The first year of a new president’s first term is always a crucible. But often it’s only in hindsight, within the carefully considered pages of an authoritative presidential biography, that the full measure of that first year can be taken. In this new series on the best presidential biographies, Miller Center presidential scholars and experts recommend the ones most worth reading.
Ulysses S. Grant has found a renaissance of sorts. For a long time in the public mind, he has been seen as a drunk and a corruptible person. Scholars have tended to focus on his biggest success: winning the Civil War. However, Grant faced some of the biggest challenges in his first year in office and beyond. One of them was Reconstruction. The best book that charts Grant's reputation from the highest level to lowest is Joan Waugh's U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.
If you wanted to look at his presidency, there wasn’t a lot there. William S. McFeely’s Grant: A Biography was one place, but the author tended to have a more negative view of his subject. The best earlier book still remains President Grant: Reconsidered by Frank J. Scaturro. It is a series of essays that revises Grant’s leadership as president.
Two writers, Jean Edward Smith and H.W. Brands, provide more balanced, full biographies on Grant, but at a cost that his presidency is covered less. Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S. Grant is short, but it is a well-balanced treatment of Grant.
Where does this leave us? Very few books cover Grant as president. Ron Chernow is working on a Grant biography, and we hope that the University of Kansas Press’ American Presidency Series will finally come out with a Grant volume.