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American President Essays: Ulysses S. Grant

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Ulysses S. Grant: Life in Brief

Ulysses S. Grant is best known as the Union general who led the United States to victory over the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. As a two-term President, he is typically dismissed as weak and ineffective; historians have often ranked Grant's presidency near the bottom in American history. Recently, however, scholars have begun to reexamine and reassess his presidential tenure; recent rankings have reflected a significant rise. Every President presents historians with some contradictions, but Grant might do so more than most. He was quiet and soft-spoken but able to inspire great bravery from his soldiers on the battlefield. He was an honorable man who was unable or unwilling to see dishonor in others. He disdained politics but rose to the country's highest political office. He was no great orator, but he possessed a coherent political philosophy mirrored in Lincoln's Republican Party that won the war, freed the enslaved people, and saved the Republic. Grant presided over a powerful if unstable economy unleashing productive capacities only dreamed of before the Civil War. A great supporter of the transcontinental railroads, Grant oversaw the completion of the one running from Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1869 in his first year in office. Overall, Grant's intentions were honorable, and he made efforts that few had attempted before him, especially in the areas of African American rights, Native American policy, and civil service reform. He also executed a successful foreign policy and was responsible for improving Anglo-American relations.

Early Life

Ulysses Grant was born in Ohio, the first of six children. He was small, sensitive, quiet, and well-known for his talent with horses. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York and excelled in mathematics, writing, drawing, and horsemanship. After graduating, he was assigned to an infantry company in Missouri. His company soon moved south to prepare for the conflict brewing with Mexico over disputed Texas territory. From 1846 to 1848, Grant fought in the Mexican War and was twice cited for bravery. After the war, Grant moved to various Army postings in Detroit, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He resigned suddenly from the Army in 1854 and returned to the Midwest to be with his family. Grant then attempted a variety of jobs, including farming and insurance sales, before finding work in his family's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Through these difficult times, he relied on his wife, Julia Dent Grant. The two were a devoted couple and adoring parents to their four children.

Civil War Hero

When the American Civil War began in 1861, experienced officers like Grant were in short supply. The Illinois governor assigned him to make a disciplined fighting unit out of the rebellious Twenty-First Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Grant drilled the men, instituted badly needed discipline, and soon earned the respect of the volunteers. The Army noted his efforts and promoted him to brigadier general. Grant garnered attention as he led his troops to fight and win battles in the Western Theater. He captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, forced the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and defeated a larger Southern force at Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the last year of the war, he was both praised and criticized for his willingness to fight and sustain a high number of casualties. Grant helped end the bloody Civil War when he directed the Union forces to lay siege to General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg, a small city south of Richmond, Virginia, forcing its surrender in April 1865. At that point, General Grant was the most revered man in the Union.

Lincoln's tragic assassination at the end of the Civil War was followed by the ineffective leadership of President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee. Johnson urged a moderate approach to Reconstruction that would not punish the South or protect the rights of the newly freed slaves beyond emancipation. Radical Republicans wanted to ensure the civil and political rights of African Americans. In the election of 1868, postwar social and economic policies were the major campaign issues. The Republicans backed Grant, who concluded his acceptance speech with "Let us have peace." The popular general won the election to become the nation's eighteenth President.


Coming into office, President Grant alienated party stalwarts by rejecting party politics. When he appointed his cabinet, he did not turn to Republican leaders for their advice. Instead, he chose people he thought he could trust and to whom he could delegate responsibility. This strategy led to some good cabinet appointments but also to a number of dubious ones. Grant was also loyal out of all proportion to anyone who had helped him or worked with him. As a result, he was sometimes unwilling to remove ineffective people, and some areas of his administration suffered from incompetence and corruption.

In his first inaugural address, Grant spoke of his desire for the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which sought to grant citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous servitude. He lobbied hard to get the amendment passed, angering many Southern whites in the process. He also, on occasion, sent in the military to protect African Americans from newly formed terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which tried to prevent blacks from participating in society. Grant incurred the wrath of citizens who blamed him for the economic woes that plagued the nation in the aftermath of the war. In 1872, however, Grant won reelection by a landslide.

During his second term, a depression in Europe spread to the United States, resulting in high unemployment. Like so many Presidents before and after Grant, scandals tended to divert attention from the administration's policy agenda. Although Grant was never personally implicated in any of the scandals, he did not disassociate himself from the members of his administration who were guilty. His inability to clean up his administration tarnished his reputation in the eyes of the American public. In 1875, he announced that he would not seek a third term. The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes to be their standard-bearer in the 1876 election. After his presidency, Grant found himself in economic difficulties and dying of throat cancer. He lost his money in a financial scandal, yet he was determined to provide for his family after his death. After Century Magazine approached him to write articles about his Civil War experiences, Grant discovered that he enjoyed the process and decided to compile his memoirs. He approached this last battle as he had all others—with grim and dogged determination. His final days were spent on his porch with pencil and paper in hand, wrapped in blankets and in fearsome pain, slowly scrawling out his life's epic tale. He completed the book just days before his death. It was hugely successful and provided for his family's financial security.

Ulysses S. Grant: Life Before the Presidency

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. He was the first of six children born to religious and hard-working parents, Jesse and Hannah Grant. His father was a tanner who took animal hides and processed them into leather. He made a good living, but the work conditions were horrible—skinned and raw animal carcasses everywhere, their hides tossed into kettles of stinging, stinking chemicals. Although Grant occasionally worked in the tannery as a child, he hated the work and swore to his father that once he was an adult, he would never do it again.

Ulysses was a small, sensitive, quiet youth. The simple local schools bored him, and other children mistook his quietness for stupidity, nicknaming him "Useless." The boy, however, had an incredible knack in what was a critical skill in that time and place—horsemanship. On the family farm, his father often gave him the responsibility of taking care of the horses and the other farm animals, and he was renowned in the area for managing unruly horses. Grant's father supported his son's ambitious nature to go beyond the limited life of a tanner. The family had little money for college, but the United States Military Academy at West Point, then as now, offered a deal: a superior free education in return for Army service after graduating. Without telling Ulysses, Jesse Grant applied for an appointment to the Academy for his son, who was accepted. Told of his acceptance, the shy Ulysses did not want to go. His father stated that he thought his son would go, and Ulysses "thought so too, if he did." With his father's encouragement, Grant decided to go to West Point to fulfill his own desire to travel and take advantage of the education being offered to him. When his congressman applied for Grant's appointment to West Point, he incorrectly wrote the name as Ulysses Simpson (his mother's family name) Grant instead of Hiram Ulysses Grant. Although Ulysses tried to correct the mistake when he arrived at West Point, it was too late, and thereafter he signed his name as Ulysses S. Grant. West Point was difficult for the humble youth from the Midwest. He was good at math and drawing, but his prior education was limited, leaving him an otherwise unexceptional student. His skill with horses, however, was unmatched, and he amazed everyone with his riding abilities. He seemed sure to win a coveted spot in the Army's cavalry, its horse-soldier elite, but he was assigned to the infantry after graduating twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine.

First Army Career

The United States Army of the 1840s was a small one. Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry at the Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis, Missouri. His West Point roommate, Frederick Dent, had grown up nearby, and Grant often visited the Dent home, where the family's hospitality made him comfortable. One day while visiting, Grant met Frederick's sister, Julia Dent. Charming, smart, and sociable, Julia soon attracted Grant's declaration of love, although his service in the Mexican War would delay their union for several years. Their mutual devotion was deep and abiding throughout their courtship and 37 years of marriage. Lieutenant Grant's regiment moved further south, first to Louisiana and then Texas, to prepare for the conflict with Mexico that was brewing over the Texas territory. From 1846 to 1848, the young lieutenant fought in the Mexican War and was twice cited for his bravery. He was appointed quartermaster for the Fourth Infantry and was responsible for providing supplies and transportation as his regiment moved through the Mexican countryside. This post gave him valuable experience in the logistics of war. He also greatly admired General Zachary Taylor and his calm, confident leadership. Grant, however, did not glory in the ideals of war. He mourned his lost comrades and the waste that war created. When the war ended, Grant traveled back to St. Louis to marry Julia. Unbeknownst to the groom, all three of his Southern attendants, including James Longstreet, would fight against him during the Civil War. The Army then transferred the young lieutenant to Detroit and New York. At first, Julia was able to travel with him, but the Army then sent Grant to the Pacific Northwest, first to the Oregon Territory and then to California. He could not take his family to these distant locations and he hated being separated from them. He also ran into financial problems, became depressed, and, according to some accounts, began to drink to excess. In 1854, Grant resigned suddenly from the Army. It is still unclear what precipitated his resignation.

Hard Times

After leaving the Army, Grant returned to his wife and children in Missouri. Julia's father had given her some land, and Grant tried to farm it, building a log house he dubbed "Hardscrabble." Working hard, Grant found it difficult to make a living. When extra labor was needed, he hired free blacks. He could have made money from selling the one slave that his father-in-law gave him but instead freed the slave. The painful reality was that Ulysses could not support his family, which eventually grew to four children. He also attempted a half-dozen other lines of work over the next several years. One bleak Christmas, he pawned his watch for $22 to buy presents for his family.

By 1860, Grant was forced appeal to his father for help, and he went to work for his younger brother in a leather shop in Galena, Illinois. Soon thereafter, the South seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War had begun, and, suddenly, the North needed experienced Army officers like Grant. The governor of Illinois appointed the former captain to lead a volunteer regiment that no one else had been able to train. Grant instituted badly needed discipline, focusing on the regiment's main goals and overlooking minor details. He gradually won the men's respect and allegiance and was subsequently appointed to brigadier general.

American Civil War

From the outset of the war, the Confederacy had the advantage of fighting on its own territory, as well as fighting a limited war for independence; in contrast, the United States needed to conquer vast territory and subdue a large population. The Confederates also enjoyed strong support from their citizens and, initially, had superior commanders. But over the years, the industrial capacity of the North proved consequential. The North had the advantage in factories, money, and manpower to fill the battleground with better weapons and more soldiers. The U.S. Navy also imposed an increasingly successful blockade that prevented the South from importing materiel (equipment and supplies).

But the Northern advantage did not translate into victories, and the war dragged on. Incompetent Northern military leadership and strong Southern fighting ability continued to fan the flames for four long years. During the early phases of the conflict, the North lacked a commander with the nerve and logistical skills to take the offensive against the outgunned Rebels. President Lincoln grew frustrated with his ineffective, overcautious commanders, especially General George B. McClellan who commanded the principal Union force of the Eastern Theater, the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was the first of many generals who fought not to win but to avoid losing. In time, Lincoln would select Grant as the man to lead the North to victory.

Grant displayed his military prowess early in the conflict. In 1861, he led 3,000 troops into his first major engagement. The clash at Belmont, Missouri, was a draw, but he showed a rare Union trait at the time—a willingness to fight. More than that in this early period Grant learned something about the enemy, and about himself. "I never forgot," he wrote, "that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable." In February 1862, he captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, two critical Confederate fortifications in Tennessee. At Fort Donelson, he accepted the surrender of an entire Confederate force, earning a nickname, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. Fort Donelson was the first real Union victory of the war, and Grant became known nationally overnight, earning a promotion to major general.

But the good press did not last long. That April of 1862, the press blamed Grant for massive losses at the Battle of Shiloh, also in Tennessee. He had been surprised by an early morning Confederate attack that pushed the Union line back, resulting in the capture of many Union soldiers. At the end of the day, however, Grant had managed to hold his position. Supported by reinforcements, he launched a counterattack on the second day that led to a Southern retreat. Although the battle was a strategic success for the Union, it came at great cost, and many held Grant responsible.

But Lincoln stood by his general. Grant was the first Union commander to truly take the war to the South and put the region on the defensive. His calm during battle astounded everyone who witnessed it. His strategy for securing the Western Theater was sound; while puffing cigar after cigar, he issued his commanders clear, concise orders while staying out of their way in the heat of battle. In 1863, Grant, now placed in command over the District of Tennessee, orchestrated the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which sat high on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Grant first attempted to capture this key installation from the north, but eventually decided to march his troops down the other side of the Mississippi and cross over it. Once they landed south of Vicksburg, Grant disregarded convention and cut his supply lines, using enemy resources to feed his troops. After defeating two separate Confederate armies at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River, the Union forces settled into a siege of Vicksburg. Six weeks later, Confederate commander Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and with it an army of more than 27,000 men to Grant on July 4, 1863. This federal victory ended the Rebel's stranglehold on the Mississippi River, checking Confederate momentum and dealing a devastating blow to Southern morale. "Grant is my man, and I am his" declared President Lincoln after hearing of Vicksburg's fall. Not long afterward, Grant was running the entire Western Theater of the war. By November 1863, Grant secured Chattanooga, Knoxville, and eastern Tennessee for the North, and left the Confederate military command in disarray and defeat. At this time, Grant emerged as the undisputed top U.S. military hero, bringing along for promotion his talented group of western generals—William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, and James B. McPherson. In early 1864, President Lincoln named Grant lieutenant general and commander of all Union forces directing strategy and planning several major campaigns simultaneously. Grant was transferred to Washington, D.C., to oversee the war effort, especially the defeat of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than stay in the capital and direct the war from afar, Grant joined General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac in the field for the spring effort. In the six-week "Overland Campaign" that followed, the Union Army suffered setbacks and high casualties in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor as the titanic fight between Grant and Lee raged over the Virginia countryside. Grant's direct, relentless battle tactics led to such huge losses that the Democratic press began calling Grant, "The Butcher."Still, Grant pressed on against Lee, and Sherman continued his relentless march to Atlanta, Georgia, then to Savannah and South Carolina, while Sheridan led a destructive campaign in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In late 1864 and early 1865, the invaded, decimated South lost the means and the will to fight. Union troops trapped the main Confederate Army west of Richmond and forced a surrender on April 9, 1865, at the little village crossroads of Appomattox Court House. General Lee's surrender to Grant effectively ended the war. In four years, Grant had gone from a leather-shop clerk to the most revered soldier in the Union. In 1866, he was named general of the armies, a rank that had been achieved by no one other than George Washington. Along with the military promotion came political opportunity, a development largely due to the war's centrality to American life. The Civil War dominated public discussion and the media for generations afterward. It was therefore far from surprising that a man widely credited with keeping the nation together was seen as a possible presidential candidate.

Ulysses S. Grant: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1868:

President Abraham Lincoln's assassination at the end of the Civil War was a tragedy beyond measure. It deprived a shattered nation of great leadership when it was most needed. Lincoln's successor, the uncharismatic Andrew Johnson, took charge of an embattled and ineffective administration.

The critical question in the aftermath of the Civil War was what to do with the defeated South. Congress and the President struggled to find a balance between support for black civil rights and support for white leadership. This effort at Reconstruction, at bringing the shattered South back into the Union, nearly destroyed the Johnson administration. Johnson wanted to reunite the nation as rapidly as possible while maintaining the electorate as an exclusively white entity. He had comparatively little interest in protecting the rights of the newly freed slaves. The Republican Party was divided over the President's approach to Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans supported policies that did not allow the leaders of the Confederacy to hold political power and provided African Americans with civil and political rights, including the right to vote. They were opposed in that effort by many moderate Republicans and nearly all Democrats.

At the beginning of the Reconstruction era, Grant, as general of the armies, attempted to work with Johnson. However, he did not like the President's policies, which he thought repudiated the war's legacy. A dispute arose between the two in 1867 when Grant refused to back Johnson in his struggle with Congress. Thereafter, the general moved increasingly towards the Radical's viewpoint. He came to believe that the federal government had to preserve the sacrifices of the war by protecting African Americans from racist Southern governments and preventing former Confederates from retaking power. The Radicals began to court Grant with the idea of running him for President. Grant claimed that he had little interest in the presidency, but popular demand for his candidacy was too strong. At the Republican Party convention in 1868, Grant's nomination, which he won on the first ballot, was a mere formality. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana was designated his running mate. The Democrats named New York governor Horatio Seymour to oppose them. As was the custom of the times, the 46-year-old Grant did not campaign. But he was easily the most popular candidate, and his election was never seriously challenged. He won the Electoral College vote by a nearly 3:1 margin over Seymour. Helped by the newly enfranchised Southern blacks in some reconstructed states, he won the popular vote by 300,000.

The Campaign and Election of 1872

After four years in office, Grant's popularity was still high but a segment of the Republican Party was disenchanted with his policies. They split from the Republican Party to challenge Grant, calling themselves the Liberal Republicans. They opposed the President's policies in the South, specifically his support for civil rights for African Americans and federal government intervention in the South. They wanted to replace Reconstruction in the South with local self-government, which essentially meant the return of white rule. The Liberal Republicans nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, as their candidate. The Democratic Party, thrilled at the divided Republicans, jumped on the Greeley bandwagon, nominating him as its candidate as well. However, the eccentric newspaper man was no match for Grant. Greeley supported high tariffs (even though the Liberal Republicans advocated free trade) and had switched sides on many major issues—for example, he first supported secession but then later called for total war against the South, he wanted a tough Reconstruction but amnesty for former Confederates. Election results rejected Greeley and the Democratic platform with the electorate confirming Grant's stature by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent and an Electoral College majority of 286 to 66. The President's reelection victory also brought an overwhelming Republican majority into both house of Congress.

Ulysses S. Grant: Domestic Affairs

When Ulysses S. Grant came into office, he sought to remain above politics. When he announced his first cabinet appointments, he dismayed Republican Party leaders who thought the President owed them cabinet positions for their support in the election. However, Grant kept his own counsel and balked at using his appointments for political leverage. He wanted to surround himself with people he could trust and to whom he could delegate responsibility. The result was a decidedly mixed cabinet. While he made some good selections, most notably Hamilton Fish as secretary of state, he made many mediocre appointments. His cabinet also had a high turnover rate. In addition, Grant was extremely loyal to those who had helped him or worked with him in the past; this loyalty prevented him from ruthlessly purging his administration of ineffective or corrupt politicians, and his administration was often noted for its scandals, although the President was never personally implicated in any of them.


Grant came into office during an incredibly difficult time in American history. The Civil War was over, and the country was grappling with how to rebuild and reunite in the war's aftermath. As President, Grant was determined to follow Lincoln's policy of reconciliation with the South rather than one of retribution or appeasement. He also wanted to make sure that the federal government preserved the sacrifices of the war by sustaining a strong Union while at the same time protecting the newly freed slaves and preventing former unreconstructed Confederates from regaining power in the South. Those goals proved difficult, if not impossible to reconcile.A majority of Americans—both Northerners and Southerners—rejected civil and political rights for blacks. Racism plagued much of American society, and although the North supported abolishing slavery to hasten the end of the war, many whites did not equate black freedom with racial equality. In this social climate, the President faced a unique challenge: How could he actively protect the rights of the newly freed slaves without alienating a large segment of the American public? In the beginning of his presidency, Grant continued the policies of congressional Reconstruction, and he used both the military and federal legislation to protect black citizens. He also wanted to help the Republican Party flourish in the South, a goal unattainable without black voters and at least a portion of the white voters. In his inaugural address, he urged the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which would give citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous servitude. He proudly signed off on the Amendment in 1870, declaring that it was "a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day." Beginning in 1870, Congress passed a series of laws known collectively as the Enforcement Acts to help protect the right to vote. One of these was the Ku Klux Klan Act, which Grant signed in April 1871 to counter the rise of terrorist activity in the South. When white Southerners could not prevent blacks from voting legally, they terrorized them to try to keep them away from the polls. The President used South Carolina as an example to prove that the federal government would intervene in extreme cases of violence. In October 1871, he instituted martial law in nine counties in South Carolina and used federal troops to restore law and order in those areas. However, there were many examples when the President did not interfere in the South, especially when such intervention became increasingly unpopular in the North, threatening the Republican electoral majority. He did not always want the federal government to become the arbiter of state conflicts. He believed in a federal system in which the states maintained much of their autonomy separate from the federal government. So when conflicts arose in states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, or Mississippi, Grant did not always intervene. He sometimes provided federal troops to maintain law and order but often refused to decide which state authority was paramount. Eventually much of the country, especially people in the North, lost interest in Reconstruction. White Southerners, who wanted the federal government to stay out of what they considered internal state affairs, were only too pleased with this development. The Panic of 1873 and the subsequent depression generated an even more heightened desire by Americans to focus on their own individual needs. Many were also disgusted by the corruption of Southern governments, both Democratic and Republican. This political climate did not augur well for Republicans. Already the Democrats had regained control of many Southern state governments, and the Republicans had little chance of reestablishing power in the South. But if they continued to push federal intervention in the South, they might lose votes in the North as well. Many Republicans, therefore, including those within the Grant administration, began to turn away from the South in order to maintain their strength in the North. Critics have assailed Grant's policy toward Reconstruction as either doing too much (by sending federal troops into Southern states) or by doing too little (not effectively protecting black rights). Grant wanted to meet the needs of the newly freed slaves and, at the same time, entice white Southerners into a Republican Party dedicated to creating jobs and solid businesses in the defeated region. However, it proved impossible for him to achieve these two competing goals. When he used federal troops or legislation to defend the rights of blacks, whites assailed him as a tyrant trampling states' rights. Yet it went against his personal and political goals to abandon the freed slaves and the Republican Party in the South. In the end, Grant had little chance to take his good intentions and make them into effective policy.

Fiscal Policy

Grant was essentially a fiscal conservative, a hard-money man who believed that the country's currency should be backed by gold. During the Civil War, the government had issued an excess of paper money, known as greenbacks, to finance its wartime spending. Greenbacks were backed by faith in the federal government and therefore had more value after the Union won the war. However, this currency was an inflationary force and helped to destabilize the economy. In 1869, two New York speculators, Jay Gould and James Fisk, hatched a plan to corner the gold market. If they could convince the Grant administration not to sell any of the government's gold, the gold that they owned would become more valuable. So they plotted with Grant's brother-in-law to convince the President to withhold gold from the market. However, Gould and Fisk overestimated their agent's influence with Grant. When the President and his treasury secretary, George Boutwell, realized what was at stake, they ordered the sale on Friday, September 24, 1869, of $4 million in gold to break the speculators. This action caused a crash in the price of gold and resulted in financial ruin for many investors. The event, which became known as Black Friday, tarnished the administration's reputation, although Grant played no part in the scheme.

After his reelection in 1872, Grant faced a new fiscal challenge when the Panic of 1873 touched off a nation-wide depression. The economic downturn had many causes, including an economic depression in Europe, rapid industrial and agricultural growth, overexpansion of the railroads, and the effects of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. The panic began when various Wall Street firms started going under and led to failing banks, increased bankruptcies, rising unemployment, and lost farms. In the midst of this depression, President Grant vetoed what was known as the inflation bill, which would have injected more greenbacks into the economy. Many people argued that expanding the money supply would improve the economic situation and help end the depression. Although Grant initially intended to sign the bill, he later changed his mind and vetoed it. In 1875, the President signed the Specie Resumption Act, which resulted in the government once again placing its currency on specie (gold) following Europe's example and gradually removing the remaining greenbacks from circulation. These two important actions by Grant resulted in the United States following a hard-currency course for the rest of the nineteenth century. They also established the Republican Party as the party of economic conservatism and fiscal restraint.

Native American Policy

In his first inaugural address, Grant pledged to rethink the treatment of Native Americans, referring to them as "the original occupants of this land." He wanted to shift federal Indian policy toward what became known as the Peace Policy. This approach attempted to move Indians closer to white civilization (and ultimately U.S. citizenship) by housing them on reservations and helping them become farmers. Grant appointed a former military aide and Seneca Indian, Brigadier General Ely S. Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker was the first nonwhite appointment to a major federal position. To address corruption in federal Indian affairs, Grant also created a new Board of Indian Commissioners headed by philanthropic leaders. The board recommended the government stop using political appointees as Indian agents. Grant adopted that recommendation and turned to missionaries—especially Quakers—and Army personnel to serve as agents. However, these changes fell short of radically altering conditions for Native Americans in the United States. White settlers, with governmental support, continued to push Indians aside to take land, and they relied on the Army to prevent Indian attacks. At the same time, Native Americans on reservations had little chance of creating farms out of desolate pieces of land and were beset by poverty and desperation. While Grant's approach marked an improvement in U.S. Indian policy, it is remembered more for its good intentions than for lasting changes.


Historically, much has been made of the scandals that rocked the Grant administration. There is no denying that the President was not a great judge of character when it came to the men who served under him. He was too loyal to those who were dishonest and opportunistic. However, Grant himself was never a target of investigation. His honesty was never questioned, and he did not personally benefit from any of the scandals. Still the charges of corruption damaged his presidency in the eyes of the American people. In 1872, the Credit Mobilier scandal was exposed. Although the bulk of the charges predated Grant's presidency, it involved railroad companies overcharging millions of dollars for government contracts. Previously, when Congress was about to launch an investigation into the overcharging in 1867, the company's directors bribed various government officials with company shares to prevent it. When Congress finished a subsequent investigation in 1873, it had a negative impact on the Grant administration. Indeed, in the run-up to the 1872 presidential election, Grant had taken his vice president, Schuyler Colfax, off the Republican ticket in part because of his ties to this scandal. In 1875, Secretary of Treasury Benjamin Bristow investigated distillers in the Midwest who were swindling the national government out of excise taxes with the help of federal agents. When Bristow presented Grant with evidence of the fraud, the President encouraged him to prosecute what became known as the Whiskey Ring. However, the prosecution soon implicated Grant's personal secretary, Orville Babcock, who had known about the fraud. Babcock was indicted and brought to civil trial in 1876. Grant then took the unusual step of giving a deposition in his defense. Babcock was found not guilty but had to leave his position as private secretary. In the midst of these scandals, Grant focused on the problem of patronage, becoming the first President to recommend a professional civil service to combat the vices of the spoils system. He appointed the first Civil Service Commission, which recommended administering competitive exams and issuing regulations on the hiring and promotion of government employees. Grant put their recommendations into effect in 1872. However, Congress thwarted long-term reform by refusing to enact the necessary legislation to make the changes permanent.

Ulysses S. Grant: Foreign Affairs

After the Civil War, much of America's attention turned inwards as the country concentrated on rebuilding. Nevertheless, Grant's appointment of Hamilton Fish as secretary of state was one of his best decisions. The two men worked well together and respected each other's opinions although they did not always agree. Fish remained in the Grant administration for its entire eight years.

Cuban Insurrection

From the outset, both President Grant and Secretary of State Fish focused their attention on the Caribbean region. In 1868, Cuban rebels began to fight a guerrilla campaign against Spain to win independence. Although many Americans were sympathetic to the rebels and wanted to support them, Grant and Fish sought to avoid a possible war with Spain just as the United States was trying to recover from the Civil War. Despite the administration's stance, many in Congress wanted to support the rebels. When Congress attempted to pass a resolution recognizing the Cuban rebels' fight against Spain, Grant sent a message reasserting the administration's position, and the resolution was defeated. The administration tried to negotiate with Spain to acquire Cuba but talks failed. Ultimately, Spain reasserted its control over the island nation, and the United States stepped back from the situation.

Annexing Santo Domingo

One of Grant's failed initiatives in foreign policy involved the Caribbean nation of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). For many years, the U.S. Navy had wanted a base in the Caribbean to house its operations. Santo Domingo had a suitable bay, and its government was interested in having the United States annex the country. The President was also interested in the island nation because it presented black Americans with an alternative to staying in the South and facing discrimination and violence. He believed that blacks would be in a better position to negotiate with Southern whites about improving working conditions if they could chose to leave the South and immigrate to Santo Domingo. Although Secretary of State Fish did not support annexing Santo Domingo, he agreed to send Grant's private secretary to the country to assess the situation. After his secretary returned with a report favoring annexation, Grant spoke with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, chair of the foreign relations committee, to gain his support. The two men had always been uneasy allies and their talk left Grant with the impression—incorrect, as it turned out—that Sumner would support annexation. However, when the President presented the relevant treaty to the Senate in 1870, Sumner spoke out against it and withheld his support. In the end, it failed to pass the Senate. However, Grant was unwilling to give up. He persuaded enough senators and representatives to support a fact-finding commission of three men that would explore the situation in Santo Domingo. Although the commission recommended annexation, public opinion had turned against the treaty, and the issue disappeared from public debate.

Alabama Claims

During the Civil War, Britain had declared its neutrality but some of its citizens, interested in the cotton trade and other profits, aligned with the South. English firms constructed Confederate warships, which the South used to disrupt Northern shipping. After the war ended, the United States claimed that Britain owed it compensation for disrupting shipping, prolonging the length of the war, and violating its neutrality. Known collectively as the Alabama Claims (the Alabama was a Confederate cruiser), these accusations strained British and American relations. The United States and Britain also divided over a number of unresolved issues regarding Canada, such as fishing rights and boundary disputes. Secretary of State Fish convinced Grant of the importance of improving U.S. relations with Britain, and Grant let him handle the negotiations to resolve the Alabama Claims and other issues. A Joint High Commission made up of American, Canadian, and British negotiators met in Washington, D.C., in 1871 to hammer out an agreement. The commission resolved most of the issues and agreed to submit the Alabama Claims to international arbitration. The Senate quickly approved the resulting Treaty of Washington, which determined that Britain owed the United States $15.5 million. Although the 1872 treaty favored the United States, it greatly improved Anglo-American relations and made international arbitration more widely accepted. It was also seen as one of greatest accomplishments of Grant's presidency.

Ulysses S. Grant: Life After the Presidency

In 1875, Grant wrote a public letter formally renouncing any interest in a third term and played virtually no role in the election of 1876 until that December, when the electoral votes arrived in Washington, D.C. Because the election was so close, the outcomes in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida—which had each sent in sets of Democratic as well as Republican votes—would decide the next President. Congress negotiated a compromise, creating a commission that would rule on which votes to count. Eventually, the commission ruled in favor of Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who became the nineteenth U.S. President.

During the resolution of the disputed election, Grant played an important role as the steady leader of the country. As President, he worked to make sure that the election was decided in a legitimate way, remaining more concerned with the fairness of the election than with a Republican victory. His calm presence in the White House reassured the country during a volatile period and helped ensure the orderly transfer of power. As Grant stepped down as President, he could perhaps take comfort in the fact that his actions preserved the Union that so many had sacrificed for during the conflict. In 1876, the nation, however imperfect, was surviving and even flourishing in many areas. Afterwards, Ulysses and Julia took a two-year journey around the world, where he was greeted as a hero and as a symbol of the reunited American democracy wherever he went. Grant had a life-long interest in travel and was now finally able to indulge his passion. The couple traveled to many different countries, mingled with political leaders, artists, writers, and royalty, and saw the sights in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Returning to the United States, Grant experienced renewed popularity throughout the country, and he wanted to reclaim the Republican nomination for President in the 1880 election. Yet, he and his promoters underestimated the anti-Grant forces within his own party. Eventually, James A. Garfield defeated the popular war-hero for the Republican nomination. Grant was then struck by financial disaster. He had invested most of his assets with the firm of Grant and Ward, a partnership headed by his son, Jesse. However, Ferdinand Ward was involved in a scam that lost all the company's money. The former President was now broke and had to rely on the kindness of friends to keep him afloat. As a way to generate some income, Grant accepted an offer from Century Magazine to write articles about his experiences in the Civil War. He soon discovered that he enjoyed writing and the money it provided, and he decided to write his memoirs. Although Century Magazine offered to publish the book, Mark Twain advised Grant to turn down the proposal. Instead, Twain made Grant a better offer through his own publishing company. In the meantime, Grant discovered that he was dying of throat cancer. Decades of smoking had finally caught up with him. Unexcitable and determined as ever, Grant approached this last battle as he had all his others—with grim, dogged determination. His greatest concern was that he had no inheritance or other future financial provisions for his family. He hoped his memoirs could provide for them, and the task of writing consumed him, for he knew his time was short. From his sickbed, Grant wrote his Personal Memoirs in a straightforward, engaging style. In its later stages, the cancer robbed Grant of his voice, making dictation impossible. His last days were spent on his porch with pencil and paper, wrapped in blankets and in fearsome pain, slowly scrawling out his life's epic tale. He completed the book just days before his death on July 23, 1885. Its huge success took care of his family financially for the rest of their lives. Grant's last campaign was a victorious one. His funeral in New York City drew a million and a half citizens to view the procession, while across the country large cities and small towns held ceremonies and crowds gathered to commemorate his life and accomplishments. Ulysses S. Grant is interred in Grant's Monument in Manhattan, the largest tomb in North America.

Ulysses S. Grant: Family Life

By any measure, the marriage of Ulysses and Julia was a successful one. The two met through her brother, Frederick Dent, who was Grant's roommate at West Point. Letters between them throughout their lives together reveal a bond that was both strong and touching. Julia stood by her husband through hard times before the outbreak of the Civil War and told friends that she believed in Ulysses. She was convinced he would make something of himself one day. From all accounts, he was a doting, devoted father. Ulysses and Julia Grant had four children, three boys and a girl. He missed much of their upbringing due to his army duties, but tried to make up for it in later life. Grant's elder sons, Frederick and Ulysses Jr., attended West Point and Harvard; the youngest, Jesse, ran about the White House and gave his beleaguered father much-needed cheer. His daughter Ellen, known as Nellie, was married at the White House in 1874, a grand social occasion that captured the fancy of many Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant: Impact and Legacy

Ulysses S. Grant left the White House in 1877, admitting in a remarkable farewell address to Congress that it had been his "misfortune to be called to the Office of Chief Executive without any political training" and apologizing for his "errors of judgment." Perhaps some of Grant's troubles as President are related to his disdain for politics. He came into office wanting to serve all the American people and was determined to avoid party politics. At the same time, he did not really understand politics, which hindered his effectiveness as President, and he believed in the supremacy of the legislative branch. The Grant years finished what the Johnson years had begun: a significant weakening of the American presidency. Congress, especially the Senate, had seized the reins of power, and the presidency would not regain its stature until the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Grant's motives and efforts as President were admirable and noteworthy. For many years, his presidency was viewed against the backdrop of Southern resentment toward Reconstruction. Only more recently have historians begun to appreciate Grant's commitment to African Americans. He fought to protect the rights of African Americans more than any other nineteenth-century President. He worked hard to ensure the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and tried to make it possible for blacks to vote. Ultimately much of the country abandoned African Americans to segregation and discrimination but Grant was not responsible for that failure. The Grant administration was also routinely labeled one of the most corrupt in U.S. history. Despite the scandals that arose during his tenure, Grant was never personally involved with any of them, and his honesty and personal integrity were never questioned. Still, his inability to clean up his own administration was a blight on his presidential record. Grant's disdain for politics might be responsible for some of the corruption in his administration. He believed that his more straightforward approach was superior but his inability or unwillingness to play the political game led him to become involved with people of an unsavory reputation. And his loyalty to those who served him prevented him from ruthlessly purging his administration of ineffective or corrupt politicians. Ultimately, President Grant remains somewhat of an enigma in American history. He was such a successful general that his failings as President seem hard to comprehend. He was a natural leader on the battlefield but was not an especially effective leader of his country. Still, in the areas of Native American policy, civil service reform, and African American rights, he took steps that few had attempted. He also executed a successful foreign policy and was responsible for improving Anglo-American relations.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joan Waugh

Professor Waugh is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her writings include:

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War (editor with Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (editor with Alice Fahs, University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Harvard University Press, 1998)