For decades after his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant earned a reputation for being one of the nation’s worst presidents, consistently ranking in the bottom 10 in historian polls. But in recent years, historians have seen the hero of the civil war again. Popular biographies, like that of Ronald C. White American Odysseus (2016) and Ron Chernow’s Grant (2017), convincingly argued that Grant’s presidency deserved a review and that his contributions during his tenure were more substantial than they had been in previous decades. At a time when the nation was still recovering from the trauma of the civil war, he worked to weave the frayed Union, to raise people who were formerly enslaved and to defend a human policy, if not enlightened, concerning the Amerindians.
No one could be more surprised by this revival of reputation than Grant himself. His autobiography, published in two volumes in 1885, covers some 1,200 pages, starting with a discussion of his ancestors and ending with his years of civil war. His presidency is hardly mentioned.
Grant’s farewell message to Congress in 1876 shows that he felt that history could judge him harshly. “Mistakes have been made, as everyone sees and I admit,” he wrote. “But I leave comparisons with history, saying only that I acted in all cases with a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the framework of the law, and in the best interest of all people. The failures were errors of judgment and not of intention. ”
Two years later, the New York Sun in other words, calling Grant “the most corrupt president who has ever taken the presidency of Washington”.
So what good (or bad) president was he? Here is some historical evidence.
A whirlwind of scandals
There is no denying that Grant left office under a very large cloud. From start to finish, his administration produced a whirlwind of scandals. Although none reached the notoriety of a Watergate or a Teapot Dome, their number must have stunned the Americans at the time.
Grant’s attorney general, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Interior were all charged with corruption. His private secretary was involved in a conspiracy to deceive the government over the tax revenue from the production of whiskey. Thieving barons Jim Fisk and Jay Gould tricked Grant into manipulating the gold market, causing national financial panic known as Black Friday. Grant’s own brother, Orvil, one of the many relatives he put on the government payroll, was exposed to a bribe scheme that made the soldiers pay for the supplies.
And this is just a sample.
A victim of his time?
Defenders of Grant, yesterday and today, noted that he had not personally benefited from any of these crimes and argued that he was an honest man surrounded by villains – an argument that would be re-launched in Richard’s name Nixon during the Watergate scandal a century later.
The ex-general had taken office with little political experience, noted Hamlin Garland in a biography of 1898, and found himself “opposed to the manipulators of public affairs, astute and perceptive.”
“It was a time of speculation, greed and corruption,” added Garland. “The war being over, the people had turned their attention to money, and the corruption which raged in private life had … rotted official life. The administration shares the characteristics of the time. “
Chernow, writing from a 21st century perspective, does much the same thing, also pointing out that Grant “never stopped prosecuting the culprits and often insisted that they be prosecuted”.
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Still, Grant could take some responsibility for the people he chose and the random way he did it. “He wrongly assumed that the skills that enabled him to succeed in one area of life would translate intact into another,” said Chernow. “He did not engage in any consultation process, did not systematically verify people and did not send any test balloons to test the candidates.”
Grant’s reputation as president would pay the price for many years to come.
WATCH: Grant’s troubled presidency
With his election in 1868, Grant inherited a boiling nation from President Andrew Johnson. Johnson, who had been indicted by Congress but who avoided condemnation by a single vote, hindered the reconstruction of the defeated South and fought attempts to extend full citizenship rights to previously enslaved African-Americans. As the first president after the Civil War, writes Elizabeth R. Varon, professor of American history at the University of Virginia, “Johnson did more to prolong the period of national conflict than to heal the wounds of war.”
This work would be the responsibility of U.S. Grant. His record is far from perfect, but, according to recent biographers, he deserves the merit of several major achievements:
Grant united the Union.
Preserving the Union and preventing a second civil war figured prominently in Grant’s program, and this was by no means guaranteed when he took office. Although not as accommodating to southern interests as Andrew Johnson, Grant oversaw the readmission of Confederate states to the Union and took a much less punitive approach to the defeated Confederation than the other presidents.
In 1869, only a few months after his presidency, Grant invited his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee, to meet at the White House. By mid-1870, all of the old Confederate States had made the necessary concessions and had been readmitted to the Union. In 1872 Grant signed the amnesty law, which restored the right to vote and the right to occupy all but a few hundred former confederations.
Grant fought to protect the freed slaves.
While the The 13th Constitution Amendment granted freedom to former slaves, and the 14th Amendment recognized them as citizens, about 4 million African Americans in the South still had little political power or representation when Grant took office . In his inaugural speech and from today, Grant lobbied for a 15th amendment, which would guarantee federal and state voting rights for all male citizens, regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude”.
More dramatically, Grant used both federal troops and the new Department of Justice to fight terrorism against blacks in the south, particularly by Ku Klux Klan, which had become an important and formidable force in the years following the civil war. “In 1872, under Grant’s leadership,” writes Chernow, “the Ku Klux Klan had been shattered in the South,” although another group of the same name would emerge in 1915.
“To him, more than any other man, the black man owes his emancipation,” remarked Frederick Douglass after Grant’s death. “When flagranteed violence raged in the South and the freed were chased like wild beasts at night, General Grant’s moral courage and loyalty transcended those of his party.” Chernow concludes that “Grant deserves a place of honor in American history, just behind Lincoln, for what he did for freed slaves”.
READ MORE: When did African Americans get the right to vote?
Grant advocated for humane treatment of Native Americans.
When Frederick Douglass praised Grant’s efforts on behalf of African Americans, he added that “the Indian is indebted [to Grant] for the human policy adopted towards him. “ At the time of Grant’s inauguration, wars between Native Americans, white settlers, and the U.S. military had been going on for decades, particularly in the expanding western United States. Some prominent politicians and military leaders have made no secret of their desire to rid the country of certain tribes. by any means necessary. General William Tecumseh Sherman spoke favorably of the extermination of the “men, women, children” of the Sioux, and Nevada Congressman Thomas Fitch, in a debate in Parliament, called for the “extinction” of the Apaches.
In a speech to Congress in 1869, Grant argued that “a system that contemplates the extinction of a race is too horrible for a nation to adopt without causing the wrath of all Christianity.” While his proposed solution – “place all Indians on large reserves, as quickly as possible” – seems hardly enlightened today, he also insisted on “giving them absolute protection there.”
Grant has appointed a Native American, General Ely S. Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He also undertook to reform the notoriously corrupt system with which traders who were allowed to do business with the tribes – and often deceived them – asked respected religious groups, starting with the Quakers, to nominate worthy candidates for these positions. .
In the long term, Grant preferred to extend full citizenship to Native Americans, an injustice that will not be corrected until 1924. “Grant viewed absorption and assimilation as a benign and peaceful process, not theft of Indians from their legitimate culture,” writes Chernow. “Whatever its shortcomings, Grant’s approach seemed to signal a remarkable advance over the ruthless methods adopted by some previous administrations.”
Grant has helped professionalize government.
Ironically, for a man whose administration was marked by nepotism, cronyism and grafting, Grant became a leading voice in reforming the system of political patronage. At the time, elected officials could distribute government jobs, whatever their qualifications, to reward supporters or in return for bribes. In 1871 Grant lobbied for public service legislation, and the following year appointed the first Public Service Commission. Its purpose was to replace favoritism with contests and other initiatives to ensure that those who landed federal jobs were actually qualified to do so.
Unfortunately, the experience of good government will only last two years. Many legislators were angry at giving up one of their most lucrative advantages, so that in 1874 Congress did not fund the commission, ending its work. Some historians now wonder if Grant gave up the fight too easily, but George William Curtis, a respected reformer who chaired the commission, argued that Grant’s surrender was “the surrender of a champion who had honestly confused the both the nature and strength of the opponent and his own power of endurance. ”
Grant’s presidential legacy
Grant left the presidency in March 1877. Driven by his wife and others, he envisioned a third term, which would have been unprecedented – but still legal. “Painfully aware of his mistakes as president,” writes Chernow, “Grant fantasized about going back to the White House to correct these mistakes and redeem his reputation.” But it shouldn’t be. At the Republican nomination convention in June 1880, Grant narrowly lost James A. Garfield, who later won the presidency.