The Story Surrounding the Presidency of Ulysses Grant
Although Ulysses S. Grant’s contemporaries placed him in the highest position of great Americans along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the twentieth century has seen him fade. His presidency has been almost universally condemned, and he is consistently ranked second to rock bottom Warren G. Harding in polls of historians to rate the presidents.
Although his military reputation has declined as well, it nevertheless continues to win him a steady following. Even his most faithful admirers, however, tend to end their studies conveniently at Appomattox, and one senses a wide regret that Grant’s public career extended beyond the Civil War. Taking note of this trend, John Y. Simon observes that some biographers “seem to have wished that Grant had accepted Lincoln’s invitation to Ford’s Theatre” on the night the president was shot- the night that John Wilkes Booth had intended to assassinate Grant along with Lincoln.
Much of what has been passed down as an objective appraisal of Grant’s presidency more closely resembles the partisan critiques that were produced by a relatively small group of performers during the 1870’s– in many ways the intellectual ancestors of the present historical profession. Although such a minority can sometimes be a source of enlightenment, in this case, it has contributed a monolithic picture of a complex era that is about as depressing as it is inaccurate. Little consideration is given the checkered nature of Grant’s eight years of the Gilded Age. Michael Les Benedict observes that Grant “dominated his era, a stronger resident than most have recognized”.
In both the domestic and foreign realms, President Grant could claim a wide range of achievements. In the aftermath of the most serious fiscal problems the nation had ever faced, he pursued policies that stopped inflation, raised the nations credit, and reduced taxes and the national debt by over $300 million and $435 million respectively. His veto of the Inflation Act of 1874 and subsequent drive for what became the Resumption Act of 1875 shocked many who looked to Congress to cure the nation’s economic ills, and the panic of 1873 came to an abrupt end when the act went into effect in 1879. The successful arbitration of the Alabama and Virginus disputes mark not only foreign policy victories for the United States, but a significant precursor to the future course of international affairs. The establishment of the principle of the international arbitration through the Treaty of Washington, would later be embodied in the Hague Tribunal, the League of Nations, the World Court, and the United Nations.
Grant’s desire for peace was evident to me from the beginning of my research, but I did not realize how far-reaching it was until I noted the steadiness and rectitude he displayed throughout the presidential electoral crisis of 1876-77, which could have become a disaster. Also remarkable to me was Grant’s “Quaker” Indian Peace Policy: on the eve of what could have become the complete genocide of the American Indian, Grant acted decisively to begin two decades of reform that for the first time promoted the welfare of Indians as individuals and broke ground for their eventual citizenship.
However important these issues may seem, the traditional evaluation of Grant as president nevertheless pays far less attention to them than to the issue of corruption. Unlike other cases of presidents charged with allowing corruption, however, the “corruption” that reformers condemned during Grant’s two terms, for the most part, was merely the practice of making appointments through the spoils system. As Benedict points out, scholars have tended to accept the judgment of the anti-Grant reformers that this (patronage) system was inherently corrupt, but that is a very questionable conclusion, and reformers had ulterior, political motives for making the charge.
The matter of whether patronage is necessarily synonymous with corruption provides an additional question of consistency; for historians, if the reformers’ verdict is true, must explain how Grant’s predecessors, most of whom practiced patronage, led administrations exempt from the brand of corruption. What is ironic about the traditional picture of honest reformers opposing the president’s corrupt party henchmen is that Grant was actually the first president since the establishment of the Jacksonian spoils system to initiate civil service reform.
The arguability of the reformers’ charges against Grant extends to cases of actual corruption. The Credit Mobilier scandal, the most conspicuous of the so-called Grant scandals, was in fact only uncovered by the administration. The corrupt activity had occurred in 1867-68, before Grant even became president. Nowhere else in the American political tradition is a president held accountable for corruption dating back to a previous administration. The reformers also charged such figures as cabinet members George H. Williams and George M. Robeson with corruption, and although the record showed the baselessness of such charges, historians evidently see this minor point as negligible. No major study of the Grant presidency makes the connection between the untrustworthiness and utter damage of the reformers’ accusations and Grant’s adverse behavior toward such reformers as Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow, who made serious allegations concerning the president’s private secretary, Orville Babcock, without sufficient evidence. The weakness of the reformers’ charges, however, is in itself an insufficient explanation of the political environment of the Grant presidency. The crucial issue that remains to be explored–Reconstruction– sheds light on the entire political situation. There was more to the reformers than civil service reform, just as there was more to Grant’s supporters than patronage.
In order to understand the reformers, one must understand the circumstances under which they first came into existence as an organized group dedicated specifically to defeating Grant in 1872 through the Liberal Republican Party. Grant’s suspension of habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties in 1871 marked a singular display of peacetime presidential power, and in Benedict’s words, ” The effect was electric. Reformers lamented the sacrifice of ‘real’ issues, such as the tariff and civil-service reform, to the ‘dead’ one symbolized by the ‘bloody shirt’…and the use of federal troops (in the South) as gross violations of civil liberty, but they were also forced at last to give up their open hostility to equal rights and black suffrage. Announcing a “new departure,” they promised to accept the finality of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. The new departure enabled Democrats, reform Republicans, and some Republican politicians who had lost power in their party to unite against Grant’s reelection. Calling themselves Liberal republicans, the dissident Republicans met…(in 1872 ) to name a candidate whom the Democrats would endorse”.
The administration’s success that led to the “new departure” was one of President Grant’s crowning achievements, but Grant would pay dearly for it in history. Having lost their old focus and finding themselves desperately in need of a new one, the Liberal Republican movement began to focus upon what they questionably termed corruption. Both the birth and the survival of Grant’s enemies as a group specifically “focused on Grant himself and the new politics of the Gilded Age” was deeply intertwined with Grant’s dedication to Reconstruction. “(Liberal reform had come to view Reconstruction as an expression of all the real and imagined evils of the Gilded Age,” Historian Eric Foner asserted, and “the rise of (pro-Grant) Stalwarts did less to undermine Republican Southern policy than the emergence of an influential group of party reformers whose revolt against the new politics of the Grant era” caused them to “demand…an end to Reconstruction”.
It is the centrality of Reconstruction issues in Grant’s political situation that has led to a great deal of oversight by historians. Grant’s years in office cannot be understood if the politics of the Gilded Age is separated from the politics of Reconstruction. Both were primary features of the 1870’s, and in order to understand Grant’s political situation, historians must recognize how fundamental the inconsistency was between the reformers’ revered conception of government by the best educated and the notion of black rule in the South, the latter being an essential part of Grant’s program. The president’s dedication to Reconstruction, which endured even after most national leaders declared it misguided, produced a civil rights record which, according to Richard N. Current, made Grant, “in a certain respect, one of the greatest presidents” with whom “only Lyndon B. Johnson can even be compared…”
A look at all of the pressing issues during the Grant administration, but especially Reconstruction, clearly indicates that the portrait of politics during the 1870’s as a mere matter of who practiced a less desirable system of patronage and who advocated civil service reform is seriously distorted. The traditional verdict on the Grant presidency does not even begin to appear logical until one accepts the flawed assumption that the corruption / civil service reform issue was more important than such issues as Reconstruction, international crises, Indian affairs, and the multitude of economic matters, all combined. As William B. Hesseltine admits in his definitive study of President Grant, “Grant’s enemies….stuffed the ballot boxes of history against Grant…”
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