Tag Archives: Ulysses Grant

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, misrepresentations and omissions, Ron Chernow’s biography delivers yet another. He fails to fault President Grant for backing a wicked Louisiana state government that unnecessarily 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 brother-in-law—James F. Casey—among its leaders. As customs tax collector in New Orleans, Casey held one of America’s most lucrative federal patronage posts. It trailed only New York’s tariff collector as the most notoriously corruption-prone federal assignment. Moreover, Chernow fails to even consider whether the President may have profited personally from Casey’s activities. The author begins his applicable narrative 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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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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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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Demeaning Sumner to Uplift Grant

(November 6, 2017) In the interview below professor Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University disparages Senator Charles Sumner in an attempt to elevate Ulysses Grant’s reputation as President.

At the twenty-seven and a half minute mark above, Dr. Calhoun describes Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner as President Grant’s most formidable enemy. He later ridicules Sumner for cautioning that Grant had a tendency to exercise dictatorial powers as President. While there are good reasons to criticize Sumner, such as his excessive claims against Great Britain for damages caused by the Confederate maritime raiders during the Civil War, Calhoun’s focus is wrong. He also ignores Sumner’s leadership in civil rights for blacks.

Although President Grant tried to conceal his dictatorial tendencies, he candidly admitted after leaving office that “the wisest [Reconstruction] policy would have been” to govern the South under military rule as long as needed until the region was ready to join a “Northern Union” upon “our” terms. 

Perhaps more unfair is Calhoun’s failure to credit Sumner with even more ambitious civil rights goals than the professor attributes to Grant. Sumner, for example, was the co-author of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, passed a year after his death. It was the most far-reaching of all civil rights acts during Reconstruction because it attempted to provide for social as well as legal equality. For example, it required that African-Americans be treated equally in public accommodations and transportation facilities.

The public accommodation sections of the Act were struck down in a series of 8-to-1 Supreme Court decisions in 1883. All members of the court were Republicans as were the Presidents who appointed them.  Three were appointed by Hayes, two by Arthur, two by Grant, one by Garfield and one by Lincoln.

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Two Professors Distort Ulysses Grant Motives

(November 5, 2017) In the interview below historians Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University and John Marszalek of Mississippi State whitewash Ulysses Grant’s motives for declining to return to Galena, Illinois and live in a home gifted to him by the town’s residents after the end of the Civil War.

Specifically, one audience member asks why Grant did not stay in Galena especially after the town gave him a new home. He concludes by asking, “…did [Grant] not want handouts?” Marszalek and Calhoun take four minutes to answer without once mentioning that Grant was an eager—possibly over-eager— recipient of gifts.

The Galena home was worth $16,000. Earlier, however, Philadelphia’s Union League Club gave the Grants a more valuable mansion at 2009 Chestnut Street that included closets of fine linen and a dining table pre-set with silver flatware. But it was impractical for the general to commute daily between Philadelphia and Washington, where he was working at the time.

As a result, Eastern business leaders raised a $100,000 purse for Grant in 1866. He used $30,000 of the “handout” to purchase an elegant home in Washington City.  Three years later he sold the house for $65,000 after reneging on an agreement to sell it for $40,000 to a buyer who had already made a $1,000 good faith deposit. Grant was able to get the $65,000 price after urging Eastern business leaders to raise a subscription for General William T. Sherman for the specific purpose of buying Grant’s Washington home. Thus, instead of making a $10,000 profit upon sale of the home Grant made $35,000.

Shortly after his first presidential inauguration in 1869 Grant accepted a gift for a fourth residence valued at $35,000. This one was a vacation “cottage” of twenty-seven rooms in Long Branch, New Jersey.

Grant rewarded key donors for the homes with political appointments. Daniel Butterfield, who led the $100,000 subscription, was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in New York. Butterfield promptly became involved in the Jay Gould and Jim Fisk attempt to corner the gold market.

Similarly, Tom Murphy, who helped raise money for the Long Branch “cottage” became the New York customs collector. At the time, most federal taxes came from tariffs (customs duties) and New York was the chief collection point. As in any government operation through which large amounts of money funnel, some of it inevitably sticks to the fingers of those in charge. The New York tariff collector held the most valuable federal patronage position during the nineteenth century. The collector often earned more than the President who appointed him because the collector earned a percentage of the cargoes seized and fines levied.

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