Historians often write that Ulysses S. Grant was a great general, but a poor president who presided over numerous scandals. While he was never personally involved in the scandals, the corruption tarnished his reputation.
Context is important. By the time Grant entered office, the spoils system had been in effect for decades and it was reinforced by low federal salaries. Without reform, scandals were inevitable. He also advanced civil rights in America. Here’s a look at four key areas of his achievement.
Ulysses S. Grant was the first presidential candidate to win without a majority of the white vote. He narrowly won the popular vote by 3 million to 2.7 million. Over 500,000 votes cast in that election came from African-American voters.
Grant was elected because black males were allowed to vote in Southern states. Without an amendment to the Constitution, black males obtained the vote in Southern states because of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Grant urged the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment as “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
The Radical Republicans favored this amendment because the right to vote is crucial for equal rights to be achieved. Some of the more moderate Republicans were supportive because Grant’s narrow victory in the 1868 election convinced them that the Republican Party needed to broaden its appeal beyond that of just a regional party.
By the time Grant took office, the policy of Reconstruction was on the verge of collapse due to President Andrew Johnson’s efforts to restore the 11 states of the former Confederacy as quickly as possible. From 1865 to 1869, the number of U.S. troops in the South dropped from 250,000 to 11,000, and half of those were patrolling the border between Texas and Mexico.
Grant used what little military force he had to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. By passing the three Enforcement Acts from 1870 to 1871, Grant was given the power to suspend habeas corpus in nine counties of South Carolina that were strongholds of the KKK. The Army, as well as the newly created Justice Department, used the Enforcement Acts to protect the rights of African Americans in the South.
Grant’s Attorney General, Amos T. Ackerman, and his Solicitor General, Benjamin Bristow, prosecuted hundreds of Klansmen and an estimated 2,000 Klansmen fled the state.
By 1872, the Klan was defeated and African Americans would vote for Grant. President Grant hoped that the violence would end and that the South would be reintegrated into the union. Grant was under no illusion that racism would end, but he did believe that a new order could be established.
Susan B. Anthony visited President Grant at the White House in 1872 to make the case that women’s rights should be in the Republican platform. She knew from personal experience that Grant’s opponent, Horace Greeley, was against women’s suffrage. Her only hope was Grant. He made no guarantees, but Grant won her vote because the platform declared:
The Republican party is mindful of its obligations to the loyal women of America for their noble devotion to the cause of freedom. Their admission to wider fields of usefulness is viewed with satisfaction, and the honest demand of any class of citizens for additional rights should be treated with respectful consideration.
Although Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth Amendment on the grounds that it did not explicitly expand suffrage to women, she thought that the language in Section 1 of the amendment could be loosely interpreted to allow women to vote.
Section 1 read, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Since the amendment claimed that “citizens”, and not males, had the right to vote, Susan B. Anthony felt that she had a case. President Grant clearly showed support for the cause, but there was not much he could do at the time.
Grant was the first president to attend a synagogue service. He also condemned Jewish persecution in Russia and Romania. He even appointed a Jew as consul to Romania to make that point.
Grant appointed Simon Wolf as Recorder of Deeds. As his advisor, Wolf would help secure a then record number of appointments for Jews in the federal government.
Grant wanted to prove he was not an anti-Semite because of an incident during the Civil War. In 1862, officers under Grant’s command issued General Order 11, which expelled Jews from a war zone that stretched from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.
This was done to stop criminals from smuggling southern cotton into northern states. General Grant’s father, Jesse, was involved in this scheme with his partners Harmon, Henry, and Simon Mack. The Macks were a Jewish family from Cincinnati. There is no evidence that everyone involved in this criminal activity were Jews. Jesse Grant was one of many non-Jews involved in this crime.
Whether Grant knew in advance of the content of this general order is not clear. It is clear that if his father had been caught, Grant would have been forced to resign in disgrace. Thankfully, Lincoln quickly rescinded this anti-Semitic order.
This was months before the Siege of Vicksburg, which gave the Union Army control of the Mississippi River. This victory turned Grant into a national hero.
President Grant appointed Ely Parker to be the first Native American as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker was Grant’s adjutant during the Civil War. Parker eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General and wrote the surrender documents that General Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox Courthouse.
Native Americans were not included as American citizens under Section 1 of the 14th amendment, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
It was not enough for Native Americans to be born in the United States. They were excluded from citizenship because they were not “subject to the jurisdiction.”
Grant was an early supporter of citizenship. This was not achieved until 1924. In the White House, President Grant supported citizenship in office despite the wars with the Apaches in the Southwest, the Modoc in Oregon, and the Sioux and other tribes of the Great Plains.
Grant’s judgment in personnel was flawed, but the American people were right to elect him twice. When it came to civil rights, Grant was much better than either of his opponents in 1868 or 1872. He also was better than all of his predecessors, except Lincoln, on civil rights.
While Reconstruction failed and was abandoned by his successor, Grant managed to keep the country from breaking apart again and he helped advance the foundations for civil rights to eventually prevail through his crucial support for the Fifteenth Amendment. The more his record is examined, the better he emerges.