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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
Corbin was known as a corrupt lobbyist whose misdeeds had been exposed by a congressional committee before he married Grant’s sister. It had been less than a year since the piratical Erie Railroad war had established Gould and Fisk as the two most unscrupulous and lawless railroad speculators and corruptionists in the country, and Jim Fisk was at the crest of his career as the flashiest debauchee in New York. Yet the President met the conspirators twice at Corbin’s home, was a guest on Fisk’s luxurious Long Island Sound steamer Bristol, the guest of Fisk and Gould at a dinner for prominent figures, their guest again in a New York opera box, and a month before Black Friday he accepted from them the use of the Erie Railroad directors’ car for a trip that he and his family made with the Corbins.
He later explained to a newspaperman that he should have been insulted at Fisk’s proposal that he reveal the government’s future gold policy to the conspirators. “But coming from a man so destitute of moral character,” said Grant, “I didn’t think it worth noticing.” He did not explain why the President of the United States chose to consort with “a man so destitute of moral character.”
Much of the blame attributed to Grant was guilt by association. But it must be admitted that the President was grossly careless about his associates. Personally honest in matters of money, he seemed incapable of spotting a rogue. His heavy responsibility for some of the scandals of his time was indirect and grew out of his blind loyalty to friends and his weakness for men of wealth.
It is perfectly true that for many of the scandals tagged with the name of “Grantism” the President bore no responsibility whatever. The bribery of congressmen exposed by the Crédit Mobilier investigation in 1872-73, the largest soiler of political reputations, actually took place in 1868, while Johnson was President. It was brought out, however, that among those who had accepted bribes from Representative Oakes Ames of Massachusetts were both Grant’s outgoing Vice President, Schuyler Colfax of the first Administration, and the incoming Vice President, Henry Wilson of the second Administration.
But even before this, scandals began to break nearer home to the Administration—ironically enough, in the province of the most honorable member of the Cabinet, Secretary Fish. The first case was that of the minister to Brazil, James Watson Webb, appointed back in Lincoln’s time, who extorted more than £14,000 from the Brazilian government for a claim later ruled invalid and apparently diverted more than a third of the money to his own account. Hard upon that came the exposure of the sorry adventures of General T. B. Van Buren in Vienna.
Grant had appointed his old friend Van Buren, a noisy politician with no competence for the job, to take charge of American exhibits at an international fair to be held in 1873 at Vienna. Van Buren and his associates promptly disgraced the country abroad by selling concessions at the fair, and Fish had to recall them.
More serious was the misconduct of Robert C. Schenck, minister to Great Britain and Grant’s personal choice for the office. Soon after his arrival in London he fell under criticism of the British press for permitting his name to appear as a director of the Emma Silver-Mining Company of Utah in advertisements seeking to sell shares of the firm in Britain. Fish asked him to resign the directorship and he did so, but he delayed his public announcement of the resignation suspiciously and then embodied in the public announcement a full endorsement of the company’s soundness. The bottom dropped out of the Emma Mine and the English victims were angrily complaining of their losses and calling attention to the affluence of the American minister. Instead of acting with his customary thoroughness, Secretary Fish accepted Schenck’s protests of innocence and permitted him to remain in office and his name to become a byword in Europe. Not until four years later, after a congressional investigation had disclosed that Schenck had sold the use of his name to the shady operators of the Emma Company and disposed of his stock holdings at a high price, was the Minister called home in disgrace. Whereupon, after Fish’s choice for his successor was defeated by the Senate, President Grant made the astonishing proposal that Schenck be returned to his old post!
Frequent performances of the same sort indicate that the President had lost whatever sensitivity he once had to criticism and public opinion. In 1872 a congressional committee confirmed charges of the press that James F. Casey, another brother-in-law of Grant’s, was guilty of gross misconduct as collector of customs in New Orleans and published a report that clearly demonstrated his corruption. Yet shortly after this exposure Grant reappointed Casey for another four-year term. In the summer of 1873 a great clamor of protest was raised against the extravagance and jobbery of Boss Alexander R. Shepherd, vice president of the District of Columbia Board of Works, and his corrupt ring of contractors. At the height of the uproar President Henry D. Cooke resigned. Instead of cleaning out the gang, Grant gave the retiring head a testimonial letter of praise and appointed the notorious Boss Shepherd himself as Cooke’s successor. In this, as in many similar cases, Babcock was the manipulating force at work.