General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was one of the nation's greatest military heroes but one of its most unsuccessful Presidents. Decisive and masterful on the battlefield, a dynamic leader and a horseman of great prowess, he proved to be ingenuous in the political arena--but being a great general and a great politician does not necessarily translate into presidential success.
Raised on a farm, he early developed a love of horses and seemed always at his best on horseback. As leader of the victorious forces of the North, Grant was considered one of the saviors of the Union—even though he was held suspect by the Abolitionists since he was a slave-holder all through the war and allowed emancipation only after he was forced to release his slaves by the passage of the sixteenth amendment in 1865. Indeed, he once asserted that "if the war had been about slavery," he "would have fought for the South." Ironically, his greatest on-the-field adversary, Robert E. Lee had stated exactly the opposite sentiment.
Nevertheless, after Andrew Johnson’s unhappy term, Republicans turned readily to Grant. He knew nothing about politics. Innocent and sincere, Grant committed errors of judgment from the beginning: he appointed two unknowns from his home town in Illinois to cabinet positions. Later he allowed himself to be entertained by two stock manipulators--Jay Gould and Jim Fisk--who tried to corner the gold market, a mistake which left him open to charges of incompetence and corruption.
As the years passed, the evidences of corruption in his administration were such that Grant lost much of the popularity that first brought him into office. However, he managed to be re-elected to another term, one tarnished by even more corruption, more scandal.
In spite of the scandals, Grant scored a few victories. Passage of the Amnesty Bill in 1872 restored civil rights to many Southerners, relieving some of the harsh conditions of Reconstruction. And, against considerable opposition, Grant took courageous steps to fight the growing threat of inflation. But the battle-torn country was still in distress; the General who had brought the great uncivil war to a successful close was not the man to bind up the nation’s wounds.
His last years were sadly encumbered with woeful money problems. From the fall of 1884 until his death on this day in 1885, he raced against terminal cancer to finish his memoirs so that his widow would not live out her days as a pauper. As he had always been able to do before, he came through just in the nick of time.