(August 29, 2018) Most recent biographers praise President Grant for supporting civil rights. In a recent interview, for example, biographer Ron Chernow said, “[Grant] was the single most important President in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson . . .” In contrast, Trump’s critics often label today’s President a racist. Not only is Trump racist, they suggest, but they worry he will manipulate the justice department in order to avoid criminal convictions against himself and Administration allies. Vanity Fair compared Trump’s recent “flipping” remarks about plea bargaining to the language of mafia gangsters.
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But most modern biographers overestimate Grant’s morality. He limited his racial advocacy to the solitary minority group (blacks) that was reliably Republican-loyal. He did nothing for other racial minorities such as Chinese Americans. In addition to lacking potential as a GOP voting bloc, Asian Americans lived mainly in Republican-controlled states like California where whites refused to give them the vote or even citizenship. They were, in fact, hated. The biggest lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles during Grant’s presidency and all nineteen victims were Chinese Americans. During his second year in office President Grant signed the 1870 Naturalization Act that permitted black immigrants to become naturalized citizens, but denied it to Chinese Americans and other “non-whites.” He also used the Act, and others, to “police” voting in the big cities of the North where white immigrants, such as the Irish, typically voted Democratic.
Grant also abused presidential powers to frustrate criminal prosecutions when they came too close for comfort. One example was the Whisky Ring Scandal. It involved tax evasion and bribery in the distilled spirits industry, which was then the top source of domestic federal tax revenue.
Ultimately, the treasury’s investigation led to the threshold of the presidency when Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was indicted as a leading Ring conspirator. Grant responded by first trying to move the trial to a friendly military court since Babcock was also an army officer. But a justice department prosecutor blocked the move by noting the procedural violations that would result from taking evidence away from the court of jurisdiction. Second, he hired a spy to infiltrate the prosecutor’s office, but the mole eventually sided with the prosecution. Third, he fired an assistant prosecutor whose comments during a jury summation in an earlier related trial criticized the President. Fourth, he forbade prosecutors to plea bargain with low-level conspirators as a means to convict high-level participants. Along with other evidence, Grant’s obstruction were so suspicious that the treasury department’s chief clerk wrote a future Supreme Court justice two days before Babcock’s trial: “What has hurt [Treasury Secretary] Bristow worst of all & most disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the Ring and knows all about [it.]”
Grant fans who wish that Trump could be more like their hero might want to reconsider their wish.