Historian Ron Chernow, author of the acclaimed biography Hamilton that became the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, presented the keynote address following ALA President Julie Todaro’s Awards Ceremony on Sunday afternoon.
Chernow’s next book is Grant (Penguin, due out in October), a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and the 18th president of the United States. “Grant was an extraordinarily important figure in American history,” Chernow said, “but he has faded into obscurity.” He hopes that his new treatment will set the record straight on a much maligned and misunderstood individual.
Chernow said one of the commonest questions he gets from people asking about his book is, “Where does the phrase ‘Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb’ come from?” “The answer is,” he said, “Groucho Marx. On his 1950s quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho would mercilessly ridicule contestants who got the answers wrong. But after a while, he began to feel sorry for them and gave them an easy question to make them feel better. Often it was ‘Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb,’” a huge monument in New York City. “Even then, half of them got the answer wrong.”
Other people, Chernow said, think that author Mark Twain wrote Grant’s Personal Memoirs. It was Twain’s firm, Charles L.Webster and Co., that published the two-volume set in 1885-1886. “Twain said he never got cleaner copy from any author than he got from Grant,” Chernow said. “Sometimes he would write 10,000 words in one day, all of it with close attention to trivial matters of grammar and punctuation. But I wanted to make sure there was no truth to the Twain rumor, so I went to the Library of Congress and insisted on seeing the original manuscript in Grant’s own handwriting. I spent an entire day leafing through its pages. It was the most poignant day of my research. It was written in Grant’s firm, clear hand, except for the very end when the pain from his cancer and the opiates he was taking for it began to cause it to slant and wobble like the deck of a ship on the high seas.”
A frequent criticism of Grant, especially during the Civil War, was that he was frequently drunk. “Rumors of his drinking came to preoccupy President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton. Recent books,” Chernow said, “insist that these stories of drunkenness were overblown by his rivals and enemies. I wanted to find the truth, so I’ve documented Grant’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism. The term ‘drunkard’ is a loaded word. Grant was a mature, serious adult grappling with a chronic disorder. He had the classic traits of alcoholism—once he started he could not stop, his personality changed, and he became more talkative—but he never became abusive or violent. As a binge drinker, he could go weeks or months without having any, then spend several days deep under the influence. As a high-functioning alcoholic, he could also schedule his binges so they did not interfere with his responsibilities, and he never allowed it to jeopardize his men.”
Chernow said that “few presidents had so much to contend with. At first, Grant was hopeful for the prospects of reconciliation with the South. But after the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were proposed and ratified, things started turning ugly. Grant had to incorporate 11 states back into the Union, and at the same time protect the black populations who lived there.”
“The big story of the Grant administration,” Chernow said, “was the crushing of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1866, in Pulaski, Tennessee, a group of ex-Confederate soldiers formed a social club and gave it a name based on the Greek name for ‘circle’ (kuklos).” But the Klan soon spread and became a secret vigilante group, “donning hoods and robes to terrorize and intimidate the black community. Hundreds and thousands of African Americans were killed as this reign of terror spread south. No Southern jury would ever convict members of the KKK, and it turned into a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”
Grant repeatedly sent troops into the southern states to quell violence, Chernow said, and in “one of the most courageous and far-sighted actions in American history, his administration brought some 3,000 indictments against members of the Klan.” That, in addition to his vigorous enforcement of the Fourteenth (citizenship, due process, equal protection) and Fifteenth (right to vote) Amendments, Grant was the “single most important president safeguarding African-American rights between Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
Ron Chernow on history, presidents, and truth: