Reconstruction and Corruption in the Grant Administration
Ulysses S. Grant was considered the greatest American general of his time and is credited with winning the Civil War. As such, he was guaranteed a lifetime job, but he sacrificed this financial assurance and ran for the presidency of the United States in the election of 1868. Grant easily defeated the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, by 134 electoral votes.
When Grant took office he admitted that he lacked political experience. In his inaugural address he said, "The office has come to me unsought." Grant strongly believed in racial equality, not only in the South, but also in the North. In his inaugural address he spoke in favor of "security of a person, property, and free religious and political opinion in every part of our common country." Grant took no action as president to enforce this belief, however, and his motto guided him: "Let us have peace."
One of Grant's biggest problems was a failure to foster allies as he had done in the war. He did not consult party leaders for his federal appointments, and he gave many of these positions to friends or family. Other offices were held by those he hardly knew but had contributed large sums of money to his campaign. Examples of such foolish appointments include Secretary of War John Aaron Rawlins and Secretary of the Navy Adolph Edward Borie. Grant's unwise appointments are but one of the better known aspects of his presidency.
Although Grant made mistakes during his presidency, he wanted the North and South to be reunited more than anything, and he accomplished several things during Reconstruction. Grant persuaded Congress to pardon many former Confederate
This illustration depicts General Ulysses S. Grant walking through the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol to take the oath of office as president.
36 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ FEBRUARY 1999
leaders; he also tried to limit the number of federal troops in the South while leaving enough soldiers to maintain the rights of southern blacks and protect them from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In 1869 and 1871 Grant passed three bills to enforce voting rights of blacks and the prosecution of many Klan members. Grant's other Reconstruction accomplishments include the passage of civil rights legislation and the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Overall Grant failed at Reconstruction, but he also achieved many of his goals for the South.
Grant is often accused of failing as a president because of the many scandals and the corruption that marked his presidency. The federal government's corruption was, for the most part, due to the spoils system. Because Grant was unwise in his appointments within the federal government, many of those under him proved themselves untrustworthy. Although Grant was not personally involved in any of these scandals, he is blamed because he stood by those people.
One of the most serious scandals occurred in the summer of 1869. Jay Gould and James Fisk, among others, bought all of the gold available in New York City at the time, and they planned to force bankers and businessmen into buying gold from them at inflated prices. However, this plan to corner the gold market was defeated on September 24, a day that became known as Black Friday. Secretary of the Treasury George S. Boutwell reported to Grant that the scandal was creating a financial panic. This message forced President Grant to make one of the most important decisions of his presidency; he ordered Boutwell to sell four million dollars of government gold to end the panic. This decision was not only one of Grant's most important, but one of his wisest.
There were numerous other scandals in the government at this time. Many Congressmen accepted bribes in the form of stock in railroad in return for votes in favor of the Union Pacific Railroad. Another example is the Secretary of War's involvement in Indian Agency frauds. Another was the Whiskey Ring scandal, which involved Grant's own private secretary. In this scandal a group of distillers and tax officers defrauded the U.S. Treasury of revenue taxes paid on whiskey. These scandals greatly contributed to Grant's tarnished reputation as a president.
President Ulysses S. Grant is often considered a political failure because of his limited successes during Reconstruction and his inability to stem the post-war government scandals. This mediocre record as president is very different than his sterling reputation as the commander of the victorious Union army in the Civil War.—[From Al Kaltman, Cigars, Whiskey, and Winning.]
ILLINOIS HISTORY/ FEBRUARY 1999 37