Youth has always been a double-edged sword for America's presidents. It tends to inject the White House with fresh ideas and energy, but it can also lead to impetuousness and a disregard for the tried and true. To fully examine the effect of youth on the presidency, U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh takes an in-depth look at the five youngest presidents in U.S. history. An installment of this series will run every day this week.
Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822, Ulysses S. Grant graduated from West Point in 1843 and served in the Army from 1843 to 1854, rising to the rank of captain. He became a heavy drinker and felt that his military career was going nowhere, so he left the service. He tried farming in Missouri and clerking at a store in Illinois and didn't do well in either job. When the Civil War began, Grant returned to military service, and that's where he made a historic mark. He rose to command all the Northern armies and became a celebrity as the greatest Union general.
Grant, age 46 when he took office on March 4, 1869, was the youngest man to hold the office up to that time. He served two terms. "But his military background was not enough to equip him for the complexities of governing a huge and swiftly growing nation, and historians have judged him a failure as a president," historian David C. Whitney writes in The American Presidents.
Adds Stefan Lorant in The Glorious Burden: "A general commands by giving orders, the president functions by tact, diplomacy, and persuasion. Orders have to be obeyed, good soldiers can easily be spotted. But politicians cannot be ordered around, and it is not so easy to find out which one is trustworthy, which one is reliable; thus Grant had a hard time in the presidency. He had no critical judgment. He was attracted by the suave, the polished, the rich, and the well-mannered; if they were also crooks, he did not notice it. He was a naive soul."
Grant named incompetent or corrupt friends and associates to key jobs. His lax policies allowed businessmen to make millions. For example, investor Jay Gould was able to corner the gold market and amass a fortune under Grant's lax administration. Grant was unable to tame a resurgent Congress. His administration was plagued by embarrassing scandals, including allegations of bribery, fraud, and cronyism. Several cabinet members got into trouble for ineptitude or corruption, and Grant's personal assistant, Orville Babcock, was accused of being a member of the Whiskey Ring, which defrauded the government of millions of dollars in excise taxes. The economy deteriorated after a financial panic in 1873, souring much of the nation on the former hero of the Civil War.
Grant was vilified in the South, not only because he had waged total war against the Confederacy as the top Union general but because as president he tried to protect the rights of former slaves, including the right to vote. Responding to requests from various governors, he sent federal forces to support state militias in supervising elections. He took aim at the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866, when it waged a campaign of terror to suppress black votes and insure black subservience. His administration "brought the worst offenders to trial, often before all-black juries," political scientist Alvin Felzenberg writes in The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't). "In the face of often brutal intimidation of witnesses and jurors, federal officials won six hundred convictions." Adds Felzenberg: "Most accounts conclude that Grant had, through these actions, effectively broken the Klan's back," at least for the time being. This won him everlasting enmity from the conservative white leaders of the South.
Grant had a simple explanation for his problems. "It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training," he wrote apologetically in his last annual message to Congress. ". . . Under such circumstances, it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred."