(February 3, 2018) Modern historians and biographers are tripping over one another in their rush to praise President Ulysses Grant as a pioneering civil rights leader. In a recent interview Ron Chernow said, “[Grant] was the single most important president in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson and that, unfortunately, is an overlooked story.” While it may be a “story,” it is not an overlooked one. In 2012 H. W. Brands wrote, “Nearly a century would pass before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” Similarly, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz states, “The evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Such statements imply that Grant’s chief reason for supporting black suffrage was to promote racial equality per se. They fail to take into account that his prime motive may have been to gain the political power that a routinely obedient voting bloc could provide to Republican candidates. For example, only a minority of America’s whites voted for Grant when he was first elected President in 1868. His 300,000 popular vote majority resulted from winning about 90% of the votes of mostly illiterate ex-slaves.
More importantly, Grant limited his civil rights advocacy to blacks who composed the solitary minority group that could be politically significant. He did nothing for smaller racial minorities such as Indians, Chinese Americans and other immigrant ethnic groups.
Indians generally could not vote during Grant’s Administration. Moreover, in 1875-76 he secretly provoked a war with tribes in the Northern Great Plaines. He wanted to give white men access to dubiously valuable gold deposits in the Black Hills as a way to help America’s economy recover from the depression that followed the Panic of 1873. Although the Centennial War is best known for the fight at “Custer’s Last Stand” the U. S. Supreme Court ruled a century later that it was illegal and awarded over $100 million in damages to tribal descendants. (A lower court specifically cited “President Grant’s duplicity” in the matter.)*
Additionally, Chinese Americas generally could not vote, nor could they become naturalized citizens until 1943. Even though they never numbered more than ten percent of California’s population in the nineteenth century, they represented about two-thirds of the state’s lynch victims between 1849 and 1902. In fact, the biggest lynching in American history took place in Los Angeles during Grant’s first presidential term in 1871. The nineteen victims were Chinese Americans.** Imagine the white terrorism that might have resulted in California had Asian Americans been permitted to vote and represented 40% of the population as blacks did in the South.
Since the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment only granted citizenship to blacks born in America, Grant signed the 1870 Naturalization Act in order to enable blacks born elsewhere to become citizens. But the act deliberately excluded Chinese Americans and other “non-whites.” In 1875 he signed the Page Act that restricted entry into America by Chinese and the 1875 Civil Rights Act that excluded them. In Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, Jean Paelzer writes, “The  Civil Rights Act and the Page Act of 1875 . . . removed the right of Chinese immigrants to ever become citizens and banned the immigration of most Chinese women.” Since only four percent of the group’s members in 1875 were women the true purpose of the Page Act was “to force thousands of men to return to China.”*** This effectively denied the birthright citizenship aspect of the Fourteenth Amendment from applying to Chinese Americans since interracial marriage was rare in the nineteenth century.
Finally, Grant used one of the Ku Klux Klan Acts to influence voting in immigrant-dominant big city precincts that were heavily Democratic. When the wife of his Attorney General George Williams accused Grant of using Secret Service funds to help Republican candidates in New York City, the President explained that the funds were used in compliance with the 1871 KKK Acts. Although Grant said the money was spent to “prevent frauds,” Democrats were suspicious that the money was simply a secret Republican slush fund used for partisan political purposes.****
*Bryan Wildenthal, North American Sovereignty on Trial (Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 163
** Erika Lee, “Review of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871(2012), by Scott Zesch”, Journal of American History, vol. 100, no. 1 (June 2013), 217
*** Jean Paelzer, Driven Out, 42, 52, 58, 102
****Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration, Volume II (New York: Fred Ungar Publishing, 1936), 818-19