In the Highlander (1992–1998) episode, “The Valkyrie,” Methos, the jaded sage, tells our protagonist, Duncan MacLeod, “It is the ultimate in arrogance to think that one person can alter the course of history . . . . History makes men, MacLeod. Men don’t make history.” He continues, “I’m talking about the time. Okay, the zeitgeist — to quote the Germans. If it hadn’t been the little painter from Austria, it would have been someone else. It would’ve been a shopkeeper, a garage man. My point is it doesn’t matter: the times were ripe for a Führer.”
Biographies Are More Than True
More than two decades on, those words revisit my thoughts almost weekly. Setting aside the World War II particulars, those words haunt me. When I am feeling existential, my ego unmoored, or my feet cemented to the oblivion of the now, I remind myself: I lived a past and will live a future. And surviving the present is the chore to re-establishing my footing, my presence. Philip Roth writes, “The absence of a presence can crush the strongest people.” In those unfixed moments suspending my past and my future, I brace for the pressure, the crush.
Channeling his internal G.K. Chesterton, Neil Gaiman phrases, “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The same is true of the biography. Biographies are more than true, for they tell us not that someone lived and died, but that he or she lived a life worth reading, worth knowing, worth folding into our own. A well-researched, smartly-written biography brings to life the times—the zeitgeist—by ripping from the past one person’s life and unrolling it as a map, a tour guide to an entire age.
In my youth I was seduced by the biographies of geniuses — the ones who invented calculus in a summer, formulated game theory on dorm room windows, unlocked the cosmos from a patent clerk’s desk, built and rebuilt philosophies and religions through lectures and sermons, and forged republics, empires, and financial systems on the arrant force of their words and visions. Yet, these men and women are as rare to humanity as a perfect game thrown during a World Series.
So, of recent, my attention has turned from folks who arguably do “make history” to those who simply live up to history’s crushing forces and are made, formed under the pressure.
Naïve, Reluctant, ‘Middling, Not Miserable’
During the last couple weeks, I finally dug into Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography Grant (2017). Like prior works from Chernow, this biography of Ulysses S. Grant uproots our “high school” understandings of the person and the times in which he lived. One of the most halting and comforting themes in the examination of the Civil War general and our 18th President is that mortal men — battered by personal vice and financial missteps, given to itinerant ambitions and unexciting aptitudes — can brook history’s crushing currents, navigate the vanguard of his age, and advance the “best of us” doing the best we can.
Grant’s youth reads as nondescript. And hardly, that of a first-born destined for military glory or the highest office in the land. Born to an always-ambitious, mid-western upstart, Grant seemed however naïve, if not reluctant, on matters of business. Essentially, he was more tender than his peers. Never one for macho masculinity or the spectacle of wanton power, even a young Grant predated the 20th-century feminists and animal rights advocates. While initially costive about attending West Point, Grant graduated in 1834 as a “middling, not miserable” student — ranking twenty-first out of thirty-nine. By the end of 1853, Grant had participated in the Mexican-American War, led soldiers and civilians from New York City to Panama, and served in both California and the Oregon Territory.
In 1854, however, facing court-martial, Grant resigned from the Army. As George F. Will notes, Grant’s “military career foundered on alcohol abuse exacerbated by the aching loneliness of a man missing his family.” Cutting to the quick, Will provides a play-by-play of Grant’s next fifteen years: “His civilian life was marred by commercial failures. Then the war came. Four years after he was reduced to selling firewood on St. Louis streets, he was leading the siege of Vicksburg. Six years after Vicksburg fell, he was president.”
Obscure Store Clerk to Two-term President
At age 32, Grant faced civilian life with no marketable training or promising vocation. “By now,” Chernow writes, “Ulysses could only envision his life in limited terms, the wings of his ambition having been thoroughly clipped by experience.” After some time living with his ever-disapproving in-laws, the Grants in 1860 returned to Ulysses’ hometown of Galena, Illinois. Once there, Grant labored as a store clerk for his father’s tannery business, reporting to his youngest brother, Orvil, who was thirteen years his junior. (Does this not sound stingingly relatable to many of us millennials?)
Adjusting or resigning himself to his quotidian lot, Grant grew a bit absentminded and began walking with a slight hump in his shoulders. The irony that such a first-rate horseman now moved so downtroddenly through these years of his life only scorches the more. “In general,” Chernow writes, “Grant lived a quiet, unobtrusive life, attending the Methodist church, smoking his clay pipe, and reading aloud to Julia [his wife] every evening as she sewed.” This run-of-the-mill existence quickly would cease. In 1861, the nation broke out in war, and the Union demanded able-bodied men, regardless of past infractions. Soon Grant’s posture straightened again. Rising through the ranks to lead the Western armies and then the Eastern, Grant ultimately emerged from rural obscurity to become President Abraham Lincoln’s most invaluable military strategist. As Chernow describes, “A certified failure in civilian life, Grant had entered the war with everything to gain and nothing to lose. The erstwhile leather goods clerk from Galena now had more than one million men under his command.”
The night Lincoln was assassinated rerouted the country’s trajectory. In a wide-ranging conspiracy, Grant and other top cabinet officials were too targeted. However, due to Julia’s persistence, the Grants fortuitously left Washington earlier in the day. Following the inconsistent and inept Andrew Johnson Administration, Ulysses S. Grant would go on to win the U.S. Presidency twice — in 1868 and 1872. Noteworthy, Grant is the only president from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson to serve two complete, consecutive terms.
Grant, ‘A Convinced Believer in American Progress’
As much as Grant shouldered the historic heat and pressure of the Civil War, he obviously was formed in and informed by the progressive and technological zeitgeist of his day. Like many of our politicians at the onset of the information revolution and various tech booms, Grant saw the immediate benefits of progress and rapid economic growth whilst staying blind too long to the structural and cultural shifts underfoot. Grant proved, Will explains, “hopelessly naïve regarding rascality unleashed by the sudden postwar arrival of industrialism entangled with government.” To Will, it is from Grant’s “negligence, not his cupidity” that the corruption inside his administration sprang.
To showcase how history makes, tests, leads an individual, Grant promoted an international exhibit at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia to coincide with both the final year of his presidency and the nation’s centennial. “A convinced believer in American progress,” Chernow elucidates, “Grant had caught the spirit of the age and wished to celebrate the advance of republican government.” The exhibition — the first fair of its kind in America — “advertised the technological prowess that had powered American progress and featured every mechanical marvel from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to Remington’s ‘Typographic Machine.’”
Progress, however, comes in many forms. As much as technological innovation is to be championed, institutional adaptation must keep pace. Whereas Andrew Johnson initially lashed out counterproductively at the former Confederate States (more for personal and emotional reasons than strategic or moral ones) and then shortly rolled over to the Southern elites, Grant demonstrated he was the rightful successor to Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction. As Chernow notes, Grant “showed a deep reservoir of courage in directing the fight against the Ku Klux Klan and crushing the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history.” For Will, Grant “ranks behind only Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson as a presidential advancer of African American aspirations.”
‘Nothing Heroic . . . Yet the Greatest Hero’
In a December 1878 letter, the post-presidency Grant writes, “The fact is we are the most progressive, freest[,] and richest people on earth, but don’t know it or appreciate it. Foreigners see this much plainer than we do.” For all his averageness, Grant possessed a farsighted perspective and a deep awe at what the American people had constructed within a single century. Within those two sentences, Grant’s worldview surfaces. (If only—a key politician these days could say so much, be so frank, and muster such pragmatism . . .)
Writing in September 1879, Walt Whitman summarizes Grant’s life, while lodging it in a historic genre:
“Cynical critics . . . aver (and it is no doubt true) that [Grant] has hardly the average of our day’s literary and scholastic culture, and absolutely no pronounc’d genius or conventional eminence of any sort. Correct: but he proves how an average western farmer, mechanic, boatman, carried by tides of circumstances, perhaps caprices, into a position of incredible military or civic responsibilities . . . may steer his way fitly and steadily through them all, carrying the country and himself with credit year after year — command over a million armed men — fight more than fifty pitch’d battles — rule for eight years a land larger than all the kingdoms of Europe combined — and then, retiring, quietly (with a cigar in his mouth) make the promenade of the whole world, through its courts and coteries, and kings and czars and mikados . . . as phlegmatically as he ever walk’d the portico of a Missouri hotel after dinner . . . Seems to me it transcends Plutarch. How those old Greeks, indeed, would have seized on him! A mere plain man — no art, no poetry . . . . A common trader, money-maker, tanner, farmer of Illinois — general for the republic, in its terrific struggle with itself, in the war of attempted secession — President following, (a task of peace, more difficult than the war itself) — nothing heroic, as the authorities put it — and yet the greatest hero.”
As I now consider how history made the “nothing heroic” Grant the hero Whitman depicts, I ponder what demarcates an age of heroes from an anti-heroic age, what births the men and women who can withstand history’s pressing demands and build in turn a progressive, innovative, humane society. In doing this, I start with the relatively-recent depths from which we— our humor— had to climb. We learn more about ourselves, not from the wars and injustices endured, but from the jokes we tell and amusements we enjoy. It is worth noting: we have progressed, yes, in almost all things, but progress never escapes backsliding or sidewards movement.
History Through Spontaneous Culture
Within the last four hundred years, we are the species who would for public amusement staple cats to posts in the city square and cheer those who would bludgeon with their foreheads these creatures to death. Such tortures were as widespread as they were gruesome. A favorite Mardi Gras activity, explains Robert Darnton, included bonfires and “cats tied up in bags, cats suspended from ropes, or cats burned at the stake. Parisians liked to incinerate cats by the sackful, while the Courimauds (cour a miaud or cat chasers) of Saint Chamond preferred to chase a flaming cat through the streets.” Our technology, our economy, and our form of government have all changed, and our reasons to celebrate have too. Yet, the monstrous depths at which we can find entertainment have not. The same species who gleefully scourged and mutilated cats is the same species who now sits anonymously, detachedly behind our keyboards.
Some individuals, however, do buck our base instincts. During the last year of the Civil War, for example, Grant — in a rare moment of public anger — witnessed a teamster flogging his horses. With fist in air, Grant rode his bay horse, Egypt, straight to the teamster and had the teamster strapped to a tree for six hours as punishment for such abuse and brutality. Amidst the trying decision-making of the war, Grant never lost sight of the little things, the humane things, the things that make and define the “best of us.”
The “best of us” landed a man on the moon, the “best of us” ended slavery and Jim Crow, the “best of us” fought Nazism, fascism, and communism. The “best of us” suffered for and achieved women’s suffrage. The “best of us” built skyscrapers and financial systems. The “best of us” composed symphonies and protest songs, wrote love letters and the great American novels, and toiled over equations and constitutions. The “best of us” invented, innovated, adapted, and started and restarted businesses. The “best of us” adopted new ideas, local highways, and orphaned children. The “best of us” rescued neighbors from addiction and hunger and pups and kittens from kill lists. The “best of us” led marches and ran for office and volunteered our time and offered kind words to friends and strangers. The “best of us” tried to make life a little easier on those around them.
These “best of us” people are the ones who make history. And not by leading humankind as captains of industry, generals of armies, holders of public offices, or writers of letters, but by spontaneous culture—the accumulative effect of small, numberless decisions. Through spontaneous culture, history learns its boundaries, defines what is palatable and what is not. A genius developing, say, calculus or Free Jazz, cannot lead a discipline or form a movement, if no followers follow. Nowhere is it shown that spontaneous culture (or spontaneous order) always results in a progressive, innovative people. Most historic analysis illustrates that the “best of us” people spend more time on our heels. So, when Methos says, “The times were ripe for a Führer,” what he is actually saying is that the people within the then-German-Austrian community were generating a regressive and prejudiced culture — and all spontaneously. This order allowed, even incentivized, the actions under the Third Reich. Unlike many modern advocates of Hayekian libertarianism, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, or any number of anarchist splinters understand, spontaneous order and institutions (as in the Douglass C. North sense) are symbiotic. Both must exist — working on, against, and in the other.
From the Comment Section to Redemption
Not enough of us today are the “best of us” people. Many are of the crowd — of the mob, of the comment section — who gather and cheer at the destruction of something nameless and faceless and defenseless. From behind these keyboards, we type and from behind these memes, we share — seeking our own amusement, our own self-righteousness, regardless of how it frays civility and turns neighbors into strawmen. We will be judged by future generations for the great civilization we did not just fail to preserve, but actively aided in destroying. History will judge kindly only those who create and build and emancipate and love. And most of us these days do none of these.
In Grant, the “best of us” people have not a model, but an inspiration, a reassertion, a story of redemption. He was a man who lost his twenties to addiction and risky financial gambles and who bore the crushing “absence of a presence” throughout his thirties. Yet, when demanded, he lived up to the pressures of his age, and he made our history in return. He stayed open-minded, compassionate, optimistic, and engaged. If more of us would follow Grant’s example in our own lives and day-to-day interactions, the spontaneous culture generated would tilt us again onto the balls of our cleats. And on that footing, an innovative and humane society, and thus history, will more quickly be made.
Joshua is a peregrine thinker. He has worked in technology and innovation policy at a D.C.-based think tank.
Beyond studying economics, urban planning, and violence, he spends time exploring avant-garde and postmodern film and literature, as well as country, jazz, and funk guitar.
Currently, he resides in West Virginia—with his fantastic pup, Wanda.