April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Reformers were strengthened, however, by a Democratic House intent upon exposing Republicans, and scandals broke faster than ever. Secretary of War W. W. Belknap scurried to the White House one morning with the ink still wet on his resignation, which Grant hastily accepted “with great regret.” This was intended to forestall impeachment proceedings by a House committee that had found unquestionable proof that Belknap and his wife had been for years farming out Indian post traderships and surreptitiously sharing large profits from them. Among the beneficiaries, it developed, were Orvil Grant, the President’s brother, and a relative of Mrs. Grant’s. The Senate celebrated the centenary of American independence by dragging out the sordid details in an impeachment trial. Belknap was cleared by a strict party vote.
Next came the turn of Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson. He was discovered to have deposited some $320,000 in banks within four years. The only apparent explanation for the sudden riches of a relatively poor man was his membership in a Philadelphia firm that had also become suddenly rich from naval contracts. The House Judiciary Committee became too busy with the disputed presidential election of 1876 to decide on impeachment proceedings, but it did recommend the court-martialing of certain naval officers. Grant permitted Robeson to remain in his Cabinet.
During its last months the Grant Administration virtually came apart at the seams. Whole departments were demoralized or staffed with raw and inexperienced recruits. The Cabinet was in a turmoil of resignations and appointments, and the President was patently without a policy to his name and losing much popular respect. Investigating committees of Congress were busy digging up the disgraceful details of the relations between the White House and the Whiskey Ring. The only initiative Grant seemed to be capable of taking was in firing the two remaining reformers in his Cabinet, Bristow of the Treasury and Marshall Jewell of the Post Office. Within a single week the heads that rolled in addition to those of the Secretary of the Treasury and Postmaster General were those of a commissioner of internal revenue, a chief of special agents, a district attorney, a first auditor and fifth auditor of the Treasury, and a solicitor of the Treasury.
No Administration in our history has closed with such general demoralization as that of Grant. The only thing that distracted public attention from the bankruptcy of the national government was the near-bankruptcy of the electoral process in the Hayes-Tilden contested election. Its competing furor of war threats, vote selling, state purchasing, bribery, jobbery, and graft quite drowned out the noise the Grant Administration made in collapsing.
After it was all over and had begun to fade into the past, the Grant Administration began to seem more and more like something that had happened to Grant and the American people rather than something Grant or the American people had done, more a misfortune than a misdeed. Between the General and the people there grew a bond of bereavement and a mutual need for vindication. Both had seen their finest memories and the noblest drama of their lives sullied by a sordid and seemingly irrelevant epilogue. It was as if Vicksburg and the Wilderness had been traded in for Crédit Mobilier and the Gold Corner. And in their hearts the people knew that no final court of justice could recognize the validity of such a transaction. Somehow Vicksburg and the Wilderness had to be redeemed, and with them a hero and a dream.
They followed with absorbed interest the General’s fumbling quest for reassurance and vindication. Two years and more of wandering around the world collecting honors from crowned heads and listening to the cheers of crowds salved his pride and touched national pride. But that was not the answer. Nor was the movement in 1880 to elect him for a third term in the White House. It was quite as well that the movement failed, for it is almost certain that a third term would not have provided the needed redemption.
Redemption of a sort did come at the very end, heightened by tragedy and touched with a certain grandeur. It came, as fortune had come to Grant before, in the guise of catastrophe. His business partner, with whom he had trusted everything he had, turned out to be a crook, and Grant was left destitute instead of the millionaire he thought he was. On top of that he learned that the pain in his throat was cancer. With only a little more than a year of life remaining to him, he began a race with death to redeem both his fortune and his fame by writing his memoirs.
Through months of agonizing pain and sleepless nights he staved off death until his great and final task was finished, fighting always with the magnificent determination of the old Grant. And as he wrote, it was the old Grant of the war years that he relived in memory, revived in the people’s hearts, and in a measure redeemed for posterity.