All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

President Grant Reconsidered

Grant Was a Forceful and Honest President

In almost all polls of U.S. presidents, Ulysses S. Grant ranks near the bottom. Professor Thomas Bailey of Stanford, in a typical evaluation, writes, “Grant was an ignorant and confused President, and his eight long years in blunderland are generally regarded as a national disgrace.”

Frank Scaturro, an attorney with a strong interest in this subject, comes forth in President Grant Reconsidered to make the case that Grant was a much better president than historians say. He contends that modern historians have taken their cue on Grant from his intellectual contemporaries, who often despised him because he wouldn’t appoint them to office. Henry Adams, for example, wrote that Grant “had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. . . . The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Scaturro challenges this hyperbole and argues that Grant’s presidency (1869–1877) was a positive one in U.S. history. He sees Grant as a forceful and honest president, who said, “I don’t lie myself, and I won’t have any one lie for me.” He used the veto 93 times—more than any of his predecessors—and supported vigorously the rights of newly freed blacks. Frederick Douglass wrote, “To [Grant] more than to any other man the [N]egro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party.”

Scaturro argues that the amount of corruption in Grant’s administration is greatly overstated. Of Grant’s 25 cabinet appointments, only one, Secretary of War William Belknap, left in disgrace. A few others had charges made against them, but none was proven. The spoils system operated under Grant, as it had with previous presidents, but Scaturro observes that Grant introduced improvements in the civil service system. In the case of the New York customs house, the author insists that it operated more honestly under Grant than under previous presidents. Finally, Scaturro maintains that Grant’s handling of Reconstruction was competent.

The major arguments that Scaturro makes are useful, but he is a strong partisan and sometimes overstates his case. For example, he says it is unfair to blame Grant for the Whiskey Ring and the Credit Mobilier scandals because they started before he became president. Those are valid points. But then he wants to give full credit to Grant for resolving the Alabama claims with England, when in fact those negotiations also began before Grant became president. (The United States had claimed damages from England caused by Confederate cruisers built and aided by British interests.) England’s eventual agreement to pay damages stemmed from the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War—it did not want to risk an alliance between the United States and Germany. Grant’s administration had almost nothing to do with it.

Scaturro also omits some points favorable to Grant that should have been included. Grant reduced the national debt during his presidency and ended the federal income tax. He also favored a sound currency. Within two weeks after Grant became president, he signed the Public Credit Act, which pushed the United States to redeem its greenbacks in coin as soon as possible. Five years later, he vetoed an inflationary bill that would have increased the greenback supply by more than 10 percent.

Grant was far from a consistent advocate of limited government. Before he assumed the presidency, as well as afterward, he supported the system of federal subsidies for the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads. The resulting corruption led to the Credit Mobilier scandal and increased government regulation. Grant also tried to annex Santo Domingo and expand the American empire abroad.

Scaturro’s book helps offset the traditional historical bias against Grant. From a classical-liberal standpoint, it exaggerates Grant’s achievements, but it is still a useful corrective. In some ways, Grant’s low ratings in presidential polls are inevitable, the result of prejudices held by many historians. As historian Ari Hoogenboom once noted, “The historian is usually liberal, more often than not a Democrat. . . . The post-Civil War era stands for all the historian opposes.” If Grant had unveiled a huge program of land and income redistribution, he might have won over the historians, but that would have destroyed our heritage of liberty and sent us reeling on a statist course long before the “great” presidents of the twentieth century did so.