Ulysses S. Grant rode his popularity to political power.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
An alcoholic general who carried out a brutal campaign of bloodletting to defeat the Confederacy became an incompetent president who led one of the most corrupt administrations in American history. That was the traditional assessment of Ulysses S. Grant throughout much of the twentieth century. But in recent years, Grant has enjoyed a period of apologetics in which writers have reinterpreted both his military and political careers. Thanks to that revisionist literature, historians now see Grant in a more positive light and generally rate his presidency as largely successful. The scandals that rocked his administration are now cast as being carried out by those around him and he is excused because he was personally honest. His record on race and civil rights, once seen as a failure and missed opportunity, is now measured as enlightened and successful. Some of these new interpretations are much‐needed corrections, such as the false charges about Grant’s supposed alcoholism. His drinking was more complicated than historical explanations have allowed and it is incorrect to call him an alcoholic. But the recent restoration of Grant proves unpersuasive when one considers everything wrong with his presidency. Indeed, the term “Grantism” that came to be synonymous with incompetence and corruption still resonates. His record on race and civil rights, the scandals in his administration, his economic policies, and his diplomatic agenda in foreign affairs all demonstrate the extent to which Ulysses S. Grant was an awful failure as president. 1
Grant’s Record on Race and Reconstruction
Grant emerged from the Civil War as the Union’s greatest hero, especially after the assassination of President Lincoln. In the glory of victory, rumors about his supposed drunken sprees and charges that he was a ruthless and bloody commander were quickly dismissed and forgotten. For the rest of his life and in the years beyond, Grant remained one of the most popular and revered figures in the United States.
It was unsurprising, then, that Ulysses S. Grant rode his popularity to political power. Promoted to General of the Army after the war, he continued to direct military affairs in the early months of Reconstruction. Initially a supporter of President Andrew Johnson, Grant traveled to the South on an official fact‐finding tour to investigate the situation in the former rebel states. His report on race relations proved overly‐optimistic in its judgment that most white Southerners accepted their defeat and were willing to rebuild their society on Union terms. This assessment was used by Johnson as evidence in support of allowing former Confederates to return to political power. Grant’s report recommended the continuation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the over‐worked, under‐funded, and under‐manned agency charged with helping the formerly‐enslaved people transition to freedom. But allowing the former Confederates to hold office resulted in the new governments formed across the South quickly setting up a system aimed at maintaining white supremacy by restricting the civil rights and liberties of the freed people. Although he later denounced it, the general’s report thus demonstrated his poor judgment. Unwilling or unable to see the reality of the situation, Grant misjudged the mindset of the defeated rebels and allowed his former foes to return to power and begin dismantling the hard‐won fruits of victory. 2
Of course, Johnson’s plans for Reconstruction led to his confrontation with the Radical Republicans in congress and the political battles that eventually resulted in the president being impeached and nearly removed from office in 1868. Grant found himself in the middle of the particular issues at stake in the impeachment fight, as Johnson appointed him as acting Secretary of War when he suspended Edwin Stanton without first getting approval of the U.S. Senate. This violated the Tenure of Office Act and led to impeachment. Grant resigned from his post to avoid being caught up in the legal proceedings and turned his office back over to Stanton. Because he had already expressed disagreements with the president on Reconstruction, Congress passed laws protecting Grant from being fired as commander of the army. Now, the break between Johnson and the general became public and angry letters between them were published. This pushed Grant even farther into the Radical Republican camp and set the stage for his nomination by the Republican Party and his defeat of Democrat Horatio Seymour in the 1868 presidential election.
President Grant and Reconstruction
As president, Grant both pleased and disappointed the Radical Republicans with his actions on Reconstruction. On the one hand, they rejoiced in the fact that he now took the threat of the former rebels seriously and signed off on the enforcement acts Congress passed to fight the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies that used violence to resist Reconstruction. In his first term, Grant especially took the fight to South Carolina, where he suspended habeas corpus, had the army carry out arrests of hundreds of suspected Klansmen, and directed his justice department to prosecute them. On the other hand, Grant backed off on the Klan during his second term, allowing the night riders to return to action. When he finally changed course and began pushing for prosecutions again, it was seen as too little, too late. Indeed, Grant began to abandon the fight for Reconstruction and civil rights, as he refused to support the Republican “carpetbagger” government in Mississippi when the governor there asked for military intervention to help defeat the Red Shirts, a Klan‐like society that led the forces of white supremacy in the state. Although he later regretted not intervening and signed a new Civil Rights Act in 1875, it was again seen by the Radicals as not being enough, as the law was not enforced and the Supreme Court eventually declared it unconstitutional. 3
At best, Grant’s record on Reconstruction was mixed; at worst, it was a miserable failure from the perspective of both sides of the fight. For white Southerners, the president supported the use of national power over the states and dispatched troops to interfere with local control of issues that had long been under state authority. He publicly called for equality for African Americans and supported blacks having the right to vote. For Radical Republicans, Grant was too hesitant, too slow, and too inconsistent. He seemed indecisive at critical moments, such as when he refused to intervene in Mississippi. During his presidency, violence spread across the South and thousands of white and black Republicans were attacked and killed. In Louisiana, for example, 150 black men were murdered in the Colfax Massacre in 1872. This was followed by the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans in 1874, as the integrated militia formed by the Republican government fought a posse of white supremacists in the middle of the city. Lynching of African Americans and their white supporters frequently occurred across the South and the Democrats began to win back control of state after state. President Grant failed to defeat the terrorism that was used to resist Reconstruction and allowed the former rebels to win in the post‐war period what they had lost on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Grant, Education, and Native American Policy
Grant’s record on civil rights was also marred by his support for the Blaine Amendment. This proposed Constitutional change authored by Republican James Blaine, a congressman from Maine, mandated government‐funded public schools and prohibited the use of any public funds for religious schools. Although the president couched his vision in terms of a strict separation of church and state, in reality he wanted the amendment in order to restrict the influence of the Roman Catholic church, which he thought was a threat to American society and culture because of immigration. In the 1850s, Grant had joined the nativist Know Nothing movement for a time and his resentment toward immigrants continued during his presidency. In supporting the Blaine plan, the president urged the nation to “Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar … appropriated for their support … shall be appropriated to any sectarian school. Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church and private school … Keep the church and state forever separate.” Such rhetoric seemed to echo long‐held American libertarian sentiments, but in the context of the day, it was heard as strident support for those who were anti‐Catholic. Although the Blaine Amendment was not ratified, some states began passing laws that supported the anti‐Catholic and anti‐immigrant sentiments shared by many citizens as well as their president. 4
Like the president’s policies on civil rights for African Americans, his racial record was also mixed when it came to Native Americans. In his first term, Grant called for a peace policy that would end the Indian wars in the West and improve the government’s treatment of Native Americans by reforming the system to clean up the corruption that infamously undercut the many treaties signed with the various tribes. He appointed Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian, to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and named many Quakers to serve as Indian agents in hopes that the Society of Friends’ views on peace and equality would help improve relations. Grant also supported legislation to reform the government’s treatment of the Indians by making individual Native Americans wards of the state rather than dealing with them as tribal collectives. This attempt at reform led to peace with the Apache led by Cochise and a decline in warfare. In his second term, however, Grant abandoned his peace policy. Parker resigned and bickering between different Christian groups undermined the religious push for peace. Corruption remained entrenched and the Indian wars escalated with campaigns against the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Modoc, and the Sioux. Grant pocket‐vetoed a law that would have protected the bison and allowed the continuation of the policy of killing the buffalo to force the Plains Indians to surrender and give up their hunting lifestyle. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the sacred heart of the homeland of the Sioux and guaranteed to them as part of their reservation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the president did not enforce the law. Instead, he tried to buy the land from the Sioux and, when that failed, he allowed miners to keep pushing into the Indian territory. This led to the war that included the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the defeat of the troops led by George Armstrong Custer in 1876. But it also led to the eventual defeat of the Sioux and their allies on the Plains. Before he left office, Grant convinced the Sioux leaders on the reservation to sign away their rights to the Black Hills, further opening the territory for a gold rush. And the president obtained the legal right to fight those Indian leaders like Sitting Bull who had refused to negotiate. Grant’s peace policy was abandoned and conquest continued. The president’s agenda was doomed by the social and cultural situations of both the Native Americans who did not want to be “civilized” and of the Anglo Americans who held racist views that helped justify their desire to take the land. In end, as historian William McFeely put it, Grant “did not turn on” the Indians, but his policies were “only a brake on the excesses of their exterminators.” 5
“The Era of Good Stealings:” The Scandals of the Grant Presidency 6
During the nadir of Grant’s presidential reputation in the 20th Century, historians highlighted the many scandals that occurred in his administration. The recent apologists for Grant have argued that he was personally honest and that his presidency was not marked by more corruption than many others. In their haste to restore Grant’s standing, however, these scholars ignore the old adage that an executive leader is responsible for those who work within the administration. As Harry S. Truman later put it, “the buck stops here.” Thus, Grant deserves to be judged for the malfeasance that occurred on his watch.
In his first term, Grant seemed to support civil service reform, especially in the Department of the Interior, which saw the firing of incompetent clerks and the creation of a merit system. In 1871, congress approved the creation of a Civil Service Commission and the president appointed a reformer to lead the agency. Despite these early efforts, corruption continued, as news of the infamous Crédit Mobilier scandal broke in 1872. Although the actual corruption had occurred during the Johnson administration, the story of Republican congressman using their positions to profit in a scheme that involved the construction of the transcontinental railroad tainted Grant’s reputation as well. Crédit Mobilier included the use of sham companies to line the pockets of insider investors at the expense of taxpayers and effectively ended the political career of Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax, who had bought into the illegal scheme while serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Still, the president himself and most of those associated with him were not involved and Crédit Mobilier might have become a reason for more efforts at reform led by Grant. But that was not to be, as the administration soon found itself in the middle of other scandals. The first to break involved the appointment of corrupt officials at the New York Customs House. Following the traditional patronage system, Grant had appointed a man approved by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, a powerful Republican who became one of the president’s strongest supporters. The official used his position to charge large fees that he siphoned off and split with a crony. When the crime came to light, Grant fired the official and replaced him with another who set out to implement reform and the president was cleared of all charges himself. But the scandal tainted his reputation and foreshadowed more negative stories to follow.
Most of the scandals of his administration broke during Grant’s second term and stories of misdeeds like the Whiskey Ring and the Belknap Affair (or Indian Ring) became synonymous with the perceived corruption of the era. The Whiskey Ring was exposed by Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow, a reformer who Grant appointed to replace William Richardson, whose tenure in office came to an end amid corruption involving the collection of taxes. Bristow began to investigate his own department and discovered a scheme by which distillers paid government officials to avoid paying the tax on whiskey. Millions of dollars in unpaid taxes meant lost revenue that was instead profiting the distillers and the corrupt Republican officials who worked with them in the ring. Bristow’s 1875 investigation resulted in more than a hundred convictions and several million dollars being recovered by the Treasury Department. Meanwhile, Secretary of War William Belknap had been taking kickbacks from traders to whom he had given lucrative contracts to supply the army posts in Indian Territory. The kickback plan centered on payments being made to Belknap’s wife, Carita. When she died, the Secretary married her sister, Amanda, and she began to receive the money from the traders who enjoyed a virtual monopoly and charged outrageous prices for low‐quality supplies that the soldiers were forced to buy because there was no alternative. Colonel George Armstrong Custer helped expose the illegal payments by leaking stories to the press and, when the scandal broke in 1876, Belknap resigned, but was still impeached and tried by the U.S. Senate. There, he was acquitted because many believed that a private citizen could not legally be tried by Congress.
The Currency Question and Depression
One of the most significant issues during Grant’s presidency was the “Currency Question.” This foundational economic issue focused on the monetary system: should the United States have currency backed by specie—the gold standard—or should it have fiat currency—paper money? During the War of the Rebellion, the Lincoln administration had adopted paper money—greenbacks—which were not backed by precious metals (gold or silver) to help pay for the war and its unprecedented debt. After the war, the nation continued on the greenback system, but the result was inflation. President Grant, an economic conservative, hoped to return to the gold standard and he signed the 1869 Public Credit Act, a law that both guaranteed government bonds would be paid in specie and gradually replaced paper money. Under the plan enacted in the law, the country would be fully returned to the gold standard in ten years. But the issue did not go away, as the advocates of paper money or inflationists, as they were usually called, continued to fight against the gold standard. 7
Most historians agree that Grant took a rather simplistic view of economics and largely followed the advice of others in pursuing his economic policies. This led to scandal in 1869 and a near‐depression when his brother‐in‐law, Abel Corbin joined forces with businessmen Jay Gould and Jim Fisk in an attempt to corner the gold market. The cabal lobbied Grant and convinced him to order the suspension of gold sales. When the president realized what was happening, he resumed the sale of gold and the market crashed, ending the scheme. 8
The Currency Question returned to the forefront again in the wake of the Panic of 1873. The financial crisis led to a deep depression that lasted for several years. Blaming the depression on the contraction of greenbacks, the inflationists argued that maintaining fiat money would better enable to the government to help the country through the hard times and argued that the gold standard favored the rich by restricting the amount of currency in circulation. While Grant sided with the gold bugs and supported the Coinage Act of 1873 and the Species Resumption Act of 1875, critics charged that he moved too slowly and gradually, prolonging the turmoil of the currency transition and making the economic situation worse.
In response to the depression, Grant largely adhered to laissez‐faire policies and rejected calls for government intervention in the name of helping end the crisis. The depression dragged on for years, extending beyond Grant’s presidency. His policies included not only a return to the gold standard, but also paying down government debt, cutting taxes, and lowering interest rates, so the ultimate result of this fiscal policy was stability and economic growth. But critics often blamed Grant for not taking a more active role in trying to end the crisis. More to the real point, though, he sided with big business and seemed to ignore the plight of workers facing high unemployment and wage cuts. The depression turned many voters against the Republicans, especially in South, and this opened the door for the Democrats to return to power, as they “redeemed” the Southern states and eventually won a won a majority in the House of Representatives as well. The return of the Democrats to power effectively ended Reconstruction in state after state. Radical Republicans often blamed Grant’s economic policies during the depression as a major cause of the party’s weakness that set the stage for the defeat of their plan for achieving racial equality.
Grant’s Foreign Policy
In foreign affairs, Grant’s presidency was also a miserable failure by any measure. Although it seemed on the surface that the United States followed a non‐interventionist foreign policy in the aftermath of the Civil War, Grant actually pursued an interventionist agenda in the Caribbean. Secretary of State Hamilton J. Fish proved to be an able and talented cabinet member and he managed to avert complete disaster. Fish largely held to the non‐interventionist tradition, but Grant often broke with his secretary of state. The two men held to their official policy when they resisted widespread calls to get involved in Cuba. There, insurrections against Spanish colonial rule offer the opportunity to help the population win their independence and, perhaps, add territory to the United States. Private expeditions of filibusterers from the United States had tried to wrest the island from Spanish control in the antebellum era and, now, there were calls for the government to step in. Hoping to avoid war with Spain, Grant and Fish stayed out of Cuba and helped defeat a congressional resolution supporting the rebels on the island. Still, the administration did attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain, perhaps through a negotiate purchase. This plan failed, however.
The proposed annexation of Santo Domingo proved to be the greatest failure of Grant’s foreign policy interests in the Caribbean, however. The country now known as the Dominican Republic shared an island with Haiti and had won its independence from colonial rule. Hoping to prevent a European power from taking control of the country and seeing it as a possible alternative for the African Americans of the South, Grant hoped to make it a United States territory. He thought that such a territory would offer African Americans a choice, a place to move to if they could not come to terms with their former masters in the defeated rebel states. In a sense, then, his agenda for Santo Domingo was hailed as measure for the benefit of the former slaves. In another sense, it harkened back to the colonization schemes that had so often been at the core of plans for emancipation. Such ideas were based on the belief that whites and blacks could not live together and often stemmed from racist notions of white supremacy. Grant’s personal views apparently came from genuine concern about the plight of African Americans facing increased violence in the Southern states.
Hamilton Fish initially opposed the plan, but went along with the president when Grant pushed hard for the annexation of Santo Domingo. The secretary of state drafted and negotiated a treaty in 1869 that called for the United States to annex the island nation and make it a territory with the possibility of eventual statehood. But the treaty ran headlong into Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican Senator who served as chair of the powerful Committee on Foreign Affairs. In addition to personal animosity toward Grant, Sumner opposed the treaty because he thought the whole process was corrupt and believed that Santo Domingo was too unstable to make it worthwhile. Others opposed the treaty on racial grounds, believing that the population was of an inferior race and of mixed race, which would taint the white blood of the United States. The treaty was defeated in 1870 and, although Grant managed to get congress to agree to his sending commissioners to Santo Domingo to study the issue, he failed to accomplish his dream of annexation. Thus, his foreign policy was a failure both because it failed to live up to its official non‐interventionist approach and its interventionism failed to accomplish its stated goals. 9
Assessing Everything Wrong with the Grant Presidency
Historian C. Vann Woodward remarked that the Grant administration was “the all‐time low point in statesmanship in our nation’s history.” 10 While other presidents oversaw administrations that certainly rival the sorry record compiled under Ulysses S. Grant, the recent revisionism that has attempted to reinterpret him as a great political leader has ignored the obvious failures of his presidency. To say that his administration was not any more corrupt that others is faint praise given the long list of misdeeds carried out by the executive branch in Washington, D.C. Arguing that Grant wanted to achieve more but was unable to given the context is also a weak defense that hardly makes him a great leader. His failures on civil rights serve as a perfect example of how his apologists try to defend his lack of accomplishment. In so doing, they too often ignore how he moved too slowly and lacked the commitment that enforcing Reconstruction demanded. They fail to acknowledge how his policies in other areas, such as economic policy, helped set the context that made continuing Reconstruction so difficult. While the completely negative view of Grant as president that pervaded the literature needed a corrective, the recent reassessment has gone too far the other way. Instead of more apologetics and excuses, the literature on the Grant presidency is best analyzed by the careful and balanced work of scholars like Charles Calhoun. But even those who attempt to take a more objective and balanced approach end up making excuses for President Grant, a leader whose administration was marked by scandal, depression, and failure.
1. An excellent expression of the generally negative traditional interpretation is William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981). For some of recent revisionism, see H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Doubleday, 2012); Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses s. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016); Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017). For an insightful study of Grant in historical memory, see Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). A deeply‐researched and balanced account of Grant’s career in the White House is found in Charles W. Calhoun, The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017).
2. Calhoun, Presidency of Grant, 20–22; White, American Ulysses, 421–423.
3. For a critical account of Grant’s Reconstruction policies from a post‐civil rights egalitarian perspective, see McFeely, Grant, 356–379.
4. Ulysses S. Grant, “President Grant’s Speech,” September 29, 1875 in Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, September 30, 1875; Calhoun, Presidency of Grant, 504–513.
6. I take this subtitle from the title of Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Era of Good Stealings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Summers argued that corruption was a powerful issue in the era and that the newspapers helped make it so, but that the period was no more corrupt than others and emphasized that Grant was not directly involved in any of the scandals himself.
7. For studies of the economics of the Grant era, see Murray Rothbard, A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonia Era to World War II (Auburn, AL: Mises, Institute, 2002), 122–132; Irwin Unger, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865–1879 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964); Robert P. Sharkey, Money, Class, and Party: An Economic Study of Civil War and Reconstruction (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959); Scott Reynolds Nelson, A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 159–179.
8. For an account of the scheme from the perspective a Grant apologist, see Chernow, Grant, 672–678.