Millions of Americans loved Ulysses S Grant, but, as so often with love, the relationship can be hard to understand from the outside. Grant did not woo the public. A rumpled man, he seemed shorter than he was. When he opened his mouth, cigars and whiskey went in, but few words came out. His critics have disagreed over whether he should be condemned primarily as a brute of a general or a dupe of a president.
To those who adored him, he looked rather different. He and Lincoln saved the Union in the Civil War, but only Grant lived to receive the nation’s thanks. And he won without ego. The newspaperman Charles A Dana called Grant “the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb”.
One man did disturb that temper. Grant would dig his fingernails into the armrests of his chair at the thought of him, and told a friend he wanted to kill him, “as I would a snake. I believe I should do it, too, but I do not wish to be hanged for the killing of such a wretch”. When Grant died a year later, in 1885, the public blamed that “wretch”, who pitied himself as “the best-hated man in the United States”.
His name was Ferdinand Ward. In 1880, just 28, he had persuaded the former president to become a partner in Grant & Ward, a Wall Street brokerage house. Ward reported astonishing profits, doling out cash to his partners. Grant believed he was rich. In reality, Ward was running a Ponzi scheme. In 1884, it blew up, bankrupting Grant.
The author of this elegant new biography of Ward, A Disposition to Be Rich, is his great-grandson. For decades, Geoffrey C Ward has told Americans stories of their ancestors. All this time, he has freighted about a box of letters, preserved by his grandfather, documenting the fall of his earnest family because of one remorseless son.
Ferdinand Ward’s quarrelsome father, the Rev Ferdinand Ward, went to evangelise India as a young man. Told that missionaries should die on the spiritual battlefield, he returned to wage doctrinal battles in a small church in Geneseo, NY.
Ward’s mother, Jane Shaw Ward, was pious, nervous and depressed. Young “Ferd” was often alone with her in “the dark parsonage,” Geoffrey Ward writes. “It was fragrant with spices imported in wooden boxes from India, but the carpets and curtains and furnishings were drab and worn, shabby testimony to the truth of his mother’s teaching: no one should expect virtue, no matter how conspicuous, ever to be rewarded in this world.”
Perhaps this book follows family members at excessive length, but from them we get the truest picture of Ferdinand Ward. “It is hard to trust his word or confide in him as to anything,” the Rev Ferdinand Ward wrote of him to another of his children. But when Grant & Ward appeared to thrive, the prodigal repainted the dark parsonage and stuffed it with gifts, and they doubted their doubts. Money made them believe — or want to.
“He was born into a time when all young men of his age caught the fever of speculation,” Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1873, the year Ward arrived on Wall Street, “and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from of old.” Twain and Warner were describing a character in their novel, The Gilded Age, but they could have been writing about everyone Ward met.
In the 19th century, when few regulations threw light on hidden places, fraud not only flourished, but it was not always fraud. In 1866, for example, Daniel Drew engaged in huge insider trading as treasurer of the Erie Railway. He sold its stock short, forced the price down and profited at his own shareholders’ expense. It was perfectly legal. On Wall Street, Charles Francis Adams Jr wrote, the operation was “regarded as a masterpiece”.
This was the environment for Ferdinand Ward, who worshiped luxury and lied reflexively. His ultimate crime was that his crime was too simple: “I had to rob Peter to pay Paul.” No market manipulation — just theft. He himself was no more complicated. Convicted and imprisoned, he cadged money and bribed guards. On release, he kidnapped his own son to steal his trust fund.
Geoffrey Ward finds complexity elsewhere, especially in the dying Grant. Racked with agony from terminal cancer, he wearily wrote his life out to rescue his family’s finances with a memoir — a brilliant memoir. “The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun,” he told his doctor. “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”
In such self-awareness and intelligence, such grace when faced with pain and death, we feel the weight of Ward’s crime. And we, too, learn to love Grant.
©2012 The New York Times News Service
A DISPOSITION TO BE RICH
How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the
Best-Hated Man in the United States
Geoffrey C Ward
Alfred A Knopf; 418 pages; $28.95