It’s helpful to have a book that focuses on Grant’s presidency — and comes in at a manageable length.
Massive Grant biographies of 600 pages or longer like those by Ron Chernow, Brooks Simpson or HR Brands do cover the two terms that Grant spent in the White House. But in most general biographies, Grant’s career as a political leader is a just small part of a story that’s mostly about Grant’s military career.
Shorting his presidential service in favor of his military service is nothing new in writing about Grant. His own memoirs published in 1885 conclude with events in 1865. Grant himself preferred the title of general over the title of president, even while he served in America’s highest elected office.
The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy is only 150 pages and they’re almost all about Grant’s two terms as president. Though less well known and much less honored than Grant’s leadership in the war, his presidential career deserves much more attention than it has gotten by the public. And that’s who this book is for.
Admirably balanced, Kahan’s view of Grant tackles the usual charge against his presidency, that it was rife with corruption. He writes not only about the famous financial scandals of Grant’s terms like Credit Mobilier (which actually started under Lincoln and continued under Johnson, though Grant gets all the blame), the Whiskey Ring, the New York Gold Conspiracy of James Fisk and Jay Gould and of course the collapse of Jay Cooke & Company that triggered the Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed. Kahan also shares outlines of lesser known scandals involving the New York Customs House, the post office and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
So many scandals and more. Kahan also shows how Grant faltered in responding to each, sometimes from trying to give trusted appointees the benefit of the doubt and sometimes from the opposite motivation, trying to make sure that illegal behavior was adequately exposed and punished. Either way, Grant often wound up getting himself in even more hot water the more he tried to make things better.
Kahan cannot be accused of writing Grant hagiography. Yet, it would have been helpful to have more context for the stories of corruption, not to exonerate Grant and his appointees but to understand the severity of these episodes by comparing them to what else was happening in politics and the economy at the time.
The Gilded Age after the Civil War is famous for its overheated industrialization. Rapid economic growth led to a get-rich-quick mentality that encouraged risk-taking and corner-cutting across industries and government alike. Kahan shares little of this context while detailing a dozen or more scandals that Grant’s two administrations had to deal with, leaving the reader with the impression that Grant’s presidency was uniquely corrupt.
Kahan does offer enough context about Gilded Age politics to understand how Grant was hemmed in by Congress, the Supreme Court, state governments and public opinion. Neither Grant nor any other president deserves all the credit or all the blame for everything done under their watch.
Which brings the reader to Reconstruction and civil rights, the place where Grant wanted to do more but was held back by other powers of state.
Kahan presents well the dilemma that Grant faced. He wanted to safeguard the gains won on the battlefield of union with liberty for all Americans, especially Black citizens. But in the face of opposition from Southern white leaders that verged on open warfare, support from the North for Reconstruction quickly waned, leaving Grant without the political backup to continue to order troops to enforce civil rights laws in the South. By the time Hayes was elected in the infamous deal of 1876 with Democrats to end Reconstruction, it was clear that Northern will to protect Black citizens in the South was gone.
History remembered Reconstruction as a failure and largely blamed Grant. As Kahan points out, the ironic thing was that historians deprecated the Northern effort to reintegrate the South into the nation for opposite reasons. The Dunning School of the early 20th century thought that Reconstruction was too hard on the white South. But when the civil rights movement came along, historians did an about-face. They still criticized Reconstruction, but now for being too easy on the white South and not doing enough to protect the rights of Black Southerners.
But whether Reconstruction was too strong or too weak, Grant got the blame either way.
Kahan does a good job of correcting both of those extreme positions, replacing their inaccurate understandings of Reconstruction with a more nuanced view drawing on the work of Eric Foner and other recent historians who have found many successes among the obvious failures of the period.
This book also tells the story well of the consequential foreign policy of Grant’s two terms, from its one big failure (the aborted effort to annex the Dominican Republic) to its many successes (especially ensuring peace with Britain through settling the so-called Alabama claims through arbitration rather than armed conflict).
It’s easy to conclude from Kahan’s account that, in an extremely challenging time in American history, Grant guided the ship of state through stormy waters perhaps better than any other leader could have done in his place.