Why Grant’s Final Victory Was His Greatest

Today’s recommended reading is another great history lesson by Alexander Green, at Spiritual Wealth. It is a companion piece to his Robert E. Lee essay of last year, and concerns Lee’s great rival, Ullysses S. Grant. While Grant won the war that would assure that the United States would remain united, he also made a significant contribution to the American literary tradition.

After the war, Grant served two terms as President. Yet, in a world where speechmaking was popular entertainment and politicians routinely spoke for hours, Grant was largely silent. His Presidency was less than inspiring, as well. The government was saddled with an enormous war debt. Huge parts of the country remained broken, starving and mired in catastrophic defeat. The South’s economy was virtually destroyed. And Grant had the misfortune of presiding over America’s first economic depression, including the Panic of 1873.

However, he was trusted in the South as well as the North. That made him the perfect figure to reunify the nation. As President, he also signed legislation that created the national park system, declared that the Indians required as much protection from the whites as the whites did from the Indians, and avoided foreign wars and entanglements. In short, Grant affirmed the integrity of American institutions and demonstrated decency, good intentions and common sense.

Unfortunately, he had little understanding of money and no business sense whatsoever. In 1880, Ferdinand Ward, a 28-year-old con man – and business associate of Grant’s son Buck – invited the former President to become a partner in his Wall Street brokerage house. Grant – a trusting man who seldom bothered to read documents before signing them – agreed.

Before long Ward reported stupendous profits and doled out generous amounts of cash to partners. Grant believed he was rich. But Ward was running a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme and in 1884 it blew up, devastating investors and bankrupting Grant and his family. It was the most colossal swindle of the age.

In 1877 retiring Presidents did not have the benefits they do today – no generous pension, no office and staff at government expense, no lucrative speaking engagements. The former President – who had blundered in every business opportunity – had nothing to fall back on.

Worse, he had recently been diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer, an incurable disease before the advent of radiation and chemotherapy. Grant knew he was beginning a slow and painful death, one that would leave his wife Julia not just penniless but deeply in debt.

Fortunately, his friend Mark Twain, the second most famous American of the day, offered to publish Grant’s memoirs with a generous royalty agreement. Grant accepted, though he realized his poor health meant he had only a few months to complete the task.

Under overwhelming pressure, he wrote an astonishing 10 thousand words a day. First he dictated them, but as he lost his ability to speak, he wrote them down by hand on a yellow legal pad. The writing was slow, laborious work. Yet he carefully figured out how much pain he could endure and how much morphine he could take before it clouded his mind and stopped his pen. Grant completed the massive work in a matter of months, finishing the last chapter three days before he died. On his deathbed, he was still struggling with the maps and proofs.

Grant did not have researchers, assistants or draft writers. Yet his prose is clear and direct and demonstrates an amazing memory. The words that make up the two-volume work are his own. And they are exceptional.

Twain was astounded when he read the manuscript, claiming that there was not one literary man in a hundred who could furnish copy as clean as Grant’s. He had offered to publish the memoirs because he assumed that the book would be a financial success. Now he saw its remarkable literary quality. “There is no higher literature than these modern, simple Memoirs,” he said. “Their style is flawless… no man can improve upon it.” Coming from the single greatest figure in American letters, this was high praise indeed.

The book was not just an immediate sensation. It was the biggest bestseller in American history. Biographer Michael Korda notes that in the late 1800s, you could count on finding two books in every American home, the Bible and Grant’s Memoirs.

If you’d like to finish reading the article, and for more of Alexander Green’s great writing, check out Spiritual Wealth.

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How to Tell If You’re Rich

Originally published for Investment U on January 14,2013

By: Alexander Green

One of the biggest points of contention in the last election was whether the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Polls show the majority of voters don’t believe they do.

Of course, this begs the questions: Who is “rich” and what is “fair?”

Answers are largely a matter of opinion. But here is a fact: IRS figures show that the top 10% of income earners make 43% of all the income and pay 70% of all the taxes. Is that fair? If not, how much should they pay: 75%… 90%… all of it? And how about the now widely recognized fact – thanks to Mitt Romney’s secret videographer – that 47% of Americans don’t pay any income taxes. Is that fair? Opinions will vary.

According to the IRS, the top 2% of income earners – the ones that just had their marginal tax rate raised 13% to 39.6% – already pay approximately half of all income taxes. President Obama says it’s about time these folks “chipped in.” What a kidder.

And who is “rich?” For today’s discussion, I’ll leave aside the truism that you are rich if you enjoy good health, a loving family, close friends and varied interests. Politicians (and most voters, apparently) seem to believe that a person’s wealth can be determined by his or her income. I would argue that you determine real wealth by looking at a balance sheet not an income statement. But why not look at both?

According to the Tax Policy Center, if your annual household income is $107,628, you are in the top 20% of income earners. If your income exceeds $148,687, you are in the top 10%. You are in the top 5% if it is $208,810. And if your household income is $521,411, congratulations. You are in the top 1%… and perhaps demonized by those who view hard work and risk-taking as a matter of good genes and good fortune.

However, net worth is a far better measure of wealth, in my view. According to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, a net worth of $415,700 puts you in the top 20% of American households. You are in the top 10% if your net worth is $952,200. (This jives with the findings of Dr. Thomas J. Stanley – author of The Millionaire Next Door – that one in eight American households has a net worth of $1 million or more.) If your nest egg totals $1,863,800, you are in the top 5%. And – trumpets please – if you have a household net worth of $6,816,200, you are again in the top 1%… and possibly frowned upon by redistributionists who resent folks that live beneath their means, save regularly and handle their financial affairs prudently.

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For Music Lovers Only

Todays “good read” is an interesting take on the state of modern music by Alexander Green, over at Spiritual Wealth. Read an excerpt below:

I am a lifelong music lover and collector, but can any pop album of the last twenty years be mentioned in the same breath as Sgt. Pepper or Exile On Main Street? Indeed, Rolling Stone recently released an updated list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and 292 of them – 59% – were released in the ’60s or ’70s. Only two were released in the last decade – and one of those, Smile by The Beach Boys, was recorded 46 years ago.

Or – forget albums – how about the singles? Where is this generation’s “Eleanor Rigby,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” or “Fire and Rain”? They don’t exist. Instead the airwaves bombard us with misogynistic rap, boy bands that are really merchandising opportunities, and country music that sounds like Def Leppard with fiddles.

So why is this the best era for music lovers ever? Because there have never been more talented musicians playing more kinds of music in more venues than today. As for recorded sound, you also have cheaper and easier access to more music, in more genres, from more eras, in more formats, than ever before.

Admittedly, most of today’s bestselling music is forgettable or unlistenable. But so what? You don’t need to choose your music from Billboard’s Hot 100 any more than you need to choose your reading material from The New York Times Bestseller List. (And perhaps that’s a good thing given that all three of the nation’s current bestselling books are various Shades of Grey.)

Just as it makes no sense to read Danielle Steele before Mark Twain, why would anyone listen to Britney or Snoop Dogg before Ray Charles or Ella Fitzgerald? Or, while we’re on the subject, Mozart or Beethoven?

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