A Lesson in Virtue from Ulysses S. Grant

Ron Chernow’s book, Grant, is a remarkable biography of a rather remarkable man. After reading this book, I am convinced that the most astounding of all Ulysses S. Grant’s numerous accomplishments is the one that is most often overlooked. Normally, we talk about “Grant the General” or “Grant the President,” but I think “Grant the recovering alcoholic” is the best story.

Ulysses Grant was a lifelong Methodist. By all accounts, his devotion to religion was true and noble, even though he was plagued by a variety of sins – chief among them being an alcoholic’s desire for strong drink. Grant was hounded by accusations of alcoholism throughout his life —many of those stories seem false, but far too many are true. My favorite story about Grant and alcohol, however, is recounted by Mark Twain, who became Grant’s friend and publisher late in the ex-president’s life. Chernow recounts this story…

Mark Twain had struggled with similar cravings for alcohol and tobacco. When they discussed the subject, Grant mentioned that although doctors had urged him to sip whiskey or champagne, he could no longer abide the taste of liquor. Twain pondered this statement long and hard. “Had he made a conquest so complete that even the taste of liquor was become an offense?” he wondered. “Or was he so sore over what had been said about his habit that he wanted to persuade others & likewise himself that he hadn’t ever even had any taste for it.” Similarly, when Grant told Twain that, at the doctors’ behest, he had been restricted to one cigar daily, he claimed to have lost the desire to smoke it. “I could understand that feeling,” Twain later proclaimed. “He had set out to conquer not the habit but the inclination—the desire. He had gone at the root, not the trunk.” Although Twain hated puritanical killjoys who robbed life of its small pleasurable vices, he respected abstinence based on an absence of desire.

There is a lesson here about the path toward virtue: in order to be virtuous we must not seek merely to escape the pleasure of vice; instead, we must seek to find the joy of virtue and so change our desires.


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