President Grant’s First Inaugural Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ulysses S. Grant was elected president of the United States in November 1868 and took office on March 4, 1869. In his inaugural address, he did not lay out any detailed plans for his administration, but promised to do his best in meeting the responsibilities of the office. Most of his address focused on three major problems. One was the need to pay off the enormous debt incurred by fighting the Civil War. Secondly, during the Civil War, the government had issued paper currency and suspended the practice of redeeming paper money in gold, and Grant believed the government must resume the redemption of paper money with gold coins as soon as possible. Grant expressed concern about “the original occupants of the land”–the Native Americans and promised to support policies aimed at their “civilization” and making them citizens of the United States. He also addressed the restoration of civil law in the former states of the Confederacy, including the issue of voting rights for the freed slaves.

Summary Overview

Ulysses S. Grant was elected president of the United States in November 1868 and took office on March 4, 1869. In his inaugural address, he did not lay out any detailed plans for his administration, but promised to do his best in meeting the responsibilities of the office. Most of his address focused on three major problems. One was the need to pay off the enormous debt incurred by fighting the Civil War. Secondly, during the Civil War, the government had issued paper currency and suspended the practice of redeeming paper money in gold, and Grant believed the government must resume the redemption of paper money with gold coins as soon as possible. Grant expressed concern about “the original occupants of the land”–the Native Americans and promised to support policies aimed at their “civilization” and making them citizens of the United States. He also addressed the restoration of civil law in the former states of the Confederacy, including the issue of voting rights for the freed slaves.

Defining Moment

When Ulysses Grant became president in March 1869, it was less than four years since the Civil War had ended. The impact of the war was still being felt in the struggle over race relations and the civil rights of the freed slaves in the South, and in the enormous debt the federal government had incurred to conduct the war. Additionally, while the Republican Party had controlled the White House and both houses of Congress since Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, the party was in serious disarray by 1869. When Lincoln had run for re-election in 1864, the Republicans had put Andrew Johnson, a former Democrat, on the ticket as a show of national support for the Union war effort. Johnson had been a US senator from Tennessee before the Civil War, but had opposed secession. But to the dismay of the Republican Party, when Johnson succeeded to the presidency upon Lincoln's death, he pursued a very lenient policy toward the former Confederate states and seemed determined to block any attempt to guarantee the rights of the freed slaves. An attempt to remove Johnson from office by impeachment had failed by a narrow vote, and Johnson had, in fact, tried unsuccessfully to secure the Democratic nomination for president in 1868.

Although speculation about Grant as a presidential candidate had started during the Civil War, Grant was not an automatic choice for the Republican Party in 1868. Before the Civil War, he had seemed to lean toward the Democrats in politics, and for a time, he had identified with Johnson's repudiated Reconstruction policies. His chief opponent for the Republican nomination was Salmon P. Chase, who had served as Secretary of the Treasury in Lincoln's cabinet and was the current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. But during Johnson's impeachment trial, Republicans came to believe that Chase favored acquittal of the president, and this cost him support in the 1868 convention. In a vote that followed sectional lines, except for Southern blacks voting Republican in areas where they were allowed to vote, Grant had defeated the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York. Grant won by a 400,000-vote margin in the popular vote, out of roughly 5.7 million votes cast; but in the Electoral College, his victory margin was more than 134 votes. As Grant took office, he knew two major problems facing the nation were the treatment of the freed slaves in the South–especially the right to vote for adult black males–and the tremendous federal debt caused by the Civil War. In his inaugural address, he promised to address both of these issues.

Author Biography

Ulysses S. Grant was the eighteenth president of the United States, but he had first risen to fame as the preeminent Union general in the American Civil War. He was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822. He graduated from West Point in 1843. Grant served with distinction in the US war with Mexico (1846 to 1848), but after the war, personal troubles led him to resign from the army in 1854. When the Civil War broke out, Grant became an officer in the Illinois volunteer troops. Due to his success as a commander, he rose steadily through the ranks. In the spring of 1864, Grant was promoted to the newly revived rank of lieutenant general and made the general-in-chief of the Union Army. He was elected president of the United States in November 1868, and re-elected in November 1872. Grant's presidency was marked by corruption and scandal, although it does not appear he was part of any of the scandals. After leaving the presidency, a bad business investment left Grant impoverished. He wrote his Personal Memoirs while dying of throat cancer, hoping to leave a legacy to provide financially for his family. He died at his family home near Saratoga, NY, on July 23, 1885.

Document Analysis

Grant began his inaugural address noting that, although he had not sought the presidency, he was entering the office ready to fulfill the responsibilities it entailed. He did not lay out any detailed policy objectives, but promised to express his views on issues before Congress, to urge legislation in line with his views, and to use the presidential veto over laws that he opposed.

The bulk of Grant's address deals with the need to address financial and monetary issues resulting from the Civil War. The federal government had borrowed roughly three billion dollars to finance the war effort. Also, in December 1861, the US Treasury had suspended the policy of redeeming paper currency for gold, and early the following year, began printing paper money. Grant believed that the debt had to be repaid, but did not lay out any plan for how to do this, and even said the particular method was not as important as simply the determination to do so and getting the process started. Grant also called for the resumption of “specie redemption” as soon as possible–that is, the practice of the US Treasury redeeming paper money with gold coin. Grant believed that addressing these two problems would restore both the credit-worthiness of the nation and the confidence of the business community.

Grant commented briefly on foreign affairs, promising to treat foreign nations fairly, and also to protect the rights of American citizens overseas. He warned that the United States might respond in kind if any nation failed to respect our rights.

Grant also mentioned his concern for the American Indians, who he referred to as “the original occupants of this land.” Since spending time on the West Coast in the Army, after the Mexican War, Grant had been impressed with the needs of the Indians. He favored policies that would tend to their “civilization,” meaning their assimilation into the general American culture, and he also supported extending US citizenship to the Indians.

Problems involving Reconstruction issues in the former Confederate states received little notice in this address. Grant specifically addressed “suffrage”–the right to vote. Many Southern states were trying to restrict the rights of the freed slaves to vote. Grant believed this issue must be settled quickly, and he hoped it soon would be by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade any state from using “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” as a basis for denying the right to vote.

Essential Themes

A major emphasis in Grant's inaugural address was the financial responsibility of the federal government, and related to this, the question of what kind of money the nation should use. Throughout early US history, it was generally assumed that the nation should incur debt only in emergency situations, and once the emergency was passed, the debt should be paid off as quickly as possible. Grant believed that the debt incurred fighting the Civil War must be addressed immediately. He also believed that the nation should, as soon as possible, resume the practice of redeeming paper money with gold coins–meaning that people could turn paper money in at the US Treasury and receive gold coinage in return. The government had issued the “greenbacks” during the Civil War as an emergency measure, and many who believed in a “sound money” policy would have agreed with Grant that a return to using only money made from (or clearly backed by) precious metal should be a first priority. Grant believed that the future credit-worthiness of the nation, and the confidence of the business community, required immediate steps to address the debt issue and the resumption of currency redemption. Monetary policy would be a political issue for the next thirty years, as the Greenbacker Party in the 1870s called for continued use of paper money, and the Populist Party in the 1890s demanded the coinage of silver dollars to expand the money supply.

Grant also addressed the issue of civil disorder in the former Confederate states, and the right to vote of the freed slaves. He hoped that the Fifteenth Amendment would soon be adopted. That amendment would prohibit any use of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” as grounds for denying the right to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment was passed by Congress in March 1869 and ratified in February 1870. The record of Grant's two presidential administration on Reconstruction and the civil rights of African Americans was mixed. At times, strong action was taken to protect these rights, but in general, the commitment of the Republican Party and Northern voters generally to Reconstruction issues was waning during the 1870s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Print.
  • Scaturro, Frank J. President Grant Reconsidered. Latham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Print.
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