John Y Simon. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Ulysses S. Grant did not need or want the presidency and entered the White House with considerable reluctance. His dazzling rise to fame during the Civil War had elevated him within three years from a former captain working for a younger brother in their father’s leather-goods store in Galena, Illinois, to commander of all the armies of the United States. In one more year, he ended the war and prepared to reap the rewards of victory. Citizens of Gale-na gave Grant a handsomely furnished house, which he retained as a voting residence and visited occasionally, and for a time the Grants lived in Philadelphia, in another house presented to the victorious general; but command of the army required Grant’s presence in Washington, where Grant, happily married and a devoted father to four children, united his family. Promoted to general of the army as of 25 July 1866, Grant held military rank higher than any other American except George Washington, drew a comfortable salary with many perquisites, and fulfilled grave responsibilities. Indeed, grateful citizens of the North intended to honor and reward the man who deserved more credit for the continued existence of the United States than anyone except President Abraham Lincoln.
The advantages of Grant’s position as general in chief included lifelong tenure, no small benefit to a man who had encountered grinding poverty in the years between resignation from the army in 1854 and reentry into military service in the Civil War in 1861. As a young officer, he had received promotions during the Mexican War, but the peacetime army offered little hope of advancement. Assigned to Pacific Coast duty in 1852 and prudently leaving behind his pregnant wife, Grant encountered inflated prices and felt the financial pinch of army pay. Unable to make a success of investment or farming, lonely and unhappy, Captain Grant resigned his commission. He left the Pacific Coast to rejoin his family, intending to farm the land in Saint Louis County, Missouri, that his father-in-law had given to his wife, Julia, but despite dogged efforts he succumbed to the Panic of 1857 and eventually lost the farm and the unfinished log house, ruefully named Hardscrabble, which he had built with the aid of neighbors. In the years following, Grant never prospered in anything he tried. At one low point, he pawned his watch two days before Christmas, perhaps so that he could buy gifts for his wife and children. The move to Galena in 1860 to take the job his father provided may have been an even greater humiliation.
Such poverty left scars. For the rest of his life he gratefully remembered friends who had stuck by him in his years of adversity and those who helped him gain command in the Civil War and refuted critics of his generalship. He wanted personal loyalty and returned it overgenerously. Grant valued security and stability above glory and wealth. During the Civil War he began to use his military pay to purchase the land he had once farmed, attempting to re-create his father-in-law’s estate, White Haven. An avid horse fancier, Grant looked forward to eventual retirement and the satisfactions of a gentleman farmer, but promotion to lieutenant general in 1864 gave him the prospect of an equally pleasant life in the peacetime army as a desk general with a settled family life.
Politics had no appeal for Grant, perhaps in part because it had fascinated his father. Jesse Root Grant, a self-made man who never allowed others to forget it, had risen from poverty to affluence in the leather business, educating himself along the way. He wrote letters to newspapers on a variety of subjects, plunged into political controversy, and was elected mayor of Georgetown and later of Bethel, Ohio. (Ulysses was raised in Georgetown but had been born in Point Pleasant on 27 April 1822.) Perhaps in reaction his son developed such a taste for privacy and modesty that through a long public career he never corrected the common misapprehension that his middle name was Simpson, his mother’s maiden name (he had been named Hiram Ulysses but his first name was never used); he could not even bring himself to deliver a political speech until several years after leaving the White House. Jesse had insisted that his unwilling eldest son go to West Point and did little to help him start farming in Missouri. As Ulysses rose to fame during the Civil War, the proud father tried to promote his son’s career through letters to newspapers; as a result, Grant noted, Cincinnati newspapers, those most accessible to Jesse, gave Ulysses the most unfavorable coverage of any in the North. Writing to a potential biographer of Ulysses, Jesse acknowledged where his son got his character:
Like his mother, he rarely ever laughs, never sheds a tear or becomes excited—though always in a pleasant humor—never says a profane word, or indulges in jokes—always says what he means and means what he says—always expressing himself in the fewest possible words, and never had a personal controversy with man or boy in his life.
In 1856, Grant voted for Democrat James Buchanan for president, later explaining that he did so to avert secession and because “I knew Frémont.” In 1860, although ineligible to vote as a newcomer to Galena, Grant favored Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Yet Grant received his first commission in the Civil War from a Republican, Governor Richard Yates; and his appointment as brigadier general, which preceded his first encounter with the enemy, came through the efforts of another Republican, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Galena. Grant’s conversion to the Republican party proceeded imperceptibly as he sought to avoid all involvement in political issues, but by 1864 he understood the importance to battlefield victory of the reelection of Lincoln and allowed Washburne to use his letters as campaign literature. Grant supported the reelection of Lincoln through the Union party, something more than a false front for the Republicans, as evidenced by its nomination of Andrew Johnson, an avowed and unrepentant Democrat, for vice president.
In 1864, political speculation already centered on the military hero, and Grant received exploratory correspondence from Democrats as well as Republicans. Before nominating Grant as lieutenant general, Lincoln had sought an assurance that Grant had no presidential ambitions. At the Union convention, Missouri delegates sought to enter a Radical protest by voting for Grant for the presidential nomination, though all other votes went to Lincoln. Grant’s sound reasons for rejecting political overtures in 1864 no longer applied after Appomattox.
Grant met Lincoln for the first time in March 1864, when Grant went to Washington to receive his commission as lieutenant general. They had apparent similarities as products of the new West, but their differences were more important. Lincoln retained the aura of frontiersman while Grant cultivated gentility, with Lincoln winning fame for telling dirty stories, and Grant, a reputation for refusing to listen to them. Lincoln’s style was indirect, and it is doubtful whether, in their infrequent meetings, Grant fully understood the man or his policy. While Grant received the impression that the president had put the war into his hands, Lincoln retained his supervisory role as commander in chief. When Grant sought to have the president remove a troublesome and incompetent subordinate, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, Lincoln insisted that Grant take responsibility for this decision. Grant’s appointment of Lincoln’s son Robert to his headquarters staff relieved Lincoln of the onus of withholding his own son from a war to which he had sent so many other sons. Robert’s relatively safe position also solved one of Lincoln’s problems with Mary Lincoln, whose increasingly bizarre behavior sometimes took the form of irrational fears about the safety of Robert. Mary’s tantrums kept the Lincolns and Grants apart, most notably leading to a declined invitation to Ford’s Theater. All in all, Grant learned little from Lincoln.
Grant and Johnson
Unfortunately, the president with whom Grant spent far more time, Andrew Johnson, taught negative lessons. Lincoln did not conceal a vein of coarseness, but Johnson displayed it proudly. By emphasizing his humble origins and rise to prominence through his own efforts, Johnson may have seemed reminiscent of Grant’s father, whom, not incidentally, Johnson appointed postmaster of Covington, Kentucky, in an embarrassingly blatant attempt to obligate his son.
Johnson and Grant headed toward a collision over policy. Both men had owned slaves before the Civil War, but Johnson had gloried in his ownership, had once declared his dream that every American family might own one, and based policy upon his firm conviction in the superiority of whites. Grant had worked Hardscrabble with slaves supplied by his father-in-law, and Julia continued to own slaves during the Civil War; but Grant freed one slave he owned himself in 1859, at a time when he desperately needed the money that sale of a slave could bring. At the onset of the Civil War, he dreaded a slave insurrection, which he assumed would have to be suppressed by the armed force of both North and South.
Just as he changed from Democrat to Republican during the Civil War, his attitude toward blacks shifted. From the earliest days of the Civil War, blacks contributed to a Union victory as they flocked through northern lines bringing information of southern strength and plans. Once within the lines, they gratefully accepted employment in support of the army, working at tasks that released white men for combat. Grant saw the first black troops in his army prove their capacity as soldiers by their defense of Millikens’ Bend in June 1863. By the close of the Civil War, 10–12 percent of the Union army consisted of black troops; an important component of the armies, they had proved themselves on many battle-fields.
Thus, Grant, the last former slaveholder elected president, was forced by his military role to consider blacks both as human beings and as soldiers. If he did not transcend the racism of his day, as commanding general he assumed responsibility for all men who served in the army, white and black. Like Lincoln, he believed that governmental responsibility extended to veterans; denying civil rights and citizenship to men who had fought offended his sense of duty. Yet Grant shared some of Johnson’s sympathy with the whites of the South: after all, he had firm friendships with many southern officers of the old army, had married a southerner (a cousin of the Confederate general James Longstreet), and had never participated in the bitter sectional debate before the Civil War.
Johnson, appointed brigadier general at the time he was named military governor of Tennessee, had really served in a civil capacity. Ever the politician, Johnson tried to manipulate the army to serve his goals both in Tennessee and in the White House. Sent on a tour of inspection of the South by Johnson, Grant returned with a report that emphasized the willingness of southerners to reaffirm their allegiance, a view that suited Johnson, but did not recommend withdrawal of troops or elimination of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency established to care for, and protect, former slaves.
Johnson’s policy of rapid restoration of political rights in former Confederate states exposed Union soldiers to suits filed in state courts by their former enemies. Grant issued orders in January 1866, authorizing removal of such cases to federal courts or to those of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Johnson soon embarked on open warfare with Congress, which passed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the civil rights bill over his vetoes. Johnson and Grant soon found themselves in quiet conflict over the enforcement of congressional legislation by the army.
The conflict remained quiet because Grant, as a soldier, was determined to obey the commander in chief and because Johnson needed Grant’s popularity to shore up his political power. Johnson dragged Grant along on a “swing around the circle,” a trip ostensibly to dedicate the Douglas tomb in Chicago but really a political tour to allow Johnson to argue before the voters his case against congressional Radicals, who demanded sweeping political and social change in the South. Johnson’s undignified harangues disgusted Grant, who temporarily left the party at Cleveland, leading staunch supporters of Johnson to charge that Grant had withdrawn to recover from excessive drinking. Recognizing the dangers of their eroding relationship, Johnson tried to send Grant on a mission to Mexico and to bring William T. Sherman to Washington in his place; Grant flatly refused to go, insisting that the president had no authority to order an officer on a civilian mission.
Congressional Republicans took advantage of the estrangement through the first Reconstruction Act, whereby they established five military districts in the former Confederacy in which army officers would supervise compliance with Reconstruction policy. On 2 March 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the first Reconstruction Act and passed an appropriation bill for the army containing a rider that became known as the Command of the Army Act, requiring that all presidential orders pass through the general in chief and prohibiting his removal or relocation. Soon after the Reconstruction Act went into effect, its rigorous enforcement by Major General Philip H. Sheridan in the Fifth Military District (Louisiana and Texas) irritated Johnson, whose hands were tied by the fact that Sheridan was a great favorite of Grant.
In August, Johnson struck at Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had long been a Radical agent in the presidential camp and was protected by congressional allies through the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited removal of cabinet officers without the consent of the Senate. Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant acting secretary of war. Johnson knew that he could not succeed in his high-handed removal of Stanton without replacing him with the most popular man in the country; Grant accepted rather than allow the army to fall into unfriendly hands.
Johnson and Grant managed this uneasy partnership until Congress reassembled at the end of 1867, quickly evincing a determination to reinstate Stanton and placing Grant in the untenable position of obeying either his commander in chief or Congress. Grant told Johnson that he intended to resign the office of secretary of war because to hold firm would make him liable to fine and imprisonment under the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson asked Grant to delay his resignation and believed that he had agreed to do so. Through misunderstanding (as Grant’s friends believed) or bad faith (as Johnson believed), Grant surrendered the office to Stanton before Johnson had an opportunity to nominate an alternative candidate who might have garnered enough Republican support to achieve confirmation. The restoration of Stanton led to a stormy cabinet confrontation during which Johnson accused Grant of lying. Publication of the exchange of acrimonious correspondence that followed the cabinet meeting completed the process of rupture between president and general.
Johnson’s renewed efforts to remove Stanton led to an impeachment trial, with Grant now considered a firm supporter of the removal of Johnson. The break with Johnson provided adequate evidence to Republicans that Grant could be counted in their party. Grant’s dislike of Johnson and his policies had increased to the point that he believed that duty demanded his acceptance of a presidential nomination, despite his personal preference for remaining in the army.
Election of 1868
Grant’s nomination by the Republican party was inevitable; nobody else received serious consideration, and the convention vote was unanimous. For its vice presidential candidate, the convention chose Schuyler Colfax, a glib and unimportant Indiana congressman. Grant’s nomination served to protect the Republicans from answering such hard questions as the length they intended to push Reconstruction policy and the extent of their commitment to the freedmen. The platform advocated enfranchising blacks in the former Confederacy, leaving the matter elsewhere to the states. War’s end endangered the fragile alliance of men with widely differing economic policies; midwestern farmers and eastern manufacturers disagreed on crucial currency issues, the tariff, and much more. The concluding words in Grant’s letter accepting the nomination, “Let us have peace,” became a Republican rallying cry, valued all the more for its banality.
Democrats possessed all the strengths and weaknesses of a national party. Vociferous support from persons who had so recently fought to overthrow the government proved a mixed blessing. Even in the North, the record of the party during the Civil War proved embarrassing; the party had split into war and peace factions, with the latter denying that the war could be won and sometimes acting to fulfill the prophecy. Accusations of lack of patriotism suggested to some leaders the wisdom of abandoning all war-related issues and focusing instead on economic policy, but Democrats North and South refused to abandon issues that they believed so important; furthermore, questions of Reconstruction demanded attention.
The Democrats had a plethora of candidates for nomination, none of them outstanding. Johnson deserved consideration because of his stubborn defense of Democratic principles, and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who had defected from the Democrats over the slavery issue in 1854, announced his return to the party just in time to seek the nomination. George Pendleton of Ohio advocated redeeming bonds issued to finance the Civil War with greenbacks, the fiat currency introduced as a war measure, and this inflationary scheme had enthusiastic support from hard-pressed debtors, especially midwestern farmers. The nomination of Winfield Scott Hancock presented the option of confronting the victor of Appomattox with the hero of Gettysburg and a general whose Reconstruction administration of Louisiana had even pleased Johnson.
As prominent candidates canceled out each other, the convention dragged on for ballot after ballot. Finally the weary delegates settled for Horatio Seymour, the wartime governor of New York, who was presiding over the convention and had dis-avowed any interest in the nomination. Seymour’s reluctance to furnish troops during the war and his inept conduct during the draft riots in New York City constituted liabilities that the Democrats hoped to counter by nominating Francis P. Blair, Jr., for vice president. Blair negated his asset of having been a commander under Sherman, which should have given him the needed aura of patriotism to balance Seymour, by inflammatory criticism of Reconstruction governments as barbarous and despotic.
Grant ostentatiously ignored the ensuing campaign. At its peak, Grant, accompanied by Sherman and Sheridan, left for a combination inspection and vacation tour of the West, going as far as Denver. When election returns were telegraphed to Grant’s home in Galena, he took remarkably little interest in them.
When the votes were all counted, Grant had defeated Seymour with 214 electoral votes from 26 states to 80 electoral votes from 8 states: New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland. Yet the Republican popular majority (3 million to 2.7 million) was only slightly more than 300,000. Assuming that 90 percent of the 500,000 votes cast by blacks went to Grant, Seymour received a majority of the votes cast by whites. Nonetheless, Grant profited by the same electoral arithmetic that gave victory to Lincoln in 1860 with under 40 percent of the popular vote.
Election returns in 1868 demonstrated the strength and resilience of the Democratic party, saddled with a deplorable record during the Civil War and unappealing candidates in 1868. Given the facts that no presidential vote was recorded in Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas; that Republican victories in southern and border states depended on black votes (by no means assured as a permanent feature on the political scene); and that the Democrats could carry some northern states and make the race tight in others, the Democratic party could still be considered the majority party in the United States. If black votes had not elected Grant, they had not hurt him either. Black votes put six states of the former Confederacy in the Republican column, and Republican hopes for the future depended heavily on continued black political participation. Republican leaders knew that Grant’s personal popularity had served as a major campaign asset; they might have lost with any other nominee.
Grant believed that he owed his election to the American people—not to the Republican party. As he prepared for inauguration, he kept his own counsel about his inaugural address and cabinet appointments, rebuffing politicians eager to assist. Republican leaders thought they had done him a favor by giving him the presidency; Grant thought they had given him a burdensome office with unstable tenure. Republican leaders thought they had created a politician; Grant thought they had created an administrator.
Grant’s success as a general owed much to his unmilitary attitude. Sent to West Point against his will, he had never enjoyed the traditions of military life. He believed that laws of war as generally conceived were meant to be broken under new conditions. In the war’s final year, he accompanied the Army of the Potomac without displacing its commander, Major General George G. Meade, and took on the responsibilities of overall command without leading troops into battle. He employed Major General Henry W. Halleck, his predecessor as general in chief, as chief of staff, setting the United States Army on the road to modern military bureaucracy. This un-military general now chose to become an unpolitical president.
There was a key difference in the situation presented him by the presidency. Grant had spent fifteen years in the army from his entrance into West Point until his resignation in 1854, and during the Civil War he was fully cognizant of those laws of war he disobeyed. He understood the procedural details of conventional military organization and was clear-headed about those he hoped to change. His ability to innovate was based upon a knowledge of the fundamentals of his job, something he lacked when he entered the White House.
Grant’s obvious distaste for politics disconcerted the politicians but delighted the public. The long battle between Johnson and Congress had grown wearisome; in this sense, the slogan “Let Us Have Peace” had struck home to the voters. They expected little from the president, and Grant prepared to satisfy them.
The powers of the office had been enormously increased by Lincoln under war conditions. At the start of the conflict, he had not called Congress into session but had immediately issued a call for troops, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and taken other emergency measures that he expected Congress to ratify. When Congress proved an obstacle to Lincoln’s concept of the proper conduct of the war, he set policy through the Emancipation Proclamation and his plan for Reconstruction.
Events proved that Johnson could not wield power as Lincoln had. Grant had cooperated with Congress to curb what both regarded as executive usurpation, and he had no intention of fighting the battle over again, this time unnecessarily. If Grant had followed this policy consistently, his White House years would have been an uneventful period of careful administration of existing legislation with few presidential initiatives, but he believed that he was the only person elected by all the people of the nation, putting him in a position different from that of congressmen elected from individual states. He had a responsibility to carry out the popular will, which he believed he could discern. As a quintessential American, he could think nothing else. He would have no quarrel with Congress over policy, but he would fulfill what he interpreted as moral imperatives.
In his inaugural address, Grant clearly expressed his views: “The office has come to me unsought; I commence its duties untrammeled.” He pledged that “all laws will be faithfully executed, whether they meet my approval or not,” a statement that might have seemed a platitude had it not followed Johnson’s exit from the White House. He argued that bonds issued during the war should be paid in gold as a matter of national honor, adding that this upright policy would enable the government to borrow at lower interest rates in the future. Perhaps the only major surprise was a statement calling for reform of Indian policy, a matter otherwise on the periphery of popular concern.
The cabinet appointments, announced after much popular speculation, surprised the country. Grant named Elihu B. Washburne as secretary of state, an appointment intended as a courtesy to an old friend, who was expected to leave the post after a few days to become minister to France. In Paris, Washburne could answer proudly when asked about his previous employment. To succeed him, Grant named Hamilton Fish, former governor of New York, a man whose political career seemed to be behind him. For secretary of the treasury, Grant named Alexander T. Stewart, an enormously wealthy New York City merchant, who was quickly found to be ineligible because of a law passed in the early days of the Republic prohibiting anyone engaged in trade or commerce from holding that office. An embarrassed president asked Congress to change the law, and to add to his embarrassment, Congress declined to do so. George S. Boutwell of Massachusetts, a congressional Radical, was appointed instead.
For secretary of war, Grant named John A. Rawlins, a Galena attorney who had joined his staff early in the war and become a close friend. Grant originally intended to send the tubercular Rawlins to Arizona to recover his health but changed his mind because Rawlins insisted on a major appointment. The nominations of E. Rockwood Hoar of Massachusetts as attorney general and Jacob D. Cox of Ohio as secretary of the interior added men respected for ability and integrity. The choice of John A. J. Creswell of Maryland as postmaster general was also suitable. For secretary of the navy, Grant picked Adolph E. Borie, an elderly and wealthy Philadelphian who had no interest in serving and did so only long enough to save the president embarrassment.
In contrast, Lincoln had appointed to his original cabinet leaders of the Republican party, his chief rivals for the nomination, and had also balanced party factions and geographical regions. Grant risked his political popularity by assuming that choosing able men would suffice.
Republican leaders, mystified by these appointments, too often credited them to ineptitude—certainly a factor—while overlooking their logic. Grant’s strong feelings about personal loyalty led to the appointments of Washburne and Rawlins. His choice of Fish, his most successful, reflected his conservatism. Politicians forgot that Johnson made Grant a Republican, not a Radical. During the war, Grant’s attitude had been one of sympathy for southerners but not for their rebellion. Only when the South continued to defy the supremacy of the federal government after the war did Grant reluctantly come to support Radical Reconstruction and black suffrage. Grant sought to appoint those most likely to achieve sectional harmony and obedience to law, and so he avoided Radicals. Overlooking prominent Republicans was no accident; the appointment of men whose primary loyalty might shift from the executive to Congress held serious risks, since appointees still had the protection of the Tenure of Office Act, another law Grant unsuccessfully asked Congress to change.
As Grant took office, Reconstruction issues took precedence. Only a week before Grant’s inauguration, Congress proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In his inaugural address, Grant stated that the issue of suffrage was “likely to agitate the public” until settled; “I entertain the hope and express the desire,” he declared, that its settlement “may be by ratification of the fifteenth … amendment.” Grant played a quiet but persistent role in ratification, at one point asking the governor of Nebraska to call a special session of the legislature to speed the process. In almost precisely one year, he could declare that the Fifteenth Amendment was the law of the land, the very law he had sworn to uphold.
On inauguration day, four states—Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas—remained unrepresented in Congress and subject to the Reconstruction Acts. One year after Grant’s inauguration, all states of the former Confederacy except one were represented in Congress, and on 24 February 1871, Georgia seated its senators, having complied with congressional Reconstruction legislation and with the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right of blacks to vote. Reconstruction was, in these respects, complete.
By historical consensus, Reconstruction formally ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of the last United States troops from the South by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Outward compliance of white southerners with Reconstruction, grudgingly given and with many reservations, tied the hands of the conservative administration of President Grant. Any effort to maintain the spirit as well as the letter of Reconstruction legislation collided with older and valued concepts of states’ rights.
The years of the Grant administration constituted a gradual retreat from Reconstruction, initiated in the South but increasingly tolerated by the North. Grant certainly wanted as rapid as possible an end to the special status of the former Confederacy as a domain of federal intervention. The basic question for him and his countrymen was what price to pay for this peace. From the start, southerners made clear that the road to reunion lay over the rights of their former slaves.
Although the relationship between black votes and Republican majorities in these states was generally understood, Grant spurned any intervention for political advantage; as president, he could intervene only to uphold the law and could officially recognize only clear-cut violations. Aware of this policy, opponents of Reconstruction governments often tried to subvert it through clandestine means, such as the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, which would accomplish the purpose without provoking federal intervention. Using hindsight, critics have argued either that the Grant administration did too much or that it did too little to maintain Reconstruction.
Reconstruction state governments controlled by carpetbaggers (northern whites who went to the South with a mixture of crass and idealistic motives), scalawags (white southerners who supported Reconstruction, again from a mixture of motives), and former slaves possessed varying degrees of integrity. Critics portrayed these state governments as carnivals of corruption, rarely drawing parallels to cases of malfeasance in the North, such as the notorious Tweed Ring in New York City. Promises that Reconstruction governments would be supplanted by honest, competent, and conservative regimes tempted many northerners to ignore the issue of black civil rights.
While the Grant administration erred in intervening too little to uphold Reconstruction legislation, Grant did not ignore violence, intimidation, and disorder in the South. He used enforcement legislation for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and he asked Congress for the legislation ultimately known as the Ku Klux Act (20 April 1871), which enabled him to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and impose martial law in areas in which local officials did not protect the rights of all citizens. Armed with the law, Grant enforced it in parts of South Carolina, sending in troops and initiating prosecutions. Here and elsewhere he recognized opponents of Reconstruction as the same men he had faced in battle, men determined to use force to reverse the results of the war. In upholding Reconstruction, Grant increasingly acted on his own; in fact, the administration proceeded past the point at which it had adequate popular or congressional support. Enforcement declined as the years progressed, as northerners recognized that frustrating any attempt by southern whites to control state governments and to subjugate the black population accomplished no more than buying time and led to efforts to accomplish the same purpose by other means. Any condemnation of the Grant administration for abandoning Reconstruction requires a general condemnation of the nation. As the war years receded, the whites regained control of the South.
Enforcement of Reconstruction was accompanied by extension of amnesty. In May 1872, an administration-favored bill gave amnesty to all but about five hundred former Confederates who had left the United States government to take arms against it. While Johnson’s generosity in granting amnesty had infuriated Radicals, the passage of time enabled Grant to enlarge the policy.
The basic conservatism of the Grant administration found fullest expression in the handling of financial issues. On 18 March 1869, Congress passed the Public Credit Act, which pledged the repayment of the bonded debt in gold and thus ended years of uncertainty over whether the nation might follow an inflationary course by redeeming bonds with the greenbacks issued during the Civil War, a policy advocated by some Republicans as well as Democrats. Basically, the government followed a policy of hard currency, economy, and gradual reduction of the national debt.
Grant’s own ideas about finance were relatively simple, and he seemed to have absorbed some of them from the wealthy businessmen who so assiduously courted him. Aware of Grant’s attraction to the financially successful, James Fisk and Jay Gould devised a plan to snare him into a scheme for their own profit. Greenback currency fluctuated in relation to gold; government could affect the price by selling or withholding gold. Gould and Fisk planned to drive up gold prices by convincing Grant that such an increase would benefit farmers, and they enlisted Abel Rathbone Corbin, who was married to Grant’s sister and claimed greater influence with the president than he actually possessed. Corbin assisted Fisk and Gould in gaining social access to Grant, something that enhanced the reputations of the unscrupulous pair in New York financial circles.
Gould and Fisk bought up gold, intending to persuade the president to take steps to drive the price upward. While Grant visited relatives in out-of-the-way Washington, Pennsylvania, Corbin wrote him a letter, delivered by special messenger, that argued the case for the public benefits of higher gold prices. Suspicious at last, Grant asked his wife to write Mrs. Corbin a letter telling her to have her husband stop his speculations. Gould double-crossed his partner by secretly unloading his holdings, while Fisk continued to buy until he had driven the price to unprecedented heights on “Black Friday” (24 September 1869). On that same day, Grant and Secretary of the Treasury Boutwell decided to sell gold, and the price immediately plummeted. In the gyrations, fortunes were made and lost, and the whole affair became the subject of a congressional investigation embarrassing to Grant and his wife. The president, although guilty of indiscretion and naïveté, could not be charged with personal profiteering.
Financial concerns again claimed Grant’s interest when the Supreme Court decided Hepburn v. Griswold (7 February 1870) by declaring the Legal Tender Acts unconstitutional as applied to contracts made prior to their enactment. Conservative Republicans who dreaded the inflationary impact of increased issuance of greenbacks equally feared the deflationary shock of their sudden disappearance as lawful currency. Grant soon filled two vacancies on the Court with justices believed to favor the Legal Tender Acts. As a result, the Court reversed its stand in ruling on two additional greenback cases, Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis (1 May 1871). Inevitably, Grant was accused of packing the Court, a charge justified to the extent that he had some idea in advance of how his appointees would vote. Nonetheless, he had appointed two qualified men and had no obligation to select justices who might create financial upheaval.
The handling of foreign affairs illustrates the uneven record of the Grant administration. The most important problem confronting the incoming president was the settlement of the Alabama Claims against Great Britain, a complex of grievances centering on the depredations committed against American shipping during the Civil War by the Alabama, a Confederate cruiser improperly purchased in England. During the war, Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had grown so angry over the lack of true British neutrality that he now demanded immense reparations, perhaps to the extent of annexing Canada to settle the matter. Sumner had taken the lead in rejecting a settlement treaty negotiated by the Johnson administration and later provoked the government to increased militancy.
Fish recognized that American claims against Great Britain for granting belligerent status to Confederates were jeopardized by American pressure to grant the same rights to Cuban rebels, who had less claim under international law to such status but much American support for their revolt against Spain. Grant, inclined to sympathize with the Cubans, a course urged by Secretary of War Rawlins, prodded Fish to recognize Cuban belligerency. Concerned about the effect on negotiations with Great Britain, Fish delayed the process by continuing negotiations in Madrid for a peaceful settlement. Rawlins’ death on 6 September 1869 removed the leader of the militants, and the failure of the Cuban insurgents to make solid gains lessened United States enthusiasm for active support. For a time, the divergence between Grant and Fish on Cuban policy threatened to throw the issue to Congress, where recognition of Cuban belligerency commanded strong support. Ultimately threatening to resign, Fish forced Grant to send a message to Congress that averted recognition.
Resolution of the Cuban issue permitted Fish to conclude negotiations with Great Britain. He arranged a meeting of commissioners that resulted in the Treaty of Washington, signed 8 May 1871, which acknowledged violations by Great Britain during the Civil War and provided for monetary settlement of American claims by an international commission in Geneva. Sumner argued that Great Britain had prolonged the war for two years at a cost of $2 billion but did not block Senate ratification. Although the commission eventually awarded the United States only $15.5 million, Americans had reason for pride in the settlement of the controversy in favor of the United States without belligerent actions and in the establishment of a precedent for settling international claims through arbitration.
Yet the diplomatic achievements of the Grant administration were shadowed by the Santo Domingo fiasco, the origins of which lay in United States interest in a Caribbean naval base to protect a future isthmian canal and in the inability of the Dominican government to manage its finances. American promoters working with President Bonaventura Báez approached Fish with an offer to sell the country to the United States. Suspicious of where the money would go and dubious about expansion, Fish tried to shelve the proposition, but Grant expressed interest in pursuing the matter. Grant sent his secretary, Orville E. Babcock, to Santo Domingo to investigate, though Fish ensured that he carried no diplomatic authority. Babcock, the Iago of the Grant administration, returned with a draft treaty of annexation.
The pluck and ambition of his bright young secretary captured Grant’s admiration. Properly accredited for a second visit, Babcock returned with a treaty of annexation and, in case this was rejected, an agreement for the lease of Samaná Bay as a naval station. To further the treaty, Grant paid a surprise visit to Sumner’s house, where he talked about the advantages of annexation and Sumner argued for a territorial appointment for an old antislavery ally. As Grant left, he understood Sumner to assure him of support; Sumner recalled that he had only promised to consider the matter carefully. In fact, Sumner was adamantly opposed to elimination of black self-government in Santo Domingo and led the Foreign Relations Committee to a 5–2 rejection of the treaty. Despite administration pressure, the full Senate rejected annexation by a 28–28 vote, with 19 Republicans joining the opposition.
Just as Grant had slogged south after Lee had stopped him at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, his rebuff on the Santo Domingo issue made him even more determined on eventual victory. Heroism in war became pettiness in peace. He dismissed John Lothrop Motley, minister to Great Britain, an appointment made initially to please Sumner, and played a role in Sumner’s deposition as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Attorney General Hoar and Secretary of the Interior Cox, both lukewarm in supporting annexation, eventually left the cabinet, the latter replaced by Columbus Delano, who returned the Interior Department to spoilsmen. While Grant could do nothing to secure annexation, he refused to abandon the cause and even brought it up again in his last message to Congress.
Unfortunately, he lacked such persistence in the cause of reform of Indian policy. In his inaugural address, he had pledged to encourage Indians toward “civilization and ultimate citizenship,” and soon astonished the nation by the unprecedented appointment of an Indian, Ely S. Parker, a former staff officer, as commissioner of Indian affairs. He followed this by appointing the Board of Indian Commissioners, an unpaid group of advisers to the secretary of the interior who were charged with implementing the “peace policy,” based on the appointment of churchmen as Indian agents. In his zeal to serve the Indians, Parker antagonized both board and bureaucrats; he resigned in 1871. The remainder of the peace policy disintegrated amid denominational squabbling, the counterattack of entrenched economic interests, and the unwillingness of the Indians to surrender their way of life to the concepts of white reformers. By the end of Grant’s second term, reservation Indians were again at the mercy of a corrupt Interior Department; others were the charges of a United States Army still smarting from the death of George A. Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
A similar fate awaited civil service reform. Filling government positions with nonpartisan appointees through competitive examination had the enthusiastic support of Congressman Thomas A. Jenckes of Rhode Island, Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, and George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly, and of Cox, Hoar, and Boutwell, who tried to implement reform within their departments. Asked by Grant to legislate reform, Congress returned the problem to the White House by asking the president to appoint a civil service commission to draw up rules. Grant appointed Curtis to head the commission and accepted its recommendations, to take effect on 1 January 1872. Civil service had Republican party support when applied to ill-paid clerkships but encountered resistance when it encroached upon such lush pasturage as the New York Customhouse, the preserve of Senator Roscoe Conkling, a loyal supporter of the president. Repeatedly Congress failed to enact civil service legislation; in 1875, it refused to appropriate funds to maintain the commission. Congressional resistance eventually persuaded Grant himself to abandon civil service procedures.
Reformers cooled toward Grant even before Grant cooled toward reform. Disappointment with failures to implement civil service reform, disgust with Reconstruction governments, and dismay with high-tariff policy (when free trade and laissez-faire represented the best economic thought) brought together a group eventually christened Liberal Republicans, who, embellishing their cause with cries of “Grantism,” denounced corruption, inefficiency, and nepotism. Led by Schurz, Cox, Sumner, Lyman Trumbull, Charles Francis Adams, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, they moved toward independent political status. In 1872, they passed over such logical presidential nominees as Adams and Judge David Davis to nominate Greeley for president, a choice soon ratified by opportunistic Democrats. Greeley’s eccentricities, high-tariff views, and record of unqualified abuse of the Democratic party played into the hands of the Republicans.
Grant won reelection easily. Economic prosperity, combined with debt reduction, temporarily lowered tariffs, and repeal of the income tax, hurt the opposition, as did the initial implementation of civil service. Ku Klux Klan outrages in the South reminded voters of Civil War issues, as did Republican orators. When doubts arose, Grantism seemed a small price for peace and prosperity. Grant received 3.6 million votes to 2.8 million for Greeley, who carried only six states: Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Maryland, and Kentucky. Of 366 electoral votes, the Greeley states had 66. The electoral college refused to count 14 disputed votes for Grant from Arkansas and Louisiana or 3 cast for Greeley, who had died shortly after the election, so the official tally gave 286 for Grant to 63 divided among four Democrats. Grant received the largest percentage (55.6 percent) of the popular vote of any candidate since Andrew Jackson’s 56 percent in 1828. Grant rather smugly proclaimed the victory a personal vindication. Loyal Republicans crowed that their party had been purified by the departure of Liberal Republicans; history later proclaimed the opposite. Charges against Grant in the second election campaign were even nastier than those aired in the first, and some came from former allies, now Liberal Republicans. President Grant ignored the charges in public but inwardly seethed. His tendency to overvalue loyalty increased when he felt betrayed, and after 1872 he established a network of party stalwarts around him, men who seldom questioned his policy but instead furthered it. Ironically, Grantism increased in the second term.
The Grant family had settled comfortably in the White House. Julia’s original apprehensions about her social role eased when she received assistance and advice from the wife of Secretary Fish. Fred Grant, the oldest son, graduated from West Point; Ulysses, Jr., scraped through Harvard and served his father as presidential secretary. Daughter Nellie enjoyed a White House wedding in 1874, much publicized throughout the country, even though people would have preferred she not marry an Englishman, and Walt Whitman, unacknowledged poet laureate of the Grant administration, wrote a poem in her honor. Jesse, the youngest son, ran happily through the White House in a manner reminiscent of Tad Lincoln, to the delight of his doting parents.
Grant himself usually worked in his office from ten in the morning until around three in the afternoon and then drove his carriage through Washington. Long summer vacations at Long Branch, New Jersey, drew criticism, as did other trips away from Washington, though none could claim that Grant neglected his duties. In fact, the business of the presidency proved so undemanding that Grant gained some thirty to forty pounds in the White House, apparently the happiest years of his life.
As the nation moved rapidly from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the effects of the business cycle increased. The Panic of 1873 represented the American phase of a depression that spread from Europe and settled over the United States for the remainder of the Grant administration. Railroad overbuilding hastened the onset, and efforts by railroad corporations to maintain profit squeezed farmers already hurt by low prices abroad. Economic distress enabled the Democrats, aided by militant farmers organized as Grangers, to gain control of the House in 1874 for the first time since the firing on Fort Sumter.
The Panic of 1873 raised the greenback issue once again. During the Johnson administration, the Treasury had retired some 10 percent of the $400 million issued; the Grant administration left the remainder in circulation. When the panic struck, Secretary of the Treasury William A. Richardson reissued some of the greenbacks, with mild inflationary effects, but hard-pressed westerners clamored for more. Congress passed legislation (14 April 1874) for the reissue of the remaining $18 million, hardly a large amount of money even then or likely to create inflation, but its reissue was an important symbolic act, demonstrating governmental willingness to acknowledge financial distress.
Grant sympathized with the unemployed and even hoped to create public works programs to provide jobs until he was persuaded to accept the conventional wisdom that government must retrench when revenues fall. His first reaction to the inflation bill was positive, and he drafted a message giving the reasons for his support, but he continued to agonize, found himself unconvinced by his own arguments, and eventually vetoed the bill. Even opponents admired his conscientious approach to the issue and regarded the veto as an act of courage.
During the second term, scandal rocked the Grant administration. Before the second inauguration came the exposure of Crédit Mobilier, a scheme to siphon off the profits made in building the transcontinental railroad, which soiled both Vice President Colfax and his successor, Henry Wilson. Regardless of the fact that the bribery of congressmen took place under Johnson and involved Democrats also, airing the details in 1872 stung the Grant administration. Congressman Benjamin F. Butler’s scandalous salary grab paired a reasonable pay increase for government officials (the president’s salary was doubled to $50,000) with an outrageous provision making the increase retroactive for two years for congressmen, including those defeated in the last election.
Grant’s persistent problems in making suitable appointments were exacerbated by his increased self-confidence after reelection. In this spirit, he re-appointed his brother-in-law as collector of the port of New Orleans although the appointee’s initial term had drawn criticism. Charges of corruption against “Boss” Alexander R. Shepherd, director of public works for the District of Columbia, did not prevent Grant from appointing him territorial governor. When Chase died, Grant first asked Conkling to serve as chief justice, influenced both by gratitude for his political support and Julia Grant’s belief that black robes would set off Conkling’s blond curls. When Conkling declined, Grant went to the opposite extreme by approaching Fish, who also declined. Grant finally nominated Attorney General George H. Williams, whose name was withdrawn after discovery that he had used government funds to supply his wife’s carriage. Grant next nominated Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts, whose name was then withdrawn because Cushing had written a letter to Jefferson Davis in March 1861, recommending someone for a position in the Confederate government. Grant eventually came up with Morrison R. Waite of Ohio, who served ably.
Unfortunately, Grant had to make a great many appointments. In all, twenty-five men served in seven cabinet posts, and the frequency of changes increased as the administration reached its conclusion: there were five new department heads in 1876. Even good appointments backfired, as Grant learned when he chose Benjamin F. Bristow as secretary of the treasury in 1874. Scrupulously honest, Bristow pursued the trail of fraud wherever it led, even into the White House. His investigators uncovered the “Whiskey Ring,” which schemed to avoid taxes on liquor by bribing the agents who should have collected them; some of the payments ended up in Republican party coffers. An especially odious degree of corruption existed in St. Louis, involving men who had known Grant before the Civil War and who traded on his friendship. Informed of this, Grant wrote, “Let no guilty man escape if it can be avoided.”
Further probing revealed that Grant’s secretary Babcock had dealings with some of the chief culprits in St. Louis. Grant’s belief in Babcock’s innocence was so strong that he initially refused to believe that one of the ringleaders in St. Louis was guilty, simply because the man was a close friend of Babcock. Even convictions in St. Louis did not shake this faith. As evidence emerged of Babcock’s role, Grant believed that political manipulators had devised a plot to strike at him through his trusted secretary, and he blamed Bristow. Grant acquiesced when Babcock, who had retained military status, demanded a court of inquiry to forestall indictment in St. Louis, but the grand jury acted too quickly and refused to surrender its papers to a military tribunal. When Babcock went to the city to stand trial, Grant intended to accompany him to testify in his behalf. Dissuaded by his cabinet, Grant instead prepared a deposition in Babcock’s defense before Chief Justice Waite. Although Babcock eventually won acquittal, enough evidence emerged to require his dismissal from the White House, a move Grant made tardily and only after prodding by Fish. Grant eventually forced Bri-stow to resign, blaming him unfairly for the ruin of Babcock.
A worse scandal followed. William W. Belknap, who had succeeded Rawlins as secretary of war, was charged with receiving bribes from a man who had been appointed to a lucrative tradership at a western army post and who, in turn, let another man actually conduct the business in return for regular cash payments. The case was complicated by the fact that the money paid to Belknap was given to his wife, who died in 1874, and when Belknap married his deceased wife’s sister, the payments went to her. As Congress investigated, Belknap realized that he must resign and hurried to the White House one morning, babbling something to the president about protecting a woman’s honor, words inducing Grant to accept the resignation immediately. Two Republican senators hurried in, too late, to advise Grant not to accept the resignation. That afternoon the House voted to impeach Belknap. In the ensuing trial, the fact that Grant had accepted the resignation before impeachment played a role in acquittal; even then the Senate voted 37–25 for conviction, which required a two-thirds vote. During the trial, Mrs. Grant continued to receive Mrs. Belknap at the White House; afterward both Belknaps called on the Grants, who received them cordially and continued to express belief in the former secretary’s innocence.
Grant believed that the prosecution of Belknap was politically motivated, and surely the fact that 1876 was a presidential election year had not escaped the notice of the Democratic majority in the House, which also investigated the minister to Great Britain, Robert C. Schenck, who had used his position to peddle stock in a dubious silver mine to English investors, and Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, who was accused of profiting by awarding contracts to a specially favored firm. Grant had already nipped a budding third-term movement in 1875 by writing a public letter, carrying it to the mailbox himself, and then informing his wife, who would have tried to dissuade him. Republicans nominated Hayes, whose two terms as governor of Ohio gave him a reputation for integrity and kept him away from Washington. Grant somewhat resented Hayes for running as a reformer but consoled himself with the thought that Bristow had not been nominated. The scandals of the Grant administration, however salient in retrospect, appear to have had little influence on the presidential election.
Election of 1876
The abandonment of Reconstruction played a greater role in the outcome of the election. During the 1870s, popular opinion in the North swung away from maintaining Reconstruction governments, some of which fell because Republican infighting gave Democrats their opportunity to “redeem” those states; Grant’s intention to uphold the laws was circumvented by more sophisticated opponents who combined outward compliance with outrageous subversion. In Mississippi, redeemers overthrew the carpetbag governor, Adelbert Ames, through quiet intimidation of black voters, avoiding the overt violence of earlier campaigns and working so skillfully that Grant refused to answer Ames’s anguished pleas. “The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South,” Grant wrote—a statement callous but true.
When the votes were counted in 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had won a clear majority of the votes cast by whites, and Grant privately stated his belief that Tilden had won the election. But Republican strategists realized that the electoral votes of the remaining Reconstruction governments in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana would enable them to claim the election for Hayes, and illegal disfranchisement of blacks and fraud by whites in all three provided grounds for the case. Urged by party leaders to use the army to assist Republicans in the three states, Grant instead argued that “no man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud.” As the outcome of the election hung in the balance, Grant withstood pressure to intervene and supported the electoral-commission plan devised by Congress that finally ended the stalemate. His position alleviated a potentially explosive situation.
In 1872, Greeley and Sumner had advocated an amendment to limit the president to one term. Although designed to injure Grant, enactment would have proved a blessing. If Grant had left the White House after his first term, he might rank among the ablest presidents, remembered for his staunch enforcement of the rights of freedmen combined with conciliation of former Confederates, for reform in Indian policy and civil service, for successful negotiation of the Alabama Claims, and for delivery of peace and prosperity. Black Friday and Santo Domingo might have appeared as minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding administration. Babcock and Belknap would have left with him, their sins undiscovered.
The second term was another story, in part because the Liberal Republican movement had deprived the president of the aid and counsel of so many reformers and intellectuals, in part because the Panic of 1873 created a situation Grant could not alleviate but for which he could be blamed. As the issues of war receded, so did much of the idealism they had evoked. Aspects of his first term looked backward to continue the work of the Lincoln administration; much in his second term foreshadowed the administrations of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. As Grant settled comfortably into the routine of the presidency, he lost some of his independence of thought, falling prey to the influence of party chieftains.
When President Hayes took office, the age of the Civil War and Reconstruction ended. Much won at Appomattox was lost at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, where southerners confirmed prior negotiations with supporters of Hayes to put a Republican president in office in return for the withdrawal of United States troops from the South. In the presidential election of 1872, southern blacks had voted more freely and safely than they would in any succeeding election for nearly a century. In his second term, Grant had relied more heavily on stalwart Republican politicians, successful businessmen, and Fish, none willing to crusade for black civil rights. The wisdom and steady hand of Fish at the State Department had led to successful diplomacy in 1873 when Spanish authorities seized the Virginius, a ship carrying arms to Cuban rebels, even though it flew the American flag (improperly), and summarily executed the crew, which included American citizens. Fish had circumvented the clamor for revenge, instead receiving an apology and indemnity from the Spanish government. Fish’s thorough conservatism and aristocratic disdain for Reconstruction governments had played a less helpful role in domestic policy. Although Republican leaders called for executive action in the South to save the 1876 election, Grant recognized that the time for action had been allowed to slip away.
During the Grant administration, the nation moved into an age of industrialization. Like most of his countrymen, Grant understood the old far better than the new. He sympathized with few of the concerns of militant farmers or workers and regarded Grangers and socialists as dangerous troublemakers. Elected with no clear mandate, Grant proceeded to give the nation a minimal presidency, a pattern broken only by the pressure of events and his own personal idiosyncrasies. Grant dreaded a resurgence of the turmoil that had thrown the nation into war, and the tumultuous aftermath of the presidential election of 1876 indicated that such fears were not altogether unrealistic.
Similarities exist between the presidencies of Grant and Eisenhower. Two West Point graduates with long military service elected as wartime heroes after major wars and two Republican presidents who served two full terms in office, both presided over periods of relative political calm, peace, and prosperity. Eisenhower, as a product of the modern bureaucratic army, had a far better grasp of administration and a low-key personal style that enabled him to quell controversy. Grant’s two outstanding faults, a tendency to carry personal loyalty too far and un-yielding stubbornness, suggest a comparison with President Harry Truman, whom he also resembled in blunt, outspoken honesty.
Historical judgment on the Grant administration has commonly been harsh, with Grant ranked among the great failures in the White House. This may be due in part to the contrast between his military and civilian roles and in part to his saliency in American history. Certainly in 1868 and 1872, Democrats exhibited no greater aptitude for government and produced presidential candidates less suitable than Grant. President Grant was charged with the faults of his countrymen: the willingness of the North to abandon the principles of Reconstruction, the unwillingness of the government to assume responsibility for the economic welfare of its citizens, and the acquiescence of Americans in racism and corruption.
The judgment can stand some modification. Grant proved responsive to the people when they wanted peace and prosperity rather than reform. The pendulum of public opinion had swung from high resolve to complacency. Frequent scandals rocked the administration, none of which blemished the president’s integrity, however much they impugned his judgment. In his final message to Congress, Grant acknowledged his errors:
It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training … Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred … Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit, but it seems to me oftener in the selections made of the assistants appointed to aid in carrying out the various duties of administering the Government … History shows that no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes … Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.
Many presidents who could have written something similar did not, and Grant’s candid statement of fact has sometimes been misread as an apology for his presidency.
Soon after leaving the White House, the Grants began a two-and-a-half-year tour around the world that combined elements of a private vacation and state visit. After his return, Grant again encountered third-term sentiment, not discouraged this time, that came close to success at the 1880 Republican convention. Somewhat at loose ends, Grant entered the Wall Street firm of Grant and Ward, a partnership of his second son, Ulysses, Jr., and Ferdinand Ward. He settled into a comfortable life in New York City with only minor demands on his attention from the firm, in which he was a silent partner, but the one whose reputation attracted investors. In 1884 the firm collapsed, Ward was exposed as a swindler, and Grant’s reputation was sullied. Faced with poverty, Grant began to write accounts of his battles for the Century to provide money for his family and unexpectedly found that he enjoyed writing enough to undertake book-length memoirs. Stricken by cancer, Grant battled excruciating pain to finish his book while the entire nation watched with admiration the final struggle between death and Grant’s indomitable will. Grant amazed his physicians by living long enough to complete his memoirs. On 23 July 1885, a few days after the last pages went to the publisher, he died quietly. Grant’s friend and publisher, Mark Twain, jotted in his notebook when he learned of Grant’s death: “He was a very great man—& superlatively good.”