This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2019/04/14/presidential-rankings-series/
Ulysses Grant became president due to his service during the Civil War, winning the first post war election. Grant is generally portrayed as an amicable dolt that allowed the country to drift from one scandal to the next. This narrative was created mainly by the Dunning school and “lost cause” southern sympathisers. Grant had three strikes against him in their eyes: He defeated the south in the civil war, he was a republican and he fought for the rights of the recently freed slaves. The true Grant is quite different from the caricature created by the Dunning school.
The biggest issue facing Grant upon becoming President was Reconstruction. During Andrew Johnson’s term, Johnson and Congress clashed over reconstruction, with Johnson defying Congress the entire way. Unfortunately Johnson’s defiance of reconstruction emboldened former confederates in the south to be defiant as well. Grant’s goal for reconstruction was to readmit the former confederate states while ensuring their state constitutions protected every citizen’s voting rights. Grant pushed for passage of the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal or state governments from denying their citizens from voting based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. It was ratified in 1870. Grant also created the Department of Justice in 1870 to fight paramilitary groups in the South. That department immediately started prosecuting members of the Ku Klux Klan. Grant further passed three enforcement acts to further protect the rights of former slaves:
- The Enforcement Act of 1870, also known as The Civil Rights Act of 1870, prohibited discrimination in voter registration and established penalties for interfering in a person’s right to vote. It also gave the President the right to employ the army and to use federal Marshalls to uphold the act.
- The enforcement Act of 1871 permitted federal oversight of local and state elections if any two citizens asked for it in the local area. The act also more severe punishments and larger fines than the act of 1870.
- The Second Enforcement Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, made state officials liable for depriving anyone of their rights or equal protections under the law. The act also made a number of the KKK’s intimidation actions federal offenses, allowed the president to call in the militia and to suspend habeas corpus to suppress KKK activities if need be.
Grant oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided for equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation and prohibited exclusion from juries. It was the last civil rights act passed until the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The act was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883, but was very similar to the Civil Right Act of 1964.
Grant was able to break the Klan, which was later revived during Wilson’s presidency, but overall Reconstruction wasn’t successful. Northerners soon lost interest in upholding civil rights for southern blacks, and once Grant left office reconstruction ended. Andrew Johnson’s defiance of congress set an example that former confederates followed by passing Jim Crow laws and instituting segregation.
When Grant became President many in the press and public felt that Indians should be exterminated, but Grant felt that all Indians should be made U.S. citizens. Grant appointed Ely Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker helped Grant work out the details of his Indian policy, which had the main goal of Indian citizenship. Parker appointed military officers as superintendents, which upset many in Congress, who had been used to appointing their supporters to these plum jobs. Many in the west were upset, stating that Grant was siding with the Indians rather than his own countrymen. Reformers wanted to impose radical changes and wanted to divide reservations into individual plots and do away with tribal identities. They were upset that Grant allowed the Indians to move at their own pace. The Board of Indian Commissioners supported Congresses efforts to overturn Grants Indian policies. In 1870 Congress banned active duty military from serving in government posts, so that Congress could appoint their supporters to the positions. To counteract this move, and to prevent the Indian services from sliding back into the corruption of political patronage, Grant appointed missionaries as superintendents of the reservations. Chairman of the Board of Indian affairs William Welsh falsely accused Parker of corruption in order to take Parker down. Congress obliged Welsh, and Parker was forced to submit to a public trial. Even though Parker was exonerated, Congress passed legislation making the Board of Indian Commissioners as supervisors of Indian affairs. With his powers stripped away, Parker resigned as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1871, and Grant’s Indian Policy fell apart.
Grant was a fiscal conservative and sound money man that believed that the governments money should be backed by gold. When Grant entered office there was a question as to whether the United States would back its money by the gold standard, a bi-metal standard of gold and silver both or through greenbacks. The first step Grant took towards the gold standard was passage of the Public Credit Act of 1869. This act stated that bondholders who bought bonds to help finance the Civil War would be paid back in gold. The Coinage Act of 1873 further enforced the gold standard by eliminating the coinage of the standard silver dollar. During the civil war the government issued paper currency that was not backed by either silver or gold. These notes were called greenbacks because they were printed on the back in green ink. While these notes were needed to finance the war, once the war was over it made sense to remove them from circulation due to their inflationary properties. At the end of the civil war there were $450 million greenbacks in circulation, this number was reduced to $356 million by 1867. Redemption of greenbacks was stopped due to fears that they were being removed too quickly with detrimental effects on the economy. When the Panic of 1873 hit, Congress passed the Inflation Bill, to put $100 million in greenbacks in circulation as a way of stimulating the economy. After much thought, Grant saw that the bill could lead to a downward spiral where inflationary currency would be added to the economy during any downturn, and he wisely vetoed the bill. The veto was quite courageous, as the bill was very popular. Grant further strengthened the currency by signing the Specie payment resumption act 1875, which stated that the U.S. Treasury would redeem all notes in specie as of January 1st of 1879. Since the greenbacks were now backed by gold, there wasn’t a mass stampede to redeem them for gold as was expected. These four acts stabilized the United States currency on a sound backing paving the way for long term economic growth through the end of the 19th century.
After the Civil War there was a boom in railroad construction which was largely fueled government land grants and subsidies. These subsidies were given based on the amount of track laid rather than on selection of optimal routes, which fueled overinvestment, which eventually would need to be liquidated. In September of 1873 Jay Cooke & Company went bankrupt when it was unable to market bonds to build the Northern Pacific Railroad. This triggered a domino affect in which 89 of the 364 railroads in the country went bankrupt. Many banks in the country highly invested in railroads, and once the banks started failing, the country was thrown into the Panic of 1873. Before the panic, the railroad business was the second largest component of the economy, after the agricultural sector. With so much of the economy collapsing at once, there was little Grant could do to stop a recession, except not to panic and allow the economy to rebuild on a solid foundation, which he did.
During the Civil War the Confederacy outfitted several commerce raiders in Great Britain, which was against British neutrality laws. Overall Confederate raiders built in Britain sank or captured over 150 Northern merchant vessels, the most successful of these was the CSS Alabama, which captured 58 U.S. Merchant ships. After the war the United States demanded compensation from Britain for the lost shipping due to vessels outfitted in their ports. After years of unsuccessful diplomatic initiatives by the United States Secretary of State Hamilton Fish worked out an agreement for a joint commission to meet in Washington DC. This commission met in 1871 and came to an agreement known as the Washington treaty. The treaty set an important precedent of using arbitration to settle international disputes. The treaty greatly improved U.S. and British relations as well. The arbitration committee ordered Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million in damages for the Alabama claims.
By the 1860s Spain only had two colonies left in the Americas: Cuba and Puerto Rico. In October of 1868 revolution broke out on Cuba. As the rebellion drug on, sympathy for the Cuban rebels grew in America. In August of 1870 John Patterson purchase a captured Confederate blockade runner that he renamed the Virginius. For three years the Virginius was used to transport men, arms and supplies to aid the Cuban Rebels, until it was captured by the Spanish on October 30th of 1873. Spain tried and convicted the entire crew, which was made up of American and British citizens, of being pirates and sentenced them to death. The Spanish executed 53 crew members until the British stepped in and stopped further bloodshed. The executions made the U.S. newspapers and war fever swept the country. Protest rallies across the nation took place encouraging intervention in Cuba. Secretary of State Fish sent a cable to Spain demanding the remaining crew members be released, the return of the Virginius, reparations for the family members of the executed crew members, a salute of the American flag and punishment of the perpetrators. War was averted through negotiation, as Spain returned the crew, the Virginius and agreed to pay reparations for the families of the victims. Grant & Fish both agreed that the Salute of the flag would be dispensed if the Virginius was found to not have legal private U.S. ownership. Attorney General George Henry Williams ruled that U.S. ownership of the Virginius had been fraudulent and it had no right to fly the American flag, however the Spanish had no right to capture the ship in open waters.
In 1869 Santo Dominga, known today as the Dominican Republic, asked to annexed by the United States. Grant wanted to annex the country for several reasons:
- The U.S. Navy wanted Samaná Bay as a coaling station
- He feared a European Power would take the island as a colony
- He thought that it could be a safe haven for recently freed slaves suffering persecution in the south.
- He speculated that U.S. control of Santo Domingo would compel Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico to end slavery
The treaty stated that the United States would annex Santo Domingo, assume its $1.5 million in debt, offer the republic the ability to be come a state and the federal government would lease Samaná Bay for 50 years at $150,000 a year. Before submitting the treaty, Grant visited Senator Charles Sumner, who was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, to get his support for annexation. Grant left the meeting optimistic as Sumner left Grant with the impression that he favored annexation. Once the treaty was presented to the Senate, Sumner came out in opposition to the treaty. Without Sumner’s backing, the treaty died in the Senate.
Grant is generally faulted with the amount of corruption during his term, and it is true that a lot of corruption came to light during his term, but that is due to the fact that he actively sought ad rooted out corruption. Andrew Jackson‘s creation of spoils system under which government jobs were given out in return for political favors naturally led to corruption in almost every department of the federal government long before Grant became President, yet Grant gets the blame. Lets take a look at the scandals that Grant is generally tarred with:
- Gold Ring Jay Fisk and James Gould tried to corner the Gold market in 1869, to do this they enlisted Grant’s brother in law Abel Corbin, who was not a member of the Grant Administration. When Grant found out what Fisk & Gould were up to, he sold $4 million of gold on the open market to foil the scheme.
- Crédit Mobilier This was a sham construction company created by the Union Pacific Railroad that Bribed Congressmen and overcharged the government for construction of the line. This scandal completely transpired before Grant was president, and only involved members of Congress, but because it came to light while Grant was president, he gets blamed for it.
- Tweed Ring This involved corruption in New York city in which millions of dollars were embezzled. Even though no members of the Federal Government were involved, Grant gets the blame because the Tweed Ring was caught on his watch.
- Star Routes This was a scandal in the postal service in awarding mail routes in isolated area. Bidders on the routes colluded to overcharge the government and divide the profits. The entire bidding process was put in place in 1845, and was part of the scandals arising out of the spoils system. They were first investigated in 1872 & 1876 and were shut down temporarily, but they reemerged in 1878 only being permanently ended under President Author
- Salary Grab This was a law passed by Congress in 1873 that increased the pay of the President and Congress that was passed as an Amendment to the governments general appropriations bill. Had Grant vetoed the bill, the government would have had to shut down. The increase for Congress was repealed in 1874. Oddly enough, Congress increases it’s pay today and it’s not considered a scandal.
- Whisky Ring This one dated back to at least the Lincoln administration, but was an outgrowth of the spoils system. Whisky distillers were evading taxes by bribing Treasury Department agents. Due to its ties within the government, many thought that the ring was impenetrable. On May 13th 1875, on orders from Grant, Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow hit the ring hard, seizing distilleries and making hundreds of arrests. Among those indicted was Grant’s personal secretary Orville Babcock. Babcock was exonerated of all charges and was only guilty by association, as he had knew others that were involved in the ring.
- Trader Post Scandal Secretary of War William Belknap had accepted kickbacks, which were originally set up by his first wife, from the Fort Sill tradership. These traderships held monopolies to sell wares in army camps. Once Belknap was found out, Grant accepted his resignation. All Presidents make a few bad appointments.
As you can see, the accusations of an overly corrupt administration are wildly exaggerated. In most cases Grant actually reduced corruption that had been long standing. The focus on corruption is an outgrowth of the Dunning School trying to discredit Grant. In 1871, Grant signed legislation creating the Civil Service Commission as a way to fight the spoils system and corruption. The original commission outline what would become the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883.
Grant was quite an adept President that work to secure the rights of all Americans at home, he sought peace abroad, built the economy on a solid foundation and fought against corruption. The time has come for Grant to take his place amongst the top presidents.