our democracy as any that came before. As Americans continue the struggle to defend justice and equality in our tumultuous and divisive era, we need to know what Grant did when our country’s very existence hung in the balance. If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, his steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.