U.S. Grant and his Turbulent Presidency
By Tom Morrow
Ulysses S. Grant was a mediocre West Point graduate, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, a failed businessman, but a highly successful Union general that vaulted him into the White House.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Grant was appointed a colonel in the Illinois militia and assigned to the Union Army of the West under the command of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont.
By the end of the Civil War, Lt. General Grant was the Union’s most successful leaders. He accepted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, which ultimately ended the war.
In spite of his battle success, General Grant had a reputation of imbibing large amounts of whiskey. When this was pointed out to Lincoln, the president drolly replied: “Find out what he drinks and send a case to all of my generals.”
The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marred with corruption by many of those he appointed to subordinate positions. Over the years, his presidency was traditionally denounced by historians due to those charges, despite Grant’s effort of reform. However, over the latter part of the 20th century historians have concluded Grant, himself, was an honest man. He was just a poor judge of character for many of his appointees.
His presidency began on March 4, 1869, when Grant was inaugurated as the 18th president of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1877. He took office in the aftermath of the Civil War, and he presided over much of the infamous Reconstruction Era.
Grant was the third member to run for the president under the “Grand Old Party” banner. In 1856, the unsuccessful campaign of Col. John C. Freemont was the first in 1856; Abraham Lincoln the second in 1860. Grant became president defeating Democrat Horatio Seymour in the 1868 presidential election and was re-elected in 1872 in a landslide victory over Horace Greeley.
Grant was self-reliant in choosing his cabinet. He relied heavily on former Army associates, who had a weak sense of civilian ethics. Numerous scandals plagued Grant’s administration, including allegations of bribery, fraud, and cronyism.
As president, Grant pursued a Peace policy with Native Americans, but persistent western expansion by settlers made conflict difficult to avoid. Grant presided over the Great Sioux War of 1876 led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in the campaign to take back the Black Hills of Dakota. His presidential reputation has risen greatly over the past decades among historians who have noted he advanced a modern presidency. Accomplishments include a reformed Indian policy, African American civil rights, the first Civil Service Commission, and a federal law protecting women.
But the South remained unsettled during “Reconstruction. The southern wing of the Democrat Party formed the Ku Klux Klan because former slave owners violently refused to accept former slaves as citizens. By 1871 Klan activity was becoming out of control when Grant began a crackdown.
In 1872 one of Grant’s great achievements was the forming of the national parks system. He signed into law an Act of Congress establishing Yellowstone the nation’s first national park.
A strong economy, reduction of the national debt, federal spending, tariffs, and the federal workforce, aided Grant in getting re-elected in 1872. Congress established a deflationary gold standard reducing the number of paper dollars in the national economy. However, financial overinvestment in railroad construction caused the Panic of 1873 followed by economic turmoil. The long depression that followed turned public opinion against Grant.
Democrats regained control of the House in the 1874 mid-term elections. While scandals escalated, honest reformers appointed by Grant were able to clean up some federal departments. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned discrimination in public accommodations. Secretary of War William W. Belknap suddenly resigned office in February 1876, resulting in impeachment by the House for taking kickbacks. By the time Grant left office in 1877, “Redeemers” controlled all Southern state governments.
The United States was at peace with the world throughout Grant’s eight years in office, but his handling of foreign policy was uneven. Tensions with Native American tribes in the West continued. Grant attempted to annex the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, but that effort was blocked by the U.S. Senate.
In addition to the national park system, another of his notable achievements was overseeing the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, which opened the West to expansion even though hostile Native Americans continued to challenge the settlement of white pioneers.
Out of office, Grant was broke. It wasn’t until he wrote his autobiography that his estate returned to financial stability, although most of his fortune came after his death on July 23, 1885. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, inherited the bulk of the estate. His book, “Personal Memoirs,” is considered the best of all that has been written about the old warrior. It was distributed and sold by Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens under the publishing name: Charles L. Webster & Co, New York. The book, which became a “best seller,” was sold by Clemens’ representatives “door-to-door.”
Note: Charles L. Webster and Company was an American subscription publishing firm founded in New York in 1884 by author and journalist Samuel Clemens, popularly known as “Mark Twain.” The firm was closed after declaring bankruptcy in 1894.