William S. McFeely, 1981


When Ulysses Grant was eight years old, he heard that there was a horse for sale a few miles away and asked his father to buy it. His father agreed, but wasn't thrilled about the price, and explained to Ulysses how to haggle. But the younger Grant remained a little unclear on the concept, for when he tracked down the horse's owner, he promptly declared, "Papa says I may offer you 20 dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer 22½, and if you won't take that, to give you 25." When this story got out, Ulysses Grant became the laughingstock of his small Ohio town, and biographer McFeely asserts that the incident went a long way toward shaping Grant psychologically. But it had a more practical effect as well: Grant's father decided that it might be best to turn his business over to his other sons, and find something for Ulysses to do for which he might be better suited. So he sent him to West Point.

Grant was an indifferent student at the military academy, graduating in the middle of his class. He fought in the Mexican War despite disdaining the cause, later asserting that the United States had provoked the war as a land grab on behalf of slaveholders. Afterwards, he was assigned to desolate outposts in the Northwest, where he fell prey to a deep depression and began to drink. He hated the conditions and he hated being separated from his wife and children, one of whom he'd never seen, but his prospects outside the army looked bleak — he'd been swindled out of his life savings by a "business partner" who'd used them to buy a boat, and when he thought of striking out on his own, he wrote, "poverty, poverty, begins to stare me in the face."

Nevertheless, Grant did quit the army. He tried farming on his father-in-law's land, but could eke out no more than a grueling subsistence. He became a debt collector, but found the work too odious to keep at it for long. At 37 he had to go crawling to his father for a position in one of his leather-goods stores, and was placed under the supervision of his younger brother Orvil. Living the life of a shop clerk in the northwestern corner of Illinois, the best Ulysses Grant could boast was that he'd risen from a failure to a solid mediocrity. And then he won the jackpot in a macabre lottery. The country collapsed into civil war. The military leadership was dominated by Southerners, and they threw in with the rebels. This left the Union army in dire need of officers. And Ulysses Grant had a West Point education.

Despite this, Grant initially had problems securing a commission. Within the Army he was known as a drunkard who'd quit. He had no friends who could put in a good word for him, and nearly gave up before trying one last gambit — he went to his congressman. Rep. Elihu Washburne made a shrewd calculation: Union officers were likely to become powerful figures after the North inevitably won the war. Having one of them owe you a favor was worth cashing in a little political capital. Strings were pulled, and Grant was made a colonel. By the time the war was over, Grant was a four-star general and the first man in the history of the country to outrank George Washington.

The secret of Grant's success was that he agreed with his boss on a key point of military strategy: that his goal was to kill, capture, or permanently scare away as many rebels as possible. Grant's colleagues thought that they were supposed to win battles. The problem was that their rebel counterparts were generally more skilled than they were, so the Union commanders were reluctant to make moves without overwhelming force on their side. On those rare occasions that they did stop lobbying Washington for reinforcements and fight, one of two things happened: either they found themselves losing, and sounded the retreat, or they "won" and chased the rebels away, and congratulated themselves on a mission accomplished. What Grant understood was that superior martial prowess was virtually the South's only advantage, so the key to victory was not to be cowed by it — to maximize the North's advantages by making the war a contest of manpower rather than of military skill. "Losing battles" was unimportant so long as you were inflicting casualties. The Civil War chess sets that were advertised on TV all the time when I was a kid had the rules wrong: in real life, the sides weren't equal in strength. And you can trade a rook for a knight when you have six rooks. In fact, it's better to do so than to pick off a pawn at no cost. Because the former course does more to hasten the day that the other side runs out of guys.

So when battles turned against the Union forces — at Fort Donelson, at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, in the Virginia wilderness, at Spotsylvania, at Cold Harbor — Grant rallied them to keep up the attack. It was a grim business: there were months that Grant lost enough men to fill a modern football stadium, and he found himself decried as a butcher. But Washburne had been right. There's a pretty reliable rule in American politics: get credited with winning a war and you can write your own ticket to the presidency. Look at how unlikely a character as Zachary Taylor had won the White House simply on the basis of having been the ranking man on the scene when the U.S. won its first few big battles in Mexico. Or take Andrew Jackson, who became an idol of the masses after winning a battle in a war that was already over, one which had concluded with nothing more than a return to the pre-war status quo yet nonetheless launched a wave of euphoria across the country. The list goes on. So with Abraham Lincoln martyred, the title of Man Who Won the Civil War devolved onto Grant, and his "butchery" was forgotten. He spent the next few years receiving standing ovations wherever he went, and as the 214-80 tally in the electoral college would prove, victory in the 1868 election was a foregone conclusion.


Or rather, that was the story I'd always heard, and this biography supports that account, glossing over the election... but I can't help but note that the popular vote was actually pretty close. And I think the election results hold a key to understanding why the Grant presidency turned out the way it did. 1868 was only the third year that the Republican Party fielded a presidential ticket. The first was 1856, in which Republican nominee John Frémont was tarred as a straight-edge vegetarian feminist socialist who believed in sexual freedom and racial equality — i.e., my dream candidate — and wound up polling over 50% in only eight states: the six New England states plus Michigan and Wisconsin. Recognizing that, even in the polarized environment of 1860, they needed to nominate a moderate if they wanted to win, the Republicans next selected Abraham Lincoln, an avowed non-abolitionist, and he was able to bring over the states one tier south of Frémont's: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (plus the new state of Minnesota). Civil war broke out over Lincoln's victory, and that left an electorate composed of four main segments: progressive abolitionists who would soon be called Radical Republicans; conservative Republicans who represented the Northern and mid-Atlantic propertied class; War Democrats who didn't necessarily disagree with Southerners on policy but strongly disagreed with the notion that they had the right to withdraw from the Union; and Peace Democrats who supported the rebels' war aims. Lincoln's base, to the extent that he had one — for Lincoln was a pragmatist skilled at playing different groups against each other and having broad rather than deep appeal — was the conservative Republicans, and in 1864 he faced opposition both from the Democrats, who nominated demoted general and gigantic douche George McClellan, and from the Radicals, who formed the Radical Democracy Party and convened in Cleveland to re-nominate Frémont. Lincoln's winning move was to form the National Union Party, uniting the conservative Republicans with the War Democrats, then buying off the Radicals by having the hated postmaster general Montgomery Blair resign in exchange for Frémont dropping out of the race. The ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson won in a landslide, and we all know how that turned out.

With the war over, the War Democrats no longer had anything to disagree with the Peace Democrats about, and the National Union Party dissolved. This left the Republicans in a tough position. They could no longer split the difference on slavery, appealing to abolitionists by opposing its extension while simultaneously appealing to conservatives by vowing not to interfere with it where it already existed — by 1868, the Republicans had abolished it. This left them vulnerable to a Democratic campaign with the following theme:

And the appeal of this message was wide. Obviously the Southerners who had gone to war for slavery and white supremacy were going to respond favorably, but it wasn't the case that white supremacists were only to be found in the South. Many of those who had fought fiercely for the North had been completely honest when they'd said that they were doing so purely in order to preserve the Union and not out of any concern for the rights of blacks or any desire to remake Southern society. So Grant found himself with a needle to thread. He couldn't afford to say anything that would turn the racist vote uniformly against him, but neither could he risk alienating the Republicans' natural constituency of pleased abolitionists and those blacks brave enough to go to the polls. And so he elected to coast on his celebrity, traveling the country making appearances at which he gave the following speech, which I will now reproduce in its entirety:

I rise only to say that I do not intend to say anything. I thank you for your hearty welcomes and good cheers.

Eventually Grant's people decided that this wasn't quite enough and came up with a slogan that was very nearly as empty: "Let Us Have Peace." But to read the electoral college results as an endorsement of that sentiment would be a mistake. In 1868, several Southern states were still under military rule and not yet allowed to vote, while in others former rebels were barred from casting ballots. Where those restrictions were not in force — in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky, as well as in recalcitrant Georgia and Louisiana — Grant was crushed. It seems reasonable to speculate that a similar fate would have awaited him across the rest of the South had Reconstruction rules not been in effect. Grant also lost New York and New Jersey, and barely squeaked out a victory in Connecticut, as the Irish in metro New York fought to preserve their position one notch above the blacks at the bottom of the social totem pole. Even with the ex-rebel vote excluded from Seymour's column, Grant's margin in the popular vote was only five percent. So the electoral map notwithstanding, this was not a country whose people were on the same page.


When we think of Grant's term in office, three main legacies come to mind: one, Reconstruction failed on his watch; two, he presided over an economic collapse whose effects lasted for the rest of the nineteenth century; three, he surrounded himself with crooks. And though this is not the explicit thesis of the McFeely biography, it's hard not to come away with the impression that all of these were outgrowths of the same tragic flaw in Grant's character.

If Grant's background had been similar to McClellan's — scion of two upper-crust families, matriculated to an Ivy League school at age 13, second in his class at West Point — he might never have had a shadow of a doubt, as McClellan did not, that the generalship-in-chief and the presidency were his inevitable and proper stations. But the victorious supreme commander of the armed forces of the United States had, four years earlier, been working retail. And he was still basically the same person he had been then. This meant one of two things:

  • The dividing line between success and failure in America was largely a matter of chance. In nondescript shops all across the country were clerks who could have done what Grant did. A stroke of fortune had happened to deliver the opportunity to him; a similar stroke of misfortune could just as easily have poverty, poverty, once more staring him in the face.

  • America was a meritocracy where even a humble shopkeeper could rise to the pinnacle of society with sufficient ability and drive!

The account of Grant's presidency in this book paints a picture of a man hoping that if he governed as if the latter were the case it just might turn out to be true. To be sure, Ulysses Grant was not lacking in self-regard. He was the sort of guy who looked at everyone around him and thought, "Hmpf, I could do that." But it's hard not to find an edge of insecurity in a man who spent virtually every night for twenty years going to dinners in his honor. Grant loved nothing more than to be feted. Each celebratory banquet was a reminder that he'd made it one more day without falling back into obscurity.

Grant's empty platform hadn't been just a campaign strategy — like Lincoln before him, he held to the notion that it wasn't the president's job to come into office with any kind of agenda. "I shall have no policy of my own," he declared at the Republican convention, and it was no lie. Grant didn't want to be president in order to take the country in any particular direction; he wanted to be president because he felt like he deserved to be president. He'd make any big decisions that came along, but steering the ship of state from day to day would largely be left to his lieutenants. These were mostly either associates from the war days or else people who seemed to Grant to have found the secret to success: rich businessmen, patrician eminences. Surely associating himself with such men meant that he had secured a place among the ruling class.


Grant did have a few convictions that he brought to the job. He was a firm believer in the melting pot: to the extent that he had a vision at all, it was of a completely homogenous nation, where every American could feel equally at home in Massachusetts and Mississippi, where even regional accents had been wiped out. He disdained insular groups who "shunned contact with others," such as the Jews, whom he'd ordered expelled from his wartime jurisdiction — but he was, for the era, remarkably free of prejudice toward those willing to assimilate. One of his protégés was a Seneca sachem named Ha-sa-no-an-da, or as he called himself when not among the Iroquois, Ely Parker. Parker was a thoroughly assimilated lawyer and civil engineer who became a key member of Grant's staff during the Civil War despite initially being barred from the army due to his race. Grant named him Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first member of an indigenous people to hold the post, and charged him with inaugurating a new era in relations between the United States and native tribes — one which would lead to their acceptance of "civilization" and ultimate incorporation into American society. Though I think this has to be counted as a significantly more enlightened approach than the policy of exploitation and extermination it was intended to replace, few members of those tribes had much interest in hopping into Grant's melting pot. The wars on the frontier continued.

And so did the Civil War. In time-honored fashion, Southerners had responded to military defeat by forming insurgent groups ranging from secretive terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who focused on murdering blacks, to openly operating paramilitary forces such as the White League, who focused on murdering Republicans. "These combinations amount to war," declared Amos Akerman, the second of five men to serve under Grant as attorney general. Akerman was a so-called "scalawag" who had served in the rebel army but had devoted himself to the cause of Reconstruction, and Grant posted him to the Carolinas to try to speed trials of Klansmen along — a problem because local judges tended to be Klansmen as well. There he reported on the basic issue:

A portion of our southern population hate the government of the United States, because they understand it emphatically to represent northern sentiment, and hate the negro because he has ceased to be a slave and has been promoted to be a citizen and a voter, and hate those of the southern whites who are looked upon as in political friendship with the north, with the United States Government and with the negro. These persons commit the violence that disturbs many parts of the south.

In some towns that "portion" amounted to the entire adult male population. Southern lawmen, such as they were, explained their failure to do anything to protect blacks and Republicans by complaining that if they obeyed their orders to round up insurgents, there would be mass starvation because nobody would be left to work. Clearly if blacks were to avoid total subjugation the federal government would have to do something. And Ulysses Grant had a plan.

Grant's plan, on which he spent all the political capital he could bring to bear, was to annex the Dominican Republic. Black leaders had objected to Abraham Lincoln's proposal that freed slaves relocate to the Caribbean, arguing that they had a right to stay in the only home they'd ever known, but to Grant this was completely different. He wasn't kicking them out of the country — he was offering a way for blacks to stay in the U.S., in a territory set aside for their use, where there'd be 800 miles of water between them and the KKK. Dominican president Buenaventura Báez was all for the move and had attempted to get the country annexed by the United States back in the Taylor/Fillmore days, as well as by France in 1846 and by Spain in 1861. But powerful senator Charles Sumner opposed the treaty of annexation: dissolving the sovereignty of one of the world's few independent black nations struck him as imperialism at its worst, and he questioned the legitimacy of Báez's rule and consequently of any deal made with him. Then it came to light that one of Grant's cronies had acquired some land in the Dominican Republic that stood to appreciate significantly in value should it suddenly become U.S. soil. With the plan now looking like a scam, the treaty was voted down.

Grant didn't have a Plan B for dealing with the racist insurrection in the South. Military solutions were anathema to him for a number of reasons: one, the single plank of his platform had been "Let Us Have Peace," and re-engaging the insurgents ran counter to that aspiration; two, he was well aware of (and hated) his reputation as a butcher, and, unlike Andrew Jackson, was very sensitive to charges that he meant to establish a military dictatorship; three, much of his reputation rested upon his role as the man who received the surrender of the general-in-chief of the rebel army, and if that was not the effective end of the war — if Appomattox was the equivalent of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech — then that claim to a position in the ruling class was accordingly devalued. He was also not a Plan B guy in general. The fighting style that had won him Lincoln's favor was to launch an attack and then refuse to retreat, even when the tide was turning against him. And if the United States was a meritocracy, which he had to believe for his own psychological well-being, then as the president his decisions had the most merit. So he would no more try an alternate approach than he would retreat from a battlefield and attack in a different spot. He'd put forward his plan to solve the crisis, and if Congress voted it down then the matter was out of his hands.

And that was the way most of those around him liked it. The Republican Party had begun as a coalition of anti-slavery groups, but now that slavery had been banned, Republicans found themselves all over the map on the question of black rights. Very few actually believed in racial equality. Many had opposed slavery because they objected to blacks being part of American society in any capacity, even the lowliest. The aristocrats with whom Grant had surrounded himself considered themselves enlightened for opposing the auction block and the whipping post, but the notion of blacks casting ballots and serving on juries struck them as highly suspect; uncomfortable as they were with the KKK's means, they weren't unsympathetic to its ends. Consider the Freedmen's Bureau, which was established after the war to give the former slaves some kind of access to the basics that would otherwise be unavailable to them in the South: medical care, education, even food. Grant's secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, had opposed it. That kind of support might give blacks a chance to build lives for themselves in which they weren't completely subservient to whites. He'd seen that sort of thing in Cuba, where the people were "of every shade and mixture of color," yet had come to "own all the land on the island" and expected Fish to treat them as equals. To Fish, this was out of the question; their race made them "vile," having to pay them respect was intolerable, and thus the idea of annexing Cuba, as Franklin Pierce wanted — or the Dominican Republic, as Grant wanted — was a non-starter. And the same went for the blacks who were already here. Slavery had been banned; the slaves should say thank you and get back to picking cotton on white men's plantations. Grant, who'd worked someone else's land himself, found it hard to be so callous, but if that was the prevalent attitude among the ruling class, then he had to adopt it.


Never was Grant's class allegiance tested in so stark a manner as in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873. The background here will sound all too familiar to us 21st-century folk, conversant as we've had to become with depression economics. I heard a lecture by Brad DeLong not too long ago in which he defined a depression as a state of affairs in which there is an excess demand for money — which may be a bog-standard Econ 101 explanation, but I'd never heard it put quite that way before. The idea is that in a healthy economy, money is something people want to get rid of; it has virtually no intrinsic worth and thus people would rather trade it for things they can enjoy, such as, in DeLong's example, lattes and yoga classes. (I guess the 1873 equivalents would be whiskey and prostitutes.) Baristas have a steady income stream because of all the people, including yoga instructors, eager to trade their slips of colored paper for lattes; yoga instructors have a steady income stream because of all the people, including baristas, eager to trade their slips of colored paper for yoga classes, and so everyone stays employed, a wide range of goods and services remain available, and standards of living are generally pretty good. But say that people start to worry about whether money will remain easy to come by. The yoga instructor decides to hang on to that slip of colored paper instead of spending it on a latte, because it might not be so easy to get another by the time her rent is due. The barista hears his manager grumbling about the drop in business, fears that he might lose his job, and stops paying for that yoga class. Soon business is poor everywhere, workers get laid off, they hoard money all the more because now there really isn't any coming in, a vicious cycle ensues, and standards of living take a big hit.

Several factors made money hard to come by in 1873. One is that an economic bubble popped, leading to the collapse of a leading investment bank — see, I told you this was going to sound familiar. This time the bubble centered on the railroads. During the bubble it seemed like anyone who even looked at a railroad wound up with a tremendous fortune; Leland Stanford, for instance, had made over a billion in today's dollars off the Central Pacific (much of it later misspent). The brokerage house Jay Cooke & Company decided to jump in with both feet, gobbling up 75% of the Northern Pacific and planning to finance the purchase by selling bonds. But the bonds didn't sell, investors saw that the bank had liabilities it couldn't cover and pulled their money out before they lost it, and Cooke went under. These were the days before deposit insurance and it didn't take much to set off a chain reaction of bank failures as people got spooked about losing their savings. Vast sums were pulled out of the economy and shoved under mattresses, setting off the depressive spiral outlined above.

But Cooke was just the last domino to fall. Earlier in the year Grant had signed a law demonetizing silver — mints were no longer legally obligated to exchange coins for the silver bullion that was brought to them. This hadn't been a problem, as silver had actually been slightly undervalued and people were more likely to hoard silver than exchange it for coins that weren't worth as much. But in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany released vast amounts of silver onto the market, and the value of silver correspondingly crashed. A real danger arose that people would melt down their jewelry and candlesticks and exchange them for coins whose face value, set by statute at 371¼ grains (around 24 grams) per dollar, would be much greater than the value of the silver contained therein. They could force the mint to turn $40 worth of silver into $100 worth of silver coins, effectively creating sixty dollars out of nothing. And all those old silver coins that people had squirreled away would also be dug out and used. As increasing the number of dollars in circulation makes each dollar worth that much less, the result would be inflation. That is precisely what Grant's advisors didn't want, and hence the coinage act that populists would come to call the "Crime of '73."

But with the economy in freefall, in 1874 Congress passed what with refreshing honesty was called the Inflation Bill. Inflation is something that people grumble about — no one likes to have to shell out an extra fifty cents for that slice of pizza — but a little bit of inflation is often a very good thing. Especially in a depression, anything that gets people to spend the money they're hoarding is a plus, and the fear that its purchasing power is dropping is a helpful nudge in that direction. People in debt particularly benefit from inflation: that $275 monthly mortgage payment that seemed so daunting in 1972 was a breeze to cover in 1983. The flip side is that the people who are owed those debts really don't like it when the payments they receive aren't worth as much. Nor when the money they've set aside for that yacht can only pay for 90% of a yacht. And these were the people with Grant's ear.

So what did they say? They couldn't make much of a case against the immediate effects of the Inflation Bill. The economy was in a state of what Grant called "prostration" because people who needed money couldn't get it, and this bill would make money easier to come by. It'd ease the debts of the impoverished farmers and miners trying to scratch a living from the earth, get at least a little cash in the hands of people who'd lost all their savings in the collapse of the banks, and the only real price would be a small hit to the net worth of the robber barons. Thus, the conservatives turned to moral arguments. The right has long had the upper hand where framing is concerned, and so it was here: those who wanted Grant to veto the Inflation Bill could claim they supported "hard money," "sound money," while their opponents were left having to say that they wanted money to be "soft" and "easy" — unappealing terms to a military man. The conservatives spoke of principle, that a dollar in 1875 should be the same as a dollar in 1870; that if you took out a loan your creditor deserved to come out ahead for his generosity; that a crisis precipitated by unstable banks could not be ameliorated by an unstable currency. These were the arguments that Grant repeated when, in the end, he vetoed the Inflation Bill. Presaging today's believers in the confidence fairy, he declared that "however much individuals may suffer," the real cause of that suffering was "the want of a sound financial system." This wasn't actually true and the result was what is today called the Long Depression: 65 months of continuous contraction with 14% unemployment, followed by a rapid boom-and-bust cycle that would see the economy in recession half the time until the dawn of the 20th century.

But just as the Civil War, while terrible for most, had been a boon for Grant, the Long Depression was a prosperous enough time for some that it earned a second moniker: the Gilded Age. And the existence of these winners was part of the conservatives' pitch to Grant. Narrowly, they said, the Inflation Bill should be vetoed because people shouldn't be punished for having the discipline and restraint to hang on to their money, but more broadly, the government shouldn't adopt a policy that punished people for success. Grant may have won re-election carrying "the working-man's banner," they continued, but what that really meant was that the United States was a nation in which the tanner, the shoemaker, the farmer, the miner, the millworker, and all the rest of the little people out there could make something of themselves as Grant had done and no longer have to worry about keeping a roof overhead and food on the table. If they lacked the ability or the motivation to strike it rich — for surely luck had nothing to do with it — then they, like everyone in this glorious meritocracy, deserved what they got.

Grant's veto came as a surprise; the speculation at the time, among both the inflationists and the conservatives, was that he would sign it. He had been chummy with the sponsors of the bill and hostile to the bankers who came to lobby against it. McFeely diagnoses Grant's behavior as "a sense of rage at having to do the respectable safe thing in order to hold on to what he and Julia had won — the deference of the 'better' people. He did not trust himself [...] not to become dispossessed if he defied the possessors." This decision wound up having an outsized impact on subsequent American political history. The Republican Party had been founded to stop the spread of slavery beyond the South. That was now a dead issue. What would its new core principle be? Ulysses Grant's veto set a course that the party continues to follow today. The Republicans would henceforth be, first and foremost, shills for the rich.


So, uh, each of the last two sections was originally only supposed to be a paragraph. (The average size of these articles has undergone some inflation of its own over the years.) If I were to be equally longwinded about the scandals that marked the Grant administration I would wind up going longer than McFeely's book, so here's a quick rundown of a few of the lowlights:

Black Friday, 1869
Two of Grant's associates attempt to corner the gold market; when Grant and Treasury Secretary George Boutwell release some gold to foil the scheme, the economy crashes. Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Butterfield is forced out for accepting a bribe. Grant's wife and sister are implicated in the scheme.
New York Custom House ring, 1872
Two of Grant's appointees to the most lucrative port in the United States accept kickbacks in exchange for distributing unclaimed goods to private warehouses. Two of Grant's secretaries, including Orville Babcock, are implicated in the scheme.
Star Route frauds, 1872-1876
Western contractors receive huge sums for delivering mail on rural postal routes that turn out to be fictitious or which never actually receive the promised service. Postmaster General John Creswell resigns.
Sanborn incident, 1874
Treasury Secretary William Richardson pays tax collector John Sanborn a 50% commission on cases on which Sanborn was not authorized to collect. Richardson resigns.
Pratt & Boyd, 1875
Attorney General George Williams drops a fraud case against a merchant house in exchange for a bribe. Williams is forced out.
Whiskey Ring, 1875
This is the big one. Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow, without informing Grant or Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont, breaks a wide-ranging conspiracy in which distillers, distributors, shopkeepers, elected officials, and government bureaucrats share among themselves millions of dollars that should have been collected in liquor taxes. 110 people are convicted, but when special prosecutor John Henderson goes after Grant's secretary Orville Babcock (him again), Grant fires Henderson. Grant then gives a deposition in support of Babcock, the only time a sitting president has testified at a criminal trial, and Babcock is acquitted.
Delano affair, 1875
Interior Secretary Columbus Delano hands out sinecures to bogus attorneys ostensibly representing native tribes, bogus clerks at the Patent Office, and bogus surveyors including his own son and Grant's brother (and former boss) Orvil. Delano resigns.
Trading post scandal, 1876
War Secretary William Belknap successfully lobbies Congress to be allowed to establish native trading posts at military forts, then receives kickbacks in exchange for the rights to run the posts. Belknap resigns.
Alexander Cattell & Co., 1876
Navy Secretary George Robeson receives a congressional admonishment for "gross misconduct" for giving Navy contracts to a former senator's company in exchange for huge kickbacks, a team of horses, and a vacation home. Robeson serves out his term.
Safe burglary, 1876
Corrupt building contractors on trial for graft attempt to frame Columbus Alexander, a critic of the Grant administration who had first complained about the contractors' scheme, for stealing from the district attorney's safe. Grant's secretary Orville Babcock (him yet again) is implicated in the scheme.

This list raises a couple of questions: Why did Grant stock his cabinet with crooks? And why did he keep going to bat for someone with at least three strikes, Orville Babcock?

McFeely's answer to the second question is that doubting Babcock meant doubting his own judgment in choosing his friends, and if Grant ever did doubt his own judgment, he refused to do anything that might show it. He wouldn't retreat in the war, he wouldn't give up the idea of annexing the Dominican Republic, and he wasn't going to back off his decision to make Babcock one of his right-hand men. Even when, at long last, Hamilton Fish demanded that Babcock be barred from the White House, Grant simply gave him a government job down in Florida. Future president James Garfield wrote of Grant, "His imperturbability is amazing. I am in doubt whether to call it greatness or stupidity."

Grant himself tried to answer the first question in his final State of the Union address, drafted after the 1876 election that (eventually) saw Rutherford Hayes chosen as his successor — not because Grant didn't want a third term, but because it was clear that he couldn't hope to win renomination, let alone the general election. His name had become synonymous with corruption, and he felt obligated to declare for the record that he was not a crook. The alternative explanations available to him were not very flattering, though. He wound up going with a variation on Bush's complaints in the 2004 debates that presidentin' is hard work, chalking up the fiascoes of his administration to the fact that he had been "called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training" and protesting that "no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes." And the mistakes that he himself had made, he emphasized, were not themselves scandalous but rather errors "in the selections made of the assistants" who went on to get tangled in scandals. The string of top administration officials who had stepped down in disgrace had been "in nearly every case selected without a personal acquaintance with the appointee, but upon recommendations of the representatives chosen directly by the people." Ah, the ever-popular "blame the public" maneuver! And here Grant expected people to believe that he wasn't politically adept.

Sarcasm aside, it's true that Grant was an outsider, and that Washington has always been very clubby. But Lincoln had been an outsider as well, and he'd found ways to co-opt factions and play them off each other. Grant, on the other hand, alienated one of the big cliques, a group of intellectual libertarians who came to call themselves the Liberal Republicans, to such an extent that they and not the Democrats wound up opposing Grant in the 1872 election. Their basic stance was that with the Civil War over, the United States could return to those fabled days when the halls of power had been the domain of virtuous men of ideas who governed with a light hand. Grant was emblematic of everything they opposed. He was a rustic man of very few ideas; to the extent that he had any kind of vision, it was of a centralized, homogenous country that was odious to them. Far from governing with a light hand, he had what they saw as an imperious style — as if the U.S. should annex the Dominican Republic just because he said so! hmpf! — and, oh yeah, his army currently occupied half the country. (Though some of the Liberal Republicans had been abolitionists, with slavery officially banned they wanted Reconstruction ended immediately.) And as for virtue, just look at that list of scandals. Grant certainly hadn't listened to their recommendations.

And he hadn't. Grant considered the Liberal Republicans feckless and effete (and the country seemed to agree: they got walloped in the election). Grant had thrown in his lot with a different group. As Hugh McCulloch, Treasury Secretary both before and after Grant, wrote: "For rich men he had great respect; for poor men, no matter how distinguished they might be by intellectual attainments, he had but little regard." In those anxious years before the war, it wasn't men of erudition or virtue whom Grant had envied, who seemed in an objective, undeniable way to be his betters. It was the rich. So that was to whom, even as president, he deferred. The problem is that the rich are, by and large, awful human beings. Awfulness is what capitalism selects for.

Any economic system has to tackle two basic issues: how to distribute goods and services, and how to encourage people to produce those goods and perform those services in the first place — because while there are some noble, altruistic people out there who might do so out of a desire to help people or out of a feeling of responsibility to contribute something to the world, and others who might do so out of a need for self-expression or simply out of boredom, there aren't enough to serve as the basis for an economy. Money is supposed to solve both problems: distribution is dictated by ability to pay, and the fact that ability to pay is linked to one's own contribution to the commonwealth serves to motivate the otherwise unmotivated to get to work. And so, in theory, the rich should be those who have contributed the most to the general welfare and have thereby earned the right to take the most out. But very rarely are fortunes made by actually doing things or making things, and very rarely are they made as a side effect of pursuing some other goal. It's easy to lose sight of this because the rich people we hear about tend to be the exceptions — the musician who, in search of emotional catharsis, writes a bunch of songs that wind up selling millions of copies, or the athlete who, driven to prove himself the best at his sport, entertains millions of fans throwing down dunks and gets offered an eye-popping contract. Far more often, fortunes are made by people who have sought them out — people who asked themselves not "what can I offer the world?" but "how do I take as much from the world as I possibly can?" And capitalism, with its perverse incentives, answers: get off the treadmill of trading labor for purchasing power and become a parasite. Making widgets all day is for suckers; you want to be the one who does absolutely nothing to make the widgets but still pockets most of the revenue they bring in by getting yourself in a position to dick around with the tally sheets and skim off the top. Grant's associates were just doing what had brought them success before: wormed their way into positions of power and attempted to profit off them. The difference was that when you do that with a governmental position it's called not "business" but "corruption" and is illegal. Or, to flip that around, what's appalling is not that the rich people Grant naively put his trust in turned out to be crooked. It's that behavior that, in the public sector, we can clearly recognize as crooked is the very foundation of our economic system — not only legal, but applauded, rewarded... how people become rich.

With his reputation at home no longer what it had once been, upon the expiration of his presidency Grant hopped aboard the SS Indiana and went on a two-year tour around the world to places where he was still a figure of awe. In China, for instance, the viceroy in charge of foreign policy, Li Hongzhang, greeted Grant as one of the two "greatest men in the world" (the other, naturally, being Li Hongzhang). While in China, Grant caused a bit of a stir by refusing to meet with Guangxu, the seven-year-old emperor — just as, years earlier, he had refused to attend a dinner in honor of the 19-year-old British prince Arthur Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Something about the notion of having to pay respect to children who had merely had the luck to be born into royalty deeply offended Grant. And that something, it seems to me, was the reminder of how much of success is a matter of luck.

Grant hadn't been born into royalty. He had been elected head of state on the strength of his status as the victorious general in the Civil War, and that was no accident of birth. Except... that victory had been achieved not by any brilliant tactics on Grant's part but merely by pressing the advantage of overwhelming numbers — as anyone in the Union general's chair could have done, and as one eventually would have done, since Lincoln was determined to keep changing generals until he found one who agreed with him on this strategy. "Victorious Union general" was a ready-made role waiting for a warm body to be plugged into it. There were a few other conditions: obviously it would have to be a white male from the North, and most likely from what was then called the Northwest, in order to get assigned to the western theater where the rebel officers were weaker and victories that would catch Lincoln's attention were easier to come by. Take any number of Ohio boys, give them the West Point education that had been foisted upon Grant, and they could very likely have achieved the same results he did. Grant happened to be the one who got that chance. And the cruel direction that Republican economic policy took from his administration onward — its insistence that the disadvantaged and unlucky are getting what they deserve — can largely be attributed to Ulysses Grant's inability to accept that he was not a singular figure and that his own success could be chalked up to happenstance.

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