I would like to introduce today’s “incel community” and unsatisfied men to a hero for the ages: Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant is an outstanding role model for diffident Gen Z men, however, not for the reasons one might suspect.

To say that Grant’s whole life exuded a certain George Washington- or Napoleon-level luster would be a gross overstatement. To the contrary, his pre-war life, in particular, was marked by ignominy, disappointment, and borderline aimlessness that would no doubt resonate with many young men today. By no means did Grant’s ignoble origins lend him to definite greatness. Indeed, if not for a very narrow and specific set of circumstances, he would have died an abject failure.

Nevertheless, he somehow went on to become great, and it is that journey from desultory failure to history-shaking success that should interest wayward men of the twenty-first century.

Certain men seem destined for greatness wherever they go and whatever life throws at them. I would not be alone in noting that Grant was not such a man.

As Ron Chernow, a Grant biographer, observed in an interview, “With Grant, there’s no fire in the belly. By the time he graduates from [West Point], his highest ambition in life is to be an assistant math professor at the academy. Not a full math professor, mind you,” Chernow added, laughing, “but an assistant math professor…. No one, least of all Ulysses Grant, could have foreseen that he would become general in chief of the U.S. army and a two-term president.”

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At West Point, Grant was not a poor student per se, but neither was he an outstanding one. In fact, he had very little interest in attending the academy and rooted for the government to shut it down. His father, Jesse, had all but forced his son into the school, and Grant, unambitious, had half-heartedly consented.

After graduating middle of his class in 1843, Grant proved his worth as a soldier in the American-Mexican War (1846-48). (In one particularly impressive incident, at the battle of Monterrey, where he received a citation for gallantry, the expert equestrian side-straddled his horse while carrying a message under enemy fire).

The seeds of Grant’s greatness were unquestionably planted, but far from fruition. Eventually, the West Point alum’s career stalled, and in 1854, Grant was forced to resign, reportedly to avoid being court-martialed for repeat drunkenness. Although charges of Grant’s intemperance are hotly debated, these accusations plagued the future president for years to come, often being unfairly wielded by political rivals.

No longer a military man, the former soldier plunged into a six-year period of foundering, in which he was scammed out of what little money he had and failed at almost everything he tried. He failed at farming; he failed at real estate and engineering. In desperation, he was eventually reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis, another failed endeavor.

To make matters worse, Grant’s slave-owning father-in-law, Fred Dent, resented him for his anti-slavery views. And his abolitionist family resented him for marrying into a slave-owning family. None of his relatives attended the wedding; Dent, once the war started, threatened to shoot his Yankee son-in-law.

In this frustrating time, there was one thing that the poor man was good at: loving his wife and kids. Besides that, he was an utter washout.

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As the Civil War neared, Grant found himself subjected to the supreme humiliation of his life: clerking at his father’s hated leather shop. This low point marked the end of a tragic trajectory from mediocre to inconsequential. Ulysses S. Grant, in no uncertain terms, had failed not just in his various business endeavors but as a person.

And yet greatness lingered just around the corner.

When war broke out in 1861, Grant, a pro-Union patriot, quickly enlisted. From here, his career did not immediately take off; his climb to the top was, at times, frustratingly slow. But for the first time in his life, Grant shed the veneer of averageness that had plagued him and evidenced a dormant distinction.

I need not recount everything that happened next. Suffice it to say, Grant proved himself to be one of history’s greatest generals. The genius tactician possessed a remarkable coolness when under fire. His military campaigns were so brilliantly orchestrated, many are still marveled at in military schools today. His self-possessed confidence and humility earned him the deep respect of his men and backers in Washington (including Lincoln). To the president, Grant was everything a good Union soldier ought to be. But above all, unlike commanders before him (and earlier versions of himself), “Unconditional Surrender” Grant knew how to win.

The day after Grant died in 1885, “The New York Times” ran the following glowing praise of Grant, predicting that, thenceforth, “if a great soldier is indomitable in purpose and exhaustless in courage, endurance, and equanimity; if he is free from vanity and pettiness, if he is unpretentious, truthful, frank, constant, generous to friends, magnanimous to foes, and patriotic to the core, of him it will be said, ‘He is like Grant’” (“The New York Times,” July 24, 1885).

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This second trajectory in Grant’s life from inconsequential to illustrious was indeed staggering. When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, “The Atlantic” gawked at it in a piece titled simply “Our New President.”

“Not the least surprising development of the latest war in this country was the man who ended it. This was not, or at least it ought not to have been, owing to anything more than the personal peculiarities of the result; for the exigencies of the contest on the side of the Union were so great, and our resources in military leadership were so scant, that it was inevitable its chief hero ought to be a man comparatively, if not absolutely, insignificant before [emphasis added],” the newspaper noted.

“We venture to say that no commander of ancient or modern times ever won his fame more honestly, by a clearer, more thoroughly tested and more enduring title, than General Grant. In the first place, there was nothing about the man calculated to wrest a snap judgment in his favor either from the army or the people. He was not dashing in mind or manners; his personal appearance was not such as to awaken the least suspicion that he was above mediocrity; he was as plain as an untutored Westerner and as reserved as an educated Yankee; while of prestige he had absolutely nothing.”

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But such an unassuming man, the newspaper concluded, proved himself to be “invariably and gloriously successful. General Grant’s military reputation, then, is that about him which is of itself palpable to all mankind, fixed and secure. Whatever he may have seemed before he won it, whatever he may have been, is nothing to the point in this respect.”

Historian Allen C. Guelzo summarized “The Atlantic’s” point more succinctly: “no American of the 19th century — not even Lincoln — enjoyed a more meteoric rise from obscurity.”

From diffident to confident; aimless to visionary. From “comparatively, if not absolutely, insignificant” to “indomitable”; conquered to a conqueror. This is the story of Ulysses S. Grant. And for millions of young men stuck in their own iterations of “Grant Act 1”—wallowing and useless—it’s a story well worth remembering.

Grant is a role model for the ages, not because he was born great, but because he was anything but great and soldiered on all the same.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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