Podcast # 27: Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

The election of 1868 was important for a number of reasons. It was the first Presidential Election after the Civil War and it was the first Presidential election after Black males were given the right to vote. In addition, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia had not yet met all of the requirements to be readmitted into the Union, so they didn’t participate in the election. Incumbent President Andrew Johnson was fresh off of his Impeachment Trial and was not nominated by either party. The Republicans put up General Ulysses S. Grant (he had no political experience but remember... voters love a war hero and there was no one more well-known than Gen. Grant. The Democrats, after a significant number of ballots, nominated former Gov. of New York, Horatio Seymour. He had supported the Union during the Civil War but was a strong critic of President Lincoln’s and of Radical Reconstruction Policies. His supporters referred to him as the “White Man’s Candidate”. In fact, a campaign slogan from the election was “This is a white man’s country, let white men rule”. His campaign supported racism and the democratic platform was to stop Reconstruction policies and allow states the right to decide who should be eligible to vote in each state. Meanwhile, Freedmen in the south faced violence. By the late 1860, the Ku Klux Klan’s membership had spread throughout the south and white southerners knew that most freedmen if not all would be inclined to vote Republican. Grant’s Campaign slogan was “Let us have Peace” and “In Union is Peace.” He was nominated along with Schuyler Colfax who was Speaker of the House. The Republican Party Platform of 1868 was to continue on with Reconstruction policies, suffrage for all black men and to decrease taxes along with the national debt.

There were good amounts of mudslinging from both sides and the press was certainly pro-Grant. Democrats tried to paint Grant as a Drunk and a Butcher, but their candidate was no match for Grant’s National celebrity. While the popular vote was somewhat close, Grant won the majority in the Electoral College.

Ulysses S. Grant’s real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant. He was born in Ohio on April 27, 1822. He was the son of a Tanner or leather maker. His father taught him the trade but he hated it and swore that when he was older he would do something else to support himself and his family. The accidental name change came when he was nominated by an Ohio Congressmen to attend West Point Military College and he wrote his name as Ulysses S. Grant. Grant attempted to have the error fixed, but it stuck. Grant would often joke that the S stood for nothing. He did not have a dream of a military career but attended the school at his father’s insistence. He graduated in the middle of his class and would go on to serve in the Mexican American war under famed Generals Winfield Scott and future President Zachary Taylor. He met his future wife, Julia Dent before the war and they were married in 1848. While Grant’s family were abolitionists, the family of Julia Dent lived on a plantation and owned slaves. Grant’s father in law sent some of his slaves to work for them. Ulysses S. Grant, even as a Union General in the Civil War had slaves cooking, cleaning and taking care of his children. The young couple quickly settled into married life and often moved around as many military families do. Grant resigned from the army in 1854. There is some debate over the exact reason for this resignation. Some point to the distance between himself and his wife and children, others to reports of drinking and disagreements with his commanding officer. Grant attempted a number of different jobs trying to support his family and failed at all of them. He used the enslaved labor of his in law’s to help him build his home, Hardscrabble. He freed a slave that had been given to him in 1859, but when Grant went to fight in the Civil War, Julia Grant brought slaves with her. Her favorite slave Jules, ran away after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The enslaved people at her Father’s plantation wouldn’t be freed until after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. Grant was the last US President to own a slave. The outbreak of the Civil War provided him the opportunity to support both his family and his country. He was put in charge of the 21st Illinois Volunteers which had been labeled as “Unmanageable”. Grant trained them and prepared them for battle. He was made Brigadier General. He was promoted to Major General after his victory at Fort Donelson. Lincoln’s first choice to head the Union Army, General Robert E. Lee famously turned him down and sided with the Confederacy once Virginia seceded. Lincoln would go through a number of generals throughout the duration of the war Winfield Scott, George McClellan and it wasn’t until General Ulysses S. Grant, that Lincoln finally had a general who was willing to go and fight. No trepidation, just go into battle and fight, no waiting for more reinforcements, just go and pursue the rebels. Grant quickly rose up the ranks and in 1864, he was put in charge of the Union forces. He worked to help plan the strategy to bring the war to an end and his defeat of General Lee in early April of 1865 in Virginia which led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Va on April 9, 1865. Grant’s terms of surrender helped to set the stage for future surrenders of other Confederate Generals in the last weeks of the war. – the goal would be peace, not to punish. The surrender terms were generous. The men would be pardoned, given union rations, they were allowed to keep their horses which could be used for the harvest and their side arms. A vicious war, ended by a gracious meeting of two men who had just a few days earlier led armies against each other. General Grant and his wife Julia were supposed to be with President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, in fact, killing General Grant was also part of Wilke’s plan.

During the Presidency of Andrew Johnson, General Grant helped to oversee Military Reconstruction in the south. It was his job to appoint the Military Generals to each of the 5 districts. While the men disagreed on policy, Grant was essential to keeping the peace as southern stated were readmitted into the Union. Grant briefly served as Johnson’s Sec. of War when he fired Stanton. Grant was forced to give up the position as a result of the terms of the Tenure of Office Act. When Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States in the election of 1869, he took over the Presidency that had been severely weekend by various laws passed by the Legislative Branch. President Andrew Johnson refused to stay for the ceremony. In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1869, he stated “The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these, it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.” In the speech he also supported the ratification of the 15th amendment and the paying off of Civil War debts. The wording of the 15th amendment is important to note. It’s also important to mention that many abolitionists were also feminists and vice versa. Many women pushed to add the word gender to the amendment. It was of course not added. The 15th amendment states that the right to vote cannot be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude”. It didn’t guarantee the right to vote to men of color. With the ratification of the 15th amendment, many southern states passed laws to prevent black men from registering to vote in the late 1800s, these practices would stay in place until the 1960s. Poll taxes, which were cumulative so if you couldn’t afford to pay the tax to vote last year, this year you now owned double, literacy tests, imagine being given an excerpt from the Constitution and being asked to both read it and explain it before you were able to vote, and the Grandfather Clause which stated that if your Grandfather wasn’t eligible to vote in the election of 1860, you weren’t eligible to vote in 1860. Grant’s cabinet was filled with people he trusted and whom he had worked with in the past. His cabinet saw quite a bit of turnover in positions. Just to give you an idea, during his two terms he had 2 secretaries of state, 4 secretaries of the Treasury and War and 5 Attorney Generals. He also had 2 Vice Presidents which we will get into a little later on in the podcast.

Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 made it easier for the Federal Government to take Native American lands once belonging to tribes or nations. This Act made Native Americans individuals or wards of the federal government as opposed to members of federally recognized tribes.

The post-civil war era prompted the necessity of the creation of the Department of Justice. Grant tasked the Dept. of Justice with ensuring the protection of Black Americans and going after those that sought to oppose the protections of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The newly created Department of Justice prosecuted Klansmen and issued thousands of indictments.

Ku Klux Klan Act 1871 helped to protect the rights granted by the 14th amendment to protect the rights of voters. Failure to provide equal protection under the law would be punished. The law helped to decrease the power of the Ku Klux Klan and their attempt to prevent Black Americans from exercising their new rights. In North Carolina, federal troops had to be sent and the writ of habeas corpus was suspended there. This allowed for the arrests of suspected Klansmen. While this law and the actions taken by the Grant Administration helped somewhat, the KKK would survive and would reemerge in the 1920s as a powerful force of violence and hate in the United States.

  • As more and more former Confederate states reentered the Union, it became increasingly more important to protect newly freed Blacks. When the institution of slavery was ended by the civil war and the passage of the 13th amendment, it was all but replaced but in name by Share cropping and tenant farming. The Average farm size in the south decreased as the numbers farms increased. Many Plantations were subdivided into small plots for both blacks and poor whites. Sharecropping was a new labor system that ensured a constant supply of both submissive and cheap labor. A family was hired to work the land. They would be given land, a cabin to live in, supplies needed to work the land. The landlord would then take the crop, asses its value and deduct the costs of the supplies, living quarters etc. Whatever was leftover if anything would be given back to the family. A second system was known as the Crop-Lien system. A farmer would pledge their crop to a merchant in exchange for credit and supplies. Now you have no way of knowing how your crop will turn out. What if there is drought? A Tornado? A Hail storm that destroys your crop? The farmer gets sick? This led to debt for many.

Segregation became the norm in public school systems in the south. The practice of segregation then spread to other public facilities.

The Amnesty Act of 1872 removed the public office disqualifications for many former Confederates that had been put in place by section 3 of the 14th Amendment. It now allowed many former Confederates the opportunity to once again be elected and serve in state and federal government positions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed Racial Discrimination in certain areas. Black Americans were forced to use the court system to protect their rights which was costly. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was declared Unconstitutional in 1883 when the Supreme Court declared that you can’t prevent private citizens from practicing discrimination.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was one of the greatest disasters in US History up until that time. Chicago’s nickname of the windy city which is well earned coupled with drought conditions for 6 weeks and a crowded city built primarily of wood was a recipe for disaster. The exact cause of the fire is unknown, some claimed it to start from a cow knocking over a lantern. 300 people were killed and thousands were left homeless after the 2-day long fire ravaged the city. The entire city had to be rebuilt and it was in 2 years’ time. President Grant sent Federal troops to Chicago and they remained there for almost a year.

In the Election of 1872, Democrats Nominated Horace Greely. He also had support from more moderate Republicans who didn’t agree with the work the Grant Administration had done on behalf of African Americans. They instead wanted someone who would place the power of Reconstruction into local state authorities which really meant a return to white southern dominance of politics in the region. Horace Greely was a newspaper publisher from New York. Democrats liked their chances of winning thinking that the Republican Party was divided. Greeley ran on a platform that supported civil service reform and an end to Reconstruction. It’s a good thing Greeley lost because he died shortly after the popular vote. In the end, Grant was still too popular to be defeated.

Grant knew that he lacked the knowledge needed for certain aspects of being President. He trusted his advisors and often made decisions based on their counsel. As an administrator, Grant didn’t put in terribly long hours at the office. If you read biographies of past presidents, you can get an idea of what type of an executive they were. Some were more hands on than others. For Grant, he was typically done for the day around 3pm. He would then go and ride horses, return and have dinner with his family. It’s no surprise that things were happening without his knowledge. He wasn’t there to oversee. He trusted maybe too much that people would do what they were supposed to do. Grant was posed to start his second term as President with a new Vice President. Thinking Grant would only serve 1 term, his 1st VP Schyuler Colfax stated he wouldn’t seek re -nomination for VP, when Grant had announced he was running, it was too late for Colfax. Other people had thrown their hat into the ring and Senator Henry Wilson would be Grant’s VP in his second term. This is not the end of the story for VP Colfax. He was implicated in one of the biggest scandals of Grant’s Presidency it also wouldn’t be the only major scandal for President Grant.

Credit Mobilier Scandal a number of stockholders in the Union Pacific Railroad company created a company called Credit Mobilier. This dummy construction company would submit bids to build parts of the transcontinental railroad (You’ll remember from our episode on the transcontinental railroad we discussed that huge land grants and federal bonds were given for every mile of track laid.) at times Credit Mobilier was the only company to submit a bid, they inflated prices, hired out other companies to build the track which sometimes they didn’t but it didn’t matter because there was no federal oversight and they had bribed members of Congress to help pass legislation that would benefit their actions. While the cations occurred before Grant was President, senior members of Grant’s administration were implicated and Grant’s own VP Colfax and Grant’s current incoming VP, Sen. Henry Wilson had been given stock in the company.

Whiskey Ring Scandal (1875) was exposed by an investigation by Grant’s newly appointed Sec. of The Treasury. He uncovered that the Federal Government had been cheated out of Millions of dollars in taxes that had been placed on Whiskey. IRS agents had teamed up with distillers to cheat the federal government out of some of the tax revenue. The scandal implicated many federal employees, including President Grant’s Personal Secretary and former aide in the Civil War General Orville Babcock. Babcock was brought up on charges but convinced Grant he was innocent and grant testified on his behalf at his trial where he was acquitted. The investigation uncovered that the Government had been cheated out of 4 million dollars and some of that money had been used to help fund Grant’s reelection. Again, Grant claimed to have no knowledge of this.

In another scandal known as the Indian Ring, Articles of Impeachment were brought up against Grant’s Sec. of War William Belknap – he resigned over accusations of accepting bribes from traders at Indian Posts, he had already resigned before being acquitted at his senate trial.

Panic of 1873 was an economic crisis that signaled the end of the post-civil war era boom. Jay Cooke and Company which was the main financial backer of the federal government declared bankruptcy. Many other financial institutions followed. Many railroad companies declared bankruptcy as did many businesses. For those who still had jobs, their wages were cut. This led to a number of strikes. There were a number of causes to this economic crisis. Commercial overexpansion, speculation due to railroads and increased unemployment. Northern Republicans became more focused on fixing the crippled economy than they were in protecting southerners from racism. It’s important to understand why certain things went unchallenged in the south. Not making excuses for it or condoning it in any way, but I hope that you can see the connections.

Foreign Policy wise during Grant’s administration, there were two failed attempts to annex overseas territories (Cuba and Santo Domingo – present day Dominican Republic). There was a desire for a military hub in the Caribbean and to also gain additional territory. While these attempts failed, the US will eventually become an imperial power after the Spanish- American War in 1898. One of the biggest triumphs of Grant’s Presidency was the Treaty of Washington. The United States, Great Britain and Canada agreed to terms that dealt with the border between the US and Canada, fishing rights and most importantly to the US; the issue that some English companies had provided the Confederacy with British made warships used during the Civil War. This had significantly strained relations between the US and Britain and was the cause of significant monetary damages to the Federal Government. Britain agreed to pay the US over 15 million in damages.

While many in Grant’s inner circle wanted him to run for a third term) including his wife, Grant decided against it. The election of 1876, which we will talk more about in a later podcast as greatly disputed and ultimately decided by the Legislative Branch in what would become known as the Compromise of 1877. In Grant’s Farewell message to Congress in 1877, he ended his speech with the following statement:

“History shows that no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes. But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

After his second term as President ended, Grant went on a 2-year long world tour. He began his visit in England where he met with Queen Victoria, and He traveled throughout Europe, meeting with political and religious leaders like Otto Von Bismarck of Germany who helped to unify Germany and one my favorite quotes of his “Laws are like sausages, it’s better not to see them being made” and Pope Leo XIII, they went to the Holy land, traveled through the Suez canal and went to India, traveled through much of the Asian world and went to Burma (which is of course present day Myanmar, Siam( which is now known as Thailand where he met with King Chulalongkorn who in his younger years was famously tutored by Englishwoman Anna Leonowens which is what the film the King and I is based on and he helped to keep his country, Siam from being Colonized during the age of Imperialism which if you know your history, European countries were busy making a vast empire for themselves throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East at this time – Grant traveling to many of those colonies. Grant traveled on to China and Japan meeting with the Meiji Emperor and was able to help negotiate peace between China and Japan and helped the two nations avoid war for the time being. You have to understand that when Grant returned to the US he received a hero’s welcome. He was a rock star, so much so that he made a run for the Republican nomination to run for a third and unprecedented term as President in 1880, but he narrowly lost to James Garfield who of course went on to win the election.

Any money the Grant family had left after their over two-year world tour was put into an investment firm that his son was going to help run. His partner, Ferdinand Ward’s investments failed and the company went bankrupt and the Grants were left basically penniless. Grant even had to give many items of his civil war memorabilia to pay back the loan he took to try to save the company from going under. In 1884, Ulysses S. Grant was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. He had made some money writing articles on the civil war for a magazine called Century Magazine and had been offered a deal to write his memoirs in exchange for 10 % of the profits. His friend, Samuel Clemens convinced him to have his new publishing house print the book and he offered Grant 75% of the profits. That friend of Grant’s is more commonly known by his pen name, Mark Twain. He agreed to write his memoirs in the hopes of being able to provide for his family. He was now fighting his final battle. A battle he knew he would ultimately loose, but he was determined to finish his memoirs before time ran out. Over the course of his illness, General Grant received many letters from former soldiers from the Union and Confederacy alike. He was beloved. He would dedicate his book to them writing “These volumes are dedicated to the American soldiers and sailors. He finished his memoirs just a few days before his death. The book was 2 Volumes and the majority of them focus on his military career and the civil war. Grant was heavily criticized for his tactics in the war and he hoped to provide some perspective into his methods. The book is very well done and if you love Civil War history, it is certainly a must read. The book was a success and the Grant family received hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits after Grant’s death. Former President and US Military General, Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23, 1885 at his home in upstate NY.

If you are looking for information on Grant’s funeral and tomb, grantstomb.org is a wonderful resource and if you live near NY, it is definitely worth the trip. Grant’s tomb is the largest mausoleum in North America. Grant’s Tomb is located in NYC in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson River. As a soldier he lived in many different places. He settled in New York in the last years of his life. The building was designed to look like the mausoleum at Halicarnassus for the B.C. era ruler Mausolus, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The above ground sarcophagi were designed to model Napolean’s Tomb in France, another famous General. Inscribed on the outside of the building is “Let us have Peace” and is flanked with statues symbolizing both war and peace.

While it is important to note that today, Grant’s legacy is debated, at the time of his death, he was a giant. He was put on a pedestal the same way George Washington was during his lifetime. Bells tolled throughout the country in cities in both the Northern and Southern United States. His funeral was attended by both union and confederate troops. Many former Civil war generals from both sides of the war served as pall bearers. It is believed a Million people gathered in the streets to pay their respects to the fallen General and President.

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