Ron Chernow’s biography on Ulysses S. Grant is long – and for good reason. The big moments in Grant’s life span nearly 20 years, from the start of the Civil War in 1861 to the end of his presidency in 1879.
It’s an eye-opening read. Because Chernow makes clear history has done much to highlight the Civil War, but not its aftermath. And that part of the story left me with a chill.
First, Grant himself is a compelling character. As a general, he’s a war hero. As a president, he has a mixed record. But despite many flaws and stumbles, there remains a steadfastness in Grant, a clear sense of right and wrong. He believed in separation of church and state. He fought for the rights of freed slaves to become full-fledged citizens. And he sought to heal a deeply divided nation.
In the end, it can be argued Grant had some success in keeping America whole, but Reconstruction, the attempt to re-shape the South and give African Americans a voice, failed during his tenure.
In fact, the tragic irony is the end of the Civil War sparked the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and a massive systemic condemnation of civil rights. By the mid 1870’s, black Americans in the South would be sentenced to 80 years under Jim Crow. An astonishing number were murdered without consequence.
When I read about the ugliness during Reconstruction, I started to see the conclusion of the Civil War not as an ending, but as a beginning. Our epic struggle over state’s rights and slavery turned into a redefined struggle over cultural identity and power.
My take from the Grant book was that part of our nation has repeatedly refused to see - not just blacks but in general “others” - as equals – and doesn’t want to. Our current battles over immigration and voting rights echo with the tensions of Grant’s time.
No doubt, there are some among us who are wondering if our current wild politics are just a fluke – a reflection of a President with a cult-like personality who will come and ultimately go.
But oddly enough, reading this biography of a President whose term ended 140 years ago made me realize that intolerance and xenophobia remain tightly woven into the American fabric – and sadly, aren’t likely to go away - no matter who wins the next election.