Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "H.W. Brands"
What is the best Teddy Roosevelt biography you've read? I've been shopping for one and a few seem to paint him in a negative light, which I'm NOT looking for.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

The best is actually a trilogy — the three volumes written by Edmund Morris: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (focuses on TR from birth until McKinley’s assassination), Theodore Rex (focuses on TR as President), and Colonel Roosevelt (focuses on TR from the day he left the White House until the morning his wife Edith found him dead in January 1919).  If you have the time and money to commit to the trilogy, that’s what I would recommend.  Not only are the books what I would consider a definitive history of TR, but Morris is responsible for some beautiful writing.

If not (and I don’t blame you — three books that each clock in at north of 700 pages is indeed a commitment) and would rather read something in one volume, I’d suggest either David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or TR: The Last Romantic by H.W. Brands.  You can’t go wrong with those two authors — as historians or writers — either.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
If Ulysses S. Grant had not surrounded himself with corrupt cabinet members, could he have been a good president?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Probably not.  And it’s not so much because of Grant’s limitations but due to the fact that almost everybody would have failed in his position at that time.  

In his recent biography of Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands suggested that Lincoln wouldn’t have been considered as great of a President as he is today if he hadn’t been assassinated the week the Civil War ended:

"Had Lincoln lived, the war’s end would have forced him to answer questions he had avoided amid the fighting.  He would have been required to say whether emancipation implied citizenship for the freedmen; whether citizenship entailed suffrage; how far political equality, if it came to that, demanded social equality; and who would enforce the rights of African Americans against the resistance the assertion of such rights must inevitably evoke.  In short, he would have been required to specify what reconstruction meant."

Since Lincoln was dead less than a week after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, those tasks fell to Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.  It’s no surprise that Johnson and Grant are considered by many historians to be among the worst Presidents in American history, but they presided over a period that was no less difficult than the years of Pierce and Buchanan.  In a way, it may have been tougher because instead of holding the nation together, Johnson and Grant had to actually put the country back together.  They also had to figure out how to handle the newly-emancipated slaves, the defeated Confederates, the conquered Southern leaders, and the utter destruction in the South, which was literally occupied territory.  

Johnson was a Democrat instead of a Republican and the only Southern Senator who remained loyal to the Union.  He was hated by the former Confederates and he wanted to punish them.  But Johnson was also a vicious racist.  Obviously, these things did not come together and result in a good President.  Johnson’s battles with Congress resulted in his impeachment and he was one vote away from a conviction in the Senate which would have removed him from office.  From the moment that Abraham Lincoln’s heart stopped beating at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson had no chance whatsoever at being successful in Lincoln’s place. 

Grant — who also hated Johnson (and the feeling was mutual) — got along much better with Congress and was a better man than Andrew Johnson was.  He still had his troubles, but anybody in that spot at that time — including Lincoln, as Brands noted — would have struggled.  Quite frankly, I don’t think Grant is as bad of a President as he has traditionally been ranked — in my Presidential Rankings last year, I had Grant ranked 30th out of 43.  In fact, Grant’s reputation as President has been improving over the past 20 or so years.  In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. had Grant ranked as the second worst President in history — worse than everybody except Harding, including Buchanan!  In 1990, Siena College had Grant ranked 37th out of 40.  But in 2010, Siena’s rankings saw Grant jump to 26th out of 43 and the year before, C-SPAN had him at 23rd out of 42.  I think C-SPAN has him a bit too high and I can’t see him rising any higher then the mid-20s, but he’s certainly not one of the five worst Presidents in history.  Was he a good President?  No, probably not.  General Grant is on the $50 bill because of his military achievements and he never truly fit in the world of politics.  But I don’t think he was a bad President, either.  

I ended up with a bit of spare money in a book scholarship and was very excited to pick up a copy of "The Man Who Saved the Union". I've been itching to read it ever since your review! So this is a thank you for always keeping me updated with potential new reading material. It is much appreciated.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Awesome, I’m glad to hear that!  I’m fortunate enough to get a ton of great books to review for AND Magazine, so I love being able to share my thoughts and make recommendations for my fellow history fans. 

Everyone is welcome to connect with me on Goodreads, as well.  Since I don’t always have the time to write a full-scale review on all of the books that I read, I’m going to try to remember to at least use Goodreads to post a short review (or a star rating at the very least!).  I’m training myself to go to Goodreads daily so that I am consistent about it, but you’ll have to be patient with me because, as anyone who follows me on Facebook and (especially) Twitter knows, I tend to go through phases.

You made a solid choice with The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOKKINDLE).  I think it was one of the best books of the year, and that’s no surprise since H.W. Brands always delivers.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best book written about Grant other than the one that General Grant wrote about himself.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
H.W. Brands
Hardcover.  718 pp.
October 2, 2012.  Doubleday.

There is a phrase that critics — both book critics and movie critics, but mostly book critics — use so frequently in their reviews that it’s almost funny to come across it now.  When a critic comes across an epic story or film, they love to describe it as a “sweeping, magisterial” work.  Seriously, take a second to go right now to do a focused Google search in quotes of “sweeping, magisterial” — every single result that the search returns for several pages is either a book review or a film review!  The phrase is so overused that it’s almost become a parody, like the voice-over actor who uses his deep baritone at the beginning of a movie trailer to intone, “In a world where…”.  When I started reviewing books regularly, I decided I that I wanted to be careful to never use the “sweeping, magisterial” phrase as a crutch in my reviews, and I don’t think I have.  Yet, I wouldn’t be honest to my readers if I didn’t admit that, as I sat down to write the review for H.W. Brands’s new book, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (Doubleday, October 2, 2012), the first adjectives that came to my mind were “sweeping” and “magisterial”.  And for that, I put the blame squarely on H.W. Brands and this comprehensive, supremely readable new biography about the quiet and unassuming General who stood nine inches shorter than Abraham Lincoln but was just as much of a giant of the dangerous and trying times that they lived in.

H.W. Brands, one of our finest historians, is no stranger to epic, penetrating biographies of American icons who are pillars of our nation’s historical architecture.  A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (BOOKKINDLE), as well as his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Traitor To His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOKKINDLE), Brands has also brought us other great works such as American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (BOOKKINDLE), Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (BOOKKINDLE), The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (BOOKKINDLE), and TR: The Last Romantic to name just a few.  By no means is that Brands’ full bibliography, either.  Despite the fact that each of his books are meticulously researched, masterfully structured, and elegantly written, Brands is also astonishingly prolific, especially considering the depth and breadth of each of his books.

With The Man Who Saved the Union, Brands examines the life of the enigmatic Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose importance to the preservation of the nation through the Civil War is equal to Abraham Lincoln’s and who came from similarly obscure roots and faced personal failures and depressions much like Lincoln did prior to his election as President.  What is most extraordinary about Ulysses S. Grant seems to be how very ordinary he was.  No one ever expected much out of Grant and despite graduating from West Point and serving ably in the Mexican War, Grant didn’t do much during his first 40 years to prove those doubters wrong.  Some missteps with alcohol while Grant was stationed thousands of miles from his family in lonely military outposts in California and Oregon following the Mexican War ended a military career that had become stagnant anyway.  Reunited with his family, life for Grant remained difficult and frustrating as business failures and bad luck kept him drifting from one job to another before finally forcing him to seek work with his father’s tannery and leather goods business — the last place the squeamish, animal-loving Grant wanted to end up at.

The outbreak of the Civil War provided Grant with an opportunity to reenlist in the U.S. Army and The Man Who Saved the Union follows him as he helps organize militia in Illinois and then quickly rises from colonel to brigadier general.  While the Union Army struggled in the East and President Lincoln frustratingly sought a commander who would actually fight in that theater of the war, Grant’s tenacious fighting and singular focus on victory gave the Union much-needed successes in the West.  Brands recounts Grant’s leadership and vividly describes the battles that helped the Union gain control of the Mississippi River and resulted in Lincoln — and the entire nation — taking notice of the quiet, cigar-smoking general who actually fought, unlike the commanders in the East that Lincoln constantly prodded and poked and eventually fired.

By the beginning of 1864, Grant was a national hero and in recognition of his successes, abilities, and the Union’s need for his continued leadership, President Lincoln appointed him lieutenant general.  The man who couldn’t hold on to a job a few years earlier was now sharing the highest military rank given to that point in American history with George Washington.  Grant was given command of the entire Union Army and took personal charge of the underachieving Army of the Potomac in the East while one of Grant’s best friends, General William Tecumseh Sherman, took over in the West.  Sherman is one of the highlights of The Man Who Saved the Union because of his passion, his candor, and his fascinating character, and his personal friendship and professional partnership with Grant is one of the important aspects of the Civil War.  Fortunately for us, Brands spotlights their relationship and lets the two generals help carry their story through their letters to each other, reports to the War Department, and their respective autobiographies, which are two of the finest books written by major American historical figures.

In many ways, 1864 is the toughest year of the Civil War and Brands puts the reader in the middle of the brutal Wilderness campaign where Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee threw tens of thousands of soldiers at one another in some of the bloodiest battles in history.  At the same time, Lincoln is seeking a reelection that is not only uncertain but, at times, seems unlikely.  The Man Who Saved the Union reveals how Grant shot down calls for him to run for President against Lincoln and how Union victories in the late-summer and fall helped swing the election to Lincoln.

The war comes to a close in April 1865 and Brands does a great job with the dramatic surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox.  Less than a week later, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President.  With the Civil War ending, The Man Who Saved the Union shifts into the second half of Ulysses S. Grant’s public career.  Now that Grant has saved the Union, he decides that he must do whatever is necessary to help preserve it.  Still the commanding general of the United States military, Grant was now overseeing soldiers flung throughout the nation — at frontier outposts battling Native Americans and occupying the former Confederate states of the South in order to protect newly-freed slaves, install loyal officials in state and local governments, ensure the rule of law, and complete Reconstruction.  With Lincoln dead and Johnson in the White House, Radical Republicans battled the new President over the details of Reconstruction and Grant was often caught in the middle.  As a subordinate, Grant refused to disobey or disrespect his commander-in-chief publicly, but privately, he disliked Johnson and was fed up with the President.  Brands does perhaps the best job that I’ve read in describing the tension between Johnson and his Cabinet, as well as Johnson and Grant, and then the final break between President Johnson and General Grant.

Johnson had no chance of being elected President in his own right in 1868 and Brands notes that it was clear to everyone in the country that Ulysses S. Grant would be the next President.  It’s interesting to read about Grant’s shift from a military man to a political leader in The Man Who Saved the Union, and Grant’s eight years as President are frequently overlooked.  For decades Grant has been considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, but in recent years, that opinion has somewhat softened, particularly due to Grant’s progressive civil rights stance, which resulted in Grant signing the only civil rights legislation until 1957.  Brands examines the Grant Administration in great detail and touches upon the scandals which tainted Grant’s Presidency despite no wrongdoing on the President’s part.  While Grant certainly was a far better soldier than politician, Brands makes a solid case through his research that his record as President may deserve a closer look by historians.

In retirement, Grant and his wife, Julia, take a long-needed and well-deserved vacation that turned into a trip around the world which lasted over two years.  Returning to the U.S., Grant nearly won the 1880 Republican Presidential nomination at a wild Republican National Convention before James Garfield was eventually nominated.  In his final years, Grant looked to earn some money so that his family could live comfortably, but the bad luck in business that tormented him during the years prior to the Civil War returned.  A crooked financial partner bilked Grant out of nearly every cent the general owned.  Brands reveals the lengths that the aging American hero went to in order to find a way to provide for his family and details Grant’s dramatic final act of heroism.  After Mark Twain worked out a lucrative deal for Grant to write his autobiography, Grant races to finish the book even though he is dying from throat cancer.  Grant’s health rapidly deteriorates, but he continues to write, focused on the goal of finishing the book before his death so that his family would be able to live without financial worries.  In July 1885, Grant — weighing less than 100 pounds and no longer able to speak — finished the book and it remains perhaps the best autobiography ever written by a former President (although it doesn’t cover his political career).  A week after finishing the book, Grant died in New York and the country — North and South, Blue and Gray, Union and Confederate — turned out to mourn The Man Who Saved the Union.

There is a major difference between a “historian” and a “writer”, unless your name is H.W. Brands.  The Man Who Saved the Union is a magnificent book that once again leaves me wondering how Brands is so thorough and prolific.  The book also leaves me with a better understanding of Ulysses S. Grant.  Americans know what Grant did and they see his face on the $50 bill, but this book truly helps reveal who Grant was and how this unlikely hero, bruised by failure and tested by disappointment, focused, fought, and became the savior of the Union.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands is available now from Doubleday.  You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle.  H.W. Brands has written numerous best-selling books and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  He is currently the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Austin.  His website is and he is on Twitter @hwbrands.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
you haven't reviewed a book in some time. did you cut down on your reading?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

No, I’ve been slacking on my writing.  I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to actually writing my reviews.

The reading is going just fine.  Last night, I finished H.W. Brands’ new book The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOKKINDLE), which will be released on October 2nd.  Today, I started Burton I. Kaufman’s The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton, which hits stores on November 11th.  The Brands book is a must-read, especially if you’re a fan of the Civil War-era or General Grant.  I’m enjoying the Kaufman book so far, as I suspected I would, considering its from the University Press of Kansas — one of the best (and most prolific) publishers of books about Presidents and all aspects Presidential history from people, politics, and elections to focused studies of specific Presidential policies and/or Administrations.

Asker lsquare28 Asks:
Talking about HW Brands, I've been eying his book on FDR for a while. Have you read it? If so, what is your opinion on it?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Yes, I did read Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOKKINDLE) and I thought it was one of the better FDR biographies that I’ve read, which is saying something because there are some damn good books about FDR in print.  I personally thought that Brands should have won the Pulitzer that year (2009, I believe) for Traitor to His Class, but the award instead went to Jon Meacham for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (BOOKKINDLE).  That’s not to say that Meacham didn’t deserve the prize.  American Lion was also an excellent book and there are far less in-depth biographies of Jackson than FDR, so it’s not as if Brands was robbed of the Pulitzer or anything; Traitor to His Class was just more of a personal preference of mine than American Lion.

If you’re looking for a recommendation, I give it without hesitation.  There are two other books about FDR that I would also highly recommend.  The first is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (BOOKKINDLE), which is more of a dual biography of the First Couple and their extraordinary partnership rather than a traditional biography focusing mainly on the President.  The other book I would recommend is the massive, exhaustively-researched Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black. 

Earlier today, I posted a photo of the soon-to-be-released massive final volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston ChurchillThe Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 (BOOKKINDLE), which was completed by Paul Reid at Manchester’s request following the death of the legendary historian.

Despite the fact that I plunged right into the Churchill biography, I’m also currently breaking one of my own rules.  When I was younger, I used to alternate between three or four books at a time, moving from one book to the other and then to the other after each chapter.  By doing that, it always seemed to take far longer than it should have been to finish each book, and I would sometimes get confused with my spot in the book or with the story I was reading and the subjects would almost bleed into each other.  It was a terribly inefficient way to catch up on my reading.

However, I can’t help it right now and am breaking my own rule by alternating between Manchester and Reid’s Churchill biography and the upcoming book from H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved The Union: Ulysses Grant In War and Peace (BOOKKINDLE).  Initially, I had planned on just reading the prologue to Brands’ book, but the prologue was so damn good that I had to keep reading!  General Grant is an enigmatic figure with one of those uniquely American stories — some failures, some flaws, some tragedies, and then some terrific triumphs.  The fact that it is Brands who wrote this book is a blessing for all of us.  In my opinion, H.W. Brands is one of our finest contemporary historians in the United States and, when it comes to introducing you to the person spotlighted within his biographies, Brands is right up there alongside David McCullough in bringing long-dead heroes back to life through his narrative and their own words.  With this biography of General Grant, Brands may be on his way to finally winning the Pulitzer Prize that he’s been a finalist for twice and is more than deserving of. 

So, I’m breaking my own personal rule and alternating between Churchill and Grant because I simply can’t choose one over the other right now.  I think you’ll have a hard time doing so, as well.  William Manchester and Paul Reid’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 will be released on November 6, 2012.  The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant In War and Peace will hit the shelves on October 2, 2012.  Keep your eyes open for my features and reviews for each of the books prior to their release.