All the lipstick in the world can’t pretty up the Grant presidency

Historians revise history constantly. That’s a key component of the job: seeking out and assessing new information, considering and reconsidering the motives of participants, and pondering the authenticity of documents and other accounts.

But revising history is different from “rewriting” history, which involves ascribing positive or negative motives to actors based on predetermined outcomes, ignoring information that contradicts those preordained outcomes or faulting historical figures by holding them to modern standards and values incompatible with the past.

This is evident in recent analyses of Ulysses Grant’s presidency. Grant, the Union general who served as president from 1869 to 1877, was graded near the bottom of U.S. presidents just 70 years ago, ranking No. 28 of 30 chief executives in 1948. Conversely, in 2017 Grant was rated No. 22 of 43.

This is curious, given that unlike such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Grant’s Administration didn’t have the benefit of classifying secret information for decades. In other words, it’s not like a horde of secret files were released 75 years or a century after Grant left office, giving historians solid reasons to reassess his presidency.

Grant’s eight years in the Oval Office is the subject of Philip Leigh’s last book, U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency (published by Shotwell Publishing, 2019).

U.S. Grant’s Failed President, by Philip Leigh.

Leigh ascribes Grant’s revival to two factors: Modern historians tendency to focus on the racial aspects of Reconstruction – and to ascribe egalitarian motives to Grant’s decisions when they were almost certainly political in nature – and an inclination to minimize or even overlook the corruption that was a hallmark of his presidency, including concerns that Grant himself was involved in the graft.

Today’s historians, many of whom came of age during or after the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, too often fail to critically evaluate Grant’s motives for supporting black civil rights, particularly voting rights, during Reconstruction, Leigh writes.

“His policy is commonly portrayed as a noble stand for racial equality. They fail to adequately examine evidence that his prime motive may have been to gain the political power that a routinely obedient voting bloc could provide to Republican candidates,” Leigh states.

Grant was opposed to black suffrage at the end of the War Between the States, but by 1868 he was warbling a different tune. That change, however, did not encompass extending the franchise to other minorities such as Native Americans and Chinese Americans. The Republican Party was less than two decades old when Grant was first elected and securing a compliant voting base to help the party become established was crucial to its long-term survival.

Regarding integrity, the Grant Administration’s ethical lapses rival those of the Harding, Nixon and Clinton administrations.

There were at least 10 major scandals during Grant’s two terms, including a gold speculation ring that resulted in the nation’s economy spiraling into a recession, the Whisky Ring, in which whisky distillers bribed Treasury Department officials who then aided the distillers in evading taxes, and the breach of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, when Grant, seeking a means to get the country out of the Depression of 1873, approved an 1,000-troop expedition into the Black Hills, sacred land of the Lakota Indians where gold had been discovered. Grant appointed a commission to buy mining rights from the Sioux, but the commission reported that force was necessary to begin negotiations. Grant proceeded to launch an illegal war against the Plains Indians, then lied to Congress and the American people about it.

Corruption would be discovered in seven federal departments: including the Navy, Justice, War, Treasury, Interior State and Post Office. Nepotism was prevalent, with more than 40 of Grant’s family members benefiting from government appointments and employment. And several of Grant’s close aides and cabinet officials were indicted.

Grant himself exhibited dubious standards which, were a politician to act similarly today would surely end their career and possibly result in prison time. In 1866, prior to entering public service, Grant accepted a $30,000 home in Washington, D.C., raised through public subscription that netted the general $100,000 in all.

When Grant was ready to move into the White House, he initially agreed to a deal to sell the home for $40,000. Treasury Secretary designee Alexander Stewart led a subscription to purchase the home for $65,000 for Union General William T. Sherman. When the money was raised, Grant turned his back on the agreement with the first buyer and pocketed the $35,000 difference, according to Leigh.

Six months into his first term, Grant accepted a vacation home on the New Jersey coast. The 27-room structure cost $35,000, money raised by seven donors, including a Philadelphia newspaper owner and the owner of the Pullman Co., which manufactured railroad cars, according to Leigh.

A century and a half after Grant became chief executive the office of the president has changed so much that contrasting mid-19th century presidential administrations and those of today is extremely difficult. The manner in which information was recorded and archived (or, as in the past, wasn’t archived), and the present access to public information, inadequate but a far cry from that of the 1860s and ‘70s, make an apples-to-apples comparison impossible, for example.

Still, Grant’s Administration was a marked period of corruption, when speculators and rouges fleeced both the public trust and the public treasury, while the common citizen, whether white or black, worked diligently just to simply keep their heads above water.

U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency is a well-done, easily understood work. In it, Philip Leigh cuts through the presentism that pervades so much current historical writing and examines the facts of 1869-1877, delivering an appropriately unflattering appraisal of Ulysses Grant’s eight years in office.

(Top: Ulysses S. Grant and his family at 27-room New Jersey beach home given to president by wealthy donors.)

Political invective, partisan media have long history in U.S.

There’s much ado about former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s new book and whether she takes her former employer to task for its coverage of the Trump Administration.

“Abramson, the veteran journalist who led the newspaper from 2011 to 2014, says the Times has a financial incentive to bash the president and that the imbalance is helping to erode its credibility,” wrote Fox media critic Howard Kurtz about Abramson’s book.

Abramson, who led the paper from 2011 to 2014, claims Kurtz took her words out of context, and said rather that her book is full of praise for the Times and Washington Post and their coverage of Trump.

No matter what the case, there are substantial numbers of U.S. citizens who, whether correct or not, believe the Times and Post have become “the opposition” to the Trump Administration.

What many news consumers don’t realize is that 125 years ago, newspapers were often unabashedly biased in their political coverage. The difference being that there were so many newspapers – more than a dozen in New York City alone – that the republic could afford to have media predisposed to one party or another.

Article in Newberry (S.C.) News and Herald describing then ex-Nebraska Gov. John Milton Thayer’s purported descent into lunacy.

Consider this small blurb which ran in papers across much of the country in January 1891: Under the headline “Ex-Governor Thayer Goes Mad” it was reported from Lincoln, Neb., on April 18, 1891, that “Ex-Governor Thayer, who has been suffering from nervous prostration brought on by the political complication in the Legislature, today became a raving maniac.”

John Milton Thayer was a Republican who had served as a Union general in the War Between the States, seeing action as such noted locales as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Fort Donelson.

He was one of the first two senators from Nebraska after it gained statehood, was appointed territorial governor of Wyoming by Ulysses Grant and was elected to two terms as governor of Nebraska, in 1886 and 1888.

Thayer didn’t run in the 1890 election, which was won by Democrat James Boyd, a native of County Tyrone, Ireland. Boyd was sworn in on January 8, 1891. However, the Farmers Alliance Party candidate, John Powers, who had finished second by 1,144 votes, contested the results, initially citing voting irregularities.

A month after the election, newspapers began reporting that Governor-elect Boyd wasn’t a U.S. citizen because his father, upon arriving in the United States in the 1840s, had failed to follow through on obtaining citizenship, and didn’t actually do so until the month his son was elected, more than 30 years after the family arrived from the Emerald Isle.

John Milton Thayer, governor of Nebraska, territorial governor of Wyoming and one of the two first senators from Nebraska.

Under naturalization laws in place at that time, “if a parent failed to naturalize before the child reached the age of majority, the child could only acquire citizenship through their own naturalization proceeding,” according to Nebraska Law Review.

Thayer also questioned Boyd’s citizenship and refused to relinquish the governor’s quarters. Within a few days, the Nebraska Supreme Court suggested that Thayer hand over the governor’s office while it considered the case.

It was during this period that Thayer was said to have become a “raving maniac,” with the story running from coast to coast in papers big and small, including the Boston Globe, San Francisco Call and Virginia’s Alexandria Gazette.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in May 1891 that Boyd was not a citizen and, therefore, ineligible for election as governor. With this decision, Thayer was reinstalled as governor.

Boyd then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he based his claim for citizenship on three points:

  • Boyd claimed that he was a citizen by having acquired citizenship while he was still a minor through the naturalization of his father;
  • He argued that the circumstances of his life warranted a conclusion that he was a citizen. He believed that he was a citizen. It was his intent to be a citizen. He had voted for many years, held public offices and taken oaths of his allegiance to the United States; and
  • Boyd argued that the principal of collective naturalization operated to make him a citizen when Nebraska was admitted into the Union in 1867. In other words, when Nebraska became a state, everyone living within its borders became citizens, no matter what their intention.

The Supreme Court agreed Boyd was a citizen, and he took office in February 1892.

Thayer retired from politics after his abbreviated third term and lived until 1906.

Despite being referred to as a raving maniac in papers across the country, there is no mention of Thayer’s purported lunacy in the Encyclopedia of Nebraska or the National Governors Association’s biography of Thayer.

A few days after the first article appeared, the Omaha Daily Bee ran a short piece stating that “General Thayer is not a raving maniac, as has been asserted,” but was simply resting in bed after having overtaxed himself.

One imagines General Thayer being somewhat less than thrilled to see his name again linked with the term “raving maniac,” even if in a correction of sorts.

More than likely, many of the publications that printed the initial article were Democratic organs which were only too happy to connect a Republican politician to madness. Were the tables turned, Republican publications no doubt would have done the same thing to a Democrat.

This was during a period when newspapers were much more open about their political allegiances, and the public understood where publications stood on candidates and key issues.

Rest assured that Thayer wasn’t the only politician in the 19th century to be incorrectly labeled as a raving maniac.

(Top: First Nebraska state house, built in 1868 and pulled down in 1883.)

How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

Over the past couple of years there has been increasing distrust of the media, evidenced most clearly by the tag line “Fake News” that are often appended to stories which are in reality little more than an opposing viewpoint.

Some media consumers, unfortunately, are unable to differentiate between stories which occasionally report erroneous information inadvertently and the idea that journalists are purposely misreporting information to undercut those whose politics they disagree with.

Yes, some journalists, particularly those working at high-paying positions in the nation’s media centers, tend to be insulated in a world which is far different from that of most middle- and lower-class individuals, which results in an echo chamber of sorts.

But for those who believe that today’s media is intentionally lying in what they report, one need consider the media of the past.  Among the best-known examples is the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ginned up false articles about a plot by Spain to sink the ship in Havana Harbor, helping precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wartime, at least in recent decades, has proven to be a breeding ground for baseless media reports, perhaps in part because censorship has been doled out with a far heavier hand as the world has become more literate.

In World War I, for example, newspapers from both Entente and Central Powers nations created stories out of whole cloth, including fictitious stories about major battles, well-known warships being sunk and key military and political figures being killed.

Consider this excerpt from Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, describing French newspapers’ preoccupation with reporting on the welfare of Wilhelm, the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm and commander of the German 5th Army during the early months of the war:

“On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane.”

Of course, as Hastings points out, no one of these stories contained the smallest element of truth. Was it malicious, reporting on rumors, wishful thinking, or simply journalists looking to fill space? One hundred-plus years later it’s hard to say.

Despite French media reports to the contrary, Wilhelm survived not only World War I, but also World War, living until 1941.

Today, unfortunately, there are those who believe what they want to believe when it comes to the media.

For the rest of us, a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that no journalist wants to go hat in hand to his or her editor and tell them their outlet needs to run a correction should be of assistance in keeping one’s composure when the news rubs one the wrong way.

(Top: Wilhelm, crown prince of Germany, with cane, having survived numerous “near-death” experiences in just the first few months of World War I.)

Louis Wigfall, Southern aristocracy gone to ‘seed’

Louis Trezevant Wigfall was, by nearly all accounts, an irascible sort, but one not unknown in South Carolina’s antebellum Edgefield District, which was a Wild West before there was a Wild West.

Born in Edgefield in 1816, Wigfall was born of into a planter family and attended South Carolina College and the University of Virginia, but breeding and education did little to mellow his countenance.

He was ardent proponent of the institution of slavery, and as a young man “he neglected his law practice for contentious politics that led him to wound a man in a duel (and be wounded himself) and to kill another during a quarrel,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Perhaps having worn out his welcome in the Palmetto State, Wigfall moved to Texas in 1846, almost instantly becoming active in Lone Star State politics, including “alerting” Texans to the dangers of abolition and the growing influence of non-slave states in the US Congress.

After several years in the Texas state legislature, Wigfall capitalized on the fear caused throughout the South by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was elected to the US Senate that year.

He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among the “fire-eaters” – leading secessionists – taking his advocacy for slavery and against expanding the power of national government to the national stage.

Following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Wigfall coauthored the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated that the Union was irretrievably broken and that the only hope for the South was independence.

“Wigfall helped foil efforts for compromise to save the Union and urged all slave states to secede,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

He appears to have lacked the chivalric manners evident in other key Southern figures of the era, remaining in the US Senate after Texas seceded, spying on the Union, chiding northern senators, and raising and training troops in Maryland to send to South Carolina. Even while serving as a US senator, he took part in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter by rowing out under fire and dictating unauthorized surrender terms to federal commander Robert Anderson.

He was finally expelled from the Senate in mid-1861. Later that year he became a Confederate officer and promoted to brigadier general  before resigning from the army to take a seat in the Confederate Senate in 1862.

Initially, Wigfall supported Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he quarreled with Davis before long.

During the last two years of the Confederacy Wigfall carried on public and private efforts to strip Davis of all influence.

He also blocked the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis’ justices would interfere with states’ rights, according to the National Park Service.

Far from being a pragmatist, he opposed the arming of slaves and was willing to lose the war rather than admit that blacks were worthy of being soldiers.

Among his post-war activities was spending time in the United Kingdom, “where he tried to foment war between Britain and the United States, hoping to give the South an opportunity to rise again.”

As the small clipping from the Sept. 20, 1866, edition of Columbia Daily Phoenix makes clear, he had lost most, if not all of the stature may have once possessed.

Beneath an extract of a speech by Gen. William S. Hillyer about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and next to a copy of a letter by Emperor Napoleon III of France to King Victor Emanuel of Italy is a tiny blurb that reads, “Ex-Senator Wigfall is in London, looking seedy.”

Wigfall, who returned to US in 1872, returned to Texas in 1874 and died in Galveston on Feb. 18, 1874.

Sir Lucius O’Brien, a politician who impressed only himself

Born on this date in 1731 was Sir Lucius Henry O’Brien, the third baronet of Dromoland, in County Clare.

O’Brien served in the Irish House of Commons for 30 years, but he proved a notable example of how nobility and brains often didn’t come in the same package.

In the mid-1770s, while serving in the Irish Parliament, O’Brien worked to remove restrictions on trade between England and Ireland, making frequent speeches in parliament opposing the government’s stand. However, “his speeches lacked lucidity, and his audience were said to be seldom the wiser for them,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography, a reference work detailing figures from British history.

In fact, O’Brien was eventually described as “a man who disagrees with the rest of mankind by thinking well of himself.”

If modern politicians were to look for a “patron saint,” O’Brien would seem an ideal choice.

(Top: Irish House of Commons in session, ca., 1780.)

Writer: Ron Paul had it coming because he’s a libertarian

Many, at least in the United States, know of the recent attack on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul by a neighbor, an assault that left Rand with six broken ribs.

Attacks on sitting U.S. Congressmen being relatively rare and generally frowned upon, the mugging, by Paul’s neighbor, retired doctor Rene Boucher, has generated considerable coverage. Initially there was speculation that the incident, which occurred while Paul was riding on a lawn mower with noise-canceling headphones, was political in nature.

It now appears that Boucher’s blindside blitz was personal in nature, though it’s not entire clear why the doctor took it upon himself to tackle Paul.

However, more than one pundit has waddled into the fray by stating that Paul’s libertarian stance was not only the casus belli, but a justifiable excuse.

USA Today wrote that Paul was the neighborhood’s problem child because “he has a strong belief in property rights.”

A writer for GQ magazine opined that Paul was “an asshole neighbor” because he “bought a house in a neighborhood that has certain rules with regard to lawns, and he decided that he doesn’t need to follow those rules because of his belief in ‘property rights’ that don’t actually exist.”

This, the writer explained, is the problem with libertarianism: “Libertarians don’t want to follow the rules that we as a society have agreed upon, because they feel those rules step on their freedoms.” Alas, if only John Locke and John Stuart Mill, proponents of libertarian views, had been able to subscribe to GQ they might have seen the error of their ways.

Best of all, though, was Elie Mystal of the website Above the Law, which claims to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the world of law and original commentary on breaking legal developments. Mystal is no novice to the legal world, having earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School after receiving a bachelor’s degree in government studies from Harvard, and he later worked as a litigator before entering the media world.

It would be safe to say that Mystal isn’t a fan of libertarianism:

“The thing everybody knows about Rand Paul is that he’s a libertarian and ‘libertarian’ always sounds like a fine legal and political theory to people who haven’t thought deeply about how to live with others,” he wrote. “‘You can do what you want and I can do what I want and, so long as we’re not hurting anybody, the government can do nothing.’ It’s … cute, as theories of social interactions go. It’s not a workable basis for law and governance.”

Libertarianism isn’t a workable basis for law and governance because … Elie Mystal said so.

Mystal goes on to demonstrate that earning a J.D. apparently requires little in the way of logical-thinking skills:

“Rand Paul’s broken ribs prove the weakness of libertarianism. According to reports, Rand Paul likes to grow pumpkins on his property. You might like pumpkins, but to some people, pumpkins are kind of big and ugly and, stinky. A slightly past harvest pumpkin patch smells the worst.”

“Reports also indicate that Paul makes his own compost (also stinky) and ‘has little interest for neighborhood regulations.’ This, my friends, is what libertarianism looks like in practice. I’ll grow what I want, put trash where I want, and maintain my space however I want, and you can’t do anything about it. FREEDOM!

Yes, that’s right, libertarians embrace a political philosophy with liberty at its core so that they can flout homeowners’ association regulations regarding pumpkin growing and composting. Stickin’ it to the Man every which way they can!

(Not to break Mystal’s path of incoherency, but it should be noted that Paul and Boucher, while neighbors, live more than an acre from one another, so we’re not talking about two individuals who shared a duplex for the past 17 years.)

Then the great unhinging begins to kick into high gear. From reckless pumpkin growing and composting, it’s a small leap to cowardice and misuse of power, in Mystal’s view:

Libertarians only want the heavy hand of ‘government’ involved when things get tough. When things get physical, libertarians will run to your nearest law enforcement officer and demand that something be done.

But libertarians also think they can stand on the very edge of their property and bother you however they deem fit, and then expect you to be restrained in your reaction by the government and … that’s just not how society works. You can only needle a man so long before he tries to break your face, legal technicalities be damned. Libertarianism is the social and political philosophy of instigating conflict without suffering the consequences of their own conduct. It works well enough on paper, but in real life it’s going to inspire otherwise decent people to tackle you off your lawnmower and try to break all of your ribs.

Yes, I’m victim-blaming. Yes, I’m saying Rand Paul was “asking for it,” over these past 17 years.

After all that, though, Mystal never indicates if he even knows Paul personally. His rantings seem based solely on a dislike of libertarianism and Paul, without any apparent genuine understanding of the senator, the issues in this incident or of libertarianism in general.

My guess is that his dislike of the latter philosophy probably stems from an incident long ago, perhaps during his time in the Harvard dorms, when perhaps a fellow student, likely with an interest in libertarianism, dared to commit some egregious act such as leaving pizza boxes in the dorm hallway and then reacted poorly to Mystal’s despotic attempts to rule the roost (read: calling in everyone from the resident assistant to the dean of diversity affairs).

Mystal’s logic: One slob with an interest in libertarianism years proved displeasing; therefore, in Mystal’s eyes, all libertarians are jackleg reprobates.

If the logic displayed in Mystal’s commentary is in any way reflective of the general mindset of 21st century U.S. jurisprudence, we might as well return to trial by ordeal. The results are pretty much the same, but the latter is a whole lot less sanctimonious.