72 pages 2 hours read

Ron Chernow


Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, titled simply Grant, was published in 2017 by Penguin Press. A biographer specializing in United States history, Chernow wrote Grant in order to correct what he perceives as misconceptions about Grant’s life, especially his presidency. In particular, Chernow argues that Grant was a more pivotal figure when it came to African American rights than has usually been appreciated. Also, Chernow focuses on Grant’s alcoholism, seeing Grant’s struggle with alcohol as inspirational rather than a fatal flaw.

This study guide refers to the 2018 Penguin Books edition.


The biography of Ulysses S. Grant starts in rural Ohio, where Grant is born to a family with a Methodist and abolitionist background. His father Jesse enlists him in the military academy of West Point without Grant’s knowledge or consent. There, Grant was a student who talked back to superiors, but one who also “developed a reputation for a fearless sense of fair play” (22). Although Grant aspired to be a professor of mathematics, he ended up pursuing a career in the military, serving as an officer in the Mexican-American War where he had firsthand experience as part of an occupying army. Still, he had time for a personal life and married Julia Dent, the daughter of a family of enslavers from Missouri. Grant’s career in the military was cut short when he resigned from the army, possibly because of his alcoholism.

When the Southern states tried to secede from the United States in response to the election of President Abraham Lincoln, it sparked the American Civil War. The Southern states moved to form their own government, the Confederacy. Committed to the Union side despite his father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, being an avid Confederate, Grant rejoined the military. Throughout the war, Grant deployed a “swift, relentless military style” (344) that distinguished him from Lincoln’s other, more overly cautious generals. He rose through the ranks until Lincoln entrusted him with full command of the Union army. With the full force of the Union army at this disposal, Grant cornered the famous Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, and forced him to surrender at Appomattox Court House, which brought an end to the Civil War and to slavery in the United States. After the war ended, a period of trying to reintegrate the South, Reconstruction, began. Following the assassination of President Lincoln, the process of Reconstruction was marred by a clash between Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who held racist views and sympathized with the plantation owners who once controlled the South, and the Radical Republicans, a faction in Johnson’s own Republican party who wanted to extend civil rights to African Americans in the South.

Due to his fame as a general, Grant was nominated to run for president in the next election as the Republican Party’s nominee. Grant came to believe that his mission was to complete the work of Reconstruction and “settle unfinished business from the war” (654). He supported extending and protecting civil rights for African Americans in the South and using federal soldiers against the racist vigilante groups that had emerged, the most notorious of which was the Ku Klux Klan. In this work, Grant was successful in breaking up the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. However, much of his work was undone or weakened by public opinion in the North, which swung toward sympathy for the South, and persistent violence and entrenched racism within the Confederacy. In addition, Grant’s presidency was marred by a series of scandals caused by corrupt officials in whom he had put too much trust.

After the end of his second term as president, Grant went on a tour of the United States and the world. Later, he made an unsuccessful bid to run for the presidency a third time. Forced into retirement, he and his family lost much of their money to a business scam. In order to make sure his wife Julia would have an income, Grant wrote a memoir. At the same time, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. With the support of the legendary writer Mark Twain, Grant finished his memoir, not long before his death on July 23, 1885.