I read Chernow’s biography of Hamilton last year because, well, I can’t see the musical. Also, I majored in History as an undergrad and my favorite era is the American Revolution. Hamilton, the biogrpaphy, was excellent. It was the first major biography that read despite a good friend recommending Chernow a few years ago. I enjoyed Hamilton enough that I added Grant to my queue as soon as it was added to my library and after eight months of waiting, I got my turn.
Before I get too into the book, I feel the need to discuss my upbringing and how it shaped my opinions and what I thought I knew before reading it. I went to high school in Virginia and I was definitively taught that the Civil War was fought over states rights and not slavery. I was also taught that Grant was a drunk and a butcher who only won the Civil War due to better resourcing and that he was outclassed, tactically by the Confederate generals, especially Robert E. Lee. Furthermore, when I was in high school we did not celebrate Martin Luther King Day in VA. We celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day. It’s now two different holidays. Needless to say, I learned most of the Lost Cause mythos as part of my basic education.
The first contradictory information I learned was in my favorite class in the History department at my university, also taught by my favorite professor and eventual thesis advisor. He taught us that Grant liked “the sauce” but was not a drop down drunk as the pervasive narrative suggests.
Long story short, Grant deserves to be on Mount Rushmore as one of the greatest presidents to have held the office. I say that given that my favorite part of this biography is how transparent it is with Grant’s vices and failures. Chernow does not pull punches and addresses nearly every credible accusation of drinking made against Grant. This biography is so comprehensive and eye-opening for me that it might be my all-time favorite. I say that but, I also think that the way in which it challenges my preconceptions helped boost its esteem in my eyes.
Washington: A Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2011 does the same thing for GW. Chernow dives right into the contradiction of the man who fought for freedom and liberty and yet owned slaves for the duration of his life.
The strength of Chernow is his ability to attack the controversies that surrounding his subjects. It keeps the subjects very real and prevents the idolization and the hero-worship that often accompanies such individuals.