President #18, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #23
Read this unconditionally
Americans have never been shy about making their military heroes Presidents. They have ranged from the great (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt) to pretty darn good (Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower) to the quickly dead (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor).
Ulysses S. Grant was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest generals, leading the Union Army to a victory in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. As a President, Grant is much harder to read. Back in 2000, historians ranked him #33. But, by 2009, Grant had risen ten spots in the rankings.
What had happened to Grant’s reputation in that time to pull him out of Herbert Hoover and Millard Fillmore territory? Grant’s Presidency was rife with scandals, including one where he had to dump his Vice President when running for re-election, only to replace him with a man who was caught up in the same scandal.
Josiah Bunting III, who served in the Army and also worked at the Virginia Military Institute as well as West Point in addition to writing novels, tries to present the case that Grant’s Presidency was more than just a series of scandals. He presents Grant as a leader, who while a bit too keen to delegate work to people who were not competent or honest, but also as a strong supporter of civil rights for the newly freed slaves. Grant also wins praise from Bunting for trying (although ultimately unsuccessfully) to reform government policy toward Native Americans.
Was Grant as good of a President as he was a general? No. But was he the 19th Century’s answer to Richard Nixon? No, far from that. Grant was not a paranoid man. He was not personally corrupt. He firmly believed he was always in the right. And, he never forgot his friends. Unfortunately, Grant could have benefited from having a higher class of friends.
Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. When he was 17, his father, Jesse, managed to get him a nomination to West Point. The Congressman writing the nomination, Thomas Hamer, thought Jesse’s son bore his mother’s maiden name as his middle name. So, Hamer nominated Ulysses Simpson Grant for an appoint to the United States Military Academy. Grant decided to stick with this name.
Grant’s West Point class had only 39 graduates. Grant ranked 21st in his class. He served as a quartermaster at the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. But, world events thrust Grant into much different duty.
The border between the United States and Mexico in Texas was becoming subject of a heated dispute between the two countries. Grant joined what became known as the Army of Observation, under the command of General Zachary Taylor. This group ultimately forced the start of the Mexican War by engaging Mexican forces in a disputed territory.
Grant enjoyed serving under Taylor. He liked Taylor’s “Rough and Ready” approach. Grant believed it was best to lead soldiers not by wearing fancy dress, but rather by just getting the job done. Grant would always be known for eschewing dress uniforms when he could. Grant won plaudits for his service during the war.
When the war was over, Grant married Julia Dent in 1848. He was soon dispatched to the West Coast as the population there boomed because of the California Gold Rush. During his long absences from Julia, Grant began to develop a drinking problem. Whether or not Grant was an alcoholic cannot be determined, but, Grant would be branded throughout his life as a drunkard by his enemies.
Regardless, Grant’s drinking caused him to resign his Army commission in 1854. He returned home to Jesse and his growing family in the St. Louis area. After a succession of dead-end jobs, Grant and his family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860
And, as we should know, the Civil War began in April of 1861. Grant offered his services to the Governor of Illinois. He was named a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Then, he quickly moved up to brigadier general. In August of 1861, Grant was given command of all Union troops in Southern Illinois. When the Confederate Army took over the city of Columbus, Kentucky, Grant was ordered to retake the city.
Grant’s men engaged the Confederates across the river from Columbus in the town of Belmont, Missouri. The Union won a rousing success. Grant was supposedly the last man to leave the battlefield.
Now, the Union Army was taking aim on Confederate defenses in the Ohio Valley. In the battle for Fort Donelson, Grant faced an old friend of his Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner realized that his men were outnumbered and sent a message asking Grant for what his conditions for surrender would be. Grant famously replied, “No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” From then on, many believed that U.S. Grant stood for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
From then on, Grant’s military career skyrocketed. The names of the battles are almost like a roll call of the famous battles of the Civil War: Shiloh, Vicksburg (which ended at about the same time as Gettysburg), Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, Richmond, and, finally, Appomattox.
Grant’s victories were not for the faint of heart. He knew that numbers were on his side. Grant was denounced by his opponents as a “butcher.” However, President Lincoln firmly believed in Grant. As Lincoln reportedly said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Grant rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, the first man to hold that title since George Washington.
Despite the high casualty rates, Grant’s men were extremely loyal to him. Grant did not enjoy the death toll, but, according to Bunting, Grant was certain that he was in the right. And Grant believed in “the certainty of victory.” Grant would push forward all the time. He would make the South pay for their actions.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Grant no longer wished for unconditional surrender. Grant asked that Lee’s men simply surrender their arms and agree not to fight again. Lee’s men could then go home and try to rebuild their lives. Grant became General of the Army of the United States.
Lincoln had asked Grant and his wife to go with him to Ford’s Theater on that fateful April 14 of 1865. Grant declined, mostly because Julia did not wish to spend a night with Mary Todd Lincoln. After Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the role of bringing the country back together.
The next four years would nearly ruin the nation again. Johnson wished to immediately bring the Southern States back into the Union with full voting rights in Congress. Johnson, although a firmly believer in abolition, had no desire to see the freed slaves attain any other basic civil rights. Republicans in Congress resisted Johnson at every turn. The Reconstruction of the United States would not be accomplished only by the powers of persuasion. It would take the United States Army.
Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to anyone born on United States soil. Grant supported it. Johnson wished to speak out against it, along with many other Radical Republican measures in Congress on a speaking tour through the Midwest by train. Grant came along for moral support, but quickly tried to distance himself from Johnson, who was often heckled by crowds, and Johnson would respond in kind.
In 1868, matters between Congress and President Johnson came to a head with the Tenure of Office Act. This act made it illegal for the President to remove from office without Congressional approval. Johnson wished to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who was leaking information to the Radicals) and replace him with Grant. At first, Grant accepted the job, but, realizing that he had a chance to become President later in the year, declined. Eventually, Stanton was replaced. The House impeached Johnson and he escaped conviction by one vote.
The Presidential Election of 1868 was perfectly set up for Ulysses Grant. No one else in the country had the stature to take over. Grant won the nomination without any opposition. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax was named as Grant’s running mate.
The Democrats nominated former New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Seymour was no match for the hugely popular Grant. With much of the white Democratic vote in the South suppressed by the Army, Grant won by a 214-80 margin in the Electoral Vote and had 52.7% of the popular vote.
While everyone knew of Grant’s military heroics, very little was known about how he would govern. Not many people seemed to care too much about that at the time.
Grant would not reveal the names of his choices for Cabinet posts until he forwarded them on to the Senate. Some of his choices were curious. For example, he chose an Ohio friend, Elihu Washburne for Secretary of State. But, Washburne resigned the post after 12 days to become Minister to France. Grant felt that Washburne would be considered a more prestigious emissary with “former Secretary of State” on his resumé. Hamilton Fish would replace Washburne for the next eight years.
Grant’s military chief of staff, John Rawlins, was supposed to head up the Army in the Southwest, but Rawlins told Grant that he would rather be Secretary of War. And Rawlins got the job. But, he died in September of 1869 of tuberculosis.
A quiet, but wealthy campaign contributor from Philadelphia, Adolph Borie, became Secretary of the Navy. However, Borie did not know anything about naval affairs. Grant just thought he would like the job. Borie resigned the position in June of 1869.
Grant also wanted to pick financier Alexander Stewart to be Secretary of the Treasury. However, Stewart’s vast wealth and many entanglements with Federal funds, made the Senate balk at his nomination. Grant withdrew Stewart and nominated George Boutwell, one of the House managers for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
Soon after taking office, Grant decided to tackle the issue of the national debt, which had ballooned to nearly $3 billion (about $46 trillion in today’s money, almost four times today’s national debt.) Grant had Congress pass a law requiring that the debt be repaid with gold and not paper money. Grant wished to avoid inflation at all costs.
The increased demand for gold led two New York speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, to try to corner the gold market. With inside knowledge from one of Grant’s brothers-in-law, the two men persuaded the Treasury to delay public sales of gold. Gould would buy large sums of gold, which served to drive up the price. The idea would be that when people tried to redeem their greenbacks for gold, they would reap even more money. The whole plan fell apart though when the Treasury sold a large amount of gold earlier than expected, which sent prices plummeting. Many people were ruined, although Gould and Fisk were not, and neither faced any criminal prosecution.
Grant’s response to this crisis gave people the impression that he was in the pocket of Wall Street, and likely in over his head in the job of President. Scandals would be a constant presence during Grant’s Administration.
Besides the national debt, one of the major crises for Grant was dealing with the problem of how to bring back the Southern states into the Union. Although the slaves were free, Southerners showed no inclination of allowing the freed slaves to vote. Methods ranging from legal chicanery (such as literacy tests) to blatant violence (from groups like the Ku Klux Klan) were employed to keep African-Americans from voting.
Grant was not afraid to use Federal force to maintain order and uphold civil rights. Under Grant’s watch, the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted the franchise to all adult male citizens regardless of race, was adopted. Grant also created the Justice Department, headed by the Attorney General, to enforce civil rights laws. Prior to 1871, the Attorney General was mostly a glorified White House counsel. Grant made the position into one of the most powerful jobs in the country. Nevertheless, Grant’s desire to use Federal force to enforce black voting rights in the South was often more of a political calculation than a moral one. Bunting admits that Grant would time Federal activities in the South to help with elections in various parts of the country.
Toward the end of Grant’s first term, a major scandal shook up his Administration. It would be known as the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Credit Mobilier was a construction company set up by the Union Pacific railway. Several members of Congress had taken bribes, usually in the form of stock, to give the Union Pacific favorable votes in Congress. Vice President Colfax was caught up in the scandal and dropped from the ticket in 1872.
The Democrats did not run an opponent against Grant in 1872. Instead, an odd coalition of government reformers who were opposed to the rampant use of political patronage jobs, as well as Northerners who objected to the continuation of military Reconstruction in the South, formed a group called the Liberal Republicans. They nominated newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.
Greeley had never held elective office before. His campaign never got very far as he proved to be a rather unusual character. He always wore a long coat and carried an umbrella regardless of the weather.
Grant had little trouble winning another term. He won with 286 electoral votes and 55.6% of the popular vote. Soon after the election, Greeley’s wife died. Bereft after her passing, Greeley soon died as well, leaving his 66 pledged electors to vote for whomever they wanted. (For those not scoring at home, here is how the voting went.)
The next four years for Grant would bring about even more scandal. His new Vice President, Henry Wilson, turned out to also be involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal. However, he passed away in 1874, before any final determination of his complicity.
In 1873, Congress passed a law doubling the President’s salary to $50,000. That did not bother people. What bothered people was that Congress voted itself a raise and made it retroactive for two years. And members of Congress would get a $5,000 bonus on top of that. Public opposition forced the repeal of this pay raise (but not Grant’s) in 1874.
Grant’s personal secretary had to resign in connection in a tax evasion scheme involving distillers. The Secretary of War extorted money to allow a trading post to stay open. The Attorney General took a bribe to stop the prosecution of a case against a customs house.
Adding to all this was a major financial crisis: the Panic of 1873. This crisis came about because of speculation in the railroad industry. Those stocks became over-valued and then collapsed in price. Banks began to fail. Unemployment shot up. Wages declined. Congress wanted to relieve the credit crisis by allowing more greenbacks into circulation. But, Grant vetoed the measure, keeping in line with his strong belief in the gold standard, as well as a fear of inflation. Although it did take time (until 1879 when Grant was out of office), the economy did right itself.
It might seem that Grant did little right. Bunting does not believe that to be the case. He believes that the domestic ills were the result of Grant’s military background and his belief that he could delegate authority correctly.
Bunting also gives Grant credit for foreign policy successes. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish negotiated a major treaty with Great Britain over a dispute that originally centered on a claim that the United States had against the British for helping the Confederate Navy build a steamer called the Alabama. Fish initially received monetary remuneration from Britain, but Senate Foreign Relations Chair Charles Sumner declared that to be inadequate. Sumner believed the Alabama extended the Civil War for two years. Sumner wanted Canada as payback.
Fish ultimately got the British (and Sumner) to come to an agreement to have the matter sent to binding arbitration. Fish would also negotiate a sticky border dispute between the U.S. and Canada in the newly acquired Alaska Territory.
Bunting makes a case that Grant had the most humane policy toward Native Americans of any President. Grant wanted to smooth relations between the various Native American nations and the United States. He wanted to establish schools. He appointed Native Americans to administer the programs. Grant wanted to complete Jefferson’s dream of making the original inhabitants of the United States Americans on equal standing with those who came later.
Sadly, this was not to be. Toward the end of Grant’s administration in 1876, when an Army Cavalry regiment under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was wiped out by a Lakota-Cheyenne force at the Little Bighorn River. Public opinion no longer favored giving the Native Americans any more aid.
After leaving the White House, Ulysses and Julia Grant took a tour of Europe that lasted over two years. They were celebrities wherever they went, but, to Grant’s disappointment, he was mostly honored as a general, not a President. He came back to the United States hoping to reenter the political fray in 1880 as a candidate for President.
The Republican Convention could not decide between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. James Garfield was nominated as a compromise choice. Grant had to leave the arena.
Unfortunately, a bad investment left Grant nearly penniless. Wealthy benefactors helped out as much as they could. Around this time, Grant developed a sharp pain in his throat. It turned out to be throat cancer.
With little time to live, Grant opted to sign with a publisher to write his memoirs. Despite being in tremendous pain, Grant produced a two-volume work. He finished writing the manuscript on July 18, 1885. He died on July 23, 1885 in Mount McGregor, New York. (Grant is the only President known to have died from cancer.) The memoirs earned his estate over $450,000 in royalties.
Bunting’s book does not make the most persuasive case that Grant was anything but a mediocre to terrible President. Grant should be credited for his strong stance on civil rights and his relatively enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. Ulysses S. Grant as President probably seemed like a good idea at the time for the United States. But, the United States did not have the brilliant military strategist as President. Instead, the country got the ne’er-do-well who could not hold a job before the Civil War. We all have some job that we are best suited for. For Ulysses S. Grant, that job was in the military, not in civilian life.
Other stuff: Grant was 46 years old at the time of his inauguration, making him the youngest man to hold the office at the time. Vice President Schuyler Colfax was just 45.
Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio is open to visitors. It is operated by the Ohio Historical Society. Grant and his wife Julia are entombed at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City at 122nd and Riverside. It is familiarly called Grant’s Tomb. It is operated by the National Park Service.