| January 4, 2018


Podcast #368: The Courage and Resilience of Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant is a historical figure who’s often portrayed in a not-so-flattering light. Many Americans know him as a drunk, inept businessman who found himself thrust into generalship during the Civil War and led the Union to victory not because of his military genius, but simply because he happened to be on the side that had more men and weapons. The story then goes that Grant parlayed his military success into a career in politics where he led a failed presidential administration mired in corruption, and later died penniless. 

That’s the story you often hear about Grant. But my guest today argues that this common portrayal doesn’t come close to capturing the complexity of this American leader. In fact, if you look at Grant more closely, you can find a shining example of courage, resilience, and quiet dignity. 

My guest’s name is Ron Chernow, and he’s the author of several seminal, bestselling biographies, including ones on Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller. In his latest biography, Grant, he’s trained his lens on the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Ron and I begin our discussion talking about Grant’s upbringing and how it influenced his unflappable, yet passive personality. We then discuss the real extent of Grant’s alcoholism, how it hurt him throughout his career, and how he managed it throughout his life. Ron then explains how someone who had such a passive and tender personality developed an aggressive new military strategy that would serve as a template for modern warfare. From there we look at the lessons that can be learned from the way Grant handled Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. 

We then discuss Grant’s presidency, including whether Grant was to blame for the corruption in his administration and the oft-overlooked successes he had while president. We end our conversation with the argument that Grant’s quiet, dignified professionalism is a much needed example in today’s flashy and overly self-promotional world.

Show Highlights

  • How does Chernow decide who to spend years researching and writing about?
  • Why does Grant get overlooked as a president and a general?
  • How did Grant come by his famously cool temperament?
  • How the “S” of Ulysses S. Grant came about 
  • What was Grant like as a West Point cadet?
  • Grant’s role in the Mexican-American War 
  • How Grant managed personal political differences with his family and friends
  • Grant’s forays in the business world 
  • The truth about Grant’s drinking 
  • What did Grant do differently from other Union general?
  • How Grant introduced modern warfare 
  • How Robert E. Lee and the South responded to Grant 
  • Did Grant really want to be president after the Civil War?
  • The corruption in Grant’s White House 
  • What successes did Grant have as president?
  • Where Grant ranks among “best presidents” lists
  • Grant’s life after the presidency 
  • Why Grant decided to write his memoirs 
  • What remains compelling about Grant in our modern age?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

grant book cover ron chernow

Grant was an absolute pleasure to read. The narrative ability of Chernow shines throughout this biography. You learn so much about an important time in American history, yet you feel like you’re reading an engaging story. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

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Last updated: January 5, 2018

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