David W. Blight is Sterling Professor of American History at Yale. His biography of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, received the Pulitzer Prize for history. (January 2020)

IN THE REVIEW

‘A Doubtful Freedom’

Eastman Johnson: A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, circa 1862

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War

by Andrew Delbanco
That the United States has been a “nation” since its founding—struggling through slavery, civil conflict, labor strife, economic depressions, and deep ethnic and racial divisions but still surviving as a single polity and people—has long been an article of faith in triumphal versions of our history. “We the People” have often needed a sense of our long continuity if we wished to hold ourselves together. A story, true and false, imagined or otherwise, with remembrance and a good deal of forgetting is perhaps the only thing that can unify a nation. Before he became president, Barack Obama inspired many of us with his clarion call in 2004 that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” In these recent polarized years we’ve seen bitter refutations of this premise, even as its noble impulse survives. Just now the idea of the American nation needs serious attention from historians.

The Silent Type

Ulysses S. Grant and his family, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1870

Grant

by Ron Chernow

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition

edited by John F. Marszalek, with David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo
For a century and a half Ulysses S. Grant has been a baffling and inspiring presence in the American literary and historical imaginations. Born in 1822 and raised by a pious Methodist mother, as a young man he was quiet, given to depressions, and lacking much ambition. Only his love of horses seemed to animate him and give him a reason to excel in his education at West Point, which his scheming father desired for him more than he did. In his thirties, he was a complete failure, at times a drunkard, destined to die forgotten. He found his vocation and success on America’s killing fields; his meteoric trajectory in the Civil War makes him a remarkable case of a nobody who became almost everything.