(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 an 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. Owing to a technicality, the sequestered jury was denied knowledge of condemning evidence that was known to newspaper readers. Thus, Grant biographer Charles Calhoun wrote, “Still, despite his [Babcock’s] acquittal, the evidence known to the public left his reputation beyond repair.”
Yet, at most, biographers 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. In fact, one of Bristow’s clerks told fellow Kentuckian and future Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, “What has hurt Bristow worst of all and disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the [corruption] Ring and knows all about [it].”
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 remaining post of supervising public buildings in the District of Columbia put him in contact with Alexander “Boss” Shepherd who was the political boss of the District. Shepherd was notorious for excessive municipal spending whose chief beneficiaries were allied 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.
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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