Lawrentians had a rare opportunity on Monday to hear from one of the most lauded American historians living today, Ron Chernow, the 2018 Weeden lecturer.
Established in 1999 by Walter Buckley, Jr. ’56 P’96 ’99 GP’09, the Charles F. Weeden III H’65 Great Historians Lecture series honors the memory of Charles F. “Chuck” Weeden III H’65 P’77 ’79 ’87, an esteemed teacher, Housemaster and coach to four decades of Lawrentians. Buckley was one of his students, and as with so many others, Weeden left a lasting impression.
Chernow, a graduate of Yale and Cambridge, holds eight honorary doctorates and has received virtually every major prize in American letters. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award. A biography of George Washington won the Pulitzer Prize. His biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the hit musical Hamilton.
The basis for this year’s Weeden Lecture was Chernow’s most recent book, Grant, profiling the Civil War general-in-chief and 18th president. In his hour-long lecture to a packed auditorium in Kirby Arts Center, Chernow managed to neatly summarize more than 1,000 pages of meticulously researched biographical and archival material.
From an explanation of the origin of the fool’s question, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” to a consideration of Grant’s role in crushing the KKK, Chernow’s commitment to culling fascinating truths from the many rumors about Grant brought his subject to life. He studied the original manuscript of Grant’s memoirs to quell the rumor that Mark Twain had written them: Grant’s deteriorating handwriting as his cancer progressed was proof of his authorship. Chernow also dismissed the claim that Grant won the Civil War solely through brute force and superior manpower, citing the failure of the six commanding generals who preceded him to defeat Lee.
“He was a dazzling strategist,” said Chernow, referencing Grant’s game-changing maneuver to consolidate the disparate Union armies into a single fighting force.
Chernow tackled other misconceptions about Grant as well, explaining, “Biography always begins in a fog of misconceptions.” In addition to the accusations of brutality, he addressed the charge of hopeless alcoholism and the assessment that Grant’s presidency was dominated by scandal. Chernow’s research led him to conclude that Grant’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism was real, but his efforts to control it limited its impact on his ability to lead and to govern. Acknowledging that Grant was a frequent victim of swindlers, Chernow characterized him as “a decent man torn down by circumstance” and noted that he was never directly involved in the corruption that plagued his two terms in office.
Chernow’s greatest praise for Grant was reserved for his performance after the war ended. “Grant became the great reconciliator between the North and South,” he said, calling the Civil War and Reconstruction “two acts of the same drama.” He cited the little-known civil rights acts of 1866 and 1875, the integration of New Orleans’ streetcars “90 years before Rosa Parks,” and Grant’s leveraging of federal troops and the newly minted Justice Department to stop the Ku Klux Klan as evidence of Grant’s post-war accomplishments. In Chernow’s view, the negative appraisals of Grant after the war were politically motivated, fomented by a Democratic Party seeking to end Reconstruction.
Earlier in the day, meeting with students, Chernow discussed his writing process, attesting that, as a biographer, you want to be careful about picking your subject because you will be spending five or six years with it. He spoke of combing through 32 volumes of collected letters by, to and about Grant, including harrowing accounts of Klan violence during the period of Reconstruction. In response to a question, he addressed the fear of black political power by the Southern states and the Klan’s role in black voter suppression. The parallels to recent election disputes were unspoken but unsettling.
Chernow left both his audiences with a similar message. “Reconstruction (especially the concept of states’ rights) is the most important period for understanding American today,” he said in his class meeting. Later, he revealed, “There is a significant movement to reconsider (the importance of) the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
We'd love to share your story with other Lawrentians. E-mail us here with your news or activities and we'll be in touch.