Ulysses S. Grant, the Union hero of the Civil War, was elected in 1868, the last U.
S. president to have been a slave owner. Despite his popularity, the nation faced social, economic and political difficulties, and his administration was shrouded in corruption.
General Grant Becomes President Grant
In the 1868 election, President Andrew Johnson – crippled by unpopularity and an impeachment – failed to win his Party’s nomination.
After dismissing several candidates and taking several votes, the Democrats finally decided on Horatio Seymore. The Republicans chose General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union hero of the Civil War. Despite the fact that three southern states still couldn’t vote and that African Americans (who were overwhelmingly Republican) could vote, Seymore put up a good fight against the well-known Grant.
The popular vote was close, but Grant won an electoral landslide in 1868.Radical Republicans in Congress were ecstatic. Grant had opposed many of Johnson’s policies and had even refused appointment as Secretary of War when Johnson tried to remove Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. But it didn’t take long for the Radicals to become disenchanted with President Grant, too.They expected him to run the country just like he’d run the war: show the enemy no mercy. But the Radicals seemed to forget that even when Grant had walked away from General Robert E.
Lee‘s surrender at the end of the war, he hadn’t allowed his men to cheer. Grant, like his presidential predecessors, didn’t view the Southern people as the enemy. He, too, wanted to amicably restore the country while enforcing civil rights.
The problem was that most white Southerners didn’t want to be Reconstructed, and many Northerners wanted the South punished – not restored. People on both sides were unsure about what kind of rights should be given to African Americans. And unlike Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, President Grant was trying to achieve this balance without any political experience.
Successes and Failures
Grant was popular, but it was a bad time to be an inexperienced leader. So-called ‘political machines’ came to dominate several Northern cities, leading to widespread corruption and economic chaos. Southern cities suffered from the same problems since local and state governments had been overrun with carpetbaggers (those were Northerners who came south to take part in Reconstruction) and Southern Unionists (who were derisively called scalawags by other Southerners).
In response, violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan (also known as the KKK), were formed out of resentment, frustration over the corruption and a lot of racism. Their goal was to intimidate Republican voters, especially African Americans, and keep them away from the polls so that local Democrats could once again take charge. Southern Republican leaders asked for federal protection, but Grant refused more often than he complied. He believed that the state militias, not the U.S. Army, should handle most of these problems.
Grant did have a strong legislative record of protecting civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans and trying to fight KKK violence – despite the fact that he and his wife had been slave owners themselves until the end of the Civil War. For example, the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of all men to vote regardless of race, and the Enforcement Act of 1871 made it a federal offense to interfere with that right. During Grant’s first term, African Americans won seats in the U.S. Congress for the first time ever.
But Grant also supported the Amnesty Act of 1872, which restored former Confederate soldiers’ rights to vote and hold political office. When paired with the actions of paramilitary groups, like the KKK, the Amnesty Act allowed Democrats to begin ‘redeeming’ the South. During the mid-1870s, the Redeemers (that is, white Southern Democrats) did retake control of all but three Southern states.
While President Grant did not run the country like he had the army, he did take a military-style command of the executive department. He frequently made decisions on his own without consulting his cabinet and gave orders to his personal secretary to carry them out. Grant’s sense of loyalty and duty led him to appoint family and military friends to important positions, regardless of their qualifications.
Many of them proved to be untrustworthy, and Grant’s administration was shrouded in corruption. Members of seven executive departments, including his vice president, were involved in at least eleven distinct scandals. The most notorious may be the 1869 Black Friday gold scandal in which two speculators attempted to corner the gold market with the president’s unwitting assistance, causing financial ruin for honest American investors.
Despite his bad judgment in choosing advisors, Grant himself remained popular at the time and easily won the reelection in 1872. Historians, too, generally consider President Grant to have been a man of personal integrity; at worst, he seems to be guilty of having been blissfully ignorant of what kind of corrupt individuals he had placed around himself. When Grant’s own secretary was implicated in a wide-spread tax fraud and bribery scheme, called the Whiskey Ring, Grant attempted to shield him from prosecution and even testified in his defense.
During President Grant’s second term, the United States was pulled into a world-wide economic depression known as the Panic of 1873. Economists then, as now, debated the causes and cures for such a problem.
Grant’s most direct action was his opposition of a so-called ‘Inflation Bill’ that would have increased the monetary supply and national debt in an attempt to stimulate the economy. Grant was convinced that such a move would ruin America’s credit, and he unexpectedly vetoed it. And then, as now, people argued about who was benefitting from federal economic policy. His response to the financial crisis turned American voter loyalty away from the Republican Party, which lost heavily in the 1874 midterm Congressional elections. Grant was interested in running for a third term as president in 1880, but the Party refused to nominate him.
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