(March 30, 2021) Yesterday’s discussion about the political Ulysses Grant disclosed that his black voting and civil rights activism was self-serving. It targeted the single minority group that could be manipulated to keep Republicans in power by way of puppet carpetbag regimes in the South. He did nothing for other ethnic minorities such as Native-Americans, Chinese-Americans and even white immigrants such as the Irish. Grant even spent more money authorized by the KKK enforcement acts for so-called “supervision” of elections in the North than he did in the South. That was because white immigrants in the populous Northern cities tended to vote for Democrats. He, and fellow Republicans, increasingly abandoned Southern blacks as new organically Republican states entered the Union from the West. Beginning with Kansas in 1861 and ending with Utah in 1896, the first eleven states to join the Union after the start of the Civil War each added two new Republicans to the Senate.
Beyond its hidden racism, Grant’s Presidency was notoriously corrupt. During his eight years the in the White House the President’s cabinet seats consisted of six secretaries and an Attorney General. Four resigned for connections to various corruption scandals. The initial Vice President was booted from Grant’s re-election ticket for accepting bribes in connection to the Union Pacific railroad, which was receiving massive federal subsidies at the time. Grant’s personal secretary was charged with leading a group of treasury agents who were accepting bribes to enable distillers to evade excise taxes. Although not convicted, after a trial Grant banished the secretary to a job inspecting remote lighthouses. Similarly, Grant’s Navy Secretary avoided formal charges for sharing in the excess profits of a Navy Department supplier, but the wealth he acquired while in office left the public skeptical of his claims of innocence.
Although Grant-apologists often assert he was personally honest and merely naïve in his choice of advisors, the claim ignores, or minimizes, two points. First, he and his wife regarded the Presidency and a regal lifestyle as an entitlement for his role in winning the Civil War. Since they considered his salary to be too small, he would often reward financial benefactors with reciprocal appointments. Second, significant evidence suggests that he may have been directly involved in the distillery tax evasion scheme.
Regarding the first point. Between 1865 and 1869 inclusive, donors bought—or gave him enough money to buy—a total of four homes in Galena, Illinois, Philadelphia, Washington and Long Branch, New Jersey.
One of the seven donors for the President’s 27-room Long Branch “cottage” was Tom Murphy, a notorious supplier of shoddy merchandise to the Union army during the Civil War. Grant appointed Murphy as customs collector for the Port of New York where three-fourths of America’s tariffs were paid. It was the most lucrative patronage assignment available in the federal government. Money tended to stick to the fingers of the port’s tax collectors and administrators.
Similarly, Grant assigned General Daniel Butterfield to New York’s sub-treasury office in exchange for raising a fund enabling General William T. Sherman to buy Grant’s Washington home shortly before he moved into the White House. Since the money was a Grant-arranged windfall for Sherman the latter agreed to pay Grant a price that was more than double the amount the President-elect had paid only three years earlier. Soon after his appointment, Butterfield took a bribe to join Jay Gould’s attempted corner the gold market in September 1869. A Grant brother-in-law joined them.
The year before Grant became President, Henry Cooke of Maryland’s Seneca Sandstone Company, sold shares to influential Republicans at half-price. He planned to profit by supplying building materials to contractors in the District of Columbia. After Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, Cooke expected they would endorse a modernization program that would elevate the status of our nation’s capital with new buildings and public transportation structures. Among the bargain -priced stock buyers was General Ulysses Grant whose shares were valued at $20,000. The President sold them four years later, six months after appointing Cooke as D.C.’s Territorial Governor where he could help control public works spending in the District.
Henry’s brother was Jay Cooke, an investment banker who had been Grant’s largest political contributor for the President’s 1872 re-election campaign. Grant was having breakfast at Jay’s Philadelphia mansion the very morning that Cooke’s investment bank failed, triggering a financial panic and four-year economic depression. Jay Cooke & Company was chiefly capitalized with securities of the Northern Pacific railroad including federal subsidy bonds. After it emerged from bankruptcy, the Northern Pacific eventually collected federal land grants aggregating the size of the state of Missouri.
Regarding the second point concerning possibilities that President Grant was personally corrupted, consider the Whiskey Ring scandal.
The episode enabled distillers to evade about two-thirds of the taxes they owned in exchange for bribes and campaign donations. It ended only because Grant felt compelled to appoint reform-minded Benjamin Bristow as Treasury Secretary two years into the President’s second term because Bristow’s predecessor had resigned in disgrace for unrelated tax collection improprieties. Ultimately Bristow’s investigation led to Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, who was indicted as a leading Ring participant involving hundreds of lower-level members. Regarding Babcock’s White House status General of the Army William T. Sherman once said, “…those who go to see the President see Babcock first. He is a kind of intermediator between the people and the President.”
Grant responded to the accusations against Babcock as follows:
- Since Babcock was an army officer as well as a personal secretary, Grant tried to get the investigation shifted to the Army. The President even went so far as to name the Babcock-friendly judge advocate (military prosecutor) as well as the equally Grant-pliable officers for the tribunal. The Justice Department prosecutor blocked the move by correctly replying that he could not send his evidence to the distant military tribunal because it was illegal to remove evidence from the court of jurisdiction.
- Next, Grant hired a spy—at taxpayer expense—to infiltrate the prosecutor’s office and report everything he learned. The spy, however, eventually sided with the prosecutors after Babcock told him to destroy all the evidence he could find.
- After an assistant prosecutor suggested in his jury summation that the President had usurped Bristow’s authority when he blocked the Secretary’s order to replace a Treasury employee and suspected conspiracy leader, Grant instructed his Attorney General to fire the assistant.
- After the Babcock indictment, President Grant directed that his Attorney General no longer allow the prosecution team to arrange plea bargains with lower-level participants in exchange for testimony against those with higher status.
- After one of the convicted Treasury clerks was replaced, his replacement wrote future Supreme Court Justice John Harlan two days before Babcock’s trial began, “What has hurt Bristow worst of all & most disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the Ring and knows all about [it.]”
If Grant was not guilty, he certainly acted a lot like Richard Nixon, or like Nixon might have acted. First, he hired a spy to infiltrate the prosecution office, much like Nixon’s plumbers. Second, he fired a prosecuting attorney for citing facts unfavorable to the President, which was similar to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. Third, he ordered his Attorney General to cease plea bargains because they would make higher level government employees more vulnerable to conviction.
While I don’t believe Grant’s statues or tomb should be torn down, those among the cultural elite who consider themselves to be paragons of morality may want reconsider their condemnation of Confederate statues.