Grant’s Mixed Legacy

Grant’s Mixed Legacy

Books can have an impact. Readers without patience to wade through all 1,074 pages of Ron Chernow’s frequently cited biography are told in the introduction that Ulysses S. Grant was “the single most important figure behind Reconstruction” and that the “imperishable story of Grant’s presidency was his campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan.” Not coincidentally, commentators, politicians, and media historians are urging President Biden to combat domestic terrorists as Grant attacked the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Introducing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general, Biden himself echoed Chernow’s praise of Grant for “creation of the Justice Department, its first duty to bring thousands of anti-Klan indictments.” Unfortunately, what actually happened is more of a warning than a model.[1]

Like President Biden, Grant faced the almost insurmountable task of reuniting the country while guaranteeing racial justice. A major challenge was dealing with white supremacist violence. After some hesitancy, more than two years into his first term, Grant invoked the April 20, 1871, KKK Act temporarily to disable the Klan in South Carolina, where Attorney-General Amos Akerman tried those arrested in federal courts. Success, however, was limited. White supremacists thrived in other states. In South Carolina, most of the Klan’s leaders escaped before trial. Furthermore, in the middle of the trials Grant fired Akerman. New Attorney-General George Williams was known to be skeptical of “bayonet rule.” After initially continuing the trials, Williams announced a moratorium. Even worse, in a gesture of national unity, Grant pardoned all Klansmen still in federal prison.[2]

Grant’s pardons and Akerman’s firing project an image of the newly formed Justice Department at odds with the one Biden conveyed to the nation. The author of the 1870 act creating the Justice Department was Thomas Jenckes, an advocate of limiting presidential patronage power through civil service reform. A few months after its creation, Grant fired Attorney-General E. R. Hoar, another civil service reformer, for opposing the president’s scheme to annex the Dominican Republic. Hoar’s firing and Grant’s unauthorized use of the military in his annexation scheme caused anti-slavery German immigrant Carl Schurz to rebuke the president on the floor of the Senate. “The Emperor of Germany cannot declare war without the consent of the Federal Council . . . . Concede to the President, in addition to the patronage power which he yields, the war-making power . . . and you are in a fair way of making him in some respects more absolute than the Emperor of Germany himself.”[3]

Grant appointed the southerner Akerman attorney general to counter such opposition and to get support for annexation from southern Republicans. He then fired Akerman, most likely pressured by railroad tycoons upset with actions against monopolies. Williams, whose wife used governmental funds for private expenses, was in turn replaced by Edwards Pierrepont, a former Democrat. Noted for fighting Boss Tweed, Pierrepont targeted corruption in Grant’s administration, but he resisted fighting domestic terrorists in the South. The last year of Grant’s term, Pierrepont was replaced during a shuffle in the cabinet when Secretary of War William Belknap was caught selling lucrative positions at Indian trading posts for a profit. Warned of his impending impeachment, Belknap ran to the White House where his friend Grant, without questions, accepted his resignation. The Senate tried Belknap anyway. He was acquitted because twenty-three senators who deemed him guilty claimed the Senate had no jurisdiction over a private citizen. When, as a citizen, he was indicted in the District of Columbia, Grant intervened and instructed his new attorney general to drop charges. He complied.[4]

Grant’s record with Supreme Court nominations was even worse. Thomas Dixon, who gleefully alludes to Grant’s pardons for the Klan in The Traitor, praised the Supreme Court as “the last bulwark of liberty in the nation.”   Indeed, the Supreme Court spearheaded the constitutional retreat from Reconstruction. Yet none of the justices were appointed by the impeached Andrew Johnson. To restrict his appointing powers, Republicans reduced the Court to seven during his term, and then increased it to nine for Grant. Given the opportunity to appoint four justices, Grant passed over known supporters of civil rights such as his two solicitor-generals, Benjamin Bristow and Samuel Phillips. Phillips later would serve as one of Homer Plessy’s attorneys. Bristow had been a law partner of John Marshall Harlan, who was appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes and became the lone dissenter in the Plessy decision. In contrast, none of Grant’s appointments were strongly committed to racial justice. He succeeded in appointing a Chief Justice only after numerous failures. Chief Justice Waite, supported by Grant’s other appointments, authored one of the worst opinions in the history of the Court.[5]

Cruikshank v. United States (1876) acquitted two ringleaders of the bloody racial massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873 and paved the way for undermining federal legislation against domestic terrorism. Although Waite wrote the opinion, he followed the lead of the only Grant appointee with a brilliant legal mind: Joseph Bradley. A former railroad attorney, Bradley masterfully used the commerce clause to promote a national economy that served business interests. But all southern Republican senators, closest to white supremacist violence, including African American Hiram Revels, had opposed Bradley’s appointment. Indeed, on issues of racial justice Bradley forged a new federalism that reserved crucial powers for the states. His position in Cruikshank won the trust of Democrats who agreed to make him the tiebreaking fifteenth member of the Congressional commission that helped decide the disputed election of 1876. Bradley delivered the presidency to Republicans through a logic that persists today. Giving each state the authority to count its ballots, he forbade Congress from going “behind the returns.” But he authorized Congress to determine if states’ certificates of electors were properly done. Drawing on his theory of federalism, in 1883 he delivered a crushing blow to freedmen by invalidating most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Bradley’s view of federalism surfaced in 1873 when, in a concurring opinion, he rejected a woman’s claim to practice law in Illinois. Acknowledging that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the right to engage in lawful employment, Bradley, nonetheless, argued that by the law of “the Creator” a woman’s “office” is that of “wife and mother.” “In the nature of things,” therefore, a state could ensure the public good by using its police powers to bar women from practicing law. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court extended Bradley’s reasoning to race and confirmed a state’s use of police powers to mandate separate but equal.[6]

Grant faced problems that would have taxed the best presidents. Chernow, however, greatly exaggerates when he ranks him “second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves.” He is not a good model for a president trying to juggle competing demands to unify the country, rebuild the economy, address racial injustice, restore confidence in the presidency and Justice Department, deal with a conservative Supreme Court, and manage a pandemic.[7]

[1] Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), xx-xxi.

[2] Herbert Shapiro, “The Ku Klux Klan During Reconstruction: The South Carolina Episode, Journal of Negro History, 49 (1964): 46.

[3] Carl Schurz, “Grant’s Usurpation of the War Powers in Santo Domingo,” in Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, ed. Frederic Bancroft (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1913) v2, 245.

[4] Edward S. Cooper, William Worth Belknap: An American Disgrace (Cranbury, NJ: Rosemont Publishing, 2003), 310-11.

[5] Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1907), 330.

[6] Bradwell v. The State of Illinois 83 U.S. 130 at 141-42 (1873).

[7] Chernow, Grant, 858.

Brook Thomas

Brook Thomas is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of English and the Center for Law, Society, and Culture, UC Irvine. His specialty is 19th-century law and literature in the US. He has published six single-authored books and a case book on Plessy v. Ferguson. The Literature of Reconstruction: Not in Plain Black and White (John Hopkins University Press, 2017) won the Hugh Holman Prize.

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