Much ink has been spilled by historians and popular writers for the last 150 years claiming that the Grant administration was uniquely corrupt.
But recent historians have discovered that charges against Grant and his presidency were overblown.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson offers a lively and accessible example of the newer view of Grant’s presidency. The era was full of corruption, as an unprecedented amount of money went through the federal government in the post-Civil War boom of northern industry. But Grant himself was not corrupt. And though some of his cabinet members got into trouble, his administration was more honest than those that followed during the Gilded Age. The whole story of a corrupt Grant presidency was in fact a setup by Grant’s political opponents, a story that then tainted history’s view of Grant’s time in the White House.
Richardson is the rare historian with a popular following. Her blog, “Letters from an American,” has tens of thousands of subscribers. The video below has gotten nearly 12,000 views on YouTube and is well worth watching.
“I’m a huge fan of Grant,” says Richardson. “There was a long period when he was denigrated. And that’s where you get the stories about him being a dumb alcoholic. He’s actually a brilliant man. And he’s a brilliant man not only in his approach to the military but also in his brain. He actually manages to start a new form of American literature, the realist school, when he writes his memoirs.” He was also trying to treat Native Americans right, as opposed to both his predecessor in the White House and General Sherman who wanted to exterminate them.
As to corruption, Richardson explains the major corruption crisis of Grant’s administration, the Credit Mobilier scandal, as essentially a frame-up of Grant by the Eastern establishment who disparaged Grant as a rough military man who had never held elected office and didn’t deserve to lead the Republican Party.
According to Richardson, the villain of the story is Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist but also a huge egotist and snob who didn’t mind annoying his Senate colleagues by throwing plenty of Latin words into his floor speeches. An ambitious politician, Sumner thought that he should have been head of the Republican Party, not an unpolished westerner like Grant. So, when Grant became president, Sumner worked hard to destroy Grant’s reputation. Sumner started spreading rumors about Grant in the Senate cloakroom and then plotted with other snobs to make Grant look bad.
Richardson doesn’t think that Grant was corrupt at all. Nor was he naive in picking cabinet members who were especially corrupt. Instead, Grant was the victim of Sumner’s plot to disparage Grant for “cronyism.” It’s a fascinating story, and may challenge your ideas about Grant and corruption.