Presidential Biographies: Ulysses S. Grant #18

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Ulysses S. Grant, the Eighteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Grant by Ron Chernow.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Grant by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant is one of those Presidents that I only knew for his Civil War service and drinking problems. Indeed, as I have discussed my reading of the Presidential Biographies, I was often told Grant was one who would be ranked low due to the corruption on his cabinet and his drinking. Yet, as I discovered in this truly excellent biography by Ron Chernow, the story is much deeper and complex than that. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken to say that Grant is certainly one of the most underrated Presidents we’ve had. Moreover, he was an altogether decent man.

Grant was born in Ohio. His father had a tannery business, among other businesses, and Grant detested the smell and sights of he gruesome business. Instead, he joined the military where he distinguished himself as a marvelous equestrian. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, though he was personally opposed to what he felt was a poor decision to go to war. He made enemies in the military, and they sought to undermine him by spreading rumors about his drunkenness. These rumors would dog him his entire life, and into the modern era. They were not unfounded. Chernow dedicates no small amount of time discussing both the reality of Grant’s alcoholism and the myth that developed around it. For one, in Grant’s time, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing rather than an addiction that needed treatment to overcome. That misunderstanding continues in part to this day. Due to this view of alcoholism as moral failing, the rumor mill that surrounded Grant about alcohol came up again and again, fed by his political and military enemies in order to undermine his moral and other status. Grant did binge drink. He tended to do so in certain situations: after battles, for example. Yet he also worked hard to fight alcoholism in himself and others, making a pact with his longtime friend and adviser, John Rawlins, to help him keep from drinking. It is also likely he promised his wife he would not drink, and she defended his character to the end of her life. Moreover, he was free of scandal regarding women, and, though a few unsubstantiated rumors arose about this as well, it seems clear Grant was quite loyal to his wife throughout his life. The rumors of alcohol, though, did get him out of the military.

Then, the Civil War began, and Grant was called to defend the Union, which he did with gusto. His political views had, in part, formed in response to his wife (a Southerner who owned slaves) and against his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The Civil War changed these views as well. He had leaned towards abolition, but through the war this conviction solidified. As he continued to rise in power in the Western Theater of the Civil War, he became agitated by setbacks surrounding logistics. This led to him issuing General Orders No. 11, what Chernow calls the “most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.” These orders stipulated that Jews would be expelled from his military district, which included parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He blamed certain Jewish traders as source of black market goods and transactions, and he felt his actions were justified, not to mention going along with the general anti-Semitism of the time. Grant’s story of interactions with the Jewish people was not over, though, as we’ll see in his Presidency.

Grant continued to thrive in war, and won many hard-fought victories against sometimes larger armies and fortifications. His victory over Vicksburg catapulted his fame, and Lincoln ultimately placed him in charge of the armies fighting Lee. Grant’s reputation as a butcher is unsupported by his actual actions on the battlefield and after. In victory, he was cordial and even kind towards the defeated enemy. He was a grand strategist who burst fortresses with tactics rather than a sea of bodies, though the latter was often the result of the type of battles that were being fought. Grant ultimately defeated Lee and the South, of course, leading to a Union victory.

Next, Grant dedicated himself to healing tensions in the country, though he also felt that the rights of the newly freed slaves would need military protection. He and Andrew Johnson repeatedly clashed as the latter’s policies undermined what Lincoln had done and what Grant hoped Reconstruction would accomplish. Grant ultimately decided to run for President and won against Horatio Seymour. Several states were still ineligible to vote in this election.

Grant’s Presidency was certainly not perfect. It is true that his administration was marred by several scandals. Many of these were due to Grant’s nature as a person: he simply trusted his associates far more than he should have, and this would come back to truly bite him in later years. The list of scandals is long, ranging from monopolies on gold, to custom houses, to tax evasion scams. Almost all of these were done by appointees of Grant, his cabinet, or people he trusted. Lingering attacks on Grant about his alcohol use continued throughout both of his terms, as well.

Moreover, Grant’s attempts to deal fairly with Native Americans failed badly. He attempted a policy he called the “Peace Policy” in which he would honor treaties the United States had made with Native American groups. He even worked to get citizenship for Native Americans. He believed that Native Americans were largely provoked by whites who then attributed any conflict to the Native Americans (658). He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position. Grant and Parker planned for a gradual granting of citizenship to Native Americans. Of course, part of this plan was absorption of Native Americans and this would involve effectively “robbing Indians of their rightful culture” (as Chernow puts it, 659). Native Americans largely rebuffed Grant’s plan for them, not wishing to be made into white people’s idealization of “civilized.” Unfortunately, during this time period, the slaughter of buffalo herds by white men, in addition to continual incursions by white people on Native lands, and the greed of people for gold in Native lands led to conflict. The Peace Policy devolved into a series of raids and wars against Native Americans, including the infamous “Battle of Little Bighorn” in which Custer, whom Grant had dispatched, was killed and made into a folk hero–a status undeserved, to say the last. Grant’s Peace Policy was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was also a failure. He wished to see Native Americans integrated into the United States, not particularly aware of whether this was something they desired or not; and he ultimately dispatched troops to fight those same people. It is tragic in a number of ways, because Grant, unlike many of the Presidents we have already looked at in this series, truly did seem to view all people as… people.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan rapidly arose to try to suppress black voters and power in these states. Unlike Andrew Johnson, who practically encouraged such violent terrorism, Grant responded to these militaristic racists by fighting them. He and his attorney generals–though largely the first, formed a Justice Department that would expand federal powers to prosecute criminals in states. As part of his enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, Grant charged his attorney general, Amos T. Akerman, to vigorously defend black voters. Grant worked to pass additional enforcement acts specifically targeting the KKK and other groups that were terrorizing blacks trying to vote. This gained him praise from such luminaries as Frederick Douglass. Grant then went to the length of suspending Habeas Corpus when he was told that the KKK was murdering people before they could testify against them. He and Akerman managed to convict more than 1000 members of the Klan, ultimately leading to what was truly a massive, militaristic, terror organization to losing much of its power. After the Colfax Massacre, Grant worked to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the Supreme Court overturned the few convictions Grant managed to get, he was enraged and, in an eloquent condemnation of the moral state of the country, said:

Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime. (quoted on p. 759-760)
Grant saw this and many other instances as evidence the Federal Government needed the power to intervene in the states in order to enforce the law. Just as they’d done before the Civil War and into certain issues today, people cried out for “states’ rights” in response. Grant oversaw the passage and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, helping ensure this federal intervention, but the Supreme Court would ultimately strike this Act down. In short, Grant’s Presidency was characterized by the fight for civil rights of the newly freed African American population. It was a battle that gave him many victories, though also some defeats. And, ultimately, that battle continues to this day. We do have to thank Grant, though, for his effort to undo much of the damage Johnson did to black civil rights.
Grant also worked to heal his schisms with Jewish people. He became the first President to attend a synagogue congregation, following the traditions of those in attendance despite being told he did not have to. Moreover, “Mortified at memories of General Orders No. 11, Grant compiled an outstanding record of incorporating Jews into his administration…” He nominated Jews to numerous positions, leading to contemporary Jewish leaders o state that he had overcome the blight on his name from his General Orders (642-643). Moreover, he worked to protect Jewish citizens abroad. When Russia was revealed to be relocating Jews, Grant spoke with some American Jewish leaders, telling them “It is too late, in this age of enlightement, to persecute any one on account of race, color, or religion” (quoted on 643). He then made a formal protest to the czar and directed the American ambassador in Russia to make a state paper to document coercion against Russian Jews (here I largely paraphrase Chernow on p. 643). Chernow notes, quoting a scholar writing in Woodrow Wilson’s era, that Grant did more for the Jewish people in the United States than any other President before or since (836).
Grant’s Presidency ended, but he continued to have influence in the political arena, including working actively for Garfield in particular. His tendency to trust others would have one more disastrous consequence late in life, though, as he trusted a young Ferdinand Ward with all his fortune and that of many family members. Ward, however, was running nothing but a Ponzi scheme, and ultimately left Grant and many others effectively penniless. This would lead, however, to Grant finally deciding to put pen to paper and write his memoir, which Mark Twain eventually purchased to publish. Grant had gone from thinking he was next to a millionaire to seeing Twain’s advance check of $1000 as a massive windfall. It was a miserable state for such a man to fall to, and Twain recognized it as well. Moreover, Grant was horribly ill as he wrote his recollections, but as through his life, he soldiered through and completed them at cost to himself. The memoir would become a massive commercial success and go down as a major event in American history. Grant used the last months of his life to speak with friends and even enemies, making amends with several. He died, surrounded by friends and family. His casket bearers included soldiers from both the North and South, signifying his lifelong battle for Union.
Truly, Grant was a phenomenal man and President. He is massively underrated on the latter score. Chernow’s biography, Grant, is a fantastic work as well. I highly recommend it, and I recommend learning more about this President.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Reading Through the [Alleged] Top 100 Science Fiction Novels: #91-95

I’m a huge science fiction fan, but realized I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

91. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem Grade: A+
“One of the joys of having read through this list is that I discovered I do, in fact, appreciate short stories. I never thought I liked them before. The Cyberiad is yet another collection that made me love short stories. It’s a slightly cohesive collection, with two characters recurring throughout. The brilliance of this collection, though, is not in the characters, but in the plots and writing. The first half of the collection is pure gold, with comedy intermingled with strokes of brilliance. The second half is great, but not quite as superb. Also, the translation work in this book (originally in Polish) is astounding. There are many poems, including poems with alliteration. They all come out quite well, and some are genius. A fantastic collection.”

92. Anathem by Neal Stephenson Grade: A
“A story of a monk in a future in which the intellectuals have fled from broader society so as not to lead to great wars. I enjoyed the look at the cloistered life, and though it was a slow burn, I felt the plot never really plodded along. The first and third thirds of the book are better than the middle third. The ideas contained in here, as usual with Stephenson’s fare, are exciting, different, strange, and alluring. It’s wacky and off-kilter, but the theme of the book reigns in Stephenson some so that it doesn’t ever feel as zany as, say, Snow Crash. Instead, there is a somberness here that makes the whole book seem even more intense and epic that it may have otherwise. There is a steep learning curve with all the evented lingo, but the payoff is immense. Stephenson delivers yet another work of stunning imaginative achievement.”

93. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson Grade: A-
“Yet another early science fiction work that stands up remarkably well. There is a sense of foreboding and strangeness throughout the whole book, even though I knew the plot already. It’s a fast read, and well worth the time. Plus, it clearly provides the basic outline of so many other ideas. A worthy classic.”

94. City by Clifford Simak Grade: B
“I honestly liked the editorial comments at the beginning of each chapter much more than I enjoyed the actual plotting of the novel. It was haunting and beautiful at times, but that was largely due to the fictional editors’ perspective rather than the story at hand. A good read, but it doesn’t reach the heights of some similar concepts like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.”

95. The Many-Colored Land by Julian May Grade: C
“I wanted so much to love this novel. High recommendations, great reviews, and the like all had me hyped for it. But this is almost 100% a set-up novel. It introduces many characters before it finally ties them all together by throwing them back through a one-way trip to the past. The characters are interesting, but because there are so many, there is little chance to really get into any of them. I read the book after this one, The Golden Torc, and wasn’t struck by it either. It’s an interesting, exciting setting, but overall seems to just be a huge amount of characters with little to tie them all together.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books– Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.

Learning about LGBT+ history- Everyone Should Do So

I’ve been trying to learn more and more about the history of the United States for a number of reasons (being more informed on the history of policies that are proposed; reflecting on the history of our country; seeing how current problems or triumphs are grounded in the past; etc.) and am reading Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer.

I have to admit I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, by the history presented so far regarding our country’s treatment of marginalized groups.

I thought of myself as decently cognizant of the history of the United States, but in no history class I took was there even the briefest survey or mention that I can remember of some of the acts our country has taken against people identifying as LGBT+. It is important to be informed on the history so that you can approach the topic with a better understanding. I’m trying to do that for myself, and have a long ways to go. It’s clear that I’ve enjoyed the privilege of not having the stigma and hate that is directed at LGBT+ people, and that privilege has left me woefully ignorant. Here are just a few shocking things I learned (citations from the book mentioned above):

It was during World War II that the US Army psychiatrists identified gays and lesbians as “a personality type unfit for service” and discharged thousands of gay soldiers and sailors from the military with the label of “psycopathic undesirables” which led to serious difficulties in civilian life finding jobs and stability as well (80).

The FBI in the 1950s increased surveillance on gays and lesbians, leading to thousands of arrests. Philadelphia had more than 100 a month, while DC topped 1000 in a year. “Newspaper editors… often print[ed] the names, addresses, and places of employment of those arrested” (80), attaching increasing stigma, loss of jobs, and potential violence.

Executive order 10450 in 1953, issued by Dwight D. Eisenhower, expanded the potential for finding security risks in potential government employees and banned lesbian and gay applicants from federal employment while also leading to the termination of more than 5,000 federal employees under suspicion of being homosexual.

Anita Bryant, famous for her career as a singer, opposed recognition of civil rights for gay and lesbian people and called them “human garbage” (82). She led a charge to undo multiple ordinances that were put in place to protect LGBT people. Later, her name would be invoked when four straight men shouted things like “Here’s one for Anita!” as they stabbed Robert Hillsborough, a gay man, to death (85).

These are just a few examples, and I’m sure there are many more. What alarms me about this is how little we learn about it in our schools and how little it is discussed in public policy discussions today. I hope we can work to continue to ensure that these violations of life, dignity, and rights do not happen ever again in our country.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 has been a fascinating read so far. I think everyone should read books that open their eyes to concerns of which they might not have been otherwise aware.

SDG.

 

 

Two “First Contact” series you should read (and probably haven’t)

Love the hair!

A.C. Crispin’s Starbridge Series

A.C. Crispin was best known for her writings in various expanded universe areas, like the Star Wars EU (including the fantastic Han Solo Trilogy, reviewed at links here), Star Trek novels, and many, many more. She also wrote her own original series, alongside several other authors. The “Starbridge” series is perhaps her magnum opus, and it shows. There are 7 books in the series, with looser and stronger ties to each other. I’d definitely read them in order, as some characters recur and some places show up again. Crispin offers her vision for humanity’s first contact with a number of species in this fascinating series.

There are many commendable aspects of Crispin’s series. First, her featuring of several other authors alongside her own writing. I love when industry greats pay it forward. Second, each book in the series presents many unique aspects. Third, it presents a future of cooperation with others rather than constant war. And it’s not a simplistic vision either: the future will take work. Fourth, they’re all available on Audible as audiobooks! This may not excite all readers, but I love me some audiobooks and it is the same narrator throughout, so no jarring changes in tone, etc.

I’ve read the whole series and each book is good in its own way. Perhaps the greatest highlight for me was Silent Dances, which features a main character who is Native American and deaf. She’s a human being through and through and is treated as such rather than as a foil or an “issue.” These books are truly so good. That’s the way it is throughout the series, though: each character is fully formed and believable. Some aggravate, some you’ll love. Motivations seem genuine. Crispin’s talent for realizing fictional people is dazzling to witness. The series is phenomenal. Read Starbridge ASAP if you like sci-fi and especially if you love First Contact novels

This cover is awesome.

James White’s Sector General Series

James White was a prolific author, and his Sector General series is evidence for how he maintained a level of popularity throughout. Now published in a series of omnibus collections (first one here), the Sector General series introduces readers to a space hospital where any and all who come are treated of whatever illness they have.

The premise is awesome, and the execution is great, too. Some of these read like TV episodes where the main character is trying to figure out what’s killing an uncommunicative alien before it’s too late. Others focus more on some drama within the hospital itself. But they’re all interesting, and the setting is fully fleshed out. There’s even a whole classification system for alien types to help both readers and doctors figure out what the heck is happening.

White’s vision of the future is, like Crispin’s, largely positive. His Sector General series effectively offers a pacifistic hope for our future where alien and human are treated with equal dignity. It’s a great take, and works well with the central premise of the hospital. Someone I met recommended the series to me but no one has yet taken claim to being the one to do so. Unknown person, I commend you! And to you, dear readers, check out the first omnibus if you want to take a dive into a fantastic world.

Links

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– Come read about two exciting science fiction debuts that couldn’t be more different. Space unicorn wha?

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– Do you like first contact sci-fi? Here are a couple novels to look at if you like a helping of humor to go alongside it.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.