Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885), Commander of the Union Army during the Civil War and later a two-term President, was the first president to write his memoirs.
They were wildly successful and critically viewed as the pinnacle of presidential memoirs. (Although they cover Grant’s military career and not his Presidency.)
Grant wrote The Personal Memoirs to raise money for his family (he was a failed businessman) but wasn’t discerning about a publisher or royalties. Fortunately, Mark Twain stepped in and ensured his friend a much higher income.1
Grant’s profit motive shouldn’t color the assumed veracity or authenticity of the account. Rather, it appears Grant strove to become more humble, more plain-spoken. He stressed at the onset: “The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.”
There are many tedious passages; Grant is far too concerned with supplies, munitions, and troop movements for general taste. But there are many factors that make The Memoirs quite exceptional.
Grant was a gifted writer, plain-spoken, honest, and succinct. He begins: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”
When he faces a decision to apply for appointment to West Point Military Academy, he converses with his father:
He said to me ‘Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive that appointment.’ ‘What appointment?’ I inquired. ‘To West Point; I have applied for it.’ ‘But I won’t go,’ I said. He said he thought I would go, and I thought so too if he did. I really had no objection to going to West Point, except that I had a very exalted idea of the acquirements necessary to get through. I did not believe I possessed them, and could not bear the idea of failing.
These lines demonstrate other aspects of the narrative: tremendous self-awareness and empathy.
Grant’s humanity becomes more visible when we realized that the generals he faced in the Civil War were his former classmates, even those with whom he served in the Mexican–American War. This professional military class, divided and thrown against each other, must have created an internal tension we cannot imagine today:
I had also served with and known in Mexico: Lee, J.E. Johnston, A.S. Johnston, Holmes, Herbert and a number of others in the Confederate side […] The acquaintance thus formed was of immense service to me in the war of rebellion—I mean what I learned of the character of those to whom I was afterwards opposed. I do not pretend to say that all movements, or even many of them, were made with special reference to the characteristics of the commander against whom they were directed. But my appreciation of my enemies was certainly affected by this knowledge.
Grant did not let sentiment for others affect him during the War, but after it ended, clearly he had carried concern for his military brethren the entire time.
This is illustrated most strongly when he speaks of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Lee was 15 years Grant’s senior, a much more senior officer, and somewhat of a popular legend. “Winning” over him, as Grant did, might have been felt quite vainly by the victor. And yet, Grant’s dignity, humility, and fairness to this man is unprecedented.
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result. and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings they were entirely concealed from my observation: but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly.
Naturally, Grant’s admiration for President Lincoln is even stronger and more perceptive:
I knew his goodness of heart, his generosity, his yielding disposition, his desire to have everybody happy, and above all his desire to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all.
When Lincoln was assassinated (Grant and his wife had been invited to the theatre with them and declined as Grant wanted to spend the evening with his children), Grant wrote: “It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling that overcame me at the news” and indeed, it is one of the few moments he does not offer insight into his emotions.
The most exceptional aspect of Grant’s Memoirs is that he wrote them twelve months before his death. He died from cancer the week after he finished, aged 63. He knew he was dying, and he struggled to write. And yet, from this diminished capacity came the fortitude of memory, honesty, and deep humanity.
My father gave me a copy of Memoirs before I went to business school. He said if I was going to become a leader, I should learn from the best. Grant was a brilliant military tactician, a failed businessman, and a mediocre president. But he had, as demonstrated in his writing, tremendous emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, as it pertains to intelligence, is under-appreciated. I love when it appears unexpectedly. Like in John Cleese’s autobiography, which includes quite a bit of self-examination and some rather painful admissions about his mother. According to Cleese, her anger and need for control strongly influenced his development of one of the most successful “angry” characters of all time, Basil Fawlty.
Another beautifully written example is the memoirs of American director Sydney Lumet, ostensible about movie making, but really and truly they are Lumet’s brilliant coaxing of others, like Katherine Hepburn, into their best forms.