This short book is an excellent introduction for a general reader new to Grant’s life. By pulling important quotes from the large quantity Grant’s letters and other papers collected in the 32 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant also edited by Marszalek, The Best Writings of Ulysses S. Grant offers what the internet calls curated content that will interest readers more familiar with Grant.
The book follows the chronology of Grant’s life, from his West Point days through his pre-war floundering in the military and in various civilian jobs, through the war, his post-war generalship, his presidency, his travels with Julia around the world and finally his financial failure and death.
Early selections include charming writing about Grant’s love for Julia, like this one he sent her during the Mexican War:
If I could but see and talk to you frequently Julia I would not care to be any place else. How happy we must both be after so long a separation, when we meet again. How often I think of our pleasant walks & rides & talks!…How anxious I am to see this affair over that I may go back and be with my Dea[r] Julia again!
I found most interesting Grant’s writing about controversies. For example, here’s what Grant wrote after the war in 1868 about his order expelling Jewish people from his military department during the early days of the war:
In regard to Order No 11 hundreds of letters have been written to me about it, by persons of the faith affected by it…I have no prejudice against sect or race but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order. It never would have been issues if it had not been telegraphed the moment penned, with one moments reflection.
Grant’s comments on slavery, race and Reconstruction also appear throughout the book. Here’s what he said about his controversial and ultimately failed attempt to annex the Dominican Republic during his presidency. Like all excerpts in the book, this quote preserves Grant’s original spelling, which was always unconventional:
The present difficulty in bringing all parts of the United States to a happy unity and love of country grows out of the prejudice to color. The prejudice is a sensless [sic] one, but it exists. The colored man cannot be spared until his place is supplied, but with a refuge like San Domingo his worth here would soon be discovered, and he would receive such recognition as to induce him to stay: or if Providence designed that the two races should not live together he would find a home in the Antillas…
Editorial commentary from Marszalek puts each quote in context of Grant’s biography and national affairs at the time. For example, Grant’s interest in the Dominican Republic complemented his support for the 15th Amendment giving Black men the vote.
Once elected to his first term in the White House, Grant had to deal with many issues, including a diplomatic dispute with England, Indian policy, monetary standards and partisan politics. “The greatest problem,” writes Marszalek, “however, was racism in both the North and the South. The idea of Black men having political equality and the right to vote, let alone hold office, was unthinkable to most white Americans. Yet, this was the new president’s belief: the former slave now free should share the goodness of democracy with all other Americans.”
On the one hand, Grant hoped that Black people would be able to exercise their newly awarded rights as citizens and thrive in the U.S. surrounded by white neighbors. But recognizing how difficult this would be, because of white racism, Grant also wanted to give Black Americans the option to live among their own people either domestically or abroad.
This volume is one in a series published by Southern Illinois University Press edited by Marszalek and Timothy B. Smith called The World of Ulysses S. Grant that currently includes half a dozen books ranging from the memoirs of Julia Dent Grant to an examination of Grant’s Indian policy while president to separate monographs on the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns.