November 13, 2016


'American Ulysses' is a game-changing biography of Ulysses S. Grant : We should be grateful to historian Ronald C. White for a thorough and nuanced biography of one of the most consequential figures in American history. (Kevin O'Kelly OCTOBER 4, 2016, CS Monitor)

White's account of Grant's two terms in office is compelling and heartbreaking.   His most admirable policies were doomed to failure: Grant was determined that African-Americans would enjoy all the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. His administration also negotiated the annexation of Santo Domingo to provide Southern African-Americans a refuge from White violence. (The Senate refused to approve the treaty). He was also determined to change government policy toward native Americans. White public opinion in the North, South, and West was uniformly opposed to both those efforts.

In other respects, his administration was more successful: Grant's State Department participated in a Joint High Commission of US, Canadian, and British officials that resolved several conflicts between the two countries, ranging from US claims for damages in compensation for construction of Confederate warships in English shipyards to Canadian boundary disputes. The Commission's work de-escalated tensions with the world's sole superpower and was a major development in the practice of international diplomacy.

White's account of the corruption scandals that plagued Grant's administrations do ample justice to their complexities, both legal and personal. The bottom line is Grant was too trusting a man to grasp that his own appointees to office could be involved in, for example, helping whiskey distillers defraud the government of tax revenue. The other great scandal of the period, the Credit Mobilier fraud, in which railroad companies were found to have overcharged the government for millions in government contracts, actually predated Grant's time in office, but it was made public on his watch.

I've always thought that biographer Geoffrey Perret made a salient point about the historical view of the Grant administration as uniquely corrupt.  As the first post-war presidency, Grant simply presided over a substantially larger government than had ever existed before; there was more to steal and it was more difficult to supervise it all.  It was the "first" administration with real corruption problems, rather than the most corrupt.  

Posted by at November 13, 2016 4:39 AM