One of the objectives of Articulating Ideas is to question the general consensus, to search for and investigate the facts, and to come to our own conclusions. I think once we lay out all the facts about Grant, we can label him as one of the great Presidents.
Huge cigars and scandals aside, here are a partial list of Grant's accomplishments. Sure some of these are bad, although the majority are good. Let's start by setting the stage. During reconstruction there were two groups of republicans:
- Moderate Republicans: They agreed with Abraham Lincoln that the seceded states should be admitted back into the Union, although on Congress's terms, not the presidents.
- Radical Republicans: They opposed slavery during the Civil War, and did not trust ex-Confederates after the war. They believed the seceded states should be punished, and their social structure uprooted. In the meantime, they wanted newly emancipated blacks to be protected by Federal powers.
A majority of republicans were moderates when Lincoln was President. Once Grant, the embodiment of Union victory, sided with the Radicals, a majority of republicans became radicals.
Grant was the logical choice for President at the 1868 Republican convention. Johnson became very unpopular among democrats. This lead Democrats to nominating New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Ulysses S. Grant would easily go on to win the Presidency, earning 214 electoral votes to Horatio's 80. He won 52.7% of the popular vote to Horatio's 47.3%.
At 46, Grant became the youngest President ever elected up to that time. He was a war hero, but he had literally no political experience. This would go on to plague him during his Presidency.
While he was considered a very honest man, he would go on to appoint some people to his administration who weren't so honest. This has caused many historians to list his presidency as an abject failure.
At Articulating Ideas, we do not always side with historians. We make our own assessment. Scandals aside here is a list of what the Grant administration accomplished, both good and bad.
1. He supported equal rights for blacks and native Americans, and he encouraged passage of the 15th Amendment, which protected African American voting rights. Congress passed the Amendment on February 26, 1869. At one point, 17 states approved ratification and 11 did not, meaning 11 more states were needed for ratification. This caused Congress to force all Southern States that had seceded from the Union to accept the 15th Amendments in order to be admitted back into the Union. They also had to accept the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including former slaves. Both Amendments were ratified and signed by the President. This protected the liberties to more people, which is always a good thing. Because the 14th Amendment was poorly written, it has now come under scrutiny, as some people in 3rd world countries are coming to the U.S. just so their children can automatically become citizens. Such an interpretation is taking the Amendment out of context, and that is a discussion for another day.
2. He enforced civil rights laws already on the books to fight the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This was good.
3. He signed the first of the Klu Klux Klan Acts, a.k.a. the Civil Rights Act of 1870. This essentially gave the President the legal power to enforce the 15th Amendment. Essentially, the Act prohibited voter discrimination on the basis of race, color, or the fact a person was formerly a slave. It was passed in May of 1870 and signed by President Grant. This was good.
4. He signed the 2nd Klu Klux Klan Act, a.k.a. the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The intent of this law was good in that it guaranteed equal rights for African Americans. However, it was bad in that it did so in such a way the violated the natural rights of those of whom the law was used against. The law encouraged the violation of natural rights, thus ignoring the Constitution, thus violating Constitutional Rights and the rule of law. It basically suspended the right of Habeas Corpus to combat the KKK. Habeas Corpus is the right to defend oneself against wrongful imprisonment. It is protected by the Suspension Clause of the Constitution (Article One, Section 9), and states, "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." So fighting the KKK was good, but signing a law that disregarded the Constitution was bad and violated liberties was bad.
5. He signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1875, a.k.a. the Enforcement Act. It was good in that it helped in guaranteeing equal rights for African Americans. The law guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public places and on transportation prohibited exclusion from jury service based on race. It was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was because, while Congress has a right to ensure that government officials guarantee the right to vote of all citizens, it does not have the right to prevent discrimination by private individuals. The law was bad because it violated the natural right to form an opinion. You cannot force me to conform.
6. He championed for reforms. He favored civil reforms that would have ended the spoils system or a system where elected politicians rewarded their friends and family members who helped them get elected with government jobs. However, he failed to get civil reforms passed through Congress.
7. Cut taxes. Prior to the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1909 and ratification in 1913, the only means of raising money was through custom taxes or tariffs. There was no income tax. If money was needed it was raised through the states. However, prior to the Civil War, there was no government debt. Foreseeing an expensive war, Congress passed the Civil War Revenue Act of 1861 that called for a 3% tax on income over $800. It was signed by Lincoln and became the nation's first income tax. It was only expected to last 10 years. On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act that created the Commissioner of Revenue that had the power to impose even more taxes. To run the program Lincoln created the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Within the next six months over 4,000 government jobs were created to make sure citizens paid the taxes and to prosecute those who did not. Northern residents did not think they should have to pay off the debt when it was Southern states that were responsible for the war. So, in 1872, Congress and Grant allowed these taxes to expire. This was good in that it left more money in the hands of citizens so they could spend it where they wanted. However, the Civil War debt continued into the 20th century, and so too did the Commissioner of Revenue.
8. Presided over the Panic of 1873 when the economy fell into deep economic recession. During the Civil War, Jay Cooke and Company loaned money to the U.S. to pay for the war. After the war, building tracks where land had yet to be cleared required Federal grants and loans, and the chief financier was Jay Cooke and Company. Jay Cooke's firm, along with other banks and industries, had loaned out heavily to fund a railroad construction boom, which resulted in 35,000 miles of railroad tracks being laid down between 1866 and 1873. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1969. A second transcontinental was planned, and Jay Cook was the main financier. When Cooke realized he had overextended himself, he filed for bankruptcy. This resulted in a nationwide panic resulting in many other banks and industries filing for bankruptcy, and so to did 89 of 364 railroads along with 18,000 other businesses over the following two years. Unemployment grew to 14%.
9. Vetoed inflation bill of 1874: Along with the Revenue Act of 1861 to raise money to pay for the war, Lincoln also approved the printing of money without species. Without species means that it was not backed by gold or silver, and were essentially IOU promissory notes whose value was essentially based on the confidence of wealthy investment banks like Jay Cooke. In 1862, the government printed money not backed by gold, called "Greenbacks." This resulted in overconfidence in the market, inflation, and some say this caused the panic of 1873. On Sept. 20, the New York Stock Exchanged announced it was suspending transactions for ten days. Many called for inflating the supply of greenback, while bankers were against it. On April 18, 1874, Congress passed an inflation bill to increase the money supply by $100 million. Grant vetoed it, claiming that any short-term benefits would be worth the long-term consequences, mainly the risk of inflation and a devaluation of the dollar. This set the stage nicely for the Specie Payment Resumption Act.
10. Signed the Specie Payment Resumption Act. Grant's campaign promise was to return to species-backed money and to pay off debt with gold or silver. The Coinage Act of 1873 eliminated silver as a species and this followed other nations who did the same. Grant believed this would cause stability. However, it was too late. Grant rightly vetoed a bill to print more money claiming it would only cause more inflation and make matters worse. Instead, he signed the Specie Payment Resumption Act of 1875 that ended the overprinting of money and backed newly printed money with gold, thereby returning the country to the Gold Standard. Some say this prolonged the recession and was why it lasted into the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. Others, however, believe such relative inaction by the Federal government is what ultimately helped investors regain confidence. With all due respect to Grant, the resumption of specie payments did not resume until the Hayes administration was underway, and the nation returned to prosperity by 1879.
11. Lowered debt. His Treasury Secretary, George Boutwell, worked to reduce federal expenditures. One of the means he did this was by laying off over 2,248 government employees. He signed the Public Credit Act of 1869 to pay off all public debts with gold rather than greenbacks. The reason for this was that part of the debt incurred during the Civil War was caused by giving out war bonds and overprinting greenbacks. Signing the Public Credit Act helped reduce the value of gold to $130 per ounce, making it more affordable for the U.S. to pay back bonds with gold.
12. Fired 2,248 government employees to help lower the debt. Okay, so that was very good.
13. Avoided war with Spain and Cuba despite Virginius Affair.
14. Signed Peaceful Treaty of Washington. It was a treaty signed by Grant in 1871 to settle disputes that arose following the Civil War between Great Britain and the United States.
15. Comstock laws were signed on March 3, 1873. I am not a fan of contraceptives, and they allow people to play God. However, in 1873, Anthony Comstock headed to Washington to try to get Congress to pass a bill he wrote banning the sale of contraceptives through the mail and across state lines. The bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Grant. I think Comstock had good intentions, but it is never good when you use Government to force your views on everyone else. So, in this way, the Comstock law was not a good law.
16. He signed the General Mining Act of 1872. This bill was promoted by prospectors from Nevada and California. It as essentially a byproduct of the California Gold Rush, where most of the gold was found on public lands. At the time there were no Federal laws regarding mining on public lands. Some Congressmen believed that they were robbing the taxpayers and their mines should be seized to pay off the war debt. In 1865, Representative George Washington Julian proposed a bill to seize the mines and sell them via public auction. Representative Fernando Wood actually proposed sending in Federal troops to force the minors out. However, such proposals would have discouraged mining and would have hurt the economy. So, this encouraged prospectors from Nevada and California to promote the General Mining Act. They claimed the minors were providing a public service by settling land and selling valuable products and creating commerce. The Act simply states that anyone over the age of 18 who discovers gold, silver, or platinum on public lands had the right to mine it without paying taxes. This was great for the mining industry and the U.S. economy. Critics say it gives away "valuable assets" at unfairly low prices. They believe the public should benefit from the mining industry. They also hate it because it doesn't include regulations to protect the environment. However, Grant saw the value in the public service argument, and he rightly signed the bill making it the law of the land.
17. anti-Mormon Poland Act (-8)
18. Civil Rights Act of 1875 (-9)
6. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Good: General Mining Act of 1872 (+9), supported equal rights for blacks and Native Americans (Fifteenth Amendment) (+4), favored but failed to institute civil service reform (+1), vetoed Inflation Bill of 1874 (+7), cut taxes (+6), lowered debt (+3), fired 2,248 government employees (+6), de facto gold standard (+8), Specie Payment Resumption Act (+7), avoided war with Spain/Cuba despite Virginius Affair (+9), peaceful Treaty of Washington (+6).
Created Office of Solicitor General (-1), left Reconstruction violence problems to state militias instead of Army but kept some federal troops in South (-2), Ku Klux Klan Act that suspended habeas corpus (-9), wanted to annex Dominican Republic (-10), intervened in Liberian-Grebo War(-10),
Comstock laws (censorship) (-5),,, numerous scandals (-2).
Further reading and references:
- CDN: Federal Income Tax: Paying the president's debts
- New York Times: Keeping Your Money Where It Will Do Most Good
- Boundless.com: The governmenet debt