The Grant Years

President Ulysses S. Grant presided over a country that had survived the Civil War, but which was divided over how to deal with the aftermath.

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Learning Objectives

Examine the policies enforced by the Grant administration to bolster Reconstruction

Key Takeaways

Key PointsUlysses S. Grant was elected president of the United States in 1868.Immediately upon inauguration in 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen ‘s voting rights.Grant created new federal departments and ordered federal troops to suppress racial violence in the South.Grant’s administration was marred by a series of scandals.Grant had both successes and failures during his two terms in office. In recent years, historians have elevated his presidential rating because of his support for African-American civil rights.Key TermsFifteenth Amendment: An amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s, “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (for example, slavery). It was ratified on February 3, 1870.Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th president of the United States (1869–1877) and a leading general in the second half of the Civil War.

During the Civil War, many in the North believed that fighting for the Union was a noble cause—for the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. After the war ended, with the North victorious, the fear among Radical Republicans was that President Johnson too quickly assumed that slavery and Confederate nationalism were dead and that the Southern states could return to the Union. The Radical Republicans sought out a candidate for president who would support their vision for Reconstruction.

In 1868, the Republicans unanimously chose Ulysses S. Grant to be the Republican presidential candidate. Grant won favor with the Radicals after he allowed Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical, to be reinstated as secretary of war. As early as 1862, during the Civil War, Grant had appointed the Ohio military chaplain, John Eaton, to protect and gradually incorporate refugee slaves in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi into the Union war effort and pay them for their labor. Grant also opposed President Johnson by supporting the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radicals.

Grant’s Reconstruction Efforts

Immediately upon inauguration in 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen’s voting rights. Grant met with prominent black leaders for consultation, and signed a bill into law that guaranteed equal rights to both blacks and whites in Washington, D.C.

During Grant’s two terms, he strengthened Washington’s legal capabilities to directly intervene to protect citizenship rights even if the states ignored the problem. He worked with Congress to create the Department of Justice and Office of Solicitor General, led by Attorney General Amos Akerman and the first Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow. Congress passed three powerful Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. These were criminal codes which protected the Freedmen’s right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. Most important, they authorized the federal government to intervene when states did not act. Grant’s new Justice Department prosecuted thousands of Klansmen under the tough new laws. Grant sent federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to suppress Klan violence in 1871.

Grant also used military pressure to ensure that African Americans could maintain their new electoral status, won passage of the Fifteenth Amendment giving African Americans the right to vote, and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which gave people access to public facilities regardless of race. To counter vote fraud in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, Grant sent in tens of thousands of armed, uniformed federal marshals and other election officials to regulate the 1870 and subsequent elections. Democrats across the North then mobilized to defend their base and attacked Grant’s entire set of policies. On October 21, 1876, President Grant deployed troops to protect black and white Republican voters in Petersburg, Virginia.

Scandals and Declining Support


Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States: Official White House portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, completed by Henry Ulke on March 2, 1875.

Grant’s support from Congress and the nation declined due to presidential scandals during his administration and the political resurgence of the Democrats in the North and South. Furthermore, most Republicans felt the war goals had been achieved by 1870 and turned their attention to other issues such as financial and monetary policies.

By 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant had alienated large numbers of leading Republicans, including many Radicals, with the corruption of his administration and his use of federal soldiers to prop up Radical state regimes in the South. The opponents, called ” Liberal Republicans,” included founders of the party who expressed dismay that the party had succumbed to corruption. They were further wearied by the continued insurgent violence of whites against blacks in the South, especially around every election cycle, which demonstrated the war was not over. Leaders included editors of some of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. Charles Sumner, embittered by the corruption of the Grant administration, joined the new party, which nominated editor Horace Greeley. The badly organized Democratic party also supported Greeley.

Grant made up for the defections with new gains among Union veterans and with strong support from the “Stalwart” faction of his party and the Southern Republican parties. Grant won with 55.6 percent of the vote to Greeley’s 43.8 percent. The Liberal Republican party vanished, and many former supporters—even former abolitionists—abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.

The Election of 1868

The election of 1868 was the first presidential election to take place after the Civil War, during Reconstruction.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the differences between the Republican Party and Democratic Party during the election of 1868

Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour after a series of failed ballots and pledged to pursue a softer Reconstruction.Republicans favored ” Radical Reconstruction,” which sought to punish the South for its role in the war, and nominated war hero Ulysses S. Grant.Grant took no part in the campaign and made no promises. A line in his letter of acceptance of the nomination became the Republican campaign theme: “Let us have peace.”Key TermsUlysses S. Grant: The 18th president of the United States (1869–1877) and a leading general in the second half of the Civil War.Horatio Seymour: An American politician who ran against Ulysses S Grant during the presidential election of 1868. He was the 18th governor of New York from 1853 to 1854 and from 1863 to 1864.Radical Reconstruction: Republican policies proposed after the election of 1866, which granted greater opportunities to freedmen and sought to punish the South for its role in the Civil War.

The U.S. presidential election of 1868 was the first presidential election to take place after the American Civil War, during the period referred to as “Reconstruction.” Three of the former Confederate states—Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia—were not yet restored to the Union and therefore could not vote in the election.


The incumbent president, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 following the assassination of President Lincoln, was unsuccessful in his attempt to receive the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead of Johnson, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, chairman of the convention, after a series of failed ballots with several other candidates vying for nomination. Seymour and the Democratic Party wanted to carry out a Reconstruction policy that would emphasize peaceful reconciliation with the South, a policy similar to that advocated by Abraham Lincoln and President Johnson. Many Democrats sought to undo the progress that African Americans had made after the Civil War, especially on the issue of suffrage. The slogan for the 1868 Democratic National Convention was, “This is a white man’s country; Let a white man rule.”

The Republican platform supported black suffrage and political rights in the South, but agreed to let Northern states decide for themselves whether to enfranchise blacks. The platform also opposed using greenbacks (paper currency issued by the government during the Civil War) to redeem U.S. bonds, encouraged immigration, endorsed full rights for naturalized citizens, and favored “Radical Reconstruction” as distinct from the more lenient policy of President Johnson.

By 1868, Republicans felt strong enough to drop the Union Party label, but still badly needed to nominate a popular hero for their presidential candidate. The Democratic Party controlled many large Northern states that had a great percentage of the electoral votes. General Ulysses S. Grant announced he was a Republican and was unanimously nominated on the first ballot as the party’s standard bearer at the Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois, held on May 20–21, 1868.

The Campaigns

The campaign was conducted vigorously. The Republicans were fearful as late as October that they might be beaten. The Democrats were out of favor, and their candidate Seymour had been called a traitor and a troublemaker. Seymour answered none of the charges made against him, but made a few key speeches. Some newspapers exaggerated his faults. As governor, Seymour had sent troops to Gettysburg, but some press tried to portray him as disloyal to the Union. Because several Southern states were not yet reintegrated into the Union, the votes of thousands of southern Democrats would not be counted.

Grant took no part in the campaign and made no promises. A line in his letter of acceptance of the nomination became the Republican campaign theme: “Let us have peace.” After four years of civil war, three years of wrangling over Reconstruction, and the attempted impeachment of a president, the nation craved the peace Grant pledged to achieve. The voters were told that if they wanted to reopen the Civil War, they need only elect Horatio Seymour, and some spread stories of bloodshed in the South to prove that Radical Reconstruction was necessary.


Horatio Seymour polled 2,708,744 votes against 3,013,650 for Grant, a fairly close race, but ultimately Grant carried the Electoral College and won the election. Many alleged that had the remaining Southern states taken place in the election, Seymour would have won, but the possible outcome is impossible to know for sure.

Republican nominees for the election of 1868: Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax were Republican running mates in the 1868 presidential election.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsGrant’s first move upon taking office was signing the Public Credit Act of 1869, which ensured that all public debts, particularly war bonds, would be paid only in gold rather than in greenbacks.Grant protected the wages of U.S. government employees through another act he signed in 1869.Treasury Secretary George S. Boutwell reorganized and reformed the U.S. Treasury by discharging unnecessary employees, starting sweeping changes in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to protect the currency from counterfeiters, and revitalizing tax collections to hasten the collection of revenue.Key Termsnational debt: Any money owed by the government of a nation.George S. Boutwell: An American statesman who served as secretary of the Treasury under President Ulysses S. Grant, the 20th Governor of Massachusetts, a senator and representative from Massachusetts, and the first commissioner of internal revenue under President Abraham Lincoln.greenbacks: Paper currency issued by the U.S. government during the Civil War by the Treasury Department.The Public Credit Act of 1869: A U.S. congressional bill from 1869 that declares that bondholders who purchased bonds to help finance the Civil War would be paid back in gold.

Grant and the Government Debt

In the first two years of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, Treasury Secretary George Boutwell helped reduce federal expenditures to $292 million in 1871, which was down from $322 million in 1869. The cost of collecting taxes fell to 3.11 percent in 1871. Grant reduced the number of employees working in the government from 6,052 on March 1, 1869, to 3,804 on December 1, 1871. He also increased tax revenues by $108 million from 1869 to 1872. During his first administration, the national debt fell from $2.5 billion to $2.2 billion. The United States had debt prior to the Civil War, but it increased sharply during the war. One reason for the increase of debt was the selling of bonds to citizens to pay for the war efforts.

Grant’s first move upon taking office was signing the Public Credit Act of 1869, which the Republican Congress had just passed. It ensured that all public debts, particularly war bonds, would be paid only in gold rather than in greenbacks. The price of gold on the New York exchange fell to $130 per ounce—the lowest point since the suspension of specie payment in 1862. The measure is significant because it was a step to help alleviate the financial struggles faced by the United States after the Civil War. The United States was already indebted before the war, and the issuing of greenbacks to keep currency circulating during the war increased the indebtedness significantly. The country had no central bank or monetary policy at the time and was desperate to improve its position to maintain itself as a global economic leader. One effect of the bill was creating a shortage of much needed cash for farmers in the western states and territories.

On May 19, 1869, Grant protected the wages of those working for the U.S. government. In 1868, a law had been passed that reduced the government working day to eight hours. However, much of the law was later repealed in order to allow day wages to also be reduced. To protect workers, Grant signed an executive order that, “no reduction shall be made in the wages” regardless of the reduction in hours for the government day workers.

Boutwell and the Treasury

George S. Boutwell: George S. Boutwell served as secretary of the Treasury under Ulysses S. Grant.

Following in line with the Republican Party national platform of 1868, Secretary Boutwell advocated that the national debt must be reduced and the United States return to a gold specie economy. Boutwell believed that the stabilization of the currency and the reduction of the national debt was more important than risking a depression by withdrawing greenbacks from the economy.

On his own, with neither the knowledge of President Grant nor other Cabinet members, Boutwell controversially began to release gold from the Treasury and sell government bonds in order to reduce the supply of greenbacks in the economy. As secretary, he opposed a rapid lowering of taxes and favored using surplus revenues to make a large reduction of the national debt. In 1870, Congress, at his recommendation, passed an act providing for the funding of the national debt and authorizing the selling of certain bonds, but not authorizing an increase of the debt.

Boutwell also reorganized and reformed the U.S. Treasury. First, he discharged unnecessary employees. Second, he started sweeping changes in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to protect the currency from counterfeiters. Then, he improved bookkeeping with customs houses. Finally, he revitalized tax collections to hasten the collection of revenue. These changes soon led the Treasury to have a monthly surplus. By May 1869, Boutwell reduced the national debt by $12 million. By September, the national debt was reduced by $50 million.


Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was plagued by a series of scandals, many involving individuals close to Grant.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsGrant pursued different for prosecution depending on his friendship with those indicted, which caused controversy.The Black Friday scandal, which involved Grant’s brother-in-law, was a scheme to control the gold market. When it failed, it rocked the U.S. economy.The Whiskey Ring scandal, which involved Grant’s personal secretary, was a scheme to defraud the IRS of whiskey taxes.Grant himself was deposed as part of the Whiskey Ring scandal.Key TermsBlack Friday: A scandal (also known as the “Fisk-Gould” scandal and the “Gold Panic”), occurring on September 24, 1869, that was caused by two speculators’ efforts to corner the gold market on the New York Gold Exchange. It was one of several scandals that rocked the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.Whiskey Ring: A U.S. scandal, exposed in 1875, involving diversion of tax revenues in a conspiracy among government agents, politicians, whiskey distillers, and distributors.speculation: An investment involving higher than normal risk in order to obtain a higher than normal return.

The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marred by a series of scandals. Grant’s standards in many of his cabinet appointments were low, leading to widespread charges of corruption. Beginning with the Black Friday gold speculation ring in 1869, corruption was uncovered during Grant’s two presidential terms in seven federal departments. Reform movements were initiated by both the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans, a faction that split from the Republican Party to oppose political patronage and corruption in the Grant administration. Nepotism was prevalent, with more than 40 of Grant’s family members or relatives benefiting from government appointments and employment.

Black Friday

The first scandal to taint the Grant administration in 1869 was Black Friday (also known as the “Gold Panic”), which was an attempt by two financiers to corner the price of gold without consideration for the nation’s economic welfare. This intricate financial scheme was primarily conceived and administered by Wall Street manipulator Jay Gould and his partner James Fisk in September 1869. They managed to involve Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, in the scheme in order to access Grant himself. Gould also had given a $10,000 bribe to the assistant secretary of the Treasury, Daniel Butterfield, in exchange for inside information. Corbin himself had $2 million invested in the gold market, and had given both First Lady Julia Grant and Grant’s personal secretary, Horace Porter, $500,000 speculative accounts. On September 6, 1869, Gould bought the Tenth National Bank with the intention of using it as a buying house for gold, and Gould and Fisk began buying gold in earnest.

Secretary Boutwell tracked the situation and found that the profits made in the manipulated rising gold market could ruin the nation’s economy for several years to come. By September 21, the price of gold had jumped from $137 to $141; Gould and Fisk jointly owned upward of $60 million of it. Boutwell and Grant finally met on September 23 and agreed to release gold from the Treasury if its price continued to rise. On the same day, Boutwell also ordered the closing of the Tenth National Bank. Then, on September 23, 1869 (known infamously as “Black Friday”), the price of gold soared to $160 dollars an ounce. This spurred Boutwell to release $4 million in gold specie into the market and buy $4 million in bonds. The gold market crashed, foiling Gould and Fisk, while ruining many investors financially.

The gold panic devastated the U.S. economy for months. Stock prices plunged, and the price of food crops such as wheat and corn dropped severely, devastating farmers.

Whiskey Ring

The most infamous scandal associated with the Grant administration was the Whiskey Ring of 1875, which was exposed by Treasury Secretary Benjamin H. Bristow and journalist Myron Colony. Whiskey distillers in the Midwest were no strangers to evading taxes, having done so since the Lincoln administration. This intensified during the Grant administration, as whiskey distillers bribed Treasury Department agents, who in turn helped the distillers evade taxes to the tune of up to $2 million per year; the agents would neglect to collect a duty of 70 cents per gallon, then split the bonus profits. The ringleaders had to coordinate distillers, rectifiers, gaugers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks by way of recruitment and extortion.

On May 13, 1875, Bristow, with Grant’s endorsement, struck hard at the ring, seized the distilleries, and made hundreds of arrests. Missouri Revenue Agent John A. Joyce and two of Grant’s appointees, Supervisor of Internal Revenue General John McDonald and private secretary to the president, Orville E. Babcock, were eventually indicted in the Whiskey Ring trials.

After Babcock’s indictment, Grant requested that Babcock go through a military trial rather than a public trial, but the grand jury denied the request. Grant unexpectedly issued an order not to give any more immunity to persons involved in the Whiskey Ring, leading to speculation that he was trying to protect Babcock. Because Bristow needed distillers to testify with immunity in order to pursue ringleaders, the order caused friction between him and Grant. Prosecutor Henderson accused Grant of interfering with Secretary Bristow’s investigation.

The accusation angered Grant, who fired Henderson as special prosecutor. Grant then replaced Henderson with James Broadhead, who had little time to research the facts surrounding Babcock’s case and those of other Whiskey Ring members. At the trial, President Grant read a deposition stating that he had no knowledge of Babcock being involved in the ring. The jury accepted the president’s testimony, and quickly acquitted Babcock of any charges. Broadhead went on to close out all the other cases in the Whiskey Ring. McDonald and Joyce were convicted in the graft trials and sent to prison. On January 26, 1877, President Grant pardoned McDonald.

Grant’s Reputation

Grant’s associations with these scandals tarnished his personal reputation while he was president and afterward. According to public perception at the time, the scandals revealed that Grant reacted too readily to protect his team, to cover up misdeeds, and to get rid of whistle-blowers and reformers. His acceptance of gifts from wealthy associates showed poor judgment. He was reluctant to prosecute cabinet members and appointees viewed as “honest” friends, and those who were convicted were set free with presidential pardons after serving a brief time in prison. Despite the scandals, by the end of Grant’s second term, the corruption in the Departments of Interior, Treasury, and Justice were cleaned up by his new cabinet members.

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The tide is beginning to turn concerning Grant’s presidential legacy. Since the mid-1990s, his presidential reputation has improved as historians emphasize his enforcement of African-American civil rights in the South and his peace policy towards American Indians.