Here’s my interview with historian Ronald White on his recent Ulysses Grant biography American Ulysses. White’s book, like Ron Chernow’s recent Grant biography, among others, is part of an ongoing more favorable reappraisal of the soldier and statesman.
For more than a century Grant was often dismissed as a failed president who drank too much, was naïve with unsavory associates, and won on the battlefield mostly thanks to superior numbers.
Now White and others credit Grant’s civil rights record as president, his integrity, his military prowess, and his skills as a writer. White, who attended Princeton Seminary, brings theological expertise to his books. And unlike other biographies, he details Grant’s lifelong association with Methodism.
Grant’s parents were Methodist, as was his wife Julia. They together attended Methodist churches in Galena, Illinois and Washington, DC, among other places. He was friends for years with his Galena pastor, John Heyl Vincent, later co-founder of Chautauqua and a bishop, whose conflict with Phineas Bresee led to the Church of the Nazarene. On his death bed, Grant was baptized by his pastor and later bishop, John Henry Newman, which was mocked by Grant’s cynical friend and publisher Mark Twain.
White carefully avoids claims about Grant’s piety but shows that Grant’s character, humility and simplicity were rooted in his midwestern Methodism. Also a biographer of Lincoln, White contrasts their approaches to religion. White is working on two new books, one about Lincoln’s private musings, and another about Gettysburg hero Joshua Chamberlain, who attended seminary and nearly became a minister.