Grant Summary & Study Guide

Ron Chernow
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Grant Summary & Study Guide Description

Grant Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on Grant by Ron Chernow.

The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Chernow. Ron. Grant. Penguin Press, 2017.

Grant, by Robert Chernow, is an exhaustive biography of the 18th President of the United States. Grant is perhaps better known as the commander of all Union forces at the end of the Civil War and is credited with defeating Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army. In writing this book, Chernow argues that the common perception is overly critical. Most notably, he argues that Grant’s reputation for drinking and corruption is overstated. In reality, Grant did struggle with alcoholism, but worked hard to control it throughout his life. Though his Presidential administration was hampered by repeated scandal, Chernow states that Grant himself was meticulously honest. In reality, his actual flaw was his naïveté and inability to recognize dishonesty among his associates. More important, the author argues that Grant should be recognized for his strong efforts to secure civil rights for blacks, both as General and President. This legacy, Chernow suggests, is nearly on par with that of Lincoln, and remained unmatched until the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Grant was born in southern Ohio in 1822. He lived close to the Kentucky border, where slavery was still allowed, giving him a unique insight into both sides of the dominant political debate of the time. This mixed perspective likely contributed to Grant’s conciliatory attitude toward the South in later life. As a young man, Ulysses was unambitious and attended West Point only at the urging of his father. Even then, his ambitions remained lowly. As a young officer, Grant married Julia Dent, the daughter of a wealthy slave owner. It was at this time that Grant’s drinking problem began to emerge. When separated from his family, Grant succumbed to deep depression, driving him to bouts of embarrassing drunkenness. He was eventually forced to resign his commission in connection to one of these incidents.

Grant struggled to be successful during his ten years as a civilian. Following Lincoln’s election and the break out of the Civil War, Grant joined and eventually led an Illinois volunteer regiment. His Civil War experience began along the Mississippi River, where he secured a number of impressive victories at a time when most Union generals were overly cautious. His victory at Vicksburg rocketed him to national fame and President Lincoln eventually chose him to lead the entire Union war effort. Under Grant’s leadership, Northern forces used their superior manpower and technological advantage to wear down and eventually force the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army. Throughout the war, Grant’s position on slavery shifted from anti-expansionism, to ardent abolitionism and the belief that blacks should be fully integrated into American citizenship. He zealously carried Lincoln’s orders to form black regiments in the Union Army.

Grant’s military fame led to widespread calls that he run for President, which he did successfully in 1868. Grant was not a natural politician and struggled to apply his leadership skills to a non-military setting. Chernow describes a number of blunders that could have been avoided had Grant sought and followed advice from more experienced political actors. His administration has historically been associated with widespread corruption, a characterization that Chernow repeatedly refutes. In contrast, Grant made considerable gains for black civil rights during his Presidency as a strong supporter of Radical Reconstruction. He appointed record numbers of blacks to government posts and repeatedly sent federal troops to quell racially motivated violence in the former Confederacy. His efforts were limited by waning support for Reconstruction among Northern whites, but Grant never abandoned his personal conviction on the matter.

Following his Presidency, Grant embarked on a world tour, gaining confidence in his diplomatic and speaking abilities. Upon returning, he briefly attempted to run for a third term, but was denied the Republican nomination. As happened multiple times throughout his life, Grant was financially ruined by a scam, leaving him destitute as he approached death. Hoping to provide for his wife, the normally modest Grant assented to writing and publishing his personal memoirs, which he completed rapidly as he suffered from painful throat cancer. Following his death, Grant was mourned throughout the country as a national hero.

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