Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

17.5: Retreat from Reconstruction: The Grant Years

  • Page ID
    7979
  • When Ulysses S. Grant ascended to the presidency in 1869, the nation’s commitment to Reconstruction had started to fade. With only three states, Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas, unreconstructed and still under military supervision, northerners and southerners concluded that, once Congress seated representatives from those states, the federal role in rebuilding the South would end. At the same time, conservative southerners worked to wrest control from the Republican governments established after the war. Moderates or conservatives redeemed the state governments and began to chip away at the rights granted to the freedpeople during Congressional Reconstruction. Their efforts repeatedly prompted national leaders to return to the issue of reconstruction. The Grant administration struggled to find a coherent policy for dealing with developments in the South, as well as with the other problems the nation faced in the 1870s.

    17.5.1: Grant Comes to Power

    During the Johnson administration, Ulysses S. Grant continued in his wartime role as general-in-chief. As such, he oversaw the military commanders stationed in the southern states. Initially, Grant worked with Andrew Johnson to implement the Congressional mandates; however, the general increasingly found himself at odds with the president. By 1866, he concluded any attempts to impede the smooth transition from slavery to freedom would undermine the Union victories, something he could not abide. As Republicans prepared for the presidential election of 1868, Grant emerged as their mostly likely candidate. Not only did he endorse the Radicals’ plans for the South and publicly break with the president, but also he seemed universally respected by the American people because of his wartime service. Grant had some misgivings about running for president, especially in terms of the effect it might have on his reputation and his family’s long-term financial security. At the same time, he felt obligated to accept the nomination in order to save the Union victories from professional politicians. When Grant formally accepted the nomination, he closed his acceptance letter with a sentiment many Americans found appealing: “Let us have peace.”

    While the Republicans easily settled on Grant, the Democrats faced a more difficult choice in selecting a nominee in 1868. Andrew Johnson hoped the party would choose him; however, his political baggage ruled out that possibility. At the convention, a consensus to back Horatio Seymour, the former governor of New York, emerged on the twenty-second ballot. Like Grant, Seymour had misgivings about running. However, his friends convinced him to accept the nomination. The Democrats, especially the vice presidential nominee, Francis C. Blair, then launched an attack against Congressional Reconstruction, which played on southern whites’ fear of black rule. Blair, for example, claimed that southern whites had been “trodden under foot by an inferior and barbarous race.” Meanwhile, the Republicans focused their campaign on Grant’s plea for peace. They argued that the Democrats’ calls to end Republican rule would bring more, not less, violence to the South.

    Screenshot (302).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Presidential Election Map, 1868 | In 1868, Republicans easily chose Ulysses S. Grant as their candidate; the Democrats settled on Horatio Seymour. Grant defeated Seymour because of his military reputation and his call for peace when accepting the nomination. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    As voters prepared to cast ballots in the fall, events in the South underscored the Republican campaign message. Throughout the region, the Ku Klux Klan as well as other like-minded organizations threatened and attacked Republican voters in hopes of keeping them away from the polls. According to James McPherson, “the Klan had evolved from a harmless fraternal order into a hooded terrorist organization dedicated to the preservation of white supremacy.” The state militias and the federal troops in the South could do little to stop the violent rampage in 1868. In Georgia, for example, Klan threats and beatings kept Republican voters from the polls. In state elections earlier in the year, the Republicans outpolled the Democrats by about 7,000 votes. However, in the presidential election, the Democrats outpolled the Republicans by about 45,000 votes. Throughout the South, the violence cut Republican majorities. At the same time, though, many northerners concluded the southerners hoped to use terrorism to reverse the results of the war. Thus, Grant defeated Seymour in both the popular (53 percent) and Electoral College (73 percent) votes.

    The nation seemed quite relieved after Grant won the election, and they waited expectantly for some sign of his plans. However, the president-elect said very little about his advisers or initiatives before inauguration day; in fact, he spent most of the time in Washington attending to his duties as general-in-chief. In his inaugural address, Grant reiterated his campaign theme, but he noted the peace must be “approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.” Thus, he vowed to work for the security of all citizens and to execute faithfully all laws. He also called on the states to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, protecting the voting rights of all citizens. Moreover, he pledged to pay the nation’s debt in gold and to limit government spending. His remarks struck a chord with the American people; as one southern editor noted, Grant expressed a “winning spirit toward the whole country.” The challenge for Grant throughout his presidency was to live up to the nation’s expectations.

    17.5.2: Problems in the First Term

    During his first term, Ulysses S. Grant faced several foreign and domestic policy challenges. On the foreign policy side, he managed to resolve problems with Great Britain lingering from the C.S.S. Alabama claims. During the Civil War, British shipbuilders made several cruisers for the Confederacy including the Alabama. For numerous years, the American government sought to recover the losses caused by those ships. In the Treaty of Washington (1871), the British agreed to pay an indemnity to the Americans for the damages done by the Alabama and other British-made Confederate ships. However, Grant failed to secure the annexation of Santo Domingo when the opportunity presented itself. In spite of his lobbying effort, his poor relationship with Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, led the Senate to reject the treaty. On the domestic side, Grant outlined a policy for the “proper treatment of the original inhabitants” of the land. The president hoped to encourage humane treatment of Indians in the West, leading to their citizenship. However, hostility between Euro-Americans and Indians more often than not led to violence, making his policy less than successful. However, the biggest challenges Grant faced as president stemmed from the effort to reconstruct the southern states and the emergence of Liberal Republicanism.

    Screenshot (303).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ulysses S. Grant | The American people held high expectations for former Civil War hero turned president, Ulysses S. Grant. He promised to end to the strife caused by the war and by reconstruction but also to protect the rights of all citizens. However, he struggled to achieve his goals and live up to people’s expectations. Author: Mathew Brady Source: Library of Congress

    Restoring the Unreconstructed States Although Congressional Reconstruction brought most of the southern states back into the Union before 1868, Ulysses S. Grant still had to address the southern problem. Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas remained unreconstructed when he took office, and Republicans at the national level remained undecided about what to do about problems in Georgia regarding the seating of new black legislators. Reconstruction posed a challenge for Grant because of the goals he hoped to accomplish. Grant sought to protect the political and civil rights of blacks, but he also wanted to maintain a Republican presence in the South. Protecting blacks inherently would drive many whites away from the Republican Party; convincing whites to remain with the Republican Party would require abandoning the blacks to the mercy of the state governments. Moreover, to preserve the national Republican Party at a time when fighting slavery and rebellion no longer gave members a common cause likely would mean refocusing the party’s interests away from the South. Finally, policies adopted during Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction limited Grant’s options for dealing with problems in the southern states.

    Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas failed to ratify their state constitutions and reenter the Union before 1869 because of the so-called proscriptive clauses, which prevented former Confederates from participating in the government. Grant hoped to make Virginia a test case for his spirit of peace. Moderates there approached the president with a possible solution to end the impasse over the proposed constitution: whites would accept black suffrage only if they could reject the proscriptive clauses. Grant agreed to allow Virginians to vote on the proscriptive clauses separately from the rest of the constitution. He then recommended the solution to Congress for not only Virginia, but Mississippi and Texas as well. Congress approved the recommendation, but also required the states to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment before readmission. Voters in all three states ratified their state constitutions as well as the Fifteenth Amendment, without the proscriptive clauses, and Congress seated their representatives in 1870. Conservatives and moderates applauded the policy because it seemed as though Reconstruction was finally ending; radicals, on the other hand, criticized the president for selling out the freedpeople and the party. Through his moderate policy, Grant managed to preserve Republican rule in all three states, but only temporarily. By the mid-1870s, the Democrats had regained power, “redeeming” their states from Republican rule.

    While Grant followed a moderate policy in the unreconstructed states, he treated the situation in Georgia differently because of events that happened in 1868. In the state elections held in April, the Republicans won a majority of seats in the legislature. However, once the legislature convened, conservative whites voted to expel the twenty-eight black members. The Johnson administration did nothing about the problem, even though twentyfour of the whites who voted for the expulsion should not have been elected to the legislature because, as ex-Confederates, the Fourteenth Amendment barred them from government service. In response, Republicans in Georgia banded together with Democrats who opposed black suffrage to prevent ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. They hoped such a turn of events would force Congress to protect black rights and the Republican Party in Georgia. Congress refused to seat Georgia’s new representatives but did nothing else about the situation.

    Grant postponed any action until December 1869, when he asked Congress to return Georgia to military rule until the governor could remedy the problems with the legislature; Congress agreed. Most members believed the state brought the action on itself when the legislature took no action to reverse their decision about seating black members, even though a state court ruled blacks had the right to serve in the government. Congress further mandated that Georgia ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, a move Grant supported because he believed granting blacks full political rights would allow them to protect themselves in the future. Furthermore, the president saw his tougher stand in Georgia as a counterweight to his more lenient policy in the unreconstructed states. In 1870, the Republicans, with the military’s support, ousted the conservative ex-Confederates, seated the black legislators, ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, and returned the state to the Union. However, the Republican gains in Georgia did not last long. In 1871, the Democrats won control of the state legislature and the governor’s office and slowly chipped away at the gains the freedpeople made. Although asked to help, Grant did nothing.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Reconstruction and Redemption

    State

    Military District

    Commander

    Readmission

    Redemption

    Alabama 3 Pope 1868 1874
    Arkansas 4 Ord 1868 1874
    Florida 3 Pope 1868 1877
    Georgia 3 Pope 1870 1871
    Louisiana 5 Sheridan 1868 1877
    Mississippi 4 Ord 1870 1876
    North Carolina 2 Sickles 1868 1870
    South Carolina 2 Sickles 1868 1876
    Tennessee N/A N/A 1866 1869
    Texas 5 Sheridan 1870 1873
    Virginia 1 Schofield 1870 1869

    Dealing with Klan Violence

    While the Grant administration worked to reconstruct the final southern states, the process of ending Republican rule, what southern Democrats called redemption, had already begun. Throughout the South, Republican governments struggled to hold onto their power in the face of the divisions within the party, the growth of conservative sentiment, and the use of political terrorism. The Democratic Party in concert with the Ku Klux Klan hoped to restore white supremacy in economic, social, and political life. Georgian Abram Colby, when testifying before a Congressional Committee on Klan violence, noted how, when he refused a bribe to vote for the Democrats, the Klan pulled him out of his house in the middle of the night and whipped him repeatedly. Though hooded, Colby recognized the voices of his assailants: a local lawyer, a local doctor, and several farmers.

    Screenshot (304).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi | This image first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in January 1872. It accompanied a story about the Justice Department’s attempts to crack down on Klan intimidation and violence in the South. Author: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    Republican leaders in the South struggled to deal with such violence. If they did nothing, then the Democrats would triumph. If they tried to fight back with the state militia, composed mostly of blacks, then they might start a race war. At the same time, national Republican leaders seemed reluctant to involve the federal government. They worried about federal authority over Klan violence since murder, arson, and assault traditionally fell under the jurisdiction of the states. However, state governments could or would not stop the reign of terror against the signs of black power and advancement. In Mississippi, one case involving Klan violence fell apart when all five witnesses for the prosecution ended up dead before the trial. Thus, Congress, with Grant’s support, passed several measures, collectively known as the Enforcement Acts, based on the terms of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

    The First Enforcement Act, approved on May 31, 1870, made it a federal crime to interfere with the right to vote, made it a felony to deny an individual’s political or civil rights, and allowed the president to use federal troops to keep order at the polls. Then Congress created the Department of Justice, supervised by the Attorney General who to that point only served as the president’s legal adviser to uphold the federal laws in the South. While Grant hoped the threat of the measure would curb the violence, many southerners seemed unconcerned about the new law. Therefore, Grant sent troops to North Carolina in late 1870; however, he would not declare martial law, so the troops did nothing to stop the violence. The president insisted that the governor, William W. Holden, mobilize local resources first. In essence, says historian Brooks Simpson, in North Carolina “the Republicans could not win unless they suppressed the violence, and the Democrats could not win unless their campaign of intimidation triumphed.” Neither prospect looked good for the future of Reconstruction.

    Under the direction of Amos T. Ackerman, a Georgian appointed as Attorney General in late 1870, the Justice Department worked to prosecute individuals for violating the First Enforcement Act, but that did not bring much peace to North Carolina or the other southern states. Thus, Grant petitioned Congress for stronger laws to protect voters from intimidation and violence. The Second Enforcement Act, approved on February 28, 1871, created a federal mechanism to supervise all elections. The Third Enforcement Act, approved on April 20, 1871, strengthened the felony and conspiracy provisions for suffrage cases; moreover, it gave the president the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and use the army to uphold the law. Shortly after he signed the last measure, popularly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, Grant issued a proclamation asking white southerners to comply with the law.

    When that failed to happen, the Justice Department, assisted by the army, worked to arrest, indict, and prosecute Klansmen. The president only suspended habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties in October 1871. Some of the federal government’s prosecutions ended in convictions, but it dropped a majority of cases to clear the federal court dockets. As James McPherson notes, “the government’s main purpose was to destroy the Klan and to restore law and order in the South, rather than secure mass convictions.” To that end, they achieved a short-term victory in that “the 1872 election was the fairest and most democratic presidential election in the South until 1968.” Grant’s judicious use of the Enforcement Acts, however, did become one of the issues of the presidential election campaign in 1872. Moreover, the administration’s policy did not forestall the process of redemption.

    Growing Criticism from the Liberal Republicans

    Patronage for years served as a means for political parties to develop loyalty and raise money. People in government jobs felt fidelity to the party that put them there, and they usually gave a percentage of their salary to the party, a policy known as assessment. In 1865, reformers first introduced legislation to create a civil service commission that would determine how to identify the most qualified individuals for government service. When Grant took office, he appeared to share the reformers’ concern about the effect the spoils system had on the quality of the nation’s government. Grant certainly found himself beleaguered by the number of people seeking jobs after his election, and he expressed concern about the issue to those close to him. Moreover, Grant showed an air of independence when he selected his cabinet. He chose men he thought he could work well with, not those who had the most political clout. While Republicans in the Senate, who had to confirm his nominees, expressed dismay, the press seemed to appreciate Grant’s decision to take politics out of the equation. Some of his choices turned out better than did others. Hamilton Fish, the secretary of state, served as an able steward of American foreign policy and worked well with the president. However, William Belknap, the secretary of war, mired the administration in scandal when it came out he accepted a bribe in exchange for a government contract.

    On the issue of civil service reform, Grant’s early decisions about his own appointments caused the reformers to expect him to embrace change. Furthermore, the heads of the Treasury Department, the Interior Department, and the Justice Department began a system of extensive vetting for new hires and competitive exams for promotions. In his annual message to Congress in 1870, Grant recommended pursuing reform that would address “not the tenure, but the manner of making all appointments.” Congress responded by creating a commission to study the issue and recommend changes in 1871. Grant appointed George Curtis, a noted reformer, to head the commission. After completing its review, the commission recommended examinations for all positions and an end to the practice of salary assessments. The president began to apply the changes in 1872.

    Two factors prevented Congress from adopting a permanent civil service system in the 1870s. First, Grant disliked patronage, but he also realized it served a political purpose. Unlike many reformers, the president did not equate patronage with corruption. In his support for reform, therefore, he never expected patronage to go away entirely. Grant even chose relatives and friends, including his father, for lower-level appointments to give them the prestige of holding a government position. Second, some Republicans in Congress turned against supporting civil reform when Grant became president. Calls for civil service reform in the mid-1860s partly came from concern about Andrew Johnson’s appointments, and Republicans hoped to use reform to curb Johnson’s power. With solid Republican control of the legislative and executive branches after 1869, reform seemed more harmful than helpful to the interests of the party. In the end, Grant’s mixed reputation for appointments and failure to fight for civil service reform after Congress lost interest disheartened many reformers.

    Alongside questions about civil service reform, some Republicans began to question the Grant administration’s approach to Reconstruction. Reformers, who adopted the name “Liberal Republican” in 1872, doubted there was much more the federal government could do to bring peace to the South. To them, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment suggested an end to federal involvement. Nevertheless, Grant, with the support of Radical Republicans, continued to intervene in the South. Liberal Republicans believed the time had come to let the southern states decide their own future so that the nation could focus on issues like civil service and tariff reform. Furthermore, they believed only a policy of full amnesty for former Confederates would end the violence and strengthen the Republican Party. In 1870, the Liberals and the Democrats joined forces in Missouri to defeat a Radical Republican administration. In 1872, the Liberal Republicans, composed of a variety of interest groups opposed to Grant’s leadership, hoped to build on that momentum in the presidential election.

    Winning Re-Election in 1872

    Liberal Republicans initially hoped to deny Grant the Republican nomination; however, when they realized that likely would not happen, leaders of the movement called for an independent nominating convention. The diversity of the delegates who gathered in Cincinnati in May 1872 demonstrated the dramatic changes within the Republican Party in the years after the Civil War. Some attendees seemed truly committed to reform; others sought to regain the political power they lost to Grant’s supporters in the party. Thus, only two issues really brought the coalition together: their antipathy toward Ulysses S. Grant and their desire to adopt a new southern policy. Then again, those issues might just make the Liberal Republican nominee appealing to Democrats who also wanted to unseat Grant. In a series of backroom deals, the convention chose Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune, as their presidential candidate. Greeley had name recognition across the country, and he had long supported amnesty and reconciliation. Adopting the motto “Anything to beat Grant,” the Democrats also nominated Greeley for president, even though Greeley had spent much of his public career attacking them. For many Democrats, a fusion with Liberal Republicans would help end the nation’s obsession with Reconstruction and, in turn, allow the party to rebuild its image after the Civil War. The Democrats, however, never unified themselves completely behind Greeley.

    Screenshot (305).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Republican Propaganda, 1872 | Noted political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, frequently attacked Horace Greeley, the Liberal Republican and Democratic nominee. In this drawing, Greely shakes hands with a Georgia Democrat standing over the bodies of the his victims, supporters of the Republican Party. Author: Thomas Nast Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Grant never really doubted his ability to win reelection, so he chose not to campaign. He did not want his lack of public speaking skills to undermine his candidacy. To counter the appeal of the Liberal Republican-Democrat coalition in 1872, the Republican Party worked diligently in the months before the election to support Grant’s candidacy. As Eric Foner says, “Faced with this unexpected challenge, Republicans…moved to steal their opponents’ thunder.” Republicans in Congress reduced the tariff, then they passed an amnesty measure for Confederates barred from voting under the Fourteenth Amendment that had failed to win support in both 1870 and 1871. The party also effectively used political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast that depicted Greeley shaking hands with the ghost of John Wilkes Booth over Abraham Lincoln’s grave and with a conservative southerner standing over the victims of political terrorism.

    Screenshot (306).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Presidential Election map, 1872 | In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant easily secured victory over Greeley. The results showed voters liked Grant and they continued to trust him to preserve the achievements of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Grant easily won both the popular and Electoral College votes; in fact, he won every state he predicted he would take before the balloting began. His victory reflected the fact that public opinion on the ability of southern whites to manage Reconstruction lagged behind the Liberal Republican view. For Grant, the election was somewhat of a personal vindication, given the criticism he constantly faced in his first term. The results showed that voters liked Grant and continued to trust him to preserve the achievements of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Though his reelection seemed to demonstrate public affection, according to political scientist Jean Edward Smith, it “marked the highpoint of Grant’s presidency.”

    17.5.3: Problems in the Second Term

    In his second inaugural address, Ulysses S. Grant pledged to promote political equality through government action and encouraged social opportunity for all Americans, noting his “efforts in the future will be directed to the restoration of good feeling between the different sections of our common country.” He also hoped to focus on the nation’s economic health by restoring the “currency to a fixed value as compared with the world’s standard of values—gold.” Along the same lines, he wanted to promote the extension of the railroads and an increase in manufacturing to improve the nation’s balance of trade. The president desired to put the questions of reconstruction to rest and help rebuild the Republican Party around economic development. Grant achieved these goals to some extent, but not as he expected. Reconstruction ultimately ended in 1877, but the rights of blacks mattered very little to most whites. The Republican Party embraced economic development, in spite of a depression that the president seemed unable to handle.

    Coping with the Panic of 1873

    When Grant first came to office, he hoped to address the nation’s economic problems. Financing the war and reconstruction left the federal government with a $2.8 billion debt and about $356 million worth of unbacked greenbacks in circulation. Republicans felt it important to pay the debt in full because failure to pay the debt would make it nearly impossible for the government to secure additional credit. Therefore, Grant proposed and Congress passed the Public Credit Act of 1869, which promised to pay all bondholders in specie. Meanwhile, George S. Boutwell, the secretary of treasury, worked to make his department more efficient in collecting government revenue. Boutwell, though, inadvertently caused a crisis when he began to sell the government’s gold surplus in an attempt to reduce the debt. Speculators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk attempted to corner the gold market or manipulate the price in a way to make a healthy profit by using Abel Corbin, the president’s brother-in-law, as an intermediary. Their maneuverings led to “Black Friday,” September 24, 1869, where the price of gold and stocks declined and brokerage houses failed.

    However, it was a short-term setback. Over the next few years, the nation’s economy grew, especially because of the expansion of the railroads, and the Grant administration reduced the debt. The booming economy in the early 1870s caused many businesses and investors to take risks, which led to a depression in 1873. The financial crisis stemmed from the general overexpansion of industry, but more specifically from the rapid growth of the railroads. Efforts to recover from the Civil War at home and the FrancoPrussian War abroad did not help either. In the mid-1860s, the country entered a railroad building boom, most notably in the southern and western states. The demand for money to finance new business ventures, while also paying old debts in the United States and Europe, prompted bankers to lend money irresponsibly and brokers to market worthless securities. Furthermore, railroad developers saturated the market; there simply were not enough customers to keep the railroads operating at a profit. By September 1873, the failure of Jay Cooke & Co., which was attempting to finance the Northern Pacific Railroad, spurred the Panic of 1873.

    After the panic began, Congressmen, especially from the Western states, called on Grant to inflate the currency by releasing retired greenbacks into circulation. Wary that that solution would cause rampant inflation, he traveled to New York City to seek the advice of leading businessmen and bankers. The businessmen supported currency inflation to relieve the crisis; the bankers did not. Grant sided with the bankers and pursued a tight money policy. Rather than release the retired greenbacks, the government as a temporary solution began to purchase bonds. In time, New York banks began to issue certificates usable as cash. Grant’s response ended the immediate crunch for cash without decreasing the value of the dollar. From a strictly financial perspective, his policy ended the panic, but a depression set in around the country. In the next few years, over 18,000 businesses failed, unemployment reached 14 percent, and banks foreclosed on a large number of farms. Poverty spread across the country; unemployed workers went on strike and disgruntled farmers fused political alliances to attack business interests. The country at times seemed on the verge of a class war.

    Facing pressure from their constituents, Congress still sought to address the financial crisis through currency inflation, even though Grant made his preference clear for a tight money policy. In March 1874, Congress passed a measure to add about $100 million to the amount of money in circulation: half in greenbacks and half in specie-backed currency. Most people expected the president would not dare veto it. However, Grant had his doubts and he vetoed the inflation bill. The financial community praised the veto; surprisingly, once he made the decision, the American people endorsed it as well. Congress then worked on a bill to support the president’s push for specie-backed currency. The resulting Specie Resumption Act of 1875 proposed to redeem greenbacks in circulation for gold beginning on January 1, 1879. Grant happily signed the measure, which did not end the financial crisis so much as reorient the Republican Party toward conservative financial principles. In the meantime, Benjamin H. Bristow, appointed as the secretary of treasury during the crisis, worked to put the nation on the slow road to economic recovery by refinancing the federal government’s debt by issuing new government bonds. Full recovery finally came 1878, leaving many Americans, especially in the North, frustrated that Reconstruction seemed to take greater precedence than financial recovery.

    Facing the Scandals

    Even before Grant had to deal with the Panic of 1873, he faced the fallout of a variety of scandals linked to his administration; as the financial crisis set in, further revelations seemed to weaken his ability to act on important issues. After the gold crisis in 1869, people speculated about possible improprieties among Grant’s advisers and even the president himself. While no evidence surfaced to tie Grant to any of the scandals involving his underlings, devotion to his staff prevented him from doing more to stop the behavior once he found out about the problems. Grant’s difficulties began in September 1872 when the New York Sun published a story about the Crédit Mobilier affair where several members of Congress took bribes to ignore the company’s shady financial practices during the construction of the Union Pacific. Revelations about the Back Pay Grab, the Whiskey Ring, and the Indian Trading scandals soon followed. While the Grant administration had nothing to do with Crédit Mobilier, the same was not true of the other scandals.

    At the end of its session in March 1873, the Forty-Second Congress inadvertently planted the seeds of a scandal when it voted to include a pay raise for the president, vice president, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officers, and members of Congress as part of the government’s general appropriations bill. Few people quibbled about raising salaries for the executive and judicial branches, and the legislative increases were not inherently controversial since salaries for members had not gone up since 1852. However, members voted to make the pay increase retroactive, essentially giving each member a bonus of $5,000. Grant signed the appropriations bill, because if he failed to do so government agencies would not have any operating funds until the next session of Congress met. The public outcry, against both Democrats and Republicans, came quickly. When the Forty-Third Congress met, they immediately repealed the salary increases for Congress, but public trust in the government further declined.

    When Benjamin H. Bristow took over as secretary of the treasury in June 1874, he sought to implement civil service reforms within the department. Furthermore, he wanted to increase collections, especially from the liquor industry that for years evaded their taxes by bribing treasury agents. The problem seemed most acute in St. Louis, where Bristow focused the Whiskey Ring investigation. In the process, he turned his attention on General Orville Babcock, the president’s confidential secretary, who was friends with General John A. McDonald, the revenue supervisor in St. Louis. Bristow maintained that two cryptic telegrams showed Babcock’s collusion in the attempt to defraud the government. To clear his name, Babcock requested a military court of inquiry look into the matter. Grant appointed the board after checking with his cabinet. However, the board never made a ruling because prosecutors in St. Louis refused to turn over any paper evidence; the case therefore went to civil court. Grant, convinced that the secretary of the treasury targeted his aide unfairly, gave testimony in 1876 for the trial in his Babcock’s favor, and the jury later acquitted him. However, Babcock could no longer serve the president as his confidential secretary, and so Grant shifted him to another government position.

    Finally, William Belknap, the secretary of war, embroiled Grant in another scandal relating to the Indian trade. The problem began in 1869, not long after Belknap took office. Apparently, his wife Carrie, constantly short of money because she liked to live lavishly, discovered that the War Department contracted with private individuals to run military trading posts. Mrs. Belknap asked her husband to award the contract for Fort Sill to a friend, Caleb P. Marsh, who would share the profits of the lucrative Indian trade with the family. However, John S. Evans, who held the Fort Sill contract, did not want to give it up. Therefore, Marsh and Evans worked out a deal. Evans kept the contract and paid Marsh $12,000 per year, half of which he planned to give to the Belknaps. By 1876, William Belknap collected about $20,000 as part of the arrangement. Early that year, a House committee began to look into the military contracts and discovered Belknap’s malfeasance. Lyman Bass, the head of the House committee, told Bristow the House planned to launch impeachment proceedings against Belknap. On Bristow’s recommendation, Grant made an appointment with Bass for later that day. As he was departing the executive mansion to have his portrait painted, he learned from a steward that Belknap wanted to see him. The secretary of war tendered his resignation effective immediately, and Grant accepted it. Even though Belknap resigned, the House still impeached him; the Senate acquitted him because he was no longer in office, not because members thought him innocent of the charges. When Grant accepted Belknap’s resignation, many critics thought he wanted to cover up the whole affair.

    Revisiting Reconstruction

    Reconstruction still posed a problem for Ulysses S. Grant in his second term because the problems he faced in the first term, finding a balance between securing black rights and shoring up Republican governments, still existed in the second term. Many southern and northern whites did not want to treat blacks as their equals, and southern Republicans never coalesced into a unified party. Each southern state posed unique challenges for the Grant administration as conservative interests attempted to end Republican rule in the 1870s, and the president seemed undecided whether the federal government should still be involved in the South. Historian William Gillette concluded that “Grant came to the presidency pledging peace, but at the end of his second term, his southern policy had neither brought true peace for the nation, nor secured power for his party, nor increased popularity for his administration.” Grant’s policy ultimately failed in the end because the president and the people lacked a commitment to Reconstruction.

    Support for Reconstruction began to dwindle in 1873 because of the rise of violence in Louisiana. The previous year, the Republican Party split between the regular Republicans and the Liberal Republicans and ran two sets of candidates in the state elections. With the results inconclusive, both groups convened a legislature and inaugurated a governor, meaning the state had two governments. A federal court finally sided with the regular Republicans, and Grant sent federal troops to enforce the decision. Regrettably, the regular Republicans were not particularly popular with most whites or with the Grant administration, for that matter. Those opposed to Governor William P. Kellogg joined White Leagues, paramilitary units that scoured the countryside to terrorize Republican leaders and their supporters. The worst of the violence occurred on April 13, 1873 in Colfax during a clash between the local White League and the black militia. Three whites and over one hundred blacks died. Leaguers killed half of the black victims after they surrendered. The federal government subsequently charged seventy-two whites for their involvement in the Colfax Massacre, but juries convicted only three.

    Though the federal government took a tough stand after the Colfax Massacre, the violence did not stop; in fact, it seemed to get only worse as the 1874 elections approached. Democrats made racist appeals to white voters in an attempt to oust the Republican Party, and they backed their statements with violence. In August, White Leaguers assassinated six officials near Shreveport. In September, they marched on New Orleans to oust the Kellogg administration. In the skirmish between the White League and state forces, over thirty-one people died and nearly eighty people suffered wounds. The White League only gave up control of city hall, the state house, and the arsenal when federal troops dispatched by the president arrived. When the elections finally happened, the Democrats appeared to take control of the legislature. However, the certifying board threw out the returns in many parishes because of the intimidation. When the Democrats maneuvered to seat their representatives anyway, the governor asked the federal troops for assistance. The field commander then marched into the state house and forcibly removed the Democrats. Critics of the Grant administration’s southern policy abhorred the action because, if the military could act in Louisiana, then it could also act in Michigan or anywhere else.

    Screenshot (307).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): “The Union as it Was” | In this political cartoon, Thomas Nast reacts to the efforts by the White Leagues to redeem Louisiana from Republican rule. Grant responded to the situation with force, but it only hurt the prospects of the Republican Party in Louisiana and nationally in 1874. Author: Thomas Nast Source: Wikimedia Commons

    The ongoing problems in the South, coupled with the Panic of 1873, caused voters to turn against the Republican Party in the midterm elections of 1874. A 110-vote Republican majority in the House turned into a sixty-vote Democratic majority after the election; the Democrats also gained ten seats in the Senate. Democratic victories made it clear that Congress would no longer support additional enforcement measures because the American people clearly indicated they wanted the government to turn its attention to more pressing issues like economic recovery. The election results caused Republican Party leaders to look for ways to repair the damage. The most obvious answer seemed to stop propping up southern governments. Before they firmly committed to that policy, in his annual message to Congress in December 1874, Grant reminded members and the American people that if they accepted blacks as citizens then much of the violence would stop. Partially to respond to Grant’s rejoinder and partially to pay tribute to longtime antislavery advocate Charles Sumner who recently died, Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to prevent racial discrimination in all public venues except schools. Many Democrats, however, only supported the measure because they expected the federal courts to declare it unconstitutional. Beyond that, the federal government’s commitment to reconstruction waned in 1875. When Mississippi Democrats launched a campaign of violence to take back the state, Grant’s advisers convinced him not to send troops to assist the Republican governor.

    While the Supreme Court did not reverse the Civil Rights Act of 1875 until 1883, it did declare the Enforcement Acts unconstitutional in 1876. Grant hoped to protect the government’s ability to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments through his Supreme Court nominations. In the end, three of the four men Grant nominated to serve on the Supreme Court voted against the government’s attempts to defend the freed people in two important decisions. U.S. v. Reese related to a Kentucky tax collector’s attempt to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections by not collecting their poll tax. The Court invalidated the First Enforcement Act when it ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment did not apply to local or state elections, only to national elections. U.S. v. Cruikshank stemmed from the government’s attempt to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre. This time, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment applied only to state actions, not individual actions, and thus the federal government had no right to prosecute individuals for ordinary crimes like assault and murder. The two decisions closed the door to further federal intervention should anyone at the national level have cared to do so, and few did at that point.

    17.5.4: The South Redeemed

    Frustration with reconstruction set the stage for the presidential election of 1876, and most people realized that the results of that contest would determine the fate of Republican rule in the South. After 1875, only Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina still had Republican governments, and leaders in all three states needed federal support to maintain their power. Grant spoke fervently about the need to curb political terrorism and protect black rights, but he still lacked a policy to achieve both goals. So, in early 1876, Grant tried to divorce the Republican Party’s future from the Civil War and Reconstruction by focusing the public’s attention on the possibilities of public education and the importance of the separation of church and state. By then, most Republicans discounted the president’s usefulness to help the party recover from the debacle in 1874 because of the numerous scandals swirling around his administration. They were actually happy when Grant squashed the rumors that he might run again.

    The Democrats hoped to build on their victories in 1874 by further capitalizing on American frustration with the Grant administration’s scandals and reconstruction policies. Therefore, they focused the campaign on the issue of reform. First, they chose Samuel J. Tilden as their presidential nominee. Tilden, the governor of New York, built his reputation in party circles by promoting civil service reform. Second, the party’s platform focused on ending the depression and the political corruption in government. The platform suggested only reform could save the Union “from a corrupt centralism” which led to fraud in the central government, misrule in the South, and continued economic misery. The Democrats proposed “to establish a sound currency, restore the public credit and maintain the national honor.” Moreover, in the centennial election, they made their support and the American people’s support for reform-minded legislation a patriotic venture.

    The Republican Party had numerous people to choose from in 1876. Former Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine, looked like the favorite going into the convention. However, allegations of impropriety for selling some railroad stock to the Union Pacific well above market value made him a poor choice in an election focused on government scandals. Benjamin H. Bristow, Grant’s secretary of treasury, won support from reformers in the party for his role in taking down the Whiskey Ring, but some wondered whether he had the disposition to be president. Finally, Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, emerged as the most likely favorite son candidate to do well at the convention. Blaine led in the early balloting, but as the convention dragged on, delegates turned to Hayes as a compromise candidate because he came from the crucial state of Ohio, had a reputation for reform, and favored a moderate policy toward Reconstruction. The party’s platform pledged “the permanent pacification” of the southern states as well as “the complete protection of all its citizens in the free enjoyment of all their rights.” The remainder of the statement focused on political corruption, public education, land grants, tariff revision, immigration restriction, and other issues.

    Screenshot (309).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): The Candidates in 1876 | Frustration with reconstruction set the stage for the presidential election of 1876. The Republicans chose Rutherford B. Hayes (left), while the Democrats chose Samuel J. Tilden (right). Initially both campaigns focused on issues other than reconstruction; however, violence in South Carolina prompted the Republicans to wave the bloody shirt. Authors: Mathew Brady, Unknown Source: Library of Congress (both)

    The Republicans, more so than the Democrats, struggled to find a cohesive voice during the campaign because their platform seemed at times contradictory. Moreover, Hayes did little to attempt to explain how he would do anything different from Grant when it came to preserving peace and political rights in the South, especially as South Carolina descended into violence in the months before the election. At first, Grant seemed to let South Carolina go the way of Mississippi, but then he changed his mind after the Hamburg Massacre. On July 4, 1876, the black militia in Hamburg held a parade; local authorities arrested them for blocking traffic. At the trial only a few days later, violence broke out outside the courthouse. Outgunned, the black forces surrendered; that night white forces murdered five of them. Grant sent troops in an attempt to prevent more such incidences. The violence, according to Brooks Simpson, proved a blessing in disguise for the Republicans during the campaign. The massacre showed how some white southerners had not really repented allowing the party to wave “the bloody shirt” or reminding voters of the rebellious nature of the southern states. But, to a certain extent, the tactic fell on deaf ears; northerners still were more concerned about the economy.

    Polling for the presidential election took place throughout the fall, and as the November deadline approached, Tilden appeared to be ahead of Hayes in the popular and Electoral College votes. The Democrats seemed poised to take the South, and so they only needed to take New York, and Indiana, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, or some combination thereof to win. Tilden won the popular vote with 51 percent to 48 percent for Hayes. However, the Electoral College returns were not so clear because both the Democrats and the Republicans claimed Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Given that the sitting Republican governments ultimately determined the accuracy of the voting, all three states declared for Hayes. Democrats charged that Republicans stole the election; Republicans responded that the Democrats had already done so by using violence to keep Republican voters away from the polls. At that point, it became clear that Congress needed to find a solution for dealing with the contested Electoral College returns, and the Constitution only said that Congress should count the returns. It did not specify how to count contested votes. Given that the Republican Senate and the Democratic House did not agree on this point, they could not determine who won the election.

    Screenshot (310).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Presidential Election map, 1876 | Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote suggesting the willingness of the American people to abandon reconstruction. However, the Electoral College returns for Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were disputed. Eventually, an impartial electoral commission created by Congress led to Hayes to win the Electoral College. With the Compromise of 1877, Hayes informally agreed to remove federal troops from the South if southern legislators would not filibuster the commission’s decision. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Congress desperately needed to make a decision on the contest votes because rumors spread wildly in the months before the scheduled inauguration that the country was on the verge of another civil war. Finally, Congress decided to create an electoral commission composed of five members from the Senate, five members from the House, and five members from the Supreme Court to determine which returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina to count. Seven of the members would be Democrats; seven would be Republicans; and one member would be an independent to break the expected tie. Both parties agreed to the composition of the committee and that, unless both chambers voted to overrule the commission, their decision would be final. Democrats expected the independent member to be Supreme Court Justice David Davis, whom they felt would side with them. However, Davis declined to serve because the legislature of Illinois selected him as one of their U.S. senators. That meant the final member from the Supreme Court would be a Republican Joseph Bradley.

    When the commission met in February, they went through the states in alphabetical order, making Florida the first contested state to come before the members. The Democrats protested that the Republicans illegally declared the state for Hayes; meanwhile, the Republicans countered that the only justification for not accepting the official returns was to review all the local returns. With the inauguration fast approaching, the commission voted eight to seven, with Bradley casting the tie-breaking vote, to accept the returns certified by the Republican governor. They subsequently voted the same way for Louisiana and South Carolina. The Senate quickly accepted the commission’s decision. House Democrats thought they could use a filibuster to prevent Hayes from assuming the presidency. If they could hold off a decision until March 4, then, per the Constitution, it would fall to the House to select the president. To ward off this possibility, the Republican Party worked behind the scenes to appease southerners in what became known as the Compromise of 1877. Informally, Hayes agreed to land grants for a southern transcontinental line, federal funding for internal improvements, and the removal of federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina. Realizing they would likely receive more concessions from Hayes than from Tilden, enough Southern Democrats tilted to Hayes, thus ending the possibility of a filibuster. After Rutherford B. Hayes took office, he attempted to follow through with the promises he made to Southern Democrats. Reconstruction officially ended, and the federal government ceased its efforts to maintain the rights of black citizens.

    17.5.5: Before You Move On...

    Key Concepts

    In 1869, famed Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant became the president of the United States. The American people took to heart his call for peace during the campaign and looked forward to a lessening of sectional tensions in the coming years. However, the Grant administration struggled to define a coherent southern policy to ensure that peace. The president hoped to promote black rights and retain Republican rule. Those two goals, given the racism of many southern whites, seemed an impossible objective. During Grant’s first term, the last of the southern states, Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas, reentered the Union. Even before that happened, however, other southern states began the process of redemption, whereby they ousted Republican governments, often by using violence. Grant’s failure to bring peace or secure civil service reform caused the Republican Party to split before the election of 1872. Liberal Republicans banded with Democrats to support Horace Greely for president. Grant won the reelection but found his second term more difficult than the first. The depression caused by the Panic of 1873, the concerns about political corruption brought on by a series of scandals tied to the president, and the continued problems in the South resulting from the efforts to redeem Louisiana and Mississippi left the Republican Party vulnerable going into the presidential election of 1876. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ultimately defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden in a heavily contested election, which was decided by a special election commission. The Compromise of 1877 sealed the fate of Reconstruction as the nation looked forward to dealing with new political and economic issues.

    Test Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Grant administration supported the adoption of the Enforcement Acts to curb Klan violence against black voters in the South.

    a. True

    b. False

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Southern redeemers hoped to preserve Republican rule in the South.

    a. True

    b. False

    Answer

    b

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Which of the following partially explain Ulysses S. Grant’s failure to develop a successful southern policy?

    a. He allowed corruption to develop in his administration.

    b. He proposed to withdrawal federal troops from the South.

    c. He opposed Congressional Reconstruction.

    d. None of the above.

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Who won the presidential election of 1876?

    a. Ulysses S. Grant

    b. Horace Greeley

    c. Samuel J. Tilden

    d. Rutherford B. Hayes

    Answer

    d

    • Was this article helpful?