Hiram Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822-1885) may not have been the worst president in U.S. history, but both his administrations set a standard of corruption that would be hard to beat. When he was asked to run for president in 1868, he was initially very doubtful . . . and he probably should have gone with his gut reaction.
|Grant's presidency was a (whiskey) barrel-full of scandal.|
While personally honest, his tenure as president was rife with corruption. Both of his vice presidents and members of his cabinet were implicated in a variety of scandals. This gave Grant an incentive to find something to divert attention away from the problems. His scapegoat of choice was the Catholic school question.
It was during his second term, 1873 to 1876, that matters came to a head. A split in the Catholic vote had ensured Grant’s reelection in 1872. Reforming Republicans had become disappointed with his administration’s refusal to consider civil service reform, free trade, and an end to the Reconstruction that was hampering efforts to heal the country after the Civil War.
Convinced that to support Grant was to be in favor of corruption in government, reformers separated and formed a third party, the Liberal Republicans. Seeing the opportunity to topple Grant, August Belmont, Sr. (1813-1890), the Democratic Party’s National Chairman, brokered a deal with the new party. If the Liberal Republicans would nominate a “fusion candidate” acceptable to both Democrats and reformers, Belmont would endorse their slate.
|Charles Francis Adams, Sr.|
Belmont fully expected the Liberal Republicans would nominate Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (1807-1886), the highly qualified son of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), president from 1825 to 1829, and grandson of John Adams (1735-1826), president from 1797 to 1801. Instead, torn by internal dissension, the new party nominated newspaper journalist Horace Greeley, an anti-Catholic “fit neither to lead a party nor govern a nation” who had attacked the Democratic Party as a group of “slave whippers,” “traitors,” and “Copperheads,” that is, Northern sympathizers of the Confederacy.
Despite his disgust, Belmont kept his word and maneuvered the Democratic Party into endorsing Greeley and his running mate, Benjamin Gratz Brown (1826-1885). Outraged, the “Straight Democrats” repudiated their Party’s endorsement and nominated Charles O’Conor (1804-1884), the first Catholic candidate for the U.S. presidency.
Nauseated by Greeley, most Catholics either stayed home or forced themselves to vote for Grant. Evidently believing he had kept his word sufficiently by endorsing the Liberal Republican candidates, Belmont voted for O’Conor, an old friend. Grant won the presidency with the largest margin in over half a century.
A Catholic Diversion
|Grant's Wilderness Campaign was a slaughterhouse for both sides.|
Grant had been on the fringes of the Know-Nothing movement before the war. His tactic of attrition in the Wilderness Campaign had called forth harsh criticisms from the Catholic bishops, especially in light of the fact that many of the soldiers slaughtered were Catholic. Nevertheless, he had managed to avoid overt expressions of anti-Catholicism.
Now, however, he needed something to divert public attention away from his scandal-ridden administration. Even though he was fully aware of the dangers of mixing politics and religion, and it was the Catholic vote that had gotten him his second term, his chosen stalking horse was the Catholic school question.
Typical of Grant’s new focus was a speech he made in late October 1875 in Des Moines, Iowa, before a group of veterans. The audience included General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), whose Catholic sympathies were well known, especially since his mother and wife were of that faith.
|Religious freedom guaranteed to all except Mormons and Catholics.|
Grant declared that no government funds should ever be given to “sectarian schools,” and that aid to parochial schools would destroy the public school system. He capped his remarks on education by predicting a future war to abolish Catholicism as the Civil War had abolished slavery:
“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict the dividing line will not be the Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
Grant requested that the Congress adopt a Constitutional amendment that would require each state to establish a free public school system as a state monopoly. All schools would be completely secular. The law would prohibit all religious teaching in schools. No “sectarian schools” would receive financial aid in any form. He also requested legislation to remove the tax-exempt status of religious institutions.
Blaine, then a Representative from Maine, introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit aid in any form for any school or other institution under the control of a religious organization. It passed the House, but died in the Senate.