The Lowest Ebb

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Contemporaneously, that classic loosener of standards and traditions, the Industrial Revolution, moved into high speed, throttle open, on a downhill grade. Woe to any values and institutions in its path. All this took place against a background of business boom, flush prosperity, and easy money. Americans were hell-bent on enjoying their sudden release from the restraint and discipline and cramped poverty of a bygone age of austerity. It is little wonder that the more swinish of them astonished the world by their conduct.

It would have required the strength of a moral giant in the White House to have kept an administration in the straight and narrow path in an era such as this. And U. S. Grant was no giant. He had been once, but his last appearance in that role was at Appomattox. Since then he had added appreciably to his girth but seemed to shrink in stature. An unimpressive figure, he was hardly five feet eight inches tall and bore himself with a slight stoop and a shy, retiring manner. He still retained the grim, determined jaw of the fighter, but about his eyes there gathered a perpetually perplexed, careworn, almost hurt look. Gentle, softspoken. and courteous in manner, he was approachable by anyone, including complete strangers, but he remained something of an enigma even among those who knew him best.

Like his two predecessors, Lincoln and Johnson, Grant came of a humble, poverty-dogged, and crude background. For Grant that background was more the severe handicap it was for Johnson than the converted asset it became for Lincoln. He never overcame it, and it explains much about his reticence, his feelings of inferiority, and his distrust of men of superior talents and learning. Resigning from the Army after an undistinguished career, he proved a failure in business ventures, a failure at Hardscrabble farm, and wound up a fifty-dollar clerk in the family leather goods store at Galena, Illinois, at the time the war began. Those were years of misery, humiliation, and real deprivation that all the Grant children could remember when the family moved into the White House.

The General never made a satisfactory adjustment to the sudden leap from failure and poverty to world fame and riches. The giddy transition would have shaken the underpinnings of a man of far greater inner security. Unable to respond with trust and warmth to the men of education, talent, and culture whose help he needed to make up for his own deficiencies, he turned a frozen face and steely armor toward them. Instead he found the companionship and warmth he craved in men of his own background, in his buddies of the war years, and in politicians on the make, as newly arrived as he was. They were often men of coarser grain and lower instincts than his own. They flattered him, captured his confidence, and filled his ear with their low schemes.

One of these men, General Orville E. Babcock, was constantly at his side for eight years as his private secretary. A subtle and unscrupulous Iago, Babcock shrewdly implanted suspicions of his betters in the President’s mind, plotted their downfall, and sought to replace them with pliant tools of his own. He succeeded in these tactics repeatedly and thereby gained indirect control of whole departments of the government. Once a prejudice or a plan was firmly implanted in Grant’s mind, he would cling to it with all the tenacity that had toppled the strongholds of the Confederacy. Babcock was at once the leader of the political gangsters and the stumbling block in the way of the talent and ability that might have saved the President. Grant’s unshakable confidence in his betrayer was pathetic and all but incredible.

Another barrier between the President and men of ability and independent mind who tried to serve him was Grant’s military training and service. Once indoctrinated with the military point of view regarding staff methods, the structure of command, and the meaning of discipline and insubordination, he clung to it stubbornly and sought to carry it over into the political sphere. He was accustomed to command, not to consult. Orders were to be obeyed, not debated. Resistance from subordinates was suspected as treason. Objectives were to be carried by storm if need be. Men of self-respect and independent judgment naturally did not take to these ways easily.

Another military sentiment of the President’s, that of never deserting a man under fire, served to protect many an incompetent or dishonest office holder who thoroughly deserved the criticism he was drawing and ought to have been summarily fired. Reformers were anathema to him. He was incapable of understanding their motives and coidd not abide the sight of them.

Grant did attract a few able and honest men to his Cabinet along with the nonentities and crooks. Cabinet officers appeared and disappeared with remarkable rapidity, and the abler they were the quicker they left. In all, 25 men served in the Cabinet during his two terms, with more resignations and replacements than occurred during any other presidency in our history. Allan Nevins has remarked that, with one exception, Grant “systematically got rid of the ablest and most upright of his Cabinet officers within a short time after their appointment.”