The Lowest Ebb

 

If any point of reference in American history is fixed in the public imagination it is the Administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. It stands for the all-time low point in statesmanship and political morality in our history. Historians have found little with which to quarrel in this popular characterization. They have, in fact, contributed no little toward the shaping of it. They have held that it is as important to explore and understand the depths of national history as it is to appreciate its heights. Some of those who have sought to sound the depths of the Grant era have returned wondering if there really was any bottom to it.

It has often been called an era of tragedy, but the ironic elements outweighed the tragic. It was Grant’s personal tragedy that, alter playing a magnificent role in a genuine tragedy, he was called back upon the stage for the lead in a farcical sequel. It was a role for which he lacked both training and temperament, in which his truly great qualities were of scant use to him, and in which even his virtues of unswerving loyalty and trust in his fellow man were ironically transformed into handicaps. The reward a grateful country thrust upon him became a curse. For in the end the heroic name he earned in war was affixed to a sorry era, tarnished by friends who betrayed him and shaped by forces he could not control and never understood. Few Presidents have been more harshly dealt with by fate.

Moral deterioration of the post-Civil War period was not localized in the White House or on Capitol Hill, though it was faithfully mirrored there. It was confined to no particular region, class, or party, and it was certainly not limited to politicians. It was an affliction of the country at large and affected almost all departments of national life. The South, alternately at the mercies of the carpetbaggers and the Ku Klux Klan, was the most conspicuous example of corruption. But that was merely because the press dramatized the Reconstruction struggle as a continuation of Civil War issues and partisan politics. State legislatures in North, East, and West, with no carpetbagger or Negro members, could match and often outdo those below the Potomac in jobbery, pelf, and thieving. The New West was the favorite theater for operators of the more heroic and imperial scale, whose ambitions recognized no state boundaries and who carved out immense empires from the public domain for railroad and mining corporations. Great cities across the land were ruled and plundered by unscrupulous political rings such as that of Tweed in New York.

Over the business community in that primitive era of American industrialism presided a set of schemers that now appear troglodyte in their ruthlessness and greed. Typical of the breed were the great railroad manipulators, who manipulated congressmen, legislators, and judges as well. Collis P. Huntington of California and Thomas A. Scott of Pennsylvania regularly called the roll of their political hirelings and paid them off, sometimes fending with each other publicly for the control of Congress, sometimes quietly combining forces for the same purpose. For picturesque rascality the New York crowd—Daniel Drew, Commodore Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk, and Jay Gould—was unsurpassed. They cheated and swindled each other as well as the public and cynically boasted of the legislatures and judges they bought. In moral obtuseness and brass they were fitting contemporaries of such politicians as Ben Butler, Roscoe Conkling, Simon Cameron, and James G. Blaine.

In family and religious life this was a generation of strict Victorian principles, and some of the most notorious scamps of the age professed adherence to the strait-laced code of their day. Piety and double-dealing kept company in the careers of Jay and Henry Cooke, the bankers, and Daniel Drew, the railroad speculator. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase combined pompous solemnity with questionable dealings with the Cooke brothers. And Henry Ward Beecher, high priest among the keepers of public morals, treated the public to one of the most hilarious revelations of domestic infidelity and amorous adventure on record.

To attempt an explanation of so complex and general a moral lapse is impossible here. But lest the subsequent concentration upon a lew conspicuous politicians seems to imply that their misdemeanors account adequately for a nationwide phenomenon, it is well to be reminded of more compelling and powerful influences. Among these the Civil War itself looms large. The bloodiest war in our history, it combined heroism with shabby expedience and laid a terrible toll upon public morals as well as upon lives. For some it was the road to sudden and unscrupulously gained riches and for many the path from deserved obscurity to high office and power. It was the heyday of the claim agent, the speculator, the subsidy-seeker, the government contractor, and the all-purpose crook. The war left this priceless crew with power and influence, and they turned from military to other fields—politics among them.

A second assault upon moral standards came from the West—the newest, biggest, blowziest, and noisiest frontier expansion of them all. Half the continent succumbed to unrestrained exploitation, and the backwash of this adventure engulfed the older settled parts of the country in moral confusion. The South formed a second frontier, a vast territory conquered from the Confederates instead of the Indians, but another wide-open invitation to kick over conventions and standards and grab whatever was not nailed down.