What did Ulysses S. Grant do as president of the United States? Was he considered a good president?
In 1868, as the Republican nominee, Grant defeated incumbent Andrew Johnson to become the 18th President. In Grant, Ron Chernow analyzes Grant’s legacy of Reconstruction—the era lasting from the Civil War’s end until 1877—which saw him attempt to defend civil rights for Black Americans while reconciling with the South.
Let’s take a look at what Ulysses S. Grant accomplished (or failed to accomplish) as president.
Grant’s Civil Rights Activism
What did Ulysses S. Grant do as president? According to Chernow, Grant remained steadfastly committed to protecting civil rights for freedmen in the aftermath of the Civil War. He argues that Grant’s work as president was essential for safeguarding Black citizens’ civil rights and helping them transition out of slavery. And although Chernow lists various examples of Grant’s activism, we’ll focus on three key instances: Grant’s support for the Fifteenth Amendment, his implementation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Act, and his decision to fund the Bureau of Education.
Passing the Fifteenth Amendment
First, Chernow argues that Grant’s advocacy was key in accomplishing the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which secured the right to vote for Black American men. He points out that in his 1869 inauguration speech, Grant explicitly expressed his belief that a new amendment should guarantee suffrage for Black men. Chernow contends that because Grant’s voice held serious sway, even among Southern states, his endorsement of the Fifteenth Amendment on a national stage led directly to its ratification—a view shared by George Boutwell, the Amendment’s author.
Passing the Third Enforcement Act
Moreover, Chernow maintains that Grant protected freedmen from racial violence by asking Congress to pass the Third Enforcement Act, better known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Act. For context, the KKK (a white supremacist terror group founded by Confederate veterans in 1865) perpetrated widespread racial violence against freedmen in Southern states following the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments that established legal protections for ex-slaves. Through many racially driven massacres of Black citizens, the KKK sought to protest the recent enfranchisement of Black Americans.
To root out this violence, Grant petitioned Congress to pass the KKK Act, giving him authority to declare martial law, deploy federal troops to Southern states, and suspend habeas corpus—detainees’ right to have their detention assessed in court. Consequently, Grant’s troops could freely detain suspected Klansmen without providing them a hearing with a judge, which allowed him to aggressively prosecute Klan activity. As Chernow writes, Grant’s efforts stemmed the flood of racial violence, effectively destroying the KKK by 1872.
Funding the Bureau of Education
Finally, Chernow suggests that Grant supported ex-slaves’ transition to productive citizens by funding the Bureau of Education. As Chernow relates, the Bureau of Education was originally established in 1867 to educate ex-slaves and prepare them to contribute to society, but Congress had cut its budget during the previous Johnson Administration. Grant, however, not only provided new funding to the Bureau of Education, but he also enlisted John Eaton—the chaplain who supervised Grant’s contraband camps in the Civil War—to ensure the Bureau’s success. Chernow points out that, according to Eaton himself, Grant’s support lifted the Bureau of Education from relative obscurity to significant influence and success.
Grant’s Attempts at Domestic and International Conciliation
Chernow further argues that, in addition to his civil rights activism, Grant’s presidency was marked by attempts at international and domestic conciliation, though these attempts weren’t always successful. To understand Grant’s conciliatory efforts, we’ll focus on two key areas: his successful attempts at conciliating with Great Britain post-Civil War, and his unsuccessful attempts at conciliating with the South.
International Conciliation With Great Britain
Chernow contends that Grant successfully alleviated post-war tensions with Great Britain by savvily navigating the so-called Alabama claims. These claims, he points out, arose during the Civil War, in which five warships constructed in Great Britain—most famously the CSS Alabama—were used by the Confederacy to fight the Union despite Britain’s alleged stance of neutrality. After the Civil War, Northern politicians demanded compensation for damages wrought by the warships, with Senator Charles Sumner proposing a radical $2 billion dollar settlement.
As Chernow relates, Grant handled the situation masterfully: Through his secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, he established an international committee composed of American and British members to arbitrate the Alabama claims. As a result of this arbitration, Britain admitted fault and agreed to a $15.5 million settlement. In Chernow’s assessment, Grant won the admiration of the American public by getting Britain to admit culpability, but he also avoided confrontation with Great Britain by allowing an international tribunal to arbitrate the claims. He thus tactfully resolved a situation that could have resulted in domestic upheaval or international conflict, setting the stage for peaceful international arbitration in the future.
Attempted Domestic Conciliation With the South
Despite Grant’s success in international diplomacy, he was unable to attain similar success domestically. According to Chernow, Grant consistently sought to reconcile the North and the South post war, but failed to do so.
Grant’s goal of reconciliation, Chernow points out, was evident before he took office—as lieutenant general post-Civil War, Grant threatened to resign when President Andrew Johnson declared his intent to prosecute Lee and other Confederate leaders for treason. Grant understood that prosecuting Lee would not only violate the Appomattox surrender agreement, but it would also incite further unrest in the South. Not wanting to oppose Grant, President Johnson decided to avoid prosecuting the Confederate leaders.
Nonetheless, Chernow argues that by the end of Grant’s presidency, the divide between North and South was irreconcilable. He alleges that Grant’s aggressive strategy to defeat the KKK—which involved consistently stationing federal troops in Southern states—led Democratic Congressmen to regain control of Southern states, which viewed the presence of federal troops as an attack against states’ freedoms. As leaders of the South, these Democrats cast the Civil War as an act of “northern aggression” and an assault on states’ rights, downplaying the role slavery had played in causing the war. According to Chernow, this increased Democratic control of the South led to the end of Grant’s Reconstruction era in 1877.
Grant’s Political Naivety and Susceptibility to Corruption
Although Grant showed political poise in settling the Alabama claims, Chernow contends that his lack of political experience was evident elsewhere. In particular, he argues that Grant’s gullible nature blinded him to corruption by those he trusted, revealing a consistent political naivety. To show as much, we’ll focus on two scandals that marred Grant’s presidency: the so-called Whiskey Ring and Indian Ring scandals.
Scandal #1: The Whiskey Ring
The Whiskey Ring scandal, discovered in 1875, concerned two of Grant’s close friends: General John McDonald, whom Grant nominated as head of internal revenue for Arkansas and Missouri, and Orville Babcock, Grant’s personal aide. For several years, McDonald had colluded with whiskey distillers in St. Louis, helping them duck taxes and pocketing half the difference himself. And as Grant’s aide, Babcock supported McDonald both by steering attention away from the ring, and by later providing McDonald a heads-up before federal agents raided the distilleries.
However, although Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow showed Grant damning evidence against McDonald and Babcock, Grant refused to believe his friends had betrayed him. As Chernow relates, Grant even gave a deposition in 1876—an act unprecedented for a sitting president—to testify to Babcock’s honesty and to express his unwavering belief in Babcock’s innocence. According to Chernow, this deposition was crucial in Babcock’s acquittal, even though telegrams had been seized effectively proving Babcock had colluded with McDonald. So though Grant didn’t participate in the scandal himself, his naivety led to the acquittal of one of its key members.
Scandal #2: The Indian Ring
In the wake of the whiskey ring, Grant’s presidency fell victim to another scandal, known as the Indian Ring, that again showcased Grant’s vulnerability to corruption. Chernow writes that, in March 1876, a House committee collected evidence that Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap, had committed an impeachable offense by taking bribes to appoint individuals to valuable Indian traderships (trading posts whose owners had the right to sell goods to Native Americans) to the tune of $6,000 a year.
Grant’s short-sightedness was evident on March 2, when Belknap (who had caught wind of the looming impeachment hearing against him) approached him and asked to resign. According to Chernow, though Grant knew of the investigation against Belknap, he carelessly accepted his resignation, making him a private citizen and throwing into question whether it was legal to impeach him. Grant thus unwittingly shielded Belknap, and although the Senate attempted to convict Belknap, the vote failed because many Senators believed they couldn’t convict a private citizen.