Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

General Grant as Persona

I've been reading Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses Grant as an audiobook during my commutes lately. I'm enjoying it a lot.

It's an interesting contrast to his biography of Hamilton, which served as the inspiration for the famous musical. You can see why Hamilton is popular as a persona with the musical's fans. Hamilton is a perfect avatar for today's young elites: Brilliant, eager, forward thinking, flawed yet conscious of his flaws.

Chernow chose to write about both Hamilton and Grant, and in both cases he took on a major figure of a period of American history who came to be dismissed by the common wisdom of following periods. Hamilton was dismissed by the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of American democracy as an aristocrat and elitist. Grant was spurned by the post-reconstruction school as a corrupt, bumbling president and a general who was only great in his relentlessness.

The picture of Grant which Chernow paints is more interesting than Grant the bumbler, Grant the butcher, or Grant the drinker. I also find myself wondering if he's a person whom many of Chernow's Hamilton fans would find it hard to like, particularly if he did not have the distance of being in the past.

I had known that Grant struggled against alcoholic tendencies. He was someone who showed the effects of drink after just one or two drinks (those who knew him in that condition described him as a stupid though amiable drunk) and who found it almost impossible to stop at one drink. Once he had any alcohol, he was likely to continue on to a several day spree. What I had not known before was that because he recognized this tendency in himself Grant was a strong temperance advocate, repeatedly taking the pledge to totally abstain from alcohol and supporting the temperance movement which would eventually lead to Prohibition in the early 20th century.

Grant's support for the temperance cause aligned his with strict Methodist religious principles, principles that were apparently also expressed in his strong dislike for swearing and any sort of talk which he felt cheapened women.

Aside from his occasional relapses into heavy drinking, Grant was also extremely staid in his personal life. Unlike the flirtatious Hamilton, who became the epicenter for the first great American political sex scandal, Grant was very much a one woman man, utterly devoted to his wife Julia -- a woman whom many of his contemporaries described as ugly and who remained attached to the slave owning society in which she grew up, but who also was devoted to Ulysses and a great fan of literature. Julia found reading hard because of a problem with one of her eyes (the result of a childhood injury) so in their home life Ulysses often read aloud to her.

Chernow clearly finds great humanity in Grant, the man of strict temperance principles who nonetheless fell to his alcoholic weakness at intervals, the brilliant general who was such a failure at business in civilian life that he had to live off his father and father-in-law's charity. I agree. However, it also struck me it would be easy for many modern readers to despise Grant, particularly if they saw him as a modern type rather than a period one: A strictly religious military man who encourages people to "take the pledge" never to drink, who dislikes all swearing and jokes with sexual overtones, yet is also known to at times get drunk for days at a time. He could as easily be painted as an up-tight hypocrite as a sympathetically flawed and human character.

I'm glad that Chernow resisted any urge to scoff at Grant in that way, and I hope that his readers will as well. The man who emerges from these pages is worthy of admiration.

No comments: