I’m reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow is the greatest biographer of our generation, with books on John D. Rockefeller Sr., Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington that were each groundbreaking. Grant matches these both in terms of the scope of the subject and the high quality of the writing. Here are some things that I’ve learned so far:
- There was a brief effort to indict Robert E. Lee and other Confederate commanders for treason in 1865. A federal grand jury was convened in Virginia for that purpose. Grant strongly opposed this, in part because the terms that he offered at Appomattox Court House implied that no such prosecution would be brought. These terms were not binding on President Andrew Johnson, but Grant felt that they should be honored and that he would resign from the Army if the prosecution went ahead.
- Someone could (or perhaps has) write a terrific book on the generals who were charged with running the South under military Reconstruction. They were forced to make many tough decisions about racial justice, the limits of free expression, and the role of civilians. This subject gets a lot of attention in the book.
- One line that is amusing describes Grant’s first Attorney General, Ebenezer Hoar, who served as a Supreme Court justice in Massachusetts. Hoar was a curmudgeon, and as a judge “he was said to be unhappy because he could not decide against both litigants.”