The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered at the Upper School assembly in Brauer Auditorium on Friday, September 16.
You may not have heard of the American writer Ron Chernow, but I am confident that you are familiar with the influence of his 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin Manuel-Miranda to create the cultural phenomenon that is the Broadway musical Hamilton. This year I’ve been trying to read all of the books on my shelves that I’ve never gotten around to, and Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, published in 2017, is among them. Last week I decided to tackle it, and I am enjoying it immensely.
I would be curious to know how many of you were aware before today, notwithstanding his numerous military and political achievements, that Grant’s life and reputation are popularly associated with chronic alcohol abuse. I am not sure how old I was when I first learned about this aspect of his legacy, but I was certainly acquainted with rumors of his alcoholism for many, many years prior to reading Chernow’s biography.
The broader theme of my remarks to you today is the extraordinary power of gossip, rumors, and slander in the lives of human beings. This power extends across cultures and across thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years. Liu Xiang’s Strategies of the Warring States includes a story from approximately 350 B.C.E. of a Han Dynasty king who is manipulated by the gossip of a jealous lover to maim the woman who replaced her in his favor. From the same century but a different continent comes an account by Theophrastus of a “rumormonger” who spreads unsubstantiated tales of Athenian battlefield losses, promises his listener that “what I say is strictly between ourselves,” and then “trips off and repeats the story to every man in town.” Fast forward to 19th-century England, and one finds in the commentary of William Hazlitt additional precursors of the ways in which rumor and gossip are traded in our world today. “While the clamor is at the loudest,” he writes, “not one of those who are most eager in hearing and echoing it knows what it is about. What then is it that gives it its confident circulation and its irresistible force? It is the lungs of the multitude, the number of voices that repeat it because others have done so, that render it impossible for the still small voice of reason to be heard.”
There is some evidence to suggest that the tendency of human beings to invent and spread rumors is a matter of evolutionary advantage. In his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, the psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that gossip is to human society what physical grooming and tending are to ape and monkey society. Because physical grooming does not scale, early humans developed language as means of establishing relationships with each other more broadly and efficiently than physical contact alone can sustain. Our ancestors learned to talk to one another, even if only through idle chatter – the early human version of commenting on the weather – because talk quantity was more important than talk quality to the indispensable adaptation of homo sapiens to collaboration and group work. As we learned to talk idly to one another, Dunbar contends, we learned to talk idly about one another. “The conventional view,” he writes, “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.” It is a theory anticipated in an observation by the television journalist Barbara Walters in 1975. “Show me someone who never gossips,” she said, “and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people.”
Ulysses S. Grant would have benefited, perhaps, from less interest from other people. “The drinking issue, both real and imaginary,” writes Chernow, “so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter. This biography will contend that Grant was a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, then succumb at three- or four-month intervals. Alcohol was not a recreation selfishly indulged, but an impulse against which he struggled for most of his life. While drinking almost never interfered with Grant’s official duties, it haunted his career and trailed him everywhere. As with so many problems in his life, Grant managed to attain mastery over alcohol in the long haul, a feat as impressive as any of his wartime victories.”
Grant’s struggle with alcohol, while generally private and infrequent, was publicly exhibited often enough to expose a chink in his armor for his rivals and enemies – both in the military, and later in politics – to assail. Lucian of Samosata, another ancient observer of our even more ancient tendency to gossip, describes this vulnerability in military terms of his own. “Slander,” he notes, “could never cause such problems if it did not rest on some plausible ground. It would never overpower the truth if it had not equipped itself with attractive and plausible arguments. When besieging a city, the enemy doesn’t approach the high, well-defended parts of the wall. They advance with full force against the place they see is unguarded, weak, or low. Slanderers operate the same way. They look for the soul’s weak spot, and attack there.” As it was in Lucian’s world of 160 C.E., so it was in Grant’s world of the late nineteenth century, and so it remains in our world today.
Chernow’s assessment of Grant as a military leader and historical figure, independent of the rumors that dogged him throughout his adult life – and that continue to diminish his legacy – is unequivocal: “Grant was the strategic genius produced by the Civil War. While Robert E. Lee stuck to Virginia, Grant grasped the war in its totality, masterminding the movements of all Union armies. It was Grant who best apprehended the strategic interactions of the eastern and western theaters, yet he is frequently denied credit for his overall guidance of the Union war effort.”
Chernow makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that credit for the survival of the United States intact after the Civil War – and, by extension, credit for the permanent abolition of slavery within its borders that the outcome of the war effected – is principally due to the extraordinary vision, courage, and perseverance of two Americans: Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.
Before I read Chernow’s biography, all I “knew” about Grant was that he defeated Robert E. Lee only because he had more soldiers and resources, that he was a so-so president, and that he was a drunkard. In learning over the past several days that so much of what I “knew” was wrong, I have also learned how thoroughly my belief in the last of these “truths” – that Grant was a drunkard – reinforced my belief that he was a mediocre general and president. I have very much benefited from being confronted with the incorrectness of my opinion, and I have grown from this confrontation.
I wanted to share this experience in the hope that you, too, might take stock of some things that you “know” about other people but do not really know, and consider what to do about these inequities. For your moment of reflection today, I would ask you to accept that talking about other people is innate human behavior, but also to acknowledge that it, like all other human behaviors, can be put to both constructive and destructive purposes. I would ask you to ask yourself, the next time that you are tempted to “look for another soul’s weak spot, and attack there,” how you will manage that temptation. What will be your choice? What would you hope would be the other person’s choice if your positions were reversed?
Always reason – “the still small voice of reason” – and always compassion, and always courage. My best wishes to you for a joyful weekend.
Head of School