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The Lowest Ebb
Blamed for the misdeeds of others, President Grant left his name on America’s sorriest Administration
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
The exception was Hamilton Fish, secretary of state, who stayed on to the bitter end at great cost to his peace of mind. An aristocrat with no political following, a leonine figure of the old Federalist tradition, Fish proved the only bulwark of integrity that held firm in many of the storms that shook the Administration. Thanks largely to Fish, the Grant Administration scored valid claim to successful statesmanship and solid accomplishments in at least one field—the field of foreign affairs. Moving with consummate tact and firmness, the Secretary of State kept in check the reckless elements of his own party that plotted aggressive schemes of expansion, and maintained peace with the offended nations. Permitting Grant to fight to a humiliating defeat before the Senate with his ambition to annex the Dominican Republic, a scheme backed by Babcock and his friends, Fish thwarted the movement to recognize the belligerency of the Cuban rebels and thereby probably prevented a war with Spain. An even greater accomplishment lay in his thwarting the Anglophobes who threatened to bring on war with England and in liquidating all the disputes between the countries by peaceful means.
Grant’s desperate need of such able advisers as Fish and the others whom he rebuffed and lost became clearer and clearer as the extent of his ignorance of political matters was revealed. He knew little or nothing of the law or of constitutional principles and procedures. Secretary Fish had to inform him that treaties are submitted to the Senate, not to the House, and that the President and not Congress was empowered by the Constitution to negotiate treaties.
For all his inadequacies, Grant had come to office with one marvelous advantage, an advantage that never failed to outweigh in the popular mind the disgrace with which his subordinates plastered his Administration. He was the incarnation of a folk hero, an indestructible legend. He had saved the Union, and in the affections of the plain people of the North there was no one who could begin to rival the place he held. This vast reservoir of popular devotion was the one asset that Grant never fully lost.
His popularity did wane, however, and one great drain upon it was the failure of his Reconstruction policy. The greatest single problem of his Administration, Reconstruction of the South, came eventually to represent one of its weakest aspects. The promise had been of better things. He had concluded his acceptance of the nomination in 1868 with the words, “Let us have peace,” words that recalled his generosity to Lee’s army at Appomattox. He had entered the White House uncommitted to the policies of extremists, and his first message to Congress recommended a conciliatory policy of amnesty toward Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas.
Moderates cheered the President and thought a new day had dawned. They were quickly disillusioned, however, for Grant fell under the influence of the extremists and went over completely to their southern policy. When resistance sprang up in the southern states, he reacted according to his military indoctrination to restore order by the unstinted use of force, and order was identified in his mind with the carpetbagger governments. With the authority he requested of Congress in the three Enforcement Acts, which included the Ku Klux Klan Act, Grant moved in rigorously with martial law, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the use of troops, federal marshals, and deputies. Local police power fell into the hands of the Army and the Federal Department of Justice. By the President’s direction, force was used to bolster up or restore to power some of the worst carpetbaggers in five states. In spite of these measures the country continued to read of violent resistance, riots, and atrocities, and in one state after another the Republican administrations were driven from power until only three were left. Finding himself supporting people in whom he had no faith and could not trust, Grant himself came eventually to admit the bankruptcy of his own policy.
President Cirant is sometimes pictured as the victim of trusted friends and associates whose duplicity and corruption were not revealed until the end of his Administration. It is true that much of the exposure of scandal did not occur until 1875 and 1876. But in the early months of his first year in the White House a scandal large enough to rock the country should have put him on strictest guard against recurrence. After the “Black Friday” incident there was little excuse for subsequent negligence.
In the summer of 1869, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Jr., and Abel Rathbone Corbin, one of Grant’s three notorious brothers-in-law, formed a conspiracy to corner the New York gold market. This would have been possible with government connivance. They drew into the conspiracy General Daniel Butterfield, an old friend of the President’s who had recently been recommended for his office of assistant secretary of the treasury by General Babcock and Corbin. The conspirators came very near accomplishing their purpose and wrecking the finances and the foreign trade of the country. They were only stopped, after hundreds were ruined, by a belated order from Grant to sell government gold. The negligence of Grant and his secretary of the treasury, who had been amply warned of the conspiracy, was bad enough. But Grant’s public association with the conspirators was even worse.