Rethinking President Grant (Part Two)

General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War at his headquarters in Cold Harbor, Va., June 1864 (Library of Congress)
Examining his record on the economy, corruption, foreign policy, and the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities

In Part One of this essay, I looked at why the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant received so little historical respect for so long, and why his record on Reconstruction — the defining issue of his time in office (1869–1876) — deserves to be honored, even though many of his accomplishments in that area failed to endure beyond his presidency.

As with any president, however, Grant had a lot else on his plate. Today, I’ll look at Grant’s record in three other areas: the economy and corruption, foreign policy, and the treatment of Native Americans and religious minorities.

The Gilded Age: President Grant’s economic record was decidedly mixed in the short run, but much better in the long run. The national economy boomed until it crashed in 1873, setting off a years-long depression that hit Europe as well as the U.S. Huge fortunes were made and lost during Grant’s presidency. The average American grew better off, but not nearly as much as the wealthiest “robber barons.” Ultimately, presidents in the 19th century had few levers to influence the economy besides building interstate infrastructure. But that was just as well, given the primitive state of economic thought at the time beyond the basics of supply and demand. Grant cut spending and debt in his first term, and cut tariffs as well, though he embraced a more protectionist view in his second term.

Grant, painfully aware of his limited business acumen, may have relied too much on the advice of plutocrats, but he was also free of ideology. In 1874, he stayed up all night alone preparing a message explaining his reasons for signing an inflationary bill authorizing new paper money; unpersuaded by his own arguments, he reversed course and vetoed the bill the next morning. For better and worse, it is hard to picture a modern president doing that.

In the long run, the laissez-faire economy of the 1860s and 1870s would lay the foundation for a massive expansion of American industry, transforming the country in the following decades into the world’s mightiest economic power. For all the criticisms of the inequalities of the Gilded Age in the roaring North and West of the country, the era was much kinder to those regions and their inhabitants than to the South, where industrialization lagged and black Americans in particular were left behind, with most toiling as subsistence sharecroppers.

Corruption was the watchword of the day, and scandals connected the highest levels of finance and industry (the gold market, the railroad business) with the highest levels of the federal government, reaching Grant’s own family and closest advisers. This was partly a feature of the times, but it was more than a coincidence that it happened on Grant’s watch. Grant throughout his life was an excellent judge of talent but a terrible judge of character, naïve about business and a frequent target of con men. His combination of loyalty to friends and family, magnanimity, and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt meant that he lacked the instinct to cut off ethically compromised people until the evidence against them was overwhelming. While Grant was sensitive to ethical conflicts of interest during the war, his finances were also chronically insecure, and he openly envied the gifts lavished by other grateful nations on their war heroes (e.g., the U.K.’s treatment of the Duke of Wellington). He seems never to have questioned why benefactors would ply him with favors. He also remained a foe of the civil-service reforms that were ultimately implemented after James Garfield’s assassination, partly out of loyalty to the spoils-system bosses who supported him.

If Grant was too tolerant of unethical people, he also presided over a new Justice Department that instituted the first large-scale prosecutions of federal-government corruption in U.S. history. The first special counsels date to the Grant years, and while Grant sacked one of them for impugning his own integrity in a closing argument to a jury, he generally let the chips fall where they may — even when corruption probes ensnared people close to him. Just as his Reconstruction policies created tools with which future presidents could attack America’s racial problems, his handling of the Justice Department created tools for future presidents to attack corruption.

Foreign policy: Taking the reins of a war-weary nation at the tail end of a turbulent period in international affairs, Grant’s chief concern was to still the waters. As general of the Army, he had pushed for an invasion of Mexico to dislodge the French and chase out ex-Confederate adventurers such as Jubal Early whom he suspected of further hostile intentions. Then–secretary of state William H. Seward, however, counseled patience, and three events in 1867 vindicated him: The French-backed regime in Mexico fell, Seward completed the Alaska purchase, and the British established the unified Dominion of Canada (in part a response to the realization in 1861 that Canada was unprepared to fend off a feared American invasion). By the time Grant took office, North America was quiet.

The great foreign-policy success of Grant’s tenure was the peaceable resolution of the CSS Alabama claims. America demanded damages from Great Britain, still the world’s most powerful empire, over “neutral” British provision of a warship to the Confederacy. Grant and his secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, managed an international arbitration that gave a substantial monetary award to the United States, reduced tensions with Britain so successfully as to set the two nations on the path to a long-term alliance, and established a new model for the resolution of international disputes. The Alabama precedent was so respected internationally that Grant was later asked to mediate a dispute between China and Japan.

Grant failed at his other major foreign-policy goal, the American annexation of Santo Domingo, the territory that would become the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s island neighbor, which had failed in its first try as an independent state and gone through a period of renewed Spanish control, was receptive to an American purchase, but tenacious opposition in the Senate shot down Grant’s plan. Where antebellum efforts to annex Latin American territory aimed at plowing new fields for human bondage, Grant had other purposes for seeking to annex the Dominican, which he envisioned as an American state: exploiting its natural resources, providing a domestic haven for African Americans fleeing southern repression, and building a naval base to control the approaches to a future Central American canal. (As it happened, it would be a generation before the canal would be built, but the Suez Canal had opened in 1869 and a canal across Panama or Nicaragua was already eagerly anticipated.)

A successful annexation may have been in America’s long-term interests as well as those of the Dominican and Haiti. For better or worse, it would have changed the shape of U.S.–Caribbean relations for generations. But Grant was unable to galvanize popular opinion or persuade influential senators — even ardent abolitionists such as Charles Sumner — who feared assuming responsibility for an island nation full of black, Spanish-speaking people.

Having measured the limits of popular appetite for expansion into the Caribbean, Grant backed down from an 1873 confrontation with Spain that found his administration on the opposite side of the Alabama precedent when an American ship was captured bringing aid to Cuban rebels. He was more successful in opening foreign markets to trade without annexation, as he did in Korea (using gunboat diplomacy) and Hawaii.

Despite the missed opportunity in Santo Domingo, Grant could claim one major long-term foreign-policy accomplishment with no foreign wars and no serious setbacks for the nation — a better record than those of many other presidents before and after him.

Sioux gold, Chinese women, and religious liberty: Aside from his valiant but often doomed efforts to secure African-American civil rights, Grant’s record on the rights of minority groups in America was checkered, to say the least.

The frontier was still a pressing concern. As with his Reconstruction policy, Grant tried to be magnanimous and pacific in his dealings with both Native Americans and western settlers, and found himself instead caught between two perpetually warring camps. In the most celebrated example, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the ancestral lands of the Sioux, led to the usual pressures from white settlers seeking to exploit valuable resources and remove the tribe to some place out of the way. Grant not only failed to hold back the tide, he also let himself be talked into keeping George Armstrong Custer on the mission to confront the Sioux, against his better judgment. The 1876 massacre of Custer’s men was a short-term humiliation for the U.S. Army. It was also a long-term disaster for Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Sioux tribe, who found themselves in the unenviable position of having galvanized the American public to support a punitive military response.

The Sioux didn’t care much about gold; in purely economic terms, they would gladly have traded their lands for greener pastures. But they cared very much about the importance of the Black Hills to their religious traditions. Grant’s Native American policies were based on the view that the tribes would never be able to live in peace or prosperity until they assimilated into “white” civilization: Christianity, schooling, farming, trades. This was both a well-meaning and a coldly realistic point of view, vindicated by subsequent history, but it gave no weight to Native American religion or culture.

For Grant, a devout if undemonstrative Methodist, failures of empathy for religious minorities and a preference for assimilation into the institutions of mainstream Protestant America were recurring blind spots. The most infamous example was General Order No. 11, a hastily issued 1862 directive that expelled Jews from Grant’s military district. The order, swiftly rescinded at the insistence of a horrified President Lincoln, could be understood in context (Grant was furious at merchants trading with the enemy, including his own father’s Jewish business partners) but not justified. Grant simply gave in to anti-Semitic stereotypes. He repented soon afterward, and spent a good deal of his campaigns and presidency building bridges with American Jews in a sincere show of having learned from a prejudiced decision made with too little thought.

He did not rethink his approach toward Catholics or Mormons, however. Amid an openly anti-Catholic debate over “the School Question” with parallels to the contemporary Kulturkampf in Germany, Grant in an 1875 speech called for new laws on secular and religious schooling, as part of a legislative agenda he summarized in his penultimate State of the Union message in 1875, which warned of the subversion of intelligent self-government by “the demagogue or by priestcraft”:

First. That the States shall be required to afford the opportunity of a good common-school education to every child within their limits.

Second. No sectarian tenets shall ever be taught in any school supported in whole or in part by the State, nation, or by the proceeds of any tax levied upon any community. Make education compulsory so far as to deprive all persons who can not read and write from becoming voters after the year 1890, disfranchising [sic] none, however, on grounds of illiteracy who may be voters at the time this amendment takes effect.

Third. Declare church and state forever separate and distinct, but each free within their proper spheres; and that all church property shall bear its own proportion of taxation.

Fourth. Drive out licensed immorality, such as polygamy and the importation of women for illegitimate purposes. To recur again to the centennial year, it would seem as though now, as we are about to begin the second century of our national existence, would be a most fitting time for these reforms.

Notably, in contrast to current policy, Grant proposed taxing church properties, excepting only churches and cemeteries. James G. Blaine, then speaker of the House, introduced a constitutional amendment, which was understood at the time to be aimed squarely at states such as New York that chose to support Catholic schooling out of their general-education budgets:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

The amendment passed the House overwhelmingly before falling four votes short in the Senate. Thirty-eight states would subsequently add “Blaine Amendments” to their own constitutions in the following decades — amendments that remain potent weapons in education-funding battles to this day. In 1884, Catholic backlash against Blaine in New York cost Republicans the White House for the first time since 1856.

Grant also pressed for a hard federal line against Mormon marriage practices, as he noted elsewhere in his 1875 State of the Union message:

In nearly every annual message that I have had the honor of transmitting to Congress I have called attention to the anomalous, not to say scandalous, condition of affairs existing in the Territory of Utah, and have asked for definite legislation to correct it. That polygamy should exist in a free, enlightened, and Christian country, without the power to punish so flagrant a crime against decency and morality, seems preposterous. True, there is no law to sustain this unnatural vice; but what is needed is a law to punish it as a crime, and at the same time to fix the status of the innocent children, the offspring of this system, and of the possibly innocent plural wives. But as an institution polygamy should be banished from the land.

Grant was following two decades of Republican rhetoric; the 1856 party platform had declared that “it is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” Federal law banned bigamy in 1862, and in 1874, Grant signed the Poland Act, removing such prosecutions to federal court to prevent nullification by local Mormon-dominated courts. (Brigham Young himself was indicted in 1872.) In the end, after harsher federal action in the 1880s, the Church of Latter-day Saints renounced plural marriage, paving the way for Utah statehood and eventual Mormon acceptance into the American mainstream.

On immigration, Grant moved from the liberalizing Naturalization Act of 1870, which allowed black immigrants to be naturalized on the same terms as whites, to the Page Act of 1875, the nation’s first restrictive immigration law. The Page Act banned immigration by Chinese women, which Grant saw as necessary to prevent sex trafficking and de facto sex slavery: “I invite the attention of Congress to another, though perhaps no less an evil — the importation of Chinese women, but few of whom are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.” The ban would be followed, in 1882, by a broader ban on Chinese immigration.

Grant’s Mormon policy, Native American policy, and support for the Page Act were all part of a broader, Victorian-era view of public morality and humanitarianism that incorporated his opposition to slavery and the Klan. Grant supported and signed the 1873 “Comstock laws” that forbade use of the mails to promote abortion, contraception, or pornography, and appointed their proponent, Anthony Comstock, a special agent of the Postal Inspection Service with broad powers of enforcement.

Many of Grant’s collisions with religious practices came on issues that remain fraught to this day. In 2019’s political climate, Grant would be considered a conservative on traditional marriage, abortion, and international sex trafficking, and a liberal on education funding. His view of the path forward for Native Americans was, if jarring to modern eyes, more humane than those of Sherman and Sheridan, and prescient about the fate of the tribes of the Great Plains. Yet recent positive biographies have mostly ignored Grant’s record on a number of these issues. Ron Chernow, for example, spends a lot of time examining Grant’s relationship with American Jews, but ignores his record on Mormon polygamy and Chinese immigration, and essentially endorses his pro–Blaine Amendment stance.

Grant in full: On the strength of his military record, Ulysses S. Grant was one of our greatest Americans, and his presidency should be seen as an addition to that legacy, not an embarrassment. Grant’s flaws deserve to be remembered. He probably could not have done much more to build public support for continuing Reconstruction after 1876, but he could have done more to prevent corruption, respect religious liberties, win the debate over Dominican annexation, and avoid the catastrophe at Little Bighorn. The corruption scandals of Grant’s tenure were far less important in the long run than his policy record, which they should not be allowed to overshadow, but they did interfere with his ability to do the job by handicapping his Supreme Court nominations, his Reconstruction and Native American policies, and even his efforts to annex Santo Domingo.

In the end, though, Grant buried secession and slavery for good, kept the peace abroad, laid the building blocks for a long-term Anglo–American alliance, oversaw the nation’s turn down the path to economic-superpower status, and can claim both the Fifteenth Amendment and the modern Justice Department as important milestones in his legacy. That’s a record any president would be proud of.

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