THE PRESIDENCY OF ULYSSES S. GRANT
In 1868 (before the end of Reconstruction), former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ran for president as a Republican under the slogan "Vote as you shot" and was elected by a grateful nation and an army of Union veterans. Although Grant had most of the electoral votes, his popular-vote majority came from former slaves. The Republicans, on only their second elected president, realized that they would have to play politics carefully to stay in office. Unfortunately, politics (then as now) meant hanging around with rich people who were out for their own good.
Grant proved to be better at fighting battles than watching over money. He had been in office for only a few months when speculators tried to corner the gold market on Black Friday (1869), causing a business panic. Other problems followed Grant through his presidency:
- The Crédit Mobilier scandal (1872), which involved Union Pacific railroad payoffs to politicians.
- The Whiskey Ring scandal (1875), in which politicians robbed the U.S. Treasury of excise taxes on alcohol.
- The forced resignation of Grant's secretary of war William Belknap in 1876 after he was caught pocketing bribes from suppliers to American Indian reservations.
Although Grant himself was not personally dishonest, he did enjoy drinking Old Crow whiskey and had complete trust in his relatives and friends. The crooks who always hang around politics took advantage of Grant's easygoing character. After Boss Tweed (1872), leader of the Tammany Hall ring in New York City, was finally sent to prison, one of his cronies explained how it worked: "I seen my opportunities, and I took 'em."
LIFE IN THE GILDED AGE
Author Mark Twain (see "Increasing literacy" later in this chapter) called the period of the 1800s after the Civil War the Gilded Age (1875), for all the gold-painted furniture and fancy living. The country was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats; although the Republicans won most of the presidential races, control of Congress changed hands in more than half of the elections.
Most people voted, and the issues, though deeply felt at the time, seem pretty small in retrospect. Republican voters tended to be rural Protestants, believers in personal morality, and veterans of the Civil War. Democrats tended to be more easygoing in their judgments, to live in big cities and in the South, and to be recent immigrants.
The self-betterment dreams of early modern Americans were modest; people didn't dream of a mansion, just a home. Even so, the country grew and changed in ways that many people found surprising.