HIST 444 Paper #2
“I always knew when I was in trouble that Grant was thinking about me and would get me out. And he did,” General William Tecumseh Sherman proudly boasted. General Greenville Dodge meanwhile once described Ulysses S. Grant’s devotion and loyalty to the United States as being bound by “hooks of steel.” It was that loyalty and sense of devotion that pulled Grant, much like Washington before him, reluctantly into war and finally, into the Oval Office. “I have been forced into it in spite of myself,” he bemoaned to Sherman, and yet his immortal position as Savior pushed him onward in hopes of defeating the “mere trading politicians” that threatened to lose the peace. Unfortunately, the undying loyalty that led Grant into joining the Union Army in 1861, preserving the union, and meanwhile earning the praise of his fellow generals ultimately tainted his presidency with numerous scandals.
On the morning of Saturday, February 12, 1876 President Grant found himself in a most precarious position: standing in the Executive Mansion with a hand on the Bible, promising to tell the truth to Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite. On that day the President became the only sitting commander-in-chief to voluntarily testify for the defense in a criminal trial as he authored and signed a disposition in defense of his private secretary and fellow commander at Vicksburg and Appomattox, Orville E. Babcock. Charged with “conspiracy to defraud the Treasury of the United States,” the story of Babcock’s compliance in the Whiskey Ring and Grant’s ignorance of it continue to plague the legacy of the Hero of Appomattox.
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In the decade following the end of the Civil War, federal excise taxes on liquor were increased dramatically in an attempt to pay off the debt garnered during the war. In an attempt to avoid these new expenses, many of the nation’s whiskey distillers bribed agents at the Treasury Department and received tax stamps at little or no cost. By 1873 the rings had become a major criminal network, defrauding the U.S. Treasury of an estimated $1,500,000 per year. And yet the massive enterprise may have continued to prosper if it wasn’t for Grant’s appointment of “an aspiring reformer with an eye on the White House himself,” Benjamin H. Bristow.
For Bristow, the public ousting and outright destruction of the whiskey rings became a crusade but early attempts were futile. His frustration was evident:
Although I did receive further evidences of the existence of combination and conspiracies to defraud
the Government, in which there was reason to believe that certain officers of the Government were
participants, I still was unable through the medium of the Internal Revenue office to get hold of a
thread by which we could be enabled to follow it to the end.
With permission from Grant – consent the President would later regret and attempt to halt – Bristow ordered the transfer of Internal Revenue officers in an attempt to catch crooked officers. The Secretary then followed a tip from St. Louis Democrat owner George W. Fishback who had written to Bristow offering his aid in the matter, “There has been much talk of late of the fraudulent whisky traffic in the west. If the Secretary wants to break up the powerful ring which exists here, I can give him the name of a man who…will undertake to do it, and I will guarantee success.”
The man in question was the Democrat’s own commercial editor, Myron Colony. Well known in business circles throughout the Gateway City, and thereby an inconspicuous presence in the whiskey distilleries he investigated, Colony and his team of spies began work for Secretary Bristow in March of 1875. Aware that a favorite tactic of the distiller/Treasury collusion was to underreport the amount of liquor produced – and therefore taxed – Colony and his men meticulously recorded the supply of grain entering each distillery, inventory of the whiskey as it arrived at the rectifiers, as well as illegal distilling done at night. They then compared their statistics to the “official” records of the distillers, rectifiers, and tax collectors. Within a mere four weeks, the discrepancy was blatantly obvious and by May of 1875 Bristow was ready to make his move.
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On May 10, with the aid of local lawmen, U.S. Marshals seized distilleries, rectifiers, and more than three hundred members of the ring. Among them were political allies of the President such as Supervisor of Internal Revenue Gen. John McDonald, Collector Constantine Maguire, and Revenue Agent John A. Joyce along with George Fishback’s biggest competitor, St. Louis Globe chief William McKee. But with the sudden fall of the St. Louis Whiskey Ring came a somber realization: the intricacies of the ring required universal collusion from a wide range of private and federal forces. Someone must have known; someone with power.
“Bristow tells me that Babcock is as deep as any in the Whiskey Ring; that he has most positive evidence, he will not say of actual fraud, but of intimate relations and confidential correspondence with the worst of them,” reads the diary of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish for May 10, 1875. By the summer of 1875 U.S. attorneys had uncovered scores of veiled telegrams traced to Babcock which showcased his role in thwarting investigations into the ring. “I succeeded. They will not go,” read one. Bristow had found the federal link to the St. Louis Whiskey Ring and it led directly to the President’s office.
After originally supporting the work of the grand jury which sought to indict Orville E. Babcock – “Let no guilty man escape if it can be avoided,” he ordered – Grant’s approval turned to unspoken disapproval as the charges against his private secretary and friend escalated. The President’s uncompromising loyalty paired with Bristow’s overt political ambitions led Grant to believe that Babcock was innocent and quickly becoming a political target. The unanimous convictions of every man charged in the scandal prior to Babcock’s trial on February 7, 1876 only reinforced this belief.
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Following a relatively short but politically controversial trial, a jury of supposedly loyal Republicans found Babcock to be the only major defendant in the St. Louis Whiskey Ring innocent of all charges. Historians, always reluctant to come to a consensus, almost unanimously agree that Grant shifted the trial and saved his old friend.
Despite the initial success of the Babcock trial, the slew of scandals that followed the Grant administration ruined his career in politics after he left office in 1876 and continue to plague his legacy to this day. Meanwhile, Benjamin Bristow’s political hopes fizzled after the Babcock trial. He left the administration in June of 1876 and was unsuccessful in an attempt to secure the Republican nomination later that year. The former Treasury Secretary later claimed that he received a request from Grant as the old Hero lied dying in bed. When Bristow arrived Grant took his hand and said, “General Bristow, I have done you a great wrong and I cannot afford to die without acknowledging it to your face. In the prosecution at St. Louis you were right and I was wrong.”
Dyer, David P. Autobiography and Reminiscences. Dyer Press, 2008
McDonald, John. Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring; and Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary. W.S. Bryan, 1880
McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1936.
Pious, Richard M., The Paradox of Clinton Winning and the Presidency Losing. Political Science Quarterly 114 (Winter 1999/2000).
Rives, Timothy. Prologue: Selected Articles. National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/fall/whiskey-ring-1.html (accessed April 3, 2010).
Scaturro, Frank J., President Grant Reconsidered. New York: Madison Books, 1999.
American President: Ulysses S. Grant: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center of Public Affairs. http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/grant/essays/biography/4 (accessed April 3, 2010).
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Grant Administration Scandals. United States History. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h234.html (accessed April 3, 2010).
Whisky Frauds, 44th Congress, 1st session, 1876, H. Misc. Doc. 186, serial 1706.
 Rives, p. 1
 Scaturro, p. 58
 Rives, p. 7
 Pious, p. 577
 Rives, p. 1
 U-SHistory.com, p. 1-2
 Ibid, 2
 Rives, p. 3
 Whisky Frauds, p. 322
 Rives, p. 3
 Nevins, p. 794
 McDonald, p. 113-119
 McFeely, p. 410
 Rives, p. 4
 Ibid, 9
 Dyer, p. 170