Presidential Review: Ulysses S. Grant

4 Aug

U.S. Grant was a great general, no doubt about that, but his presidency was quite problematic.  While he didn’t have the problems that Johnson and Buchanan did in terms of capability, he has one of the most scandal-prone administrations ever in U.S. History, only Nixon could possibly beat him, and Nixon had one HUGE scandal, while Grant had a never-ending chain of pretty major ones.

There’s two kinds of scandals for presidents:  the ones that are scandals because of public opinion, and the ones that seriously endanger the United States and usually involve somebody breaking the law to some degree.  Grant’s were uniformly the second.

The thing is, Grant didn’t actively participate in most of the scandals during his administration–they were mostly performed by members of his cabinet, and so what kind of culpability should he have considering he didn’t personally do anything wrong?  I think quite a bit.  First, he put people completely unsuited for their jobs in government posts, and second, he seemed to lack a significant amount of follow-through to catch these guys at the act before disaster struck.

The first one was the Gold Panic of 1869.  The short version of this scandal was that Grant’s brother-in-law was involved with some bankers that wanted to have the US government hold on to their gold so that the gold prices would climb, thus they would make money off of it.  At the same time, Grant’s secretary of treasury was selling gold on the side without proper notification.  When Grant found out about all this, he flooded the market with gold, the stock market crash, money lost value, and Americans suffered a particularly bleak depression.   Unlike most recessionary periods, this one was completely started because of government intervention.

The New York Customs house Ring–two of Grant’s customs collectors allowed people to bring unclaimed goods into the country if they used certain warehouses that they owned for a very high price.  Basically they were lining their pockets.

The Star Route Scandal—Another case of federal appointees lining their pockets.  The US postal service called routes that were in hard to access places star routes, there’s no problem with that, but when the US Postal Service started putting people on payrolls for imaginary star routes, there was the rub.  There was a congressional investigation that exonerated  the Star Route scandal–after the Post Office bribed a number of Congressmen.

The Salary Hike Scandal–Congress and the President secretly signed a law giving them all a raise.  Secretly until the newspapers found out.  Nothing happened here against the law but it certainly added to the air of corruption under Grant’s watch.

The Sanborn Incident–Sanborn was an IRS collector who handled delinquent accounts.  At that time the practice was that in getting these delinquent accounts Sanford could pocket a 50% collections fee.  The IRS had started funneling all the high paying delinquencies to Sanford who shared the profits with unnamed silent partners.  Also, the IRS was labeling certain cases delinquent so the money could be skimmed, as well as keeping no paper trail regarding all this money.

The scandals just continued, I won’t list them all, but they include the Attorney General accepting bribes to not prosecute certain cases,  Framing innocent citizens that were threatening to make public different frauds, paying people to be Native American government representatives who had no connection to the tribes they represented and took the grant money offered for themselves, government officials making money off of phony land grants, extortion and embezzlement of Navy Funds, and I’m just getting started.

So the general consensus that US Grant was a good man who trusted people too much is wildly understated, he was more akin to an incompetant administrator who delegated far too much to people who have proven themselves to be untrustworthy.  On top of that besides army buddies, Grant put 40 different relatives in government positions, relatives who did not usually hold the credentials for their posts.   This run of scandals were a serious threat to people’s trust in democracy.

Beyond this, Grant has a mixed record with reconstruction (he worked very hard at equal rights at first, but threw it all away over the election deal of 1876), and his Native American policies were disastrous, coming to a head on the battle of Wounded Knee.

Grant was a great general–he won a war that seemed unwinnable at the time.  However he was a pretty bad president.  Perhaps that’s why historians tend to be apologetic over him.

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