- The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant by Charles W. Calhoun, and: The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition ed. by John F. Marszalek
In a 1948 rating of presidential "greatness" conducted by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., only the scandal-riddled Warren G. Harding fared worse than his fellow Ohio native Ulysses S. Grant. Over the next half century, in at least six subsequent polls, scholars continued to regard the general who sealed the Confederacy's fate as among the nation's worst chief executives. Yet in the most recent presidential rankings exercise (conducted by C-SPAN in 2017), the eighteenth commander in chief climbed to a respectable overall rank of twenty-two; he even scored a place on the list of the top ten presidents who "pursued equal justice for all."
Important scholarship by Brooks D. Simpson and Joan Waugh has contributed mightily to this reappraisal of Grant, as have more popular treatments by the likes of H. W. Brands, Josiah Bunting III, Ronald C. White, and, most recently, Ron Chernow. Now Charles W. Calhoun, one of the most gifted historians of the Gilded Age, turns his attention to the Grant administration with a meticulously researched, shrewdly argued, and elegantly written contribution to the University Press of Kansas's American Presidency Series. Exceeding seven hundred pages, Calhoun's book is more than twice the length of most titles in the series—something that testifies eloquently to the huge task of extracting Grant's presidency from decades of untamed myth and misperception. "Grant underwent no lobotomy between Appomattox and Inauguration Day," Calhoun wittily assures readers (p. 2). What emerges is a [End Page 192] portrait of a consequential presidency that left a mark on the nation—and, as it turned out, on the office itself. While Grant is often viewed as "an embattled president operating under severe fire from the beginning of his administration to its end," Calhoun concludes that "Grant's eight years produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation" (pp. 5, 7). The author's sympathies clearly rest with Grant, though this book is no hagiography. As the author explains, "I have not engaged in rehabilitation so much as clarification and correction" (p. xii).
Calhoun divides his book into twenty-two chapters that move both thematically and chronologically. Dexterously tracking between domestic policies and foreign affairs, and brandishing gems from dozens of manuscript collections, Calhoun succeeds at situating Grant's presidency in historical context. Robert E. Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox provoked a number of questions, and the feud between President Andrew Johnson and Congress held most of them in tragic abeyance. The struggle to define the meaning of the Civil War would be waged not only in the states of the former Confederacy, where unrelenting white supremacist terrorism sought to efface the facts of Union victory, but also in diplomacy (the intricate negotiations over the Alabama claims), the economy (a staggering national debt and the "sound money" question), the law (crowded court dockets), and electoral politics (as Grant's opponents in the Democratic Party and an upstart "liberal" Republican insurgency headed by Horace Greeley embraced sectional reconciliation). Above all, Grant's onerous charge was "to preserve 'the results of the costly war'" that he had won (p. 95).
Grant developed a capacious definition of government intervention in behalf of civil rights that exceeded "the cramped ideas of many Republicans and nearly all Democrats" (p. 400). Indeed, the war produced no popular mandate for the kind of interventionist federal authority necessary to protect black civil rights in the South. Nonetheless, Grant inked the legislation creating the Department of Justice. With allies in...