In this episode, we consider the leadership lessons from the Presidency of US Grant. While the lessons are not as dramatic as those from his generalship during the Civil War, there are several key lessons which can be drawn from this phase of his career. The over-riding tone for Grant himself was one of personal honesty and ethical behavior, even if those around him were engaging in corrupt acts. He was beyond reproach, although there was corruption reaching high up into his administration. From this perspective, an obvious lesson is that while loyalty is good and even admirable, when evidence of wrong-doing by subordinates appears, discipline must be administered. Some of the issues we highlight follow.
Reconstruction and the passage of the 15th Amendment
According to biographer, William S. McFeely, Grant and many in the north believed the American Civil War extended democracy to the African American freedmen. Grant worked to ensure ratification of the 15th Amendment which prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. On February 3, 1870, the amendment reached requisite number of state ratifications, which was then 27, and was certified as the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Grant noted the ratification as “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day”. Grant also created the modern Department of Justice, placing a reconstructed Southern as the first Attorney General.
Appointment of minorities to his cabinet and other top government positions
Grant nominated a wide variety of persons for positions of government service. He was the first President to appoint several Jewish leaders to office, including Simon Wolf recorder of deeds in Washington D.C., Edward S. Salomon Governor of the Washington Territory. He also appointed reconstructed Southerners to federal posts, in addition to the Attorney General. Finally, he appointed a Seneca Indian to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This type of diversity was more unusual in the mid-19th century and in many way Grant was a leader in appointing men into political positions who could get things done.
Indian peace policy
At the start of his administration there were 370 separate treaties with Native Americans. Grant worked to reduce this number and centralize the entire process. In his first inaugural address, he said he would work toward “the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians.” He appointed Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian, a member of his wartime staff, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to serve in this position. In April 1869, the administration established a Board of Indian Commissioners to oversee spending and reduce corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1871, he signed a bill ending the Indian treaty system and moved to treat Native Americans as wards of the federal government. It also ended the program of dealing with tribes as sovereign entities. His Peace Policy aimed to replace entrepreneurs serving as Indian agents with missionaries and aimed to protect Indians on reservations and educate them in farming. “My efforts in the future will be directed,” Grant said in his second inaugural address, “by a humane course, to bring the aborigines of the country under the benign influences of education and civilization … Wars of extermination … are demoralizing and wicked.”
We consider Grant’s leadership in the dispute with Great Britain over claims against the Confederate raider Alabama. The dispute with the United Kingdom stemmed from a complex of grievances centering on attacks on American shipping during the Civil War by the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship constructed in England. One school of thought was that the British had violated American neutrality and demanded reparations, arguing that Britain should directly pay $2 billion in gold or, alternatively, cede Canada to the United States. However, Grant believed that peaceful relations with Britain were more important than acquisition of territory, and the two nations agreed to negotiate along those parameters. A commission in Washington produced a treaty whereby an international tribunal would settle the damage amounts; the British admitted regret, but not fault. The Senate approved the Treaty of Washington, which also settled disputes over fishing rights and maritime boundaries, by a 50–12 vote in 1871.Grant’s leadership was evidence in his maneuvering the Treaty through the Senate.