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There's a reason Ulysses S. Grant is best remembered as a civil war hero and not as the 18th president of the United States, his official bio on the White House website reads, When he was elected, the American people hoped for an end to turmoil.
Grant provided neither vigor nor reform, but he delivered scandal in spades.
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Today, we're covering Ulysses S. Grant, born Hiram Ulysses Grant. He was so unflinchingly American that he legally changed his initials to U.S. The South doesn't actually stand for anything after Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. Grant's time in office was a welcome change only because he didn't get assassinated or impeached. Grant papered over his complete lack of expertise, talent and experience with a blinding confidence.
He spent a small portion of his life occupying two of the highest political and military offices in America and sandwiched in between two heaping scoops of failure.
All of this is coming up. Stay with us. You know, that saying that goes the best leaders are the ones most resistant to leadership? Well, in the case of Ulysses S. Grant. Nothing could be further from the truth. He's constantly ranked one of the worst presidents of all time. And nobody was more resistant to leadership than he was in late 1863. A 41 year old grant has been fighting for the union cause for a little over two years.
He's a major general and his resume is riddled with battlefield victories Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Then one day he receives some mail. The envelope is postmarked in Ohio, his home state. And it's from this Democratic chairman who says that he wants Ulysses to run for president. He's like, listen, you're a shoo in. You're already an American icon. Let's get you ready for the 1864 election. Now, when Grant reads this letter, he assumes that it was mailed to the wrong guy.
He writes the chairman back saying, I do not know of anything I have ever done or said, which would indicate that I could be a candidate for any office whatsoever. So Grande's at least a little self-aware. He's got that going for him. But even for his day, he's rough and tumble for politics. He's this bulldog of a man who thinks chain smoking cigars passes for cologne. He's a rumpled mess in ill fitting clothing, but he's not one note.
His military career is his crowning achievement. But he hates almost everything about the military authority, uniforms, guns.
He didn't even like the idea of war. He's tough as nails, but he can't bear anyone hurting an animal. His favorite class at West Point painting. He loves literature and theater and hates blood like enough that he refuses to eat any meat that isn't super well done. Yes, he's a war hero and yes, he's more than meets the eye, but he's also a notorious drunk. Grande's reputation as a lush haunts his legacy to this day. Alcohol plays more than a supporting role in basically every retelling of his life.
As recently as twenty eighteen sitting presidents have made fun of him for it. And to be clear, he earned that reputation. In the words of biographer Jean Edward Smith. Once Grant started drinking, it was difficult for him to stop, and his full tilt mentality was poorly supported by a delicate frame. At five seven in one hundred and twenty five pounds sopping wet, a single glass of whiskey could slur his speech, too, could make him stumble and three could put him to bed.
And when the mood struck, he rarely stopped at three. In fairness, during Grant's life, doctors touted alcohol as medicinal good for nutrition, digestion and nerves. And Grant could step away from the bottle when he needed to. He rarely, if ever, put his thirst before his duty. And given the bloodshed of the American Civil War, it's easy enough to forgive the occasional bender. According to one of his lieutenants, he would go on two or three sprees a year, but no more.
And when friends or family would confront him about his habits, Grant acknowledged his problem. Often times he'd quit for months on end cold turkey.
Binge drinker, functioning alcoholic, whatever the label, as bad as Grain's drinking was, it was often given a free pass because his bad behavior wasn't as destructive as it could have been. He was a lonely, depressive drunk, not a violent one. His stupas didn't hurt anyone other than himself. Simply put, his job was to win the war. And no matter what state he was in, he was good at it.
So good that when Lincoln's aides raised concerns over Grant's drinking, the president supposedly responded by asking them to find out which brand of whiskey he preferred so that he could buy it for all of his other generals. Maybe then they'd be more like Ulysses. Clearly, Lincoln thought highly of Grant and the admiration was mutual in every sense of the word. Tiny Grant looked up to the president. But soon enough, Grant is flooded with more letters and messages from Democrats, Republicans, friends, strangers, even his father.
Everyone's like, please consider running. His father is especially enthusiastic because for a long time he was worried that Ulysses might not amount to anything and with good reason. Now Ulysses throws most of the letters in the garbage, but writes back to one Illinois congressman. He's like, Listen, if in some crazy world I actually became president, that would be unfortunate both for myself and for the country. Grant firmly believes that he'd make a terrible president, but there's another reason stopping him.
He doesn't want to run against President Lincoln, his commander in chief. Later, when word reaches Lincoln that Grant isn't going to run, he's thrilled to not have the competition. Honest Abe celebrates Grant's loyalty by making him his lieutenant general.
And the vote of confidence is quickly validated when, on April nine, 1865, Grant leads the union army to victory at Appomattox. Like always, he demands complete and unconditional surrender. Robert E. Lee and the Confederates waved their white flags and effectively end the war. Four long years of ruthless bloodshed. It's a huge relief, to say the least. But the killing isn't exactly over, not by a long shot. Five days later, on April 14th, Grant joins Lincoln at a cabinet meeting.
It's Good Friday, and Grant is Lincoln's esteemed guest of honor. But he's struggling a bit. He's a fish out of water in most social events, especially in Washington, where it's uncouth to swim in a sea of whiskey. See, Grant's hardened exterior is something of a shell protecting the shy little kid who enjoys art and animals and reading novels. But he shakes hands, pretends to be social and ultimately makes it through in one piece. But afterward, Lincoln turns to him and says, I want to see a play with me and my wife tonight.
It's called our American cousin. It's supposed to be great. Mary Todd just won't stop talking about it. Now, Grant accepts the invitation, but it later gets him in trouble with his wife. It turns out Julia Grant is not a fan of Mary Todd Lincoln. The historical details are a bit hazy, but apparently Mary's famously sharp tongue pricked Julia a few too many times. She has no intentions of sitting through an evening of theater with the first lady.
Now, Grant probably balks at his wife's refusal. He later referred to their rift as trifling in nature. But Julia wins the war. She essentially tells Ulysses over my dead body. And that's that. They're not going. Grant makes an excuse to Lincoln, he's like, Sorry, man, yeah, we just got to go see our kids for a while. I hope someone else can take the ticket. Of course, the president does find other people willing to go with him.
But the tension between Mary and Julia might have actually saved the future presidents life around 10 30 p.m that evening. As Julia and Grant are on a train to New Jersey to visit their kids, John Wilkes Booth slips into Lincoln's private box at Ford's Theater, pulls the trigger on his 44 caliber pistol and sends a bullet right into the back of the president's skull. Grant doesn't find out what's happening until he arrives at Broad Street Station around midnight. He's handed a telegram that reads The president was assassinated.
The secretary of war desires that you return to Washington immediately. He later calls this moment in time the darkest day of his life, which is saying something given the absolute horrors he saw in his lifetime. But in that moment, Grant's military instincts kick in. He doesn't care that Booth is still at large or that he had plans to assassinate Grant as well. He rushes back to Washington without any sort of escort or bodyguard for the rest of his life.
He's haunted by the thought of what could have happened if only he were there to protect the president. We'll never know for sure if he would have actually been able to hear Booth coming or to have done anything.
But Grant probably would have fared a little better than the guy who ended up taking his ticket booth, slashed that guy's arm from elbow to shoulder, and the guy ended up surviving the wounds, but definitely not the mental scars. He later shot, stabbed and killed his wife, then tried to end his own life as well and ended up in an asylum. The whole thing is tragic, but the repercussions of Booth's actions affect much more than one family. Lincoln's assassination sends the whole country into chaos.
And when Vice President Andrew Johnson takes over the wheel, Grant immediately gets a bad feeling in his gut.
See, with Lincoln, he didn't have to think much about his front row seat to American politics. You just put his head down and stayed in his lane. But Grant doesn't exactly see eye to eye with Johnson the same way he did with Lincoln, especially when it comes to reconstruction and reuniting a broken country. I mean, he appreciates that Johnson promotes him to the general of the U.S. Army, but the respect doesn't go much further than that. So the next time that Grant's asked if he'd consider running for president, he says, yes, he steps up to the plate for Lincoln and for the new America he fought so hard to protect in 1868, to nobody's surprise, except his own Ulysses S.
Grant, the acclaimed war hero, becomes president of the United States. And true to his word, he's a disaster. Coming up, Grant's storied relationship with criminals and horses listeners, here's a new show I can't wait for you to check out when it comes to love.
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Whether it's a chance encounter, a former friendship or even a former enemy, our love story proves that love can begin and blossom in the most unexpected ways. Follow our love story free on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. And now back to the story. On March 4th, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant takes the oath of office and begins his time as president after Lincoln's assassination. The White House created the Secret Service and stationed guards all over the mansion, but Grant dismisses them.
In the eight years he spends in office, he's protected by nothing more than an aura of masculine energy. The thing is, privacy is a rare commodity in Washington, and Grant appreciates privacy and coming from the military, he also appreciates order and routine. Every morning, his feet hit the floor at seven a.m. by eight thirty sharp, he's read the news and is having a mandatory breakfast with his family. This is quickly followed by a walk, usually alone.
After his walk, he's at his desk by 10 a.m., hopelessly toiling away at work that he doesn't understand because he has no experience. He's basically attempting quantum physics without ever having learned how to add.
Grant spends his first year in office bumbling up to Congress, asking them what he should do. One White House visitor described him as a man with a problem before him, of which he did not understand the terms. He's ridden into Washington on his soldier's laurels. But what the American people don't know and should be very afraid of is his resume.
With the notable exception of his military career, Grant's life has been an endless sea of failure. He failed his way through more careers than some people have in a lifetime.
When his father in law gave him a farm under Grant's leadership and went belly up after his venture into agriculture, Grant tried his hand as a realtor, rent collector and a businessman. He failed at all of them, and those are just the jobs that would actually hire him. At one point, Grant was staring down the barrel of serious poverty, destitute and on the streets, pawning personal items to pay for his kids Christmas. It sounds heartbreaking, I know, but don't feel too bad for him.
He had the option to go home and work at his family's store as a sales clerk, and eventually he did. But even then, he wasn't good at it. You know how they say the customer is always right? Well, one of Grant's customers said that he made it his job to know absolutely nothing like when a customer would walk in. He'd apparently run to the back of the store and wait until a more qualified co-worker helped them. I mean, he's a 38 year old man at this point, acting like a teenager at their first summer job.
And sure, he eventually became a renowned general. And that takes a healthy dose of leadership skills. But if we're being completely honest, Grant's tactical war strategies weren't exactly nuanced. Even in the best of lighting they can be boiled down into have the numbers on your side and only give up after your enemy does. Aside from an unrelenting machismo willpower, Grant has proven himself adept at fighting and not much else. As far as presidents go, his list of relevant skills doesn't exist.
I mean, he's an all right painter, but that's about as useful to leading a country as his horse talent is. Yes, horses. Grant was bizarrely good with horses.
His mother's explanation for why he's so gifted highlights how much she thought of her son's intellect. According to her, horses just seem to understand Ulysses horses understood Ulysses not the other way around in snapshots. Grant was never the brightest boy his age, but by eleven he could tend his family's land with a horse drawn plow. By 15, he was a full fledged in demand horse trainer. By the time he reached West Point, he wrote, an untamable horse named York apparently was a pretty big deal at the time.
Maybe if Grant had become a cowboy, he would have met some success. But he became president and America didn't need a horse whisperer. They needed someone to mend the gaping wounds caused by one of the deadliest civil wars in human history. They needed political experience, and Grant had none. He ran under the slogan Let us have peace, but he didn't even have a plan.
Now, Grant knows all of this, and it's not like he hid the fact that he didn't think he'd make it to the White House and neither did anyone who had ever met him.
So he does what anyone in his position would. He surrounds himself with a bunch of people who supposedly know more than he does. Not a bad idea, right? Well, that's the craziest part of it. All those other people should be the solution, but they become his downfall.
You see, unlike other presidents we've covered, Grant's fatal flaw isn't wrapped up in ego quest for power or unchecked libido. No, no, he's genuinely a good guy. Some said a more honest, more generous man never lived. But his loyalty and naive optimism come at a price, especially when Grant's hazy understanding of the stakes of the presidency collide with his bad habit of freely doling out trust to everyone.
One of his only good appointees was a guy named John Rawlins, who had the harrowing job of making sure that the president stayed on the wagon.
But pretty much everyone else was suspect.
Apparently, nobody warned him that he worked in politics where most people didn't deserve his trust. Enter most people.
Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, two railroad tycoons moonlighting as gold speculators in the middle of the 19th century. As America's small business economy turned corporate, the pair appeared as some of the most crooked businessmen money could buy, and they were easily bought. Now, as Grande's asking Congress how to do his job. Fisk and Gould are already crazy rich, but they're never satisfied.
They want to climb the social ladder to be the next Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, like Jeff Bezos level rich.
Once they realize that Grant isn't much more than a warm body in the Oval Office, they're like, Huh? It shouldn't be too hard to, you know, corner the entirety of the gold market.
They have enough wealth and influence to effectively create a monopoly on gold and control its price. However, they see fit sort of like a dimmer switch, so they start buying as much of it as humanly possible. There is only one hurdle the federal government see at this point. The federal government backs all paper money with actual reserves of gold. So the Fed is one of the biggest players in the market. And if they were to sell any of their stores, it would drive prices down and undermine Fisk and Gold's rigid system.
So Fisk and Gould craft an elaborate scheme to sweet talk grant into doing them this one big, incredibly illegal, solid, don't sell any federal gold when they approach grant about it against all logic and reason. Grant says yes, he doesn't fully comprehend what's going on. He's just like, stop selling federal gold. I'm not sure I understand, but if you say so, friends. He's particularly sold on the idea because Fisk and Gould roped his brother in law into the plot.
So with family involved, it seemed all the more innocuous. Now, Grant eventually realizes his mistake, but by that time, it's too late. The damage is done. Fisk and Gould's manipulation crashes the economy. On September 24th, 1869, the market plummets. The day becomes known as Black Friday, and it puts a bad taste in America's mouth. You see, the U.S. economy was already in dire straits. The civil war left behind a hefty tax bill for most Americans while lining the pockets of a few select titans of industry after Black Friday.
The economy is on life support, but the public backlash is actually minimal, innocent until proven guilty, as the saying goes, and an investigation finds no one responsible. Yeah, with their recent profits, Fisk and Gould, through hush money at people like it was going out of style. They hire some fancy lawyers and walk away scot free. After all of that, Grant learns nothing, he's maybe the only war vet in the world who thinks nobody's out to get them and everybody means well as his time in office drags on, he walks a thin line between ethically questionable and entirely illegal.
He accepts extravagant gifts without a second thought. He's like, oh, it's so nice how so many people are expressing their appreciation with absolutely no strings attached whatsoever. Now, this would be more of a morally gray area if we were talking about someone buying grant a beer or say, handing him a greeting card. But we're not. We're talking about Grant stepping into a no money down, fully furnished home purchased by Wall Street execs while his aides skim cash off the top of his mortgage.
Now, you'd think Americans are worried that their president is a corrupt megalomaniac at this point. I mean, he's at the helm of the most corrupt administration the country has ever seen, and I'm sure some do. But to the majority of Americans, he can't really do wrong. Everyone still viscerally remembers the killing that happened in their backyards just four years ago and grants the guy who put an end to it. He still has enough goodwill from his White House days to get reelected easily to a second term in 1872.
The Republican president hasn't run out of free passes, and this trend continues into his second term. In 1873, Grant secretly passes a law that doubles his salary, and the net gain would shake out to be about a half a million U.S. dollars today. Now, the timing works out for Grant because Wall Street soon collapses with the panic of 1873. For everyone who didn't just get a six figure raise, it's a disaster. It's the second financial dive bomb in four years.
And the economy hadn't recovered from the first six decades before the Great Depression. People call it the Great Depression. It's even bad enough to put a blemish on Grant's Teflon reputation and starts a waterfall effect by the end of his presidency. Grants covered in mud from getting dragged so often in 1870 for Grant's second term kicks off with an extortion scandal that's quickly followed by another revelation. Grant's attorney general apparently accepted bribes to not prosecute a private corporation. And while officials are investigating this crime, they also learned that the attorney general had been using taxpayers dollars to fund personal expenses.
And just when you think things could not get any worse in 1875, something known as the whiskey ring scandal comes to light. It's a level of slimy, unlike anything the White House has seen before. As the name suggests, it involves the liquor industry and it had been happening for years, whiskey, distillers, IRS members and politicians colluded to funnel a massive amount of tax money from liquor sales into political campaigns and personal bank accounts. As one political correspondent put it, it became a purely criminal enterprise, defrauding the federal treasury of an estimated million and a half dollars a year.
Today, that would be around thirty five million dollars a year, paid for by Americans who are in the midst of a Great Depression, going toward the personal benefit of about three hundred men.
And Grant definitely benefited, too. Now, you might be thinking he couldn't possibly have been naively unaware of all of this. Nobody is that aloof. And you're not alone. Get this. When an investigation starts grants like I want all the guilty men brought to justice. But he changes his tune when he starts being implicated. Once that happens, he fires the special prosecutor in charge of the trial and replaces him with a new one. Then, against the advice of his administration, Grant testifies on the stand as a defense witness.
He's trying to get his personal secretary off the hook for his role in the scandal. On the stand, Grant pretty much plays dumb, vaguely answers questions and pivots so he can talk about how highly he thinks of his secretary's moral integrity. This puts the jury in an awkward position because nobody wants to disagree with America's favorite war hero and president. So the guy gets off. Now, many historians would say that Grant knew much more than he let on when he was on the stand.
He likely lied under oath to protect his own and to protect himself. So, yeah, Grant might have been a little less blissfully ignorant than he let on, more than just allowing the abuses of the system. He might have been the system. Coming up, Grand dabbles in morphine and cocaine while slipping into poverty. And now back to the story. Grant's presidency was a train wreck dropped in the dumpster, but it wasn't all bad. He made Yellowstone National Park.
He advocated for black men to have the right to vote. He squashed the Ku Klux Klan and lobbied for legislation to protect the rights of Native Americans. After his two terms and Ulysses S. Grant addressed Congress for the last time as president in 1876. In an admirable display of vulnerability, he revealed he's actually quite self-aware about his shortcomings.
Old Grant puts on his best somber face and appeals to America with a heart wide open. He says that his errors were failures of judgment, not intent. He either feels really bad about the whole thing or he's a really good actor. Either way, he stops shy of an apology but makes it clear that he has regrets. Almost immediately after leaving the White House, Grant goes on this massive diplomacy tour all around the world. He travels to Europe, Africa, China, India, Japan, Jerusalem, the whole thing last two and a half years.
But the question is why? On the one hand, the answer is simple. It's a bit of political theater that manages to introduce America as a so-called player on the world stage.
But if that were the only reason, Grant wouldn't have been liquidating his personal assets to fund the extravagant excursion. More likely, the tour is something of a Hail Mary pass for grand, a global PR blitz, if you will. He wants to glue the shattered fragments of his public image back together. It's this massive financial gamble that he hopes pays off in the not so distant future. The year eighteen eighty. To be specific, that's the year he decides to run for a third term.
Yet he did the whole song and dance for his one shot at redemption. And the gamble needs to pay off.
I mean, he's got a lot on the line after his flashy world tour, his savings are running dry and he could really use his old inflated salary right about now. But when Grant bucks George Washington's two term tradition and tosses his name in the hat for the Republican nomination, it goes the way of most of Grant's ventures.
It doesn't work out. Even with the recent press, Republicans aren't willing to touch his stained reputation with a 10 foot pole. Plus, they're headed in a new direction away from Grant and his old guard. No matter how badly Grant wants it, he's never getting back into politics again. Afterward, he tries to go into business but ends up filing bankruptcy again. He then borrows a substantial sum of money from a friend, but loses everything in bad investments.
Now, grants seen poverty before, but as you can imagine, it looks a little different after the high life of being commander in chief. So after his stumble into power and his enormous fall from grace, Grant's depressive tendencies take a toll on his physical and emotional health. And that's before he gets diagnosed with throat cancer after smoking 20 cigars a day for almost his entire life. The diagnosis isn't shocking, but it's still devastating and incredibly painful.
The searing pain is so bad that he starts taking medicinal cocktails, tonic, wines on his doctor's orders, their less peer reviewed medicine and more Friday night on the Jersey Shore.
And the directions are simple. Dump a bunch of cocaine in a glass of wine and drink it. It works well enough for a while.
But to really take the sting out of his debilitating cancer, Grant starts taking morphine.
Come February 18, eighty five grand's undoubtedly high as a kite and in crippling pain. When he makes one of the biggest decisions of his life. Following the advice of Mark Twain, he decides to write a memoir. And it turns out Mr. Inarticulate becomes a wordsmith when you put a pen in his hand. His writing is shockingly poignant, touching even as far as presidential memoirs go.
Critics still say it's the best of a genre. On July 20 3rd, 1885, Grant succumbs to his failing health shortly after penning the final words. I have the honor to be very respectfully your obedient servant. You grant at the end of the book makes a staggering amount of money, the modern equivalent of more than 10 million dollars in royalties. It's enough to take care of his wife and kids for nearly the rest of their lives.
After so many years of struggle and failure, he leaves behind this incredible gift a true success. It offers snapshots of his life, even his correspondence with Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederacy, the enemy he single handedly saved from the gallows after the war. The letters are surprisingly cordial from both sides. See, Grant didn't believe in vengeance. He wanted nothing more than to live to see the country he loved become unified. But he never got the chance.
Today, even with the hundreds of pages of maps, pictures and stories he left behind, Grant's true character is still something of a paradox to historians on the battlefield. He proved that he was willing to die for a more equitable America. But in the White House, he allowed corruption in his administration to run rampant. And allowing bad behavior is bad behavior. All we can say with confidence is that he approached his life the same way he approached his military campaigns.
You don't have to be the best or even good. You only have to survive long enough for something good to happen.
Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free on Spotify.
Very presidential was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers in his Apakan Studios original, starring Ashley Flowers. It's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Conor Samson with Writing Assistants by Kate Gallagher. To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio Chuck Originals.
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