Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Truly the first celebrity candidate, US Grant was the youngest man ever elected President at the time at 46. The first President elected from West Point, and the first President to be elected without winning the majority of the white vote as, for the first time, blacks in the south were allowed to vote. 700,000 voted (12% of the electorate) overwhelmingly in Grant’s favor, whom blacks felt was just as important to their cause as Lincoln.
Grant viewed the presidency as a continuation of his service in the civil war. He viewed his cabinet as subordinates, loyal to him. In fact, they were cronies and relatives of his wife who abused their power. Upon inauguration, Grant stated, “Let’s resolve these questions that are leftover from the war, let us have peace.” Indeed most seceded states were restored to the union, and blacks, emboldened by federal troops, voted Republican in southern states.
Civil War In The South
Still, many in the north wanted to punish the south, and many in the south wanted to punish blacks. The KKK was the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party. Similar terrorist groups launched murders, assassinations, beatings, whippings, and burning of buildings requiring a response from the Federal Government.
Between 1870 and 1871 Congress passed these criminal codes that protected blacks’ right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. If the states failed to act, the laws allowed the federal government to intervene. The target of the acts was the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were murdering many blacks and some whites because they voted, held office, or were involved with schools.
Many states were afraid to take strong action against the Klan either because the political leaders sympathized with the Klan, were members, or because they were too weak to act. A number of Republican governors were afraid of sending black militia troops to fight the Klan for fear of triggering a race war.
Empowered by Congress, Ulysses S. Grant launched his own “War On Terror” using new powers granted by these anti-klan laws. He sent federal troops to hotbeds in the south to round up klansmen and even hold them without trial, Grant crushed the Klan, and 1872 was the most peaceful year the south had seen since the Civil War.
Then, a spate of scandals amongst subordinates indicated corruption in his administration and tarnished Grant’s reputation. It seems Grant did not profit, but had a rather naive faith in his subordinates; however, as a later President would say, the buck stops here.
Representative Oakes Ames of Massachusetts and Thomas C. Durant were prominent stockholders in the Union Pacific Railroad Company. In 1867 the two cooperated in forming Crédit Mobilier, a dummy construction company “responsible” for completing the transcontinental railway`s last 600 miles. In the process, U.P. stockholders and the federal government were bilked out of millions of dollars. When it appeared that an investigation was going to be launched, Ames bribed influential congressmen and was able to head off scrutiny.
Nevertheless, the fraud was exposed in 1872. It was apparent that Vice president Schuyler Colfax had been bribed with stock. House Speaker James A. Garfield was linked to the dealings, but his participation was never proven. Despite the loss of $20 million (a huge sum in the 1870s), no prosecutions ever occurred.
In 1869, speculators Jim Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the nation’s gold market. They enlisted the help of Grant’s brother-in-law, who had pledged to prevent the president from acting to ruin the scheme.
The conspirators bought huge amounts of gold and gold futures, sending the price of the commodity spiraling upward. They intended to sell everything at an enormous profit. However, Grant came to realize that his brother-in-law’s advice was harming public confidence and he ordered the immediate sale of $4 million worth of government gold. The price plummeted. Thousands of people suffered financial losses – not including Fisk and Gould, who refused to pay off their obligations.
The Whiskey Ring
In the years following the Civil War, federal liquor taxes were raised to extremely high rates to help pay off the cost of the fighting. In order to avoid the high tax, many of the nation’s distillers bribed officials in the Department of the Treasury, receiving tax stamps at a fraction of their face value. Treasury Secretary Benjamin H. Bristow eventually caught wind of the dishonesty and launched a massive investigation in 1875. In the end, more than 100 officials were convicted. Ulysses S. Grant, much to his discredit, successfully shielded his private secretary, Orville E. Babcock.
The Indian Ring
Grant’s Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, accepted bribes from companies with licenses to trade on the reservations of many Native American tribes. Belknap was impeached by the House of Representatives, but acquitted by the Senate in August 1876.
The frequency of these events led to the use of the term “Grantism,” a word synonymous with greed and corruption. Many people at the time speculated that money from these ventures was being funneled into Republican Party coffers.
Grant’s enduring popularity earned him reelection. His second term was not great as Democrats recaptured the south and violence continued. Unlike his first term, Grant could not send troops in his second term as politics changed.
Depression of 1873
The Panic of 1873 was a financial crisis that triggered a depression in Europe and North America that lasted from 1873 until 1879, and even longer in some countries. The Panic was known as the “Great Depression” until the events in the early 1930s took precedence.
The Panic of 1873 and the subsequent depression had several underlying causes. Post-war inflation, rampant speculative investments (overwhelmingly in railroads), a large trade deficit, ripples from economic dislocation in Europe resulting from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), property losses in the Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) fires, and other factors put a massive strain on bank reserves, which plummeted in New York City during September and October 1873 from $50 million to $17 million. The first symptoms of the crisis were financial failures in the Austro-Hungarian capital, Vienna, which spread to most of Europe and North America by 1873.
The panic contributed to a shift in public opinion. People didn’t want to hear about Reconstruction nor pay for an endless occupation of the south. When the Governor of Mississippi asked for federal troops to end electoral violence in 1875, Grant failed to act. Duly elected governments were overthrown by terrorist groups effectively marking the end of Reconstruction.
Grant wanted to pursue a peace policy, but there was only more war as conflict continued and intensified between the army, settlers and Indians. “Custer’s Last Stand” (June 25-26, 1876) was during Grant’s second term, but it was the exception as usually the Indians were massacred.
Ulysses S. Grant
The Grant administration took astonishing steps towards black equality as we saw for the first time the power of the black vote. Unfortunately, his attempts for peace were never fully realized. The unsavory dealings in his administration led to the establishment of a more Liberal Republican Party. The people vociferously bitched about the spoils system, in which successful officeholders rewarded their supporters with political appointments. An ever-growing part of the population began to recognize the need for some type of civil service reform.
Andrew Johnson preceded Ulysses S. Grant
Rutherford B. Hayes would follow Ulysses S. Grant
It all started with George Washington.