4/20/10 - ulysses grant

In today's excerpt - corruption in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, who appointed forty-two of his relatives and countless ex-soldiers to government jobs:

"The public's respect and adoration for Ulysses S. Grant—a good-hearted, self-made man who seemed to personify the young American dream—had propelled him to two terms as President, and he was angling this centennial year for a third. The unpretentious General was a folk hero, almost a legend—the man who, especially after Lincoln's death, had saved the Union.

"But by this time, seven years into his administration, an embarrassment of scandals had soured the public on Grant's presidency. Soon after his second inauguration, a steady stream of corruption involving Grant's relatives, friends, and appointees had turned into an unprecedented deluge. By the spring of 1876, it seemed that every day brought a new revelation of high-level dishonesty. For example, on March 30, the New York Times ran five lead stories on its front page; four of them involved cases of national fraud. ...

"Unfortunately for Grant, when a few honest men and the watchdog press began to investigate, his administration—or at least his appointees at its highest levels—seemed to be an integral part of many of the worst offenses. On the surface, Grant appeared to have triumphed over his humble beginnings. But his distrust of those better educated and more refined than he caused him to surround himself with men of similar background, primarily ex-soldiers who had fought their way up as he had, without the aid of higher education or the luxury of higher culture. Indeed, upon ascending to the presidency, Grant rewarded many of his closest associates—men who had served him well during the recent conflict—and an inordinate number of relatives (forty-two) with government positions. Many of these men were easily influenced, and some of them possessed principles that were less than finely honed.

"Abel Corbin, the President's brother-in-law (one of three who caused Grant trouble and embarrassment), was a perfect example. He had given the unscrupulous financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk inside information, with which they conspired to corner the gold market in the summer of 1869. ...

"Another swindle, known as the Sanford Contracts, involved tax fraud and featured the Secretary of the Treasury—whom the President fired and then immediately appointed to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. ...

"During the war, Grant had looked the other way while corruption occurred in the areas of supply and procurement, and he had stocked his headquarters with men of questionable morals. One of his greatest assets, his loyalty, was also his greatest weakness. He discouraged, politicked against, and fired reformers who dared help prosecute his friends, and in at least one case, the Whiskey Ring, the President even perjured himself in a deposition made before the Chief justice of the United States to keep [Orville] Babcock out of jail. (Grant's testimony was probably the principal reason his aide was found innocent.) In the face of mounting evidence of improprieties, Grant continued to support and defend these intimates to the bitter end and beyond—an admirable code of conduct for a friend, but deplorable in a President, whose higher duty is to the integrity of the nation.

"Hot on the heels of the most damaging revelations of the Whiskey Ring, a conspiracy of hundreds of public officials and distillers who diverted millions of dollars in unpaid liquor taxes to their own pockets, came the first details of another high-level government scam ... widespread corruption in the War Department's management of Indian affairs."


James Donovan


A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—The Last Great Battle of the American West


Little, Brown Company


Copyright 2008 by James Donovan


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