In our current contentious conversations about political leadership, historian Ronald C. White’s biography American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant has struck a chord with a wide readership as he offers a fresh vision of American leadership. Also the author of the bestselling "A. Lincoln," White is receiving the Civil War Forum of New York’s 2017 award for Excellence in Civil War biography.
Q. You argue that Ulysses Grant appears to be misunderstood and even maligned by earlier historians. What are the commendable components of Grant’s character that you discovered in your seven years of research?
Grant demonstrated a distinctive sense of humility, moral courage, and determination. Even while a general, he often wore a private’s uniform where only the stars on his shoulders indicated his status. When he learned about the terrible things that Union soldiers were doing to white slave owners, he sought to stop such behavior as dishonorable and alienating to citizens. But he couldn’t police everyone everywhere.
As president, Grant stood up for African-Americans, especially fighting against voter suppression perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan. Today, similar efforts at voter restriction are widespread. According to federal courts, North Carolina used almost “surgical precision” to suppress African-American voters. In the 2016 election, the Brennen Center at New York University claims 14 states in the 2016 election attempted to restrict voting. This is a central question our nation is facing right now.
Q. Why do you focus extensively on Grant’s childhood and youth?
This was triggered by Grant’s own words when he said, “I do not read biographies because they often do not say enough about the formative period of a man’s life. What I want to know is what a man did as a boy.” Taking this cue, I have explored interests in his early years and the relationships within his family and peers.
The idiosyncrasies in childhood especially interest me.
Grant did all the normal pastimes of a boy on the frontier like horseback riding, swimming, and ice-skating. But in a highly unusual choice for the culture of young males, he refused to ever fire a gun to kill an animal. He thought it was immoral.
This care for animals continues throughout his life. Wearing his private’s uniform while surveying the besieged city of Petersburg, he encounters a soldier severely beating a horse. This upset Grant deeply and the man was punished. Later the soldier said, “If I’d have known you were General Grant, I never would have done this.”
“[You] don’t need to apologize to me, I can take care of myself. The horse could not.”
Q. How did his youthful travels shape his eventual leadership as president?
Immensely! Travel expanded his boundaries of understanding and gave him more of a world perspective. After crossing the Rio Grande for the Mexican-American War, unlike other soldiers, he sought to understand and appreciate Mexicans. He learned Spanish; visited the museums, libraries, and parks in Mexico City; and tried to comprehend their Catholic beliefs, [which were] often despised by largely Protestant-American soldiers. Travel was education for him.
Q. In your presidential biographies, you explore the often-neglected understanding of religious faith in shaping a person’s life. What did you discover about Grant?
Grant was raised in a devout Methodist family. As an adult, when Grant and his wife lived in Galena, Ill., [and] he regularly attended Bench Street Church. Here he became friends with a young Methodist preacher, John Heyl Vincent, who later founded the Chautauqua Institute in New York. Grant kept this valued friendship throughout the years and his appreciation for the sermons he still carried in his heart. Years later, he wrote Vincent, “I can still remember your ‘feeling’ discourses in Galena.”
Q. What are the challenges a historian faces in writing a biography?
It’s essential to avoid hagiography. I want to include the shadow side, not just the triumphant side, but also how they matured as a leader. Life tumbles in on men and women. Grant struggled up until almost 40, both economically and with the conflicted relationship[s] with his father and father-in-law. But he found strength and resilience from his wife Julia’s deep belief in him even during hard times. The drinking patterns that historians often mention in his youth subsided when he was back with his wife and in his presidency. I admire that, in today’s parlance, he was not a "big personality." Instead he balanced his ambition with a deep humility, an ability to listen, and respect for others.