The Lowest Ebb

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The same lamentable lapses of judgment carried over from minor to major matters. The most important appointment in the second Administration was that of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Conkling proved himself wiser than the President by declining the appointment. Grant then sent in the name of Attorney General George H. Williams, a nomination that caused dismay in both Senate and press. Williams had already proved himself a failure in the Cabinet by his deplorable mismanagement of the government’s case against the Crédit Mobilier Company, and there was ugly talk about his integrity. Confronted with charges that he and his wife had illegally used funds of the Department of Justice to pay extravagant living expenses, Williams was forced to ask that his nomination be withdrawn. Grant did withdraw his nomination as Chief Justice but inexcusably allowed the discredited man to remain in his Cabinet as the chief law-enforcing officer of the country.

Corruption spread like an epidemic through the Cabinet, erupting in scandals that disgraced one member after another. Secretary of the Treasury William A. Richardson was found to have connived with one John D. Sanborn, who turned a contract for the collection of delinquent taxes into an extortionary racket for the profit of himself and his associates. In one year, he testified, he took as his share $213,500, of which he spent $156,000 in “expenses” that he would not explain. Grant resisted the demand for the resignation of the Secretary under fire until after a House committee reported Richardson deserved “severe condemnation” for his “marauding upon the public Treasury” and prepared to pass a vote of censure. The President then appointed the disgraced Secretary to be judge on the Court of Claims.

In the meantime it became plain to all the well informed except Grant that scandals in other departments justified impeachment, or dismissal at least, of two more Cabinet members. As usual, the President stubbornly defended the men under fire. Attorney General Williams had been allowed to escape the consequences of earlier misdeeds, but when it appeared that his wife had engaged in blackmail and extortion and he had been guilty of corrupt negligence, he was finally permitted to resign. Fish prevented him from getting the Russian ministry, with which Grant wished to reward him. Another outstanding embarrassment was Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, subject of numerous exposures by the press. Yet Grant tolerated and defended the Secretary long after he had evidence of fraud in his office and after Delano’s son had been caught red-handed in corrupt land deals. Delano was permitted to resign secretly and retire at his convenience.

One unexpected good came of the resignation of the Secretary of the Treasury in the shape of his successor, Benjamin H. Bristow, a tall, lean, energetic Kentuckian with a fierce zeal for reform. He was soon on the trail of bigger game than he knew. Moving with great secrecy and patience, Bristow suddenly sprang a trap that caught some of the most notorious racketeers of the time, the Whiskey Ring. Organized in 1870, it operated systematically to defraud the government of millions of dollars in liquor revenue and to distribute the loot to politicians, tax collectors, and Treasury officials who worked for the ring. Head of the organization was Internal Revenue Collector John A. McDonald of St. Louis, and a close associate and friend of McDonald’s was General Orville Babcock, Grant’s secretary. It looked as if at last the arch conspirator of numerous cabals and rings around the White House would be exposed. “He fished for gold in every stinking cesspool,” writes one historian of Babcock, “and served more than any other man to blacken the record of Grant’s administration.”

After McDonald had been indicted, the President accompanied Babcock on a visit to St. Louis. The secretary conferred with McDonald repeatedly, and Grant met him publicly and openly expressed sympathy for him. A frequent visitor to the White House and a dinner guest of the President’s, McDonald had pressed gifts upon Grant and won his confidence. He even persuaded some that the President was a member of the ring. “Well, Mr. Bristow,” remarked Grant, “there is at least one honest man in St. Louis on whom we can rely—John McDonald. I know that because he is an intimate acquaintance and confidential friend of Babcock’s.” Bristow replied that McDonald was “the head and center of all the frauds,” and Grant began to cool toward the reformer.

The coolness dropped to chill when the President’s secretary was finally brought to trial. Where Babcock was concerned there seemed to be no limits to Grant’s indiscretion. He sought first to get the case transferred to a military court, and when that failed he issued orders crippling the prosecution. At Babcock’s trial evidence of his deep involvement in the Whiskey Ring was brought forth. With that the President suddenly announced to his Cabinet that he proposed to go to St. Louis himself and appear personally to testify for his secretary. Finally dissuaded from this folly, he proceeded to make a long deposition for Babcock’s good character and got the Chief Justice to serve as notary. Since conviction would have virtually accused the President of complicity, Grant’s deposition was decisive in securing his secretary’s acquittal.

Babcock, to Fish’s profound indignation, returned to his old desk in the White House for a few days and then accepted an appointment as inspector of lighthouses. Then with relentless vengefulness the President set about hounding from office everyone he could reach who had contributed to the prosecution of the Whiskey Ring, especially Babcock’s enemies.