A reluctant US president, but Ulysses S Grant’s legacy should not be underestimated
One hundred and fifty years after he assumed office as US president, historian GORDON LUCY reflects on Ulysses S Grant’s record
In 1768 Ulysses S Grant’s maternal grandfather, John Simpson, set out from the townland of Dergenagh, near Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, to make a new life for himself in the American colonies.
Having settled in Pennsylvania, in 1819 the Simpson family moved to Ohio. There in June 1821 a man called Jesse R Grant, a tanner, married John Simpson Jnr’s daughter Hannah. Their first born son would become the commander of all of the Union Armies during the US Civil War and the 18th president of the United States.
On seeing his mother for the first time after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Hannah briefly interrupted her sewing to observe, ‘You have become a great man, haven’t you?’ and then quietly resumed her sewing.
As a war hero, the man who had brought the Civil War to a successful conclusion and the military saviour of the Union, Grant seemed an obvious choice as the Republican Party’s nominee in 1868 but he lacked both political experience and political ambition. Initially his political ambition did not extend beyond wishing to become mayor of Galena, his Illinois home town. However, he became the darling of radical Republicans because he had defied president Johnson over army appointments and he allowed himself to be persuaded.
One might have supposed he would have been a shoe-in but Horatio Seymour, his Democratic opponent, made it quite a close contest for the popular vote (although not in the Electoral College where Grant secured 214 electoral votes to Seymour’s 80). Newly enfranchised black voters were largely responsible for giving Grant his margin of victory in the popular vote (300,000 ballots). The closeness of the popular vote surprised the elites of both parties at the time.
Despite Grant’s inexperience, he was the first president since Andrew Jackson to serve two full terms even though he was often out of his depth, a point he himself candidly conceded in his last annual message to Congress. ‘It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training,’ and ‘under such circumstances, it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred’.
Yet his record was far more respectable than many have allowed. Grant made strenuous efforts to promote reconciliation between the North and South. He supported pardons for former Confederate leaders and sought to protect the civil rights of freed slaves.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote, was ratified. Grant signed legislation to curb the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and others who used violence to intimidate blacks and prevent them from voting. He repeatedly sent federal troops into the South to maintain law and order. Some have claimed that Grant’s actions violated states’ rights. Others have argued that he did not do enough to protect freed men.
He was also responsible for establishing the Department of Justice, the Weather Bureau and Yellowstone National Park, the United States’ first national park. He reformed Indian policy with a view to improving conditions for Native Americans, admittedly with imperfect success. As a result of the Treaty of Washington in 1871 he improved relations between the United States and the UK. He failed to persuade Congress to annexe Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), one of his pet projects.
Shortly after Grant became president a new word entered the English language: ‘Grantism’, shorthand for nepotism, the spoils system and corruption in high office. Although Grant was a man of integrity, many of his acolytes subscribed to very lax standards and his presidency was mired in scandal.
In 1872, a group of Republicans who unjustly believed Grant was corrupt formed the Liberal Republican Party. The group nominated New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley as their presidential candidate. Greeley was also nominated by the Democrats in the hope that their combined vote would defeat Grant. The contest became billed as one between ‘a man of no ideas’ (Grant) and ‘the man of too many ideas’ (Greeley) because in the course of his life Greeley had been an enthusiast for causes as diverse as vegetarianism, abolitionism, brown bread, free-thinking, socialism and spiritualism. Grant won an easy victory carrying 31 states to Greeley’s six and winning 286 votes out of 349 in the Electoral College.
During Grant’s second term the United States slid into depression in 1873 and his presidency was mired in yet more scandals, including one involving Grant’s private secretary.
Scandal was almost inevitable in an era dominated by machine politics and the patronage system, by which politicians rewarded their supporters with government jobs and they, in turn, ‘kicked back’ part of their salaries to the political party.
Grant addressed this issue by establishing a civil service commission to recommend fairer methods for hiring and promoting government employees. However, civil service reform faced stern opposition from Congress and members of Grant’s administration. By 1876 the commission’s funding ceased and reforms such as competitive exams were discontinued. Real reform only came in 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Act.
After he left office Grant fell victim to a fraudulent investment firm. Bankrupt and suffering from inoperable throat cancer but determined to leave his family financially secure, Grant heroically completed his memoirs shortly before his death. Published by his friend Mark Twain, ‘The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant’ (in two volumes) were both a literary masterpiece and a stunning commercial success. Within a year of publication, Twain was able to present Grant’s widow with a royalty cheque for $200,000.
Just before he died, Grant told his doctor how years before, on his way to a reception in his honour, he shared his umbrella with a complete stranger who was also going to the reception. ‘I have never seen Grant,’ the stranger remarked, as the two men walked together, ‘and I merely go to satisfy a personal curiosity. Between us, I have always thought that Grant was a much overrated man.’ ‘That’s my view also,’ Grant told him. Grant was a genuinely humble and modest man.