A Review of Chernow’s Grant

The Ongoing Civil War

The deification of Ulysses S. Grant has now reached apotheosis. For decades readers have been treated to sympathetic portrayals of Grant. Although popular enough books, the kind of work that can inspire a heavily biased but well composed musical is at long last here. In the war to make Grant great again, this is Appomattox the sequel.

I will give Chernow some credit. He is a solid writer, if a bit too detailed at times. Unlike the other Grant apologists he does not sweep his drinking under the rug. I really appreciated this part, since it makes Grant more human.

Of the rest of the book I have little good to say. I read it alongside T. Harry Williams’ account of Beauregard. Williams was fair to a talented and complicated man. Chernow has come not to bury Grant but to praise him, and there is a lot of praise here.

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Chernow’s Spin on President Grant Gives Whiplash

(November 23, 2017)       True history is the final fiction. – Gore Vidal

Unfortunately, the new surge of Ulysses Grant biographies compete with one another to saturate readers with “true history” in the Vidal context. While recent posts offer several examples of politically correct falsehoods and misrepresentations, Ron Chernow’s biography delivers yet another. During Reconstruction President Grant backed a wicked Louisiana state government that provoked white resentment thereby leading to racial violence.

Specifically, Grant used military force to buttress carpetbag Governor William P. Kellogg’s regime that counted Grant’s own brother-in-law, James F. Casey, among its leaders. Casey was the customs tax collector in New Orleans, which was one of America’s most lucrative patronage posts. It trailed only New York’s tariff collector as the most notoriously corruption-prone federal assignment. Chernow’s narrative—which fails to even consider whether the President may have profited personally from Casey’s activities—begins as follows:

Although Kellogg emerged victorious, his foes refused to concede the [1872] election, which had been marked by illegalities on both sides.

The undisclosed story behind the phrase, “emerged victorious,” undermines Chernow’s credibility. Specifically, Kellogg did not “emerge victorious” in the balloting; he “emerged victorious” as a result of a questionable intervention by a possibly corrupt federal judge.

First, Chernow imprecisely identifies Kellogg’s opposing candidate, John McEnry, as a “Democrat.” In truth, McEnry was on both the Liberal Republican and Democratic tickets, as was Presidential candidate Horace Greely, who lost to Grant that year.

Second, the state government settled Chernow’s “illegalities on both sides” in favor of McEnry where he admittedly benefitted from the near dictatorial powers of the incumbent carpetbag governor who opposed Kellogg. As future governor, however, Kellogg would proceed to use even greater dictatorial powers to perpetuate his own interests, as well as those of Washington Republicans. He would, for example, steal the 1876 presidential election for “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But that’s another story, and a good one.

Third, Kellogg appealed to Louisiana’s only federal judge, Edward Durell, to block McEnry’s inauguration. Although mostly criticized in Louisiana and the South, the interference of a federal judge in a state election was questioned all over America. It had no basis in law but for the Enforcement Act shoved through Congress and signed by Grant only two years earlier.

The act essentially enabled the federal government to step-in anytime a carpetbag regime complained that Southern whites had intimidated black voters. Judge Durell suspiciously declared a hastily organized Kellogg-dominated Election Returning Board as the solitary legitimate board thereby arbitrarily putting Kellogg into the governor’s mansion.

Fourth, in January 1874 the House Judiciary Committee in Washington started to investigate Durell. Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Butler chaired the Committee. Butler, it should be noted, had few native Louisiana friends because of his confiscatory policies as commander of the New Orleans occupation army during the Civil War.

The Committee voted six-to-five to impeach Judge Durell for systematic bribery in bankruptcy cases and for exceeding his authority in the 1872 elections. After the 1874 elections increased the Democratic majority in the House and because he felt the Senate would convict him, Durell resigned.

In sum, Kellogg “emerged victorious” because a federal judge that Congress appeared likely to impeach only two years later unilaterally selected Kellogg as the winner. While the anger among Louisiana whites provoked by Judge Durell and Governor Kellogg does not justify racial violence, it verifies that resentment toward Kellogg was not a mere byproduct of endemic Southern racism as Chernow implies. Although a currently popular interpretation, the implication is merely the latest fiction.

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Presidents Trump and Grant

(November 10, 2017) How would today’s intelligentsia react if President Trump prohibited his Attorney General from plea-bargaining with witnesses whose testimony might convict someone in the White House of participating in a massive multiyear bribery scandal?

If the reactions of most modern Ulysses Grant biographers guide us, they’d have no problem. Even though that’s precisely what President Grant did, today’s academics normally censure earlier historians for condemning the corruption in his Administration instead of strictly praising him for his civil rights actions.

In the first year of his eight year presidency, Grant appointed an old army buddy, General John McDonald, as collector of internal revenue in the Midwest in 1869. Although tariffs were the chief source of federal taxes there were also some taxes on the “internal” economy. The prime sources of such “internal revenue” were the tax stamps required on bottles of distilled liquors. For six years after his appointment, McDonald permitted distillers in his region to pay only a small fraction of the tax in exchange for bribes.

When President Grant replaced Treasury Secretary William Richardson in 1874 because of Richardson’s connections to a separate federal tax collection scandal, the President felt compelled to choose a reform-minded successor. His choice of Benjamin Bristow was widely applauded owing to Bristow’s reputation for honesty.

Bristow promptly uncovered McDonald’s Whisky Tax fraud. A year after taking office the new Treasury Secretary’s investigation resulted in three hundred indictments against whisky distillers and government employees. However, after Bristow told Grant that one of the President’s personal White House aides, Orville Babcock, was increasingly suspected as being “the head and center of all the frauds,” the Treasury Secretary suddenly became persona non grata with Grant.

The President first tried to get Babcock’s case transferred to a military court because the aide was a former army officer. After that failed, he instructed his Attorney General that Whisky Ring prosecutors must not be permitted to offer any more plea bargains. Finally, Grant provided a deposition attesting to Babcock’s character and integrity. As a result, Babcock was acquitted at trial but thereafter put at an increasing distance by Grant.

Many Grant biographers—even among today’s hagiographers—question Babcock’s acquittal. Yet, at most, they only mildly fault Grant. Furthermore, most reject the logical suspicion suggested by Grant’s quick about-face toward Bristow, to wit Grant may have been guilty himself.

Unlike Babcock, General McDonald was sentenced to three years in prison where he wrote a book about the scandal that indicated Babcock belonged in jail with him. Even more surprisingly, McDonald suggested that President Grant also profited from the bribes, although he never gave any proof. Suspiciously, however, during his lame duck presidency, Grant pardoned McDonald in January 1877 after the former tax collector had served less than half of his three-year sentence.

Some Grant hagiographers applaud him for moving Babcock out of the White House after the latter was dubiously acquitted. Yet Babcock’s new post put him in contact with Alexander “Boss” Shepherd who was the political boss of the District of Columbia. Shepherd was notorious for excessive municipal spending whose chief beneficiaries were real estate developers and other Shepherd business associates.

Babcock was soon in court again, this time charged with helping corrupt D.C. building contractors plant false evidence in an investigation against them. Although he was acquitted on the evidence-planting charge, Babcock may well have profited from his association with the contractors.

Although Benjamin Bistrow hoped to be elected President in 1876 to succeed Grant, it was not to be. Grant had become an implacable Bistrow enemy who spitefully opposed the latter’s candidacy at every turn.

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This series of posts on Grant’s presidency started with a quote by Alexander Dumas— “The difference between a traitor and a patriot is a matter of dates.” The story above suggests that it might be paraphrased when comparing Grant to Trump:

Among today’s intelligentsia the difference between a civil rights hero and a crook may be a matter of dates.

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President Grant’s Associations

(November 8, 2017) In this interview Dr. Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University concludes—like nearly all modern Grant biographers—that President Grant did not participate in the corruption infecting some of his colleagues during his Presidency. Yet an examination of his companions leaves room for doubt because “we tend to be like the company we keep.”

The first scandal of his presidency culminated in an attempt by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold market only six months after Grant took office. In order to execute their scheme the two needed to be certain that the U. S. Treasury would not sell gold  beyond the regular amounts required to supply a sinking fund used to retire the federal debt. After meeting with Gould and Fisk, in early September 1869 Grant urged his Treasury Secretary to limit gold sales strictly to the sinking fund requirements thereby abetting the corner scheme.

Although Gould officially denied it, Fisk stated that Gould had purchased $500,000 worth of gold for Mrs. Grant’s trading account thereby enabling her to profit as the corner operation increased the market price of gold. (The scenario is explained in President Grant’s Gold Conspiracy.Gould also bought gold for the trading account of a Grant brother-in-law and at least one other Grant associate.

Given their reputations as market manipulators, historians might logically question why Grant chose to consort with men like Gould and Fisk in the first place. Less than three months after taking office Grant met privately with Gould when the President visited his sister and her husband in New York during June 1869.  The following night he joined Gould and Fisk aboard their privately owned Long Island steamer for the first leg of a trip the President was taking to Boston. The three dined together in the company of other businessmen. When Grant returned to New York from Boston to again spend a couple of days with his sister the public saw him socializing at a theater partially owned by Fisk.

The gold corner collapsed  at the end of September when Grant finally authorized extraordinary Treasury gold sales (i.e, beyond the sinking fund requirements) but not before the scheme had caused a financial panic. Fisk flatly told the New York Herald, “The President was interested [participating] with us in the corner.” But Grant said he had turned down Fisk, explaining to a reporter, “I don’t know that I should have felt insulted by such a proposal had it come from any other but a person like Fisk. But coming from a man so destitute of moral character I didn’t think it worth the notice.”

Thus, if Grant did not participate in the gold corner, he nonetheless confessed that he was aware that Fisk was a man “destitute of moral character.” Although Grant’s admission should give pause to his modern biographers, most will admit to no doubt about their beliefs in the President’s innocence. Although Fisk was murdered in 1872, Grant again flirted with joining Gould in another venture as late as 1880 when the latter’s reputation was even worse. While the former President quickly backed-out of the deal it seems odd that he would even have flirted with a Gould proposal after the appalling gold corner scandal eleven years earlier.

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Although my recent posts prompted by Dr. Calhoun’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop interview  have been critical of the professor, if asked, I would recommend his book on Grant’s presidency. But the recommendation would be given with a huge qualification. Specifically, Calhoun consistently gives Grant the benefit of the doubt in the questionable matters that Calhoun chooses to discuss. Simultaneously, Calhoun often minimizes Grant’s transgressions—or simply omits them—evidently to avoid tarnishing Grant’s reputation.

Admittedly, I correctly expected that his Grant book would be a rose-colored interpretation of the eighteenth President. Grant, after all, has become an idol of the “Pious Cause Mythology” that portrays nineteenth century Republicans and carpetbaggers as morally superior to nearly all Southern whites. Calhoun’s earlier Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail, for example, consistently attributes the worst possible motives in every controversial incident involving Southern whites during the second half of the nineteenth century.

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(Note: Present inventory among retailers—including Amazon—is running low on my Southern Reconstruction book. If you’d like to buy directly from me please email a note to phil_leigh(at)me.com.)

 

Whitewashing President Grant

(November 7, 2017) In this video interview historian Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University whitewashes President Grant by unfairly criticizing Henry Adams.

Professor Calhoun ridicules Adams for finding fault with Grant “as early as the first five weeks of his presidency.” Henry, explains Calhoun, was a Massachusetts aristocrat and the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain, Charles Adams. Charles, in turn, was the son and grandson of two American Presidents. Calhoun portrays Henry’s complaints about Grant as  stemming from personal resentment that Grant failed to offer Henry a government job.

But there were good reasons to criticize Grant for actions early in his presidency and during the interval from his November 1868 election to the March 4, 1869 inauguration.  Just as President Trump was denounced early in his term for actions taken during his election-to-inauguration interval, so also is Grant’s conduct during Andrew Johnson’s lame duck presidency fair game. Moreover, Grant’s election-to-inauguration interval was four months compared to only two-and-a-half months for Trump. 

First, as noted in a post two days ago, before his inauguration, Grant urged a group of business leaders to raise a purse for General William T. Sherman for the explicit purposes of enabling Sherman to buy Grant’s home in Washington. Grant had purchased the residence three years earlier for $30,000 from donations given by other business leaders. He sold the house to Sherman for $65,000 after reneging on an agreement to sell it for $40,000 to a buyer who had already made a $1,000 deposit. Thus, instead of making a $10,000 profit Grant profited by $35,000.

Second, Grant announced embarrassing cabinet selections shortly after moving into the White House. Moreover, he failed to consult senators prior to making his selections even though Senate approval would be required to appoint the candidates. Humiliating errors could have been avoided with the customary consultations. For example, his Treasury Secretary nominee, Alexander Stewart, could not be appointed because Stewart’s business status violated an eighteenth century law designed to keep commercial operators out to the Treasury. Grant’s naive remedy was to ask Congress for a joint resolution to simply ignore the law.

Grant’s first Secretary of State resigned after two weeks. His first Navy Secretary won the post by earlier helping to raise money to buy Grant a Philadelphia home. The man was otherwise mostly unknown and resigned after three months. He was replaced by the almost equally unknown George Robeson who managed to deposit $320,000 into his bank account during his last four years in office while earning a salary of only $8,000 annually.

Third, Grant almost immediately began appointing family members to lucrative government jobs after his inauguration. During his two presidential terms he gave federal government positions to over forty extended family members.

Fourth, a year before Grant assumed office, he favored the conviction of President Andrew Johnson in an impeachment trial for Johnson’s alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The Radical Republican Congress passed the Act over Johnson’s veto a year earlier for the special (but unofficial) purpose of preventing Johnson from removing presidential appointees that had earlier been approved by the Senate. Mostly the Act was intended to protect War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who had undeniably evolved into a bitter Johnson enemy. Johnson’s attempt to remove Stanton in order to test the constitutionality of the Tenure Act resulted in his impeachment trial where he won acquittal by a single vote.

That Grant’s motivation at the time was personal animosity toward Johnson can admit to no doubt. The two men had accused each other of lying about promises made—or not made—by Grant whose defense of his position before Johnson’s cabinet was unconvincing. Grant’s hopes that Johnson would be convicted were well known. Nonetheless, Grant strongly opposed the Act after he was elected President. He practically demanded that Congress repeal the Act because, he complained,  it would hamstring any President in working with his own cabinet. Although the Tenure Act was not totally repealed, it was quickly and significantly weakened.

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(Note: Present inventory among retailers—including Amazon—is running low on my Southern Reconstruction book. If you’d like to buy directly from me please mail a note to phil_leigh(at)me.com.)