In recent months, two prominent American historians, Ron Chernow and Jeffrey Rosen, have earned praise for presidential biographies that have revealed a new perspective on their subjects’ reputations. A journalist and specialist in economics whose first series of books focused on financial family dynasties, Chernow’s award-winning publications about the Morgans, Rockefellers and Warburgs were followed by surveys of the accomplishments of icons of the American Revolution: “Washington: A Life,” capturing the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, and “Alexander Hamilton,” selling unprecedented millions of copies as the source for the hit musical for which he served as historical advisor. Released in 2017, Chernow’s “Grant” was chosen as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times.
The product of six years of work, the 950 plus page chronicle offers a thoroughly sympathetic treatment of a man which repudiates the view that Grant was an inadequate president. To Chernow, this brilliant military strategist was also a superior political leader, capable of recognizing his flaws and rectifying them, but whose greatest personal demon was alcoholism. Addressing the accusation that Grant, suffering the ravages of cancer, had his civil war memoirs ghost written by others including Mark Twain, one of his great supporters, Chernow is one of just a few people alive to examine every page of the actual hand-written multi-volume manuscript. With his own eyes, he was able to verify the Grant’s actual handwriting, which deteriorated from the effects of the condition, and the administration of the cocaine which suppressed his pain. Chernow describes Grant’s progressive civil rights policies, including his creation of a civil service system that enabled him to atone for his infamous Civil War order banishing southern Jews from the territories conquered during his campaign. Regaining the trust and loyalty of American Jews, Grant named many of them, as well as African Americans, to government positions during his terms in office, 1869-1877. While acknowledging Grant’s efforts to maintain and protect former slaves in the South, Chernow notes that the failure of Reconstruction was due to many factors, not the least of which was economic. Extensively reviewed, “Grant” has been described by George Will as “ a gift to the nation” while The New Republic observed: “Chernow has given us a rare kind of popular history: one that forces readers to confront hard truths, not just revel in America’s all too fleeting triumphs.”
A legal scholar, George Washington University professor and media commentator who directs Philadelphia’s Center for Constitutional Law, Jeffrey Rosen has authored books about internet privacy, the justice system and the life of Louis Brandeis. Called one of the best contributions to The American Presidents Series published by Times Books, his brief, yet thorough biography of William Howard Taft characterizes him as “our most judicial president and presidential chief justice.” It places in context the political and legal agenda of the only man who was both elected the nation’s 27th president from 1909-1913, and who sat on the Supreme Court bench, his true calling.
From the beginning of his career, the Ohio-born Republican was adhered to the Constitution’s parameters, ones which constrained the powers of those who governed; his duty to both its letter and spirit cost him his relationship with his populist predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt and became a contributing factor in the election of the Democrat who became his successor, Woodrow Wilson. In his valuation of a president whose lot it was to be sandwiched in between two individuals remembered for their bold leadership, Rosen has imbued Taft with a heroism, longed for in our own times, saying that, “[his] devotion to free trade, low tariffs, corporate taxes, vigorous antitrust suits, environmental protection, and international arbitration persists in different wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. In this sense, his is truly a bipartisan legacy.”
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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