Remembering Two Biographers of Ulysses S. Grant Who Died in 2019

Photo credit: Nick Sacco

2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.

Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.

Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.

(Here’s a book review/essay I wrote about Grant’s Indian policies that you can read about on this topic).

An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf

From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:

The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.

Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:

Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.

Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

Yikes.

William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.

On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Era article on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.

The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:

A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.

. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.

McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:

In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.

Really?

Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?

Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.

By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).

Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.

Cheers

4 thoughts on “Remembering Two Biographers of Ulysses S. Grant Who Died in 2019

  1. Excellent read, as always. I was intrigued by Brooks Simpson’s critique of McFeely’s highly selective research. I had not seen that before. It seems that McFeely had some preconceptions that he was determined to prove, evidence or no evidence.

      1. Very kind of you, Nick, to avail this gem of an essay by Brooks Simpson – long held hostage behind a paywall – to the general population of history enthusiasts. I read it a few years ago, and it became the foundation for my refutation of the diatribe/screed put forth by the legions of Grant-haters. Quite the study unto itself, the rise and fall, and rise, & over-the-top-rise of Grant’s reputation. Excellent blog post, as usual. Perhaps, someday I will come to terms with the hatchet-job McFeely did on Grant’s legacy, but that waits for another day.

        1. Thanks, Shoshana. I think it’s nuts that a book review that is more than thirty years old is still somehow paywalled. So I just took the liberty of putting it here. Thanks for the kind words. As you can see, I have a lot of problems with McFeely’s bio, but I think there’s important lessons to be had about using psychoanalysis responsibly when trying to probe the inner-thoughts of a biographical subject.

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