Don’t believe everything you read about U.S. Grant, biographer Ron Chernow tells Morristown book fest

Ron Chernow, author of 'Grant,' at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ron Chernow, author of 'Grant,' at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

An under-rated President and improbable military hero who won the Civil War but lost the peace, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow.

Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired the smash Broadway musical, kicked off the fourth annual Morristown Festival of Books on Friday with a sold-out talk about Grant, his new bio of Ulysses S. Grant.

Biographer Ron Chernow at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Biographer Ron Chernow at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The festival continues on Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm with free talks by 40 authors at four downtown venues.

“Grant faced more adversity in his early life than Alexander Hamilton–which is saying a lot,” Chernow, 68, told listeners in the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

Grant’s familiarity with crushing failure may explain his leniency toward the South after the Civil War, a stance that still reverberates, he said.

As occupying commander of the vanquished Confederacy, the general carefully avoided gloating. He honored a promise to Robert E. Lee not to prosecute Rebel generals for treason, and went easy on surrendered soldiers, Chernow said.

“Unfortunately, that very charitable attitude of reconciliation allowed a lot of different myths in the South to flourish. You saw in Charlottesville these myths continue to this day to have an influence in American public life,” he said, referring to white supremacist marches protesting the proposed removal of a Lee statue in Virginia.

Confederate monuments, Chernow suggested, should be moved from courthouses and government buildings “to the neutral territory of historical societies, where we can maybe turn this into a teachable moment.”

BRILLIANCE AND BLUNDERS

Chernow said he hopes his book dispels stereotypes of U.S. Grant as a fall-down drunk, a  battlefield butcher, and a scandal-rocked President.

Grant struggled with alcoholism, certainly. But he waited until after military battles to go on his binges, the historian said.

Ron Chernow delivers keynote at Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ron Chernow delivers keynote at Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As for Southern depictions of a bloodthirsty general who won by brute force, “nothing was farther from the truth,” said Chernow, describing Grant as a dazzling, daring leader who captured three Rebel armies. While Lee was good at winning battles, “Grant had a strategy for winning the war.”

Grant’s two White House terms had scandals. His policies on Native Americans, though well meaning at first, were disastrous.

Sally Mott Freeman, right, author of 'The Jersey Brothers,' and friend Julia Carey of Madison at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Sally Mott Freeman, right, author of ‘The Jersey Brothers,’ and friend Julia Carey of Madison at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

But Grant also busted the Ku Klux Klan (it would not rebound until the 20th century) and oversaw a Reconstruction period in which 600 blacks served in Southern legislatures, 14 were elected to Congress, and two more became U.S. senators. New Orleans streetcars were integrated 90 years before Rosa Parks’ brave bus ride.

Atoning for a wartime blunder, Grant appointed more Jews to federal jobs than all other 19th century presidents combined, while speaking out against pogroms in Russia and Romania, Chernow added.

Jews of Grant’s day forgave him for a shocking Civil War order expelling them from Southern states, an order that he regretted and President Lincoln overturned.

For these reasons, Chernow said, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new commission to remove hate symbols should give Grant monuments a pass.

FROM FOOL TO FAVORITE

A biography of George Washington won the Pulitzer Prize for Chernow. Grant proved a more enigmatic figure, consuming six years of the author’s life.

Chernow has come to know Morristown. Washington, Hamilton and Grant all spent time here–the former two during the Revolution, and Grant during visits to illustrator Thomas Nast. (Grant’s son Fred also settled on South Street.)

Festival Chairwoman Linda Hellstrom presents historical print from The Artful Unicorn to keynote speaker Ron Chernow, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Festival Chairwoman Linda Hellstrom presents historical print from The Artful Unicorn to keynote speaker Ron Chernow, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Unlike Washington or Hamilton, Grant showed no glimmers of greatness as a young man, Chernow said. He aspired to become an assistant mathematics professor at West Point.

Grant was a “lackluster” student at the military academy, where he got saddled with the meaningless “S” in U.S. Grant because of an error by his sponsoring congressman, Chernow said.

Mary Jane Robertson, Alice Lloyd and Jock Clark peruse 'Grant' at Morristown Book Fest, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mary Jane Robertson, Alice Lloyd and Jock Clark peruse ‘Grant’ at Morristown Book Fest, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A civil war soon raged within Grant’s family. His in-laws were slave owners. Grant’s Abolitionist relatives boycotted the wedding.

After serving with distinction in the Mexican American war, Grant failed as a farmer. He was reduced to selling firewood on a St. Louis street corner before accepting a humiliating clerk’s job in his father’s leather store to support his wife and four children, Chernow said.

When Grant’s devoted wife Julia revealed a dream in which her husband was elected president, people laughed at her.

Then came the Civil War. Experienced officers were scarce. Championed by President Lincoln, Grant rocketed through the ranks to command a million Union soldiers.

“Overnight he went from fortune’s fool to fortune’s favorite,” Chernow said.

Keynote speaker Ron Chernow is flanked by Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and First Lady Mary Dougherty, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Keynote speaker Ron Chernow is flanked by Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and First Lady Mary Dougherty, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Grant’s years as a beaten-down civilian may have informed his success in war. “He had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and a willingness to take enormous risks,” the writer said.

After his presidency, Grant had everything to lose. Victimized by an investment swindle that left him virtually penniless, and fighting painful throat cancer, Grant willed himself to live just long enough to write his memoirs, to provide for his wife.

He died in 1885 at age 63.

The memoirs were hailed for their brilliance.

No matter how successful Grant becomes, Chernow has no illusions about his own literary legacy.

“In the case of Alexander Hamilton, oh my God, I’ll be laying on my deathbed and they’ll be asking me about the musical,” he said with a laugh.

MORE ABOUT THE MORRISTOWN FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

FULL HOUSE: The Mayo Performing Arts Center is packed for Ron Chernow keynote at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
FULL HOUSE: The Mayo Performing Arts Center is packed for Ron Chernow keynote at the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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