The Great Man of History … An Implied Counterfactual

Grant 1868Today is Ulysses S. Grant’s birthday. As H. W. Brands would have it, he was the man who saved the Union. Perhaps he was. Perhaps, in fact, he was¬†indispensable¬†to the suppression of the southern rebellion, which in turn was secured in part through the destruction of slavery. In other words, he’s kinda a big deal.

In the last several decades (some would say starting in earnest in 1991), historians have taken a new look at the life and times of the hero of Appomattox and the eighteenth president of the United Sates. Grant continues to get high marks as a general, but I’d add that since the 1980s we have a better and fuller understanding of what made him a successful American commander. Other historians have reassessed his presidency, with some arguing that he was not only a capable president but indeed a very good one (an estimate that I think goes too far). In fact during the past ten years we have seen book after book come out repeating basically the same message established by 2001, to the point that this swelling chorus of phase has become a little too familiar as several biographers assert that their task is to rehabilitate Grant. I don’t happen to think that’s a biographer’s task, and in such claims there’s a little too much of the first person singular, but to each his or her own. Continue reading