For decades after his death Grant was seen as one of the country’s worst presidents, often falling in the bottom ten according to polls of historians.
Born as Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822, he was the oldest of six children. His father, Jesse, was a tanner and young Grant worked with him for a while at the tannery but he hated the hard and smelly work.
In 1839, 17-year-old Hiram went to the United States Military Academy at West Point and found that he had been wrongly registered as "Ulysses S. Grant". He was told it didn't matter what he or his parents thought, the official government forms said his name was "Ulysses S." and that could not be changed. So the name stuck.
Grant became a general at the start of the American Civil War and then the top general in the Union Army of the northern states from 1864 to 1865. His wartime exploits made him a popular figure in America, helping him to win the presidency in 1868.
While riding the wave of popularity he stabilised the post-war economy, created the Department of Justice, and appointed African-Americans and Jewish Americans to prominent posts. He also initiated prosecutions of the Ku Klux Klan.
Grant was re-elected for a second term in 1872 but a time-bomb had been ticking over his habit, from the start of his presidency, of appointing friends into high political positions. As time passed his administration had become riddled with bribery, corruption and fraud.
Though he himself remained honest, the Spoils System – the appointment of government officials based on friendship and support rather than merit – left him with a weak administration, to say the least.
The system sunk to its lowest and most scandalous level after Grant appointed an old army buddy, John MacDonald, as an Internal Revenue Service supervisor. MacDonald became responsible for what became known as The Whiskey Ring – a huge scandal involving massive fraud and tax evasion.
By bribing officials, whiskey distillers were able to pay tax on only a small portion of their production, thus cheating the government out of millions of dollars a year. MacDonald, who regularly produced expensive gifts for an unsuspecting Grant, kept some of the money for himself. He even told friends that Grant was in on the fraud.
After rumours spread that illegally held liquor tax money was to be used in the Republican Party’s campaign for Grant’s re-election, his Secretary of the Treasury, Benjamin Bristow, launched an investigation. Grant told him: "Let no guilty man escape."
In 1875, MacDonald and more than 350 distillers and government officials, including Grant’s personal secretary, were indicted. MacDonald went to jail. It was all proof for most Americans that Grant's administration was totally corrupt.
The next year, in a farewell message to Congress, Grant wrote: “Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit. But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”
The New York Sun did not see it that way. It described Grant at the time as “the most corrupt President who ever sat in the chair of Washington.”
The end of his presidency did not bring an end to Grant’s misfortunes. Ever trusting of those close to him, he learnt in 1884 that an unscrupulous partner in his Wall Street brokerage firm had been running a pyramid scheme which, inevitably, had gone bust. Grant’s investment firm collapsed and his life savings were gone.
He later told a friend: “When I went downtown this morning I thought I was worth a great deal of money. Now I don’t know that I have a dollar.”
His reputation in tatters, his wealth gone, Grant must have wondered what else misfortune had in store for him. He didn’t have long to wait. In October of that 1884 he felt an agonising sting in his throat. Doctors were to diagnose an incurable throat and tongue cancer, probably brought on by his habit of smoking several large cigars every day.
Now confronted with the awful prospect of leaving his wife Julia a penniless widow, Grant finally accepted what his friend Mark Twain had urged for years – that he should write his memoirs. Though taciturn, Grant was a great story-teller who often entertained Twain and others with stories of war and politics.
It was time to cash in. And in a desperate race against the cancer clock as the disease attacked his body, Grant began producing 10,000 words a day.
Within a few months he had to hire a secretary to take dictation because he was too weak to write. But even speaking became laborious and he was unable to eat solid food. As his condition deteriorated excruciating pain accompanied every swallow.
Doctors treated him with morphine, cocaine and even injections of brandy. Finally, after producing a massive 366,000 words in less than a year, he stopped work on July 16 1885.
“There is nothing more I should do to it now, and therefore I am not likely to be more ready to go than at this moment,” he wrote. He died a week later.
Employing an army of door-to-door salesmen, Mark Twain sold more than 300,000 copies of the two-volume Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, ironically outselling Twain’s latest book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Julia Grant was to receive a total of $450,000 in royalties – equivalent to $12 million today.
Historians have always recognised Grant's military genius, and his strategies of warfare feature in military history textbooks.
But assessments of his presidency have also improved over time. Far from his bottom ten status of the early years, by 2018 historians had ranked him 21st in the presidential list of honour.
Published: July 16, 2020
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