General Grant was the most famous person in the country after the Civil War.
All the rich and powerful and famous were anxious to court his favor, and the General usually obliged.
A Tale of Gifts and Laws
Simply put, there were always laws on the books against gifts of out and out bribery. But it would not be until well into the twentieth century that saw laws covering “soft” gifts, such as dinners, trips and transportation.
When James Buchanan was in the White House (1857-61), he specifically instructed his niece Harriet Lane, who served as his official hostess, not to accept any gifts, other than the traditional flowers or candy or a book. He believed it would reflect poorly on him.
When Abraham Lincoln was in the White House a few years later, “gifts” of more consequence than flowers became customary. All the railroad companies issued railroad passes to legislators, local, state and federal – and their family members. When Mrs. Lincoln made trips to New York or Philadelphia, her hotel bills were usually gratis. Baskets of “spirits” arrived at the White House regularly, courtesy of any number of people. Most were dispatched to the army hospitals for medicinal purposes. Lincoln received dozens of walking sticks (custom made to accommodate his height), gold watches, and other tokens of appreciation. To refuse was considered insulting.
Gifting the Grants
General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) presented a different situation. As the victorious General, he was a private citizen, despite being “employed” by the Army. There are no laws against a private citizen accepting a gift (unless so prohibited by one’s employer – or conscience).
Early in the Civil War, after Grant’s first victories at Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson, a newspaper photograph appeared of him smoking a cigar. “Grateful citizens” began sending him boxes of cigars, considered a nominal gift. Grant was grateful as well, and developed a habit of smoking perhaps twenty or thirty a day. He wound up paying for them thirty years later when he died of throat cancer. Nevertheless…
As Grant’s victories increased in substance, “grateful citizens” were more than generous in rewarding the Hero of Vicksburg and Appomattox. Mrs. Julia Grant would be presented with huge bouquets, the children with huge boxes of candies. Even before the end of the War, special meats and jams and delicacies poured in for the General’s personal use. He was gracious, but ate sparingly and plainly.
After the War, and particularly during the turbulent administration of Andrew Johnson, General Grant was not only the most famous person in the country, he was arguably the most influential, and a shoo-in for the Presidency in 1868. People with names like Vanderbilt and Whitney, Livingston, Gould and Carnegie insisting on having the Grants as their guests of honor at sumptuous dinners. Senators and Congressmen regularly hosted him. Veterans’ Associations clamored to have their great General as their guest of honor. He was happy to attend everything.
Silver and gold platters, urns and trays and watches, copiously inscribed as presentation pieces, were offered to the General who saved the Union. Then there were inscribed swords and pistols. And carriages and teams of thoroughbred horses (Grant was an excellent appreciator of horses). And houses in Galena, Illinois, Philadelphia and Washington. Grant was gracious and accepted the largesse, since it would be ungenerous to decline.
The Long Branch Cottage
Then there were invitations to visit. The Grants were genial people and easy-to-please guests. They were invited everywhere. And they went.
Mr. George W. Childs, a wealthy Philadelphia newspaper publisher, invited them to his Long Branch, New Jersey cottage in 1868, not long after Grant had become the Republican nominee for President. The Grants accepted the invitation, had a wonderful time at the seashore, and said so.
Mr. Childs then suggested that perhaps the General might wish to purchase a cottage of his own in Long Branch, then one of the posh playgrounds of the rich. Grant admitted that he would love nothing more, but that even a “suitably modest” cottage would cost far more than he could afford. Childs offered to purchase it for him – as a gift. Grant, in a rare moment of “decline” said no, it was too much and would not look right.
Childs did not press, but after the General was elected President, he and a few of his wealthy Long Branch neighbors decided it would be good for property values to have the President-General as a town resident. Five of them pitched in $8000 apiece, and purchased a “suitably modest” cottage. They knew the President would likely decline again, but these wealthy captains of industry were not men to be deterred. They presented the cottage as a gift to MRS. Grant. She had no problem saying yes, thank you.
So beginning in 1869, and lasting until shortly before the General’s death in 1885 (with a couple of years off for round-the-world traveling, the Grants became part-time residents of Long Branch. They loved it. Long Branch loved them. Everybody knew him, of course, and he got to know most of the residents, at least to nod-to and tip his hat. They even built Monmouth Racetrack nearby for the General’s amusement. He loved that too.
The “suitably modest” cottage was torn down some time after World War II. But Monmouth racetrack is still around!
Entertaining A Nation: The Career of Long Branch, NJ – Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration of the State of New Jersey, 1940
McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – American Political Biography Press, 1997