Laughter is the Best Medicine

>>John Haskell:
Welcome everybody. Good to see you all here, and I’m glad you could
make it to the library. I’m John Haskell, director of the Kluge Center
here at the library. In the words of the Kluge
Center Charter, it was created to quote, reinvigorate the
interconnection between thought and action through conversations
and meetings with members of Congress, their staffs, and the broader policy
making community in order to bridge the divide
between knowledge and power. So, on a day to day basis, what
we do with the kluge Center is to support scholars
doing innovative and specialized research and
to project scholarly work to a broader audience
in events like this. I wanted to draw your attention, we have some material
in the front. I hope you picked up or will on
the way out, upcoming events. This discussion with
Ronald White is part of our new author salon series. We will have another
author salon on November 12 with Danielle Allen from
political philosophy from Harvard talking
about the declaration of independence and equality. It should be a very interest —
it’s a lunchtime conversation. Also next week on November
seven, Thursday four o’clock, just like this event, 4:00
PM right here in this room. We will have a discussion
of the dynamics of the presidential primaries. Amy Walter from The Cook
Political report will be here and Julia Zari of Marquette
university, a contributor to 538 and a former scholar
here at the Kluge Center. In addition, on November
21, we have an event in the Coolidge auditorium
downstairs on 100 years of women voting. It will feature literally the
person who is writing the book on 100 years of women
voting, Christina Wolbrecht from Notre Dame and also
Jane John from the university of Southern California. So, hope you can check that
out on our website and sign up for event bright tickets. The library is, this fall,
starting a new series we want to tell you about and
encourage you to attend. These are national
book festival presents. So, the book festival
isn’t just on a weekend, Labor Day weekend, anymore. We have major events during
the course of the year. We had one last week
with a mystery writer, Neil Patrick Harris was here for children’s books
back in September. Coming up next week, we have
theologian Karen Armstrong on the lost art of scripture, rescuing the sacred
texts on November eight. Political thriller writer
Brad Meltzer on the launch of his new PBS kids
series, Xavier riddle, and the secret museum. And on November 13, Andre Aciman
on the launch of his new book, Find Me, which is the sequel
to Call Me by your Name. Let me turn to our program
today, Ronald White is here. He’s the one of these people
we’re honored to have. We’re always honored to have
our guests, but Ron is a — doesn’t need an introduction,
but we always try to do things right
at the library. So I’m going to do that. Anyway. He’s the author
of American Ulysses, a life of Ulysses S. Grant. It won the William Henry
Seward award for excellence in Civil War biography. He also wrote three books on
Abraham Lincoln and he’s working on another, A. Lincoln: A Biography in 2009 was The
New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times bestseller. Ron has op-ed essays regularly. They’ve appeared in the New York
Times, Washington Post LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, New York Daily News
and other outlets. He’s lectured in
The White House, appears on the PBS news hour. One thing you may
not know about him. He has a PhD in religion
and history from Princeton. He’s taught at many
universities including UCLA, Princeton Theological
Seminary, Whitworth University, Colorado College,
Ryder University and San Francisco
Theological Seminary. Other than a book on Lincoln’s
diary which will be coming out projected next year. Ron is also working on a book
on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He will be after this event
signing copies of the Grant and Lincoln books in
the room behind us. Colleen Shogan will
conduct the interview today. She’s the assistant deputy
librarian for collections and services here
at the library. She’s the library’s designee on the Women’s Suffrage
Centennial Commission and is the vice chair
of that commission. Please welcome — join me in
welcoming Ron and Colleen. [ Applause ]>>Colleen J. Shogan:
Thanks John. Well, welcome to the library
of Congress and I can’t think of a better way to
think about game seven, review of game seven, than to
talk about Lincoln and Grant. So, I think it’s
perfect for this evening. We will take some
questions from the audience at the end of the program. So, if you have questions
for Ron, just save those up and we’ll have plenty
of time at the end. Ron, to start us off, can
you tell us about Lincoln and Grant’s early lives? Were there signs of greatness
before they became president in general?>>Ronald C. White: Well,
thank you for the question and thank you for coming. I’m glad the World Series starts
at 8:07 and not 4:07 [laughing]. Biographies are popular
these days, but I sometimes feel we
don’t spend enough time on the lives of young people. Think of your own lives when
you’re 16, 18, 20, 20, 22, 24. So, I spent quite a bit of
time on Grant and Lincoln. In fact an early
review was that, are you spending too
much time on this? We — can’t we get
onto the adult. And one of my mantras from
this, his Grant’s words himself. He said, “The reason I do
not read biographies is because they do not tell
enough about the life of the young person,
the formative period of one — of a person’s life.” He said, “I want to know
what a man did as a boy, or we would say what a
woman did as a girl.” So Lincoln’s life is so unusual. Born in 1809 in Kentucky,
moving to Indiana in 1816. He had only one year
of formal education. How could someone
with but one year of formal education
rise to such greatness? So, that’s a fascinating story. Grant is what I call
a late bloomer. My son is a late
bloomer, but he’s bloomed. And so Grant seems to not
be doing anything that’s particularly noteworthy. I spent a week at Westpoint
in my research to try to understand what it would mean
for a five foot, three inch boy, 17 years old to arrive at
Westpoint from the West. Ohio was the West. And so he goes through a lot of different struggles
as a young person. But finally, as the civil war
breaks out, his leadership, which I would call
latent leadership emerges. But both of these stories
are really fascinating, what I call the formative
period of our lives.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Before
we continue onto the civil war. Can you tell us about an
anecdote that you have in your book on Lincoln, which
I think is very instructive. Abraham Lincoln was a
very big fan and patron of the library of Congress.>>Ronald C. White: Yes.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Can
you tell us about that?>>Ronald C. White:
Well, I like to think that our greatest presidents, and in the latest
presidential historian survey, they are Lincoln, Washington,
FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight
Eisenhower were all readers. So, Lincoln was a reader
and he checked books out of the library of Congress. We may get to this, but
he checked books out. How did he become — how would
he become a commander in chief? This was a kind of a definition, very unclear in the
constitution. The only one before him in many
ways recently was James Polk in the war with Mexico. He wasn’t impressed with
Polk, so he checked out books from the library of Congress. We have those records and this
is how he tutored himself. He was a self-made man. We use that term self-made
in the 20th and 21st century for people who made
a lot of money. He used it as a term
in the 19th century to develop himself as a person. Self-made was to
become a whole person. He was really following
the instructions of Benjamin Franklin and one
way he did that was by reading and by using therefore
what was at hand, the library of Congress.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
Lincoln changed his opinion of what it meant to
be commander in chief after The Battle of Bull Run. How and why did he
change his mind about that particular
role of the presidency?>>Ronald C. White: Well, early
on I think Lincoln thought that he had to give
credit and power to those who knew more than he did. So, in the warfare, that
would have been his generals, but very quickly he
became disillusioned with his generals one by one, by
one by one, until he met Grant. So, that’s why he had to
begin to take command himself. At one point, he almost was
ready to take the battlefield because remember the North
thought they would win this war rather quickly. They had more than twice
as many men in arms, a much greater industrial base. It was shocking that they
lost this first battle of either Manassas or Bull Run, depending upon how you
want to name that battle. And this forced Lincoln
to think, well, what am I to do here
as commander in chief?>>Colleen J. Shogan: Lincoln
and Grant wouldn’t actually meet in person until March of 1864, but Lincoln was watching
Grant’s military career as the civil war went on. What were some of his
early impressions of Grant?>>Ronald C. White: Yes. Lincoln wanted to
interview all his generals. He brought them either
to The White House, or he went out into the field,
but he couldn’t interview Grant because Grant was
out in the West. So, I think there are several
things that impressed him. First of all, Grant
didn’t complain. The other General’s complained,
“I don’t have enough troops. I don’t have this. I don’t have that.” He never complained. He took what was given. Secondly, he didn’t ask. He didn’t ask for more than he
felt the government could give. And finally Grant was, for
Lincoln, who was a Western man, Grant was a Western man. He was not filled with himself. He was not an egotistical
person. He simply led the battle. In one famous conversation where
someone came to The White House to complain about Grant, say,
“You should remove this man.” Lincoln simply sits and listens
and says, “Well, he fights. He fights and that’s
what I’m looking for. He fights.” and he saw this quality
in Grant. In doing this book, at the very
end, I became, and I’m a friend of General David Petraeus, and
I learned from General Petraeus that he believes
without a doubt, Grant is the greatest
American General. There is no one even in
the same game with him. And part of what Petraeus did
in preparing to lead the surge in Iraq was to read Grant,
and to ask his generals to read Grant; and the quality that he found most enduring
was his indomitable spirit. What Lincoln called pertinacity. We might call it determination. Just this bulldog determination
to keep going forward.>>Colleen J. Shogan: In 1862, Grant issued general
order number 11, and Lincoln was forced
to rescind it. So, tell us about what
general order number 11 was, and why Lincoln felt
he had to revoke it.>>Ronald C. White: General
order number 11 is his order against the Jews. Grant was very concerned
that trading was going on that was benefiting
the Confederacy. He was very upset that people
in Washington, Salmon Chase, secretary of treasury, didn’t
understand this and he saw that many of the
traders were Jews. They were taking advantage
of the opportunity to trade with the Confederate suit. So, he issues this order. When the order gets
finally up to Lincoln, Lincoln abrogates
it just like that. Julia Grant would say,
“That awful order.” But there’s a terrific book by our best American
Jewish historian called When Grant Expelled the Jews. And what he shows us is that
Grant learned from his mistake. I think that’s a great
quality of leadership. Do you learn from your mistakes? And actually Grant then will
appoint far more Jewish persons in his administration than
any previous president. And when a Jewish synagogue was
built and the installation was to go forward in Washington,
Grant was invited as the guest of honor because the Jews
in Washington recognized that he was repentant
for what he had done. He had learned his lesson
and now he wanted to reach out to the Jewish
community, which he did.>>Colleen J. Shogan: So, one
of the military strategies that it’s often studied
is Vicksburg. Why did Lincoln say
that Grant’s strategy in Vicksburg was the best
military strategy in the world?>>Ronald C. White: If you
ever have the opportunity to go to Vicksburg, you
need to do that. You can read about it. You can see maps. You’ll never appreciate
it unless you go there. Here’s the possibility
of a kind of fortress above the Mississippi river where a relatively
small Garrison dug into caves inside the
city of Vicksburg are able to hold off any union army. William Tecumseh Sherman had
tried to take Vicksburg in 1862. He failed miserably. So, this was a long drawn
out battle and it’s still into the 20th century
was an example in the army war command manuals of how the battle
should be fought. I went to the dedication of
the statue of Ulysses S. Grant in April of this
year at Westpoint and I met several military
leaders there who said, “Oh yes, Vicksburg is what
it’s all about. The strategy, the
keenness to understand where were the weak
points in the Confederacy, how to keep going forward.” What Grant did essentially
was he got below Vicksburg and then instead of going
directly to Vicksburg and facing the Confederate army,
he actually went off to the side and defeated the army’s
five different battles. Instead of going directly,
he alluded them and went off to the side and finally
came to Vicksburg. He cut himself off
from his supply line. He was a farmer and he believed
he could live off the land and he supplied his troops even
though he had no supply line. And I think all of these
together are why Lincoln thought it was such a great victory. And military historians today
would acclaim that this is one of the great victories
in modern warfare.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Lincoln
and Grant agreed on the strategy to hopefully end the civil war, which was to take the fight
directly to the Confederate army on at least five
separate fronts. Why did they agree
on this strategy? Why did they think this
was a winning strategy and how was it different
than previous strategies that had been employed
by earlier generals?>>Ronald C. White: Well, the
earlier generals had the idea that the way you would
defeat the Confederacy was to occupy their main cities. So, if you could
occupy Nashville, or you could occupy Atlanta,
or you could occupy Memphis, but Lincoln understood
and Grant understood also that you will never be
able to defeat an enemy in that larger geographical
territory. So, the strategy was you
do not go after the city, you go after the army, and
if you defeat the army, then you will ultimately
end the war. And the way wars were fought in those days was you
would fight a battle, Gettysburg was three days,
and then you would step back. You would retreat — not retreat, but
you’d kind of refit, you’d deal with the wounded and
then you’d go forward again. Lincoln and Grant agreed that
the way to do this battle was to not ever stop; that
if you had a larger army, what Lee did very
shrewdly was he would look where the North was
coming, the union army, and then he would move
his men to block that. Then there’d be a little low and
the union army would come get — well, he’d move his mar
— into — about that. But if you had the larger army
and you kept going forward, there was no possible
way that over length of time Lee could
possibly stop you. And that’s how Grant won
with Lincoln’s agreement. Here’s a funny story though. As Lincoln did trust
Grant, Grant came to share with him the battle plan
for the spring of 1864. And Lincoln said,
“Don’t tell me. I can’t keep secrets. I can’t keep secrets. I trust your battle plan,
but don’t tell me what it is because I can’t keep secrets.” I just think that’s amazing.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Well, that
leads into the next question because that is the
crux of the matter. Lincoln trusted Grant.>>Ronald C. White: Yes. Yes.>>Colleen J. Shogan: So, talk
to us about why he trusted Grant so much and why this made such
a difference in the persecution of the war at the end.>>Ronald C. White: Several
months ago, I wish I could come up with his name on
the PBS news hour. There was a wonderful
interview with the man, Osama bin Laden is back
and the news of the man, the Navy commander
who led — he did — he wasn’t there in person,
but he was in charge of that whole raid to
get Osama bin Laden. And now he retired. And I was so struck by the
interview in which he said, you know, he said, “You
can have the right policy, but if you don’t have the right
character, it will never succeed and your troops will understand
very quickly your character and they will not follow
you unless they trust your character.” So, this is what I think
Lincoln discerned in Grant, not simply that he
had the right strategy or that he had the right policy or that he could coordinate five
armies at once, which he did. But there was the character of the man is what I think
drew Lincoln to Grant and why they formed
what I would call a kind of mutual admiration society. They trusted each other
and with all the criticism that came forward, I
mean after cold Harbor, all these incredible
casualties that went forward, Lincoln was hearing all
this criticism of Grant and the word was Grant butcher? All this sort of stuff. Yet Lincoln trusted Grant and they had this
simpatico relationship.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
You wrote a shorter book on Lincoln’s second inaugural
focused on that speech. Why do you think it’s
Lincoln’s greatest speech?>>Ronald C. White: Well, Lincoln thought it was
his greatest speech. He said, “It was my —
it is my best effort.” but he also said, “But it’s
not immediately popular.” And why is it not
immediately popular? Because as the war was coming to
a close, the audience wanted him to do and say two things. First of all, they wanted him
to be a little crowing a bit. In those days, the parade was
before not after the speech, and there was a float
in the parade from a Washington newspaper,
which literally said, “It’s time for Lincoln
to crow a bit after all the criticism
what he’s done.” But Lincoln didn’t crow. He used two personal pronouns
in the entire address. I say Lincoln disappeared. He used zero personal pronouns
in the Gettysburg address. Can you imagine a modern
politician speaking like that? But secondly, he used what
I call inclusive language. He kept using the words all
and both, to sort of say, “We’re all involved in this. We all bear the blame. Do not point your
finger at the self.” Well, I read the letters and
diaries of people who were there that day and they were angry. You and I think people would
be excited about inauguration. Why were they angry? Because if you think about it, every person there had probably
lost a father, husband, son, brother, and they were
angry at the South and they wanted Lincoln to
give voice to their anger, but he did not do that. He understood that if the South
was meant to bear the blame and the shame alone,
they would never be able to reenter the union. And sadly after Lincoln’s death,
his own Republican party gave to the South the
blame and the shame. And this just set up
a terrible situation that went on for decades. Someone told me this morning,
the war is still going on in terms of people
believing this in the South, the blame and the shame.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
One of the great what ifs of American history has to
do with Lincoln and Grant, and the night that
Lincoln was assassinated. Now Grant was supposed to attend
the theater with Abraham Lincoln and his wife along
with Julia Grant, but ended up they did
not join Abraham Lincoln at the theater that evening. Do you think if Grant
had been there? Would it have made a
difference and did Grant think if he had been there it
would’ve made a difference?>>Ronald C. White: It’s
quite a fascinating question. Why did not Grant come? His wife did not want to come. She felt she had been, someone
was stalking her all day long. She was frightened. They wanted to see
their children who lived in the suburb of Philadelphia. And so they decided
not to attend. I don’t think Grant could have
stopped the assassination. I mean, this man came in John
Wilkes Booth from the back. When Grant got to Philadelphia
about midnight, someone met him with a telegram and told
him what had happened. And he did say, “What if
I would’ve been there? I will think about this
for the rest of my life. What if I had been there?” So, yes, he never compared
himself to Lincoln. In his memoirs, he
said, “Lincoln deserves to be the great person
of our time.” Lincoln, Grant never
compared himself to Lincoln, but I think he ran for president because he watched the terrible
presidency of Andrew Johnson and said, “All right, I guess
I’m the person that needs to pick up the vision of
Lincoln that has been dropped at the end of the civil war.” Yeah.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
Your book on Lincoln, you have a great line. You describe Lincoln as a
gentle leader, free of ego. So, tell us about that and why
do you describe them in that way and how did he earn
that reputation?>>Ronald C. White: Well,
none of us are free of ego. Politicians are not free of ego. Lincoln was not really
free of ego. Did I really write that line? Yeah.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
I think you did. I think you did.>>Ronald C. White: he –>>Colleen J. Shogan: You said
that he was thought of as being. Not he was, but he
was thought of.>>Ronald C. White: yeah,
and part of what I was saying in terms of the Gettysburg
address or the second inaugural address, Lincoln always pointed
beyond himself. Even as he was traveling
on his 13-day train trip from Springfield to
Washington for his inauguration, he would say to crowds,
it’s amazing. He said, “Well,” he said, “I know you’re not
really cheering for me. You’re cheering for the office. And if Stephen Douglas was
here, you’d cheer for him. And if so and so was
here, you’d cheer for him. And why don’t all of you who
are against me ride with me on the train to the
next train stop.” He had this sense that
he was a temporary holder of this position and that he
had been given this office. We’re struggling now, aren’t we? With respect for the
office of the presidency. He held this respect for
the office, and therefore, he had a respect for those
who disagreed with him. He never doubted
their patriotism. He would challenge their
ideas or their policies, but he always respected
those on the other side. And this is what I think
made him, in one sense, a gentle leader who at the end
he’d had this vigorous debate with Stephen Douglas. Stephen Douglas ran against him for president of
the United States. I think history is
often symbols. So, Lincoln gets up there to
give his inaugural address. He’s got this tall hat on
and he’s wearing a cane and Stephen Douglas steps
forward without saying a word and takes the cane out of
Lincoln’s hand so he isn’t going to feel awkward with it and holds it during
the inaugural address. This is Steven Douglas. The respect that he had for
Lincoln was just amazing.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Do you
think that Lincoln and Grant at times were loyal to a
fault, and if they were, how did that affect
their leadership?>>Ronald C. White: I think
for, especially for Grant, maybe for Lincoln also,
loyalty was his DNA. I mean, this was a
virtue, a masculine virtue that was cultivated
in the 19th century. You were to be dutiful, you were
to be faithful, even if it went against your own instincts
or your own good sense. So, in it’s strange part
of writing about Grant is that he seemed to
be a terrific judge of people in the civil war. He knew that Rosecrans who was
going to be the guy most likely to succeed from Westpoint
was up to no good. He could make decisions about
other generals who weren’t able to follow through, but when
he gets to The White House, somehow he loses this quality. He’s loyal to a fault. He’s loyal to people
who had served with him in the civil war
who, what do we say? Washington corrupts, who were
being corrupted by the power that they achieved
here in this place. He maybe didn’t manage
carefully enough. He appointed people
in his cabinet who he didn’t really know,
like he knew the generals from Westpoint in the war with
Mexico and so he wasn’t attuned to what they were actually
doing behind his back. What’s interesting though is
that I think people accrue over a length of
time, kind of a power from the people of goodwill. So, even though people were
upset with the scandals in Grant’s second
administration, they never blamed him. And Grant could easily have
been elected to a third term when he finished his second
term, Julia wanted him to run for a third term because he
had accrued such goodwill from the American people.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
About six months ago, you wrote a Washington post
op-ed about a new statute. You referenced it that
was erected at Westpoint to honor Ulysses S. Grant. Tell us about why you wrote
the op-ed and also comment if you can, about current
controversies concerning civil war statues, particularly
regarding Confederate statues.>>Ronald C. White: Well,
this is a, isn’t it? It’s a very, very
contentious issue and I certainly understand
the decision for some to want to take the statues down or
to move some of these statues or monuments into the
library or wherever. However, I was struck by a
phrase a couple of weeks ago, I read, by Gordon S. wood, who’s our finest American
revolutionary historian, professor emeritus at Brown. And Wood talked about
what he called his, the historical condescension, that is just overwhelming
us today, that we have such moral superiority that
we are willing to look back on those poor people
in the 19th century who didn’t understand what
they should have understood. So, I’m kind of one that
wants to be wary of this kind of historical condescension of
judging people 100 years ago or 200 years ago
by our standards; instead of taking the
time, it takes time to try to understand their mindset. So for example, when
Andrew Johnson wants to prosecute Robert D. Lee for
treason, Grant stands up for Lee and says, “You will not
prosecute him for treason. Do you not understand he’s the
spiritual leader of the South? I do not agree with the
cause for which he fought, but I do agree with the
leadership of this man, we will not prosecute
him for treason.” Now, that’s not quite the
same thing as the monument. And I understand the monuments
were built, many of them many, many years later in
moments of white supremacy. But I was thrilled,
therefore, when Westpoint after all these years, this is
part of the Grant resurgence, decided to build a
statute of Grant. There was no statute that
to Grant at Westpoint. All the other great
Westpointers, there was a statute. So, I thought this
was a great moment that we not only should take
statues down and we ought to build statues up and
we ought to be thinking about if there are women, if
there are African Americans, if there are those who have
been slighted in our story of American history, we ought
to think about building statues and not simply tearing
other statutes down.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Would
have Grant like the statue.>>Ronald C. White:
I think he would. Yeah. The sculptor
did a good job. I loved the man who
came up with the money for it, a wonderful person. It’s been a great time
of conversation with why and how you would do this. Grant was a great horse person
and so they had a ride by, the two riders were
women, who rode the horses by as the statute was done. Hey, 21st century [laughing].>>Colleen J. Shogan:
Last question before we go to the audience for
their questions. Why do you think readers of your
books or Americans as citizens, why do you think they
should reconsider Grant and Lincoln’s leadership today? What is relevant? What can we learn from them
that would be applicable to today’s challenges?>>Ronald C. White:
Well, I think we write and read biographies
for maybe two reasons. One is that they do provide
examples, and secondly, I think they’re a mirror by
which we look at ourselves. Now, these are historical
figures, so Lincoln’s not going to help us with climate change. General Grant can’t tell
us what to do in Syria, but I do think there are
values here that are enduring. After we say they’re
historical persons, I think there are values
and I think Lincoln, especially the spirit, the
values that he communicates in his life and his va —
will go on 100 years from now. Just to conclude with this, I
spoke 10 years ago in Hamburg, Germany at the invitation
of the state department. They sent me to Germany
at the beginning of the Obama administration. People stayed away
from our embassies all through the Bush administration because of their opposition
to our war in Iraq. They stayed away in Europe. So they said, “We want you
to start soft diplomacy.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “That’s
Abraham Lincoln.” So, I’m talking to a group of
12th and 13th grade teachers in Hamburg, Germany, and I said,
“Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Well, why are you
interested in Lincoln?” And they said, “Well, we
know George Washington, we know Thomas Jefferson, but those are aristocratic
people very much like the people in our history. When we think of America,
we think of Lincoln.” You can start at the bottom
with very little pedigree. This is not Winston Churchill. You can have little formal
education and you can rise. I think the challenge for
our day is can we still rise? Can we sold out the hope for
young people that you can rise; and that’s why Lincoln is
renowned around the world. Two weeks ago today, I
gave a lecture at Oxford on Abraham Lincoln and I
was amazed at the turnout and the interest
and the questions. Amazing how Abraham
Lincoln travels.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Okay. Great. Questions
from the audience. Right over here. There we go. [ Laughing ]>>Hey Ron. Okay. As we go through
a sentence in the first inaugural,
“We must be friends. We are not enemies.” and we jump to the
second inaugural, “With malice towards men
with charity for all.” What would Lincoln say to
the Republican Party today? [ Laughing ]>>Ronald C. White:
Next question. As an historian, I
struggle with trying to answer contemporary
questions. I’m very willing to
talk with you in person. I know in this room we
have a range of opinions, and so I would go back I guess
to the idea that there’s a — these are moral examples
and I trust that the moral examples can
inform what we want to do today, the kind of leaders that
we want to do today, and who we want for the future. That’s my answer
to that question.>>You mentioned Lincoln
had one year of education.>>Ronald C. White: Yes.>>Could you describe when,
where, in what form and compare that with Grants pre
Westpoint education?>>Ronald C. White: Yes. Thank you. Yes. The best we can
determine is that boys in that era would be working
with their fathers on a farm, except maybe in January and
February when it was too cold. And so there’d be itinerant
teachers that would come through and the various families
would come together and hire this teacher to teach
their boys for six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks. So, we think that Lincoln
did this five times, maybe six times. Grant had a much
better education. He went to school, not
only in Georgetown, Ohio where he grew up. He went to a private
Academy in Masefield, Kentucky for one year. He went to an Academy run by
John Rankin who had was a leader of the underground railroad
for one year in Ripley, Ohio. He has a good education. His father sent him to
Westpoint because it was free and Westpoint was one of only
three engineering schools. This is so much about
the 19th century. Could you imagine this today? Grant says to his father,
“Father, I do not want to do this, but if you
think I should, I will.” When was the last time you
heard someone say that? So he went not wanting to go,
but once he got there he got into this thing and he
wasn’t sure he wanted to be a military officer. He wanted to — he thought
he wanted to be a teacher of mathematics, but we’re on a
journey and the journey took him to places he never imagined.>>When we talk about character,
I had always heard that politics in the 1860s was
not exactly clean. That bribery was involved. And I mean totally ignoring
the guys bashing the guys on the head. There was a lot of
subterfuge going on. Could you describe that,
and when did that stop or — well, ignoring the
last five years –>>Ronald C. White:
It never stopped.>>– when did that actually end
in the political system here?>>Ronald C. White: Yeah, well
politics was rough and tumble and it’s very important
and I want to, I’m glad you asked the
question cause I, if I — I would mislead if I’m sort of saying this idyllic
angelic Lincoln. I think the movie, Lincoln,
maybe overdoes it a bit with dealing with all these guys that are doing this
sort of stuff. But Lincoln, we’ve come to learn
was a real person who knew how to work the party machine. For example, he understood
that one of the best consistuencies
was the German immigrants. And we now know that he actually
bought a German newspaper anonymously because he
recognized that the Germans who had come from Europe
were strongly antislavery, strongly Republican. So, he knew how to
work that machine. And he did not become — he wasn’t a novice
elected president. He was four times in the
Illinois state legislature. He’d run for the Senate twice. He’d been a Congressman once. So, he was a guy that really
was very clear about it, and it was rough and tumble. It never stopped. And whether it was more or
less that could be debated, but it was difficult
at that time. Yeah.>>Excuse me. Could you address the struggle
and how it was often held against him and there
were a lot of rumor — well, vicious rumors about
his Grant’s alcoholism and how he was able to on his
own eventually conquer that.>>Ronald C. White: Thank you. This is a very debated topic. Someone called me last week
who wants to write an article where he’s going to take two of
us that are on one side and two of us that are on
the other side. My feeling is that Grant
struggled with alcohol. I would — I’m not able
to call him an alcoholic. He struggled with
alcohol when he was, especially when he
was away from Julia. They had a phenomenal marriage. And when he was posted out to
the Pacific coast, to Oregon and then to California,
and he was away from her and the children
who he’d never seen, he probably did get
into drinking. That’s very difficult
to determine. And he may have had a conflict
with a person in charge there. And in the midst of
all that, he resigned. And yet I’ve found many other
examples where people who were with Grant at different banquets or dinners would say they
offered wine or whatever, and Grant did not
drink that wine. So, and a lot of
sqirllious stories, so that in the battle of Shiloh. He is staying in
the home of a woman who is a Confederate
sympathizer. He hears the guns of Shiloh
at six o’clock in the morning. He immediately gets up from
breakfast and charges forth. The story was Grant was drinking
at breakfast before Shiloh. And the woman said, “That
is absolutely ridiculous. You know, he was at my home,
he was not doing that.” So, it’s a very contested story. I think as he progressed
in aged in the tour, this became much less
of an issue for him. Yeah.>>Since we’re in the
library of Congress where language is everything,
you mentioned that — this sort of relates to
the first question too. You mentioned that Petraeus said
Grant, the greatest general. People in literature regard
his autobiography the greatest biography, the greatest
writing of a president, probably next to Lincoln’s. Would you comment on the
writing styles and what — is there a correlation
do you think between, as I think most people
here would, that there’s a correlation
between the quality of thought and action and the quality of
being able to write cogent, logical and beautiful sentences?>>Ronald C. White: Wonderful
comment and question. I don’t believe that that Grant
fully understood how good a writer he was. What happened was at the
end of his, towards the end of his life, he — there were
no presidential pensions. So, he, one day at his Long
Branch, New Jersey summer home, bit into a peach and felt
this incredible pain. Three months later seeing a
doctor, the biopsy, cancer. He understood that this
was terminal cancer. He was very much against
writing his memoirs. He thought that memoirs
were self-serving, egotistical, and
settling scores. Do you realize that
during the eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, only
one memoir was ever written by a member of his cabinet? Would you like to count how many
were written during George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and
already Donald Trump? But now he had to
provide for Julia. So, the Century magazine offered
him $10,000 to write his memoir, which was a considerable
sum in those days. Mark Twain heard about it. Mark Twain said of himself,
“I am Grant intoxicated. I loved the man.” He charged over to Grant’s home
at East 62nd street and said, “What did they offer you? That’s what they’d offer
an unknown Comanche to write his memoirs. I’ll offer you to publish
it with my son in law and our new publishing company and I’ll give you
70% of the proceeds.” They were going to
give him 10% royalty. So, Grant’s prose is direct,
simple, straight forward. He’s very generous to
both friend and foe. He was an editor
of his own work, even as he’s dying of cancer. And so it is as you suggest,
it is a kind of a model. What I want to tell you is
that in the last two years, two wonderful annotated versions of the memoirs have
been published. And the beauty of the
annotation is, you know, you and I might read it and
say, “Well, what is this? Who is this?” The annotations are marvelous
because they fill in the story of who are these people? What is he really
talking about here? I’ve had so many people
across this nation tell me that in reading Grant’s memoirs, this was a really a
treasure experience for them. So, I commend it to you. It doesn’t go into
the presidency. He stops at the end of the
civil war, but he does talk about a lot of his young life. It’s really worth reading. Thank you.>>You mentioned the string
of generals that proved to be disappointments
for Lincoln, and one name that stands out at George
McClellan, who Lincoln seemed to be giving chance after chance
despite a lot of opposition to Lincoln from McClellan. Can you talk about that? And especially why did Lincoln
keep giving them opportunities?>>Ronald C. White: Slow down just a little bit
and say that again. I didn’t get all of it.>>What I wanted to know is
why did Lincoln keep giving if someone like George McClellan
multiple opportunities –>>Ronald C. White: Okay. Got you. Got you. Yeah.>>– to lead his armies.>>Ronald C. White: Yeah, yeah. Well, George McClellan was
the so-called young Napoleon if his age. When he received command from
Lincoln, he was 34 years old and he wrote to his wife sort
of saying, “Well, they recognize who I am, and I’m going to be
the savior of this country.” But Lincoln was caught
in a bind because as much as we might look back and see
that of McClellan’s faults, he was never quite ready. He always was drilling
the troops. He overestimated the
size of the opposition. McClellan was quite
popular with his own troops. He was very popular
with his own men. And so Lincoln understood that. So, I think we could
fault Lincoln for staying too long
with McClellan. But why did he stay so long? Because he understood
that McClellan was popular with the men underneath
his command.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Over here.>>Sorry. You’ve spoken really
well of both Lincoln and Grant. Do you think that there
was a point during the war where they could have
lost it, or do you think that their combined
abilities would have led them to win the war?>>Ronald C. White:
That’s a great question. Is there a point when
they could have lost it? You know, we look back again,
we see the huge difference in the size of the armies,
the industrial might. James MacPherson and his path
breaking book, The Battle Cry of Freedom, which I think is
written in some sense is also in the wake of the war in
Vietnam where we reckon, and he ends his book with kind of nine different
points of contingency. What if, what if, what if, what
if, and it’s not inevitable that the North would
have won that war. There were moments where perhaps
the war could have been lost. The South did have some
tremendous generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall
Jackson and people like that. So, we have to be very careful
in looking back and saying, “Well, of course
this was inevitable. It was always going to happen.” I mean, this war went on
for more than four years. We used to think there were
620,000 dead and a demographer about eight or 10 years ago
comparing the 1860 census to the 1870 census has
now revised our estimate. There were 750,000 dead
in a nation of barely more than 30 million people,
more casualties than all of our other wars put together. So, yes, the war
might’ve been lost. I mean, Grant thought
that by the summer of 1862 was the lowest point
of the war and he discouraged by what was taking
place, as was Lincoln. And so Lincoln, you may
know this, wrote a note to his cabinet where
he had received a word from the Republican national
committee meeting in New York that you will lose
the 1864 election. You will be defeated
in New York, you will even be
defeated in Illinois. And he brings this note
to his cabinet saying, “When we are defeated
in the next election, it will be our duty to cooperate
with the new administration.” Well, then just several weeks
later, Sherman captures it later and everything begins to change.>>Colleen J. Shogan: There
was a question back there.>>I read Grant’s autobiography,
and there’s two climates. I hope the new additions
replace the original maps. They may have been state
of the art at the time, but I don’t think if you weren’t
familiar, and I was with, but if you weren’t familiar with
the locations, the movements, their troops, those maps
don’t help you a whole lot. I understand they
had the restrictions. The other thing struck me
though, he’d go on and on and on talking about this
general, how he screwed up here and he should have done
this and that, whatever, and then he’d always finish up or frequently finish
up, but I may be wrong. I may not know all the facts. Is that an observation
that only I’ve made? Am I reading that wrong?>>Ronald C. White: Wonderful. What you just said is
so important to hear. Here Grant is struggling
to finish these memoirs. He will finish it three
days before he dies and at the very end he’s
willing to say, “I may be wrong. I may not have all the facts.” What kind of an attitude,
what kind of a person is that? Instead of saying I was
right and they were wrong. This is the way memoirs
were written. This is the way Sherman
wrote his memoirs. Grant didn’t like
Sherman’s memoirs. I was right and they were wrong. This is so different
than the memoirs that were written in that time. Yeah. Yeah. So, different. Yeah.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
There’s a question right here.>>Thank you so much
for your talk. I’m curious about
the role of Westpoint in both Grant’s life
and in the civil war. I was looking at
some information and I saw just how
many civil war generals on both sides went to Westpoint. Stonewall Jackson did. Robert E. Lee did. You know, even I think
Picket did you know. They all seemed to
go through Westpoint. Could you just talk about
how that impacted the war and then also what
Grant learned there that would serve him later on?>>Ronald C. White: Well, when
Westpoint was established, it was very, very controversial. People were worried
about a standing army. They had seen what a
standing army had done in the French revolution. Thomas Jefferson was
originally against Westpoint. He changed his mind when
he became president. Westpoint had a low
esteem in the minds of the people of this country. It all began to change
with the war with Mexico and then people saw
what an army could do. The surprising thing to me was
that there were very, very few, almost no military courses. The idea was that if you
learned basic logic and reason and engineering and science,
you would somehow be able to figure out what to do. Well, the battlefields in
the American civil war were so much larger than
the battlefields in any battle heretofore
fought in Europe. So, one of the beauties of Grant that he was a painter
at Westpoint. He was quite an artist and he
had the imagination to figure out what to do in
this battlefield. He also, Westpoint was a
place where he did know some of these people and he had
taken their measure at Westpoint and then he took it
again on the battlefield. Because your standing at, I said
in my biography, your standing at Westpoint was revised
according to what you did in the war with Mexico. Now we’re going to see how the
theory translates into action and those who were often
at the top of the class where the bottom of the class. Long Street was second from
the bottom of his class. You deserve to be near the
top of his class in terms of the way they performed. So, I tried to understand what
Westpoint meant to these people. It gave them an esprit
de corps, not simply a — and a discipline, not simply
the classes that they took.>>Over here.>>In Charles Frazier’s
book, Varina, he writes about the
relationship between Julia Grant and Varina Davis, you
know, after the civil war.>>Ronald C. White: Yes, yes.>>And one, is it true and
two, is this a reflection of that reconciliation that
you spoke about earlier?>>Ronald C. White: Thank you. That’s a great question. I was really struck, I didn’t
know this when I started, that here Grant and
Jefferson Davis never met. There’s so many ironies
in writing history. Grant is going to
resign out in California. So, he writes this letter
to the secretary of war, who is Jefferson Davis, just as Jefferson Davis is writing
a letter to Grant saying, “You’ve now been
promoted to captain.” So they never met. Julia and Grant had this
amazing relationship. One of the great marriages in
American history, Grant dies, Jefferson Davis dies,
Julia’s vacationing in the Hudson Valley,
which is one of the great places to vacation. She understands that Varina
Davis is in the same hotel. She goes over and knocks on the
door and introduces herself, and then — this is true,
and then people watch the two of them drive together in a
carriage down Fifth Avenue and they become good friends. So, in a certain way, these
two women enact this kind of reconciliation. You use the word that
hopefully was what could happen after the war. It’s quite a compelling story.>>Okay.>>One big what if
scenario is what if Grant actually had quit again
as he had determined to do, chafing under the leadership
of General Halleck at the time, who by all accounts was
quite jealous of Grant, and thankfully Sherman
talked him out of it.>>Ronald C. White: Yes.>>Can you please talk about
how that affected Grant and what he learned from
it that served him well in leadership going
forward as he was able to utilize Halleck quite
effectively once he was his boss as opposed to –>>Ronald C. White: Very
perceptive comment and question. What the gentleman is
referring to is that Grant, we have to say, was
surprised at Shiloh. There’s no way of
getting around it, but the after the first
night, he can’t stand to be inside the hospital where all these amputations
are going on. So, he stands underneath a tree. We’re under pouring rain
and Sherman comes up to him and says, “Boy, we got
our tails whipped today.” and Grant says, “We’re going
to whip them tomorrow.” And they do. But Halleck then says,
“I’ll take the field and you will become
second in command.” Halleck is the sort of
general in chief in Washington. Well, this is really
— grates on Grant. And so at one point,
Grant has had enough, he’s going to resign
for the military. Sherman hears about this. Early in the war,
Sherman was in trouble. He was even accused of insanity. So, Sherman rushes over to Grant
and says, “You came to my stead when I was in trouble and
I’m now coming to you. You are not going to resign. Your day will come.” So, then during the civil
war as Grant assumes command, he makes Halleck
his chief of staff. However, he learns years
later that Halleck had been in correspondence with
McClellan of how to get Grant. So, in the memoirs,
there’s an absence. Halleck doesn’t appear
in the memoirs. He doesn’t criticize Halleck. He just kind of is
absent from the memoirs.>>Colleen J. Shogan: I think
there’s a question all the way in the back.>>Lincoln’s rhetoric
frequently spoke to people’s faith
convictions in the country. Did Grant, who respected
Lincoln, disregard that, the essence of that
communication, or what was his attitude
toward the faith convictions of the country and the
healing after the war?>>Ronald C. White:
Wonderful question. One of my convictions is that
the whole faith dimension to use your term
has been lacking as we write our American
biographies. Whether we think, “Well,
that was the 19th century, people believe back there. You know, we don’t do that now.” No, this is very important. I think the story
of the progression of Lincoln’s faith is
a remarkable story. It’s a Presbyterian story. For Grant, it’s a
Methodist story. He’s not nearly as
eloquent as Lincoln. He doesn’t speak about it, but I think Grant’s Methodist
ethic is very important and he got that ethic more from
his mother than his father. This is where he got
his self-effacement or what we would call humility. I initially wrote my
biography too long and my editor told
me to drop 150 pages. Oh my goodness. So, I took out a story, which I
wish I would have been kept in. At the beginning of the
second term Grant writes to all the members
of his cabinet. And he said, “I want us
to meet on Sunday morning at the Methodist
church I attend.” The Methodist were the first to build a national
church in Washington. He said, “I want
us to pray together and I think you will
like my minister. He’s really a great preacher.” So, although Grant did not
wear his faith on his sleeve, I think we often underestimate
the role of religion by asking the wrong questions. How often did a person
attend church? And I think that Grant’s
Methodist faith was extremely important to him. He wasn’t always
very vocal about it, but I think it was kind of a
way that he lived his life.>>Colleen J. Shogan: Time for
one more question right here. Okay, and then there’ll
be plenty of time in the reception or more.>>Ronald C. White: Yes.>>Thank you. As somebody who’s
done a lot looking into the Lincoln assassination
to lecture on the medical parts, I do get asked that
question about whether if Grant would have been there. And in your research with Grant,
and my response has been, well, unlike Lincoln, I think he had
— would have had more security with him as the general
in chief.>>Ronald C. White: Sure.>>Am I correct? Would he — did Grant have
more burly guys around him, and the weak security that
Lincoln had at Ford’s theater?>>Ronald C. White:
That’s a good question. Would Grant have
brought more security? Interestingly, there wasn’t
much security in these days. I mean, even as president,
Grant would just go strolling out in Washington by
himself and people said, “You got to be careful,
someone’s going to — ” “Well, I can take them on if
they come after me, you know?” And so of course, John
Wilkes Booth was known at Ford’s theater, so
there was not any surprise that this actor was
there in Ford’s theater. Nobody thought anything of it. So, I don’t think that Grant
would have brought any more security that evening
than was present.>>I was thinking
more [inaudible].>>Ronald C. White: Oh, I see. Okay. Okay. I’m not, I don’t
pretend to be an expert on apprehending Booth at that. Other people have done that, but I don’t know what Grant
might have done in that story. I don’t really know that. [ Inaudible Audience Comment ]>>Ronald C. White: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.>>Colleen J. Shogan:
After the program, Ron will be signing books that
are for sale right next door, right adjacent to the
room, right here in 113. So, please take advantage of
that and hopefully have one of your books signed and we will
have a reception afterwards. And Ron has kindly
agreed to join us. So, if you have additional
questions that you may want to ask him, we’ll be available
for conversation for some time after the program, but please
join me in thanking Ronald White for such a lovely
conversation [applause].>>Ronald C. White: Thank you.

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