← Back to October 2015

From the Man of Action to the Veto President

links image

Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Hiram Ulysses Grant was erroneously listed as Ulysses Simpson Grant when recommended for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. This son of a leather tanner was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822. Following graduation from West Point in 1843, he started his military career and fought in the Mexican War then resigned in 1854. He later accepted command of a company of Illinois volunteers in 1861 just after the outset of the Civil War. Within a year, he rose to brigadier general and achieved national fame for his efforts at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee. He was nicknamed "Unconditional Surrender" which matched his "U.S." initials because he refused any terms other than "unconditional and immediate surrender" from Confederate forces. Although Grant suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, he became a national hero for his bravery in key victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi in July 1863 and at the Battle of Chattanooga, Tennessee in November 1863. Following which Grant was appointed General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. On April 9, 1865, he accepted the Confederate surrender by General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia thus ending the Civil War and earning him the nickname, "Hero of Appomattox." Because of personal popularity, he easily won the election of 1868 and became the 18th President. This Great War hero proved to be a poor chief executive primarily by putting friends in high positions. He was scrupulously honest and popular, but his administration was marred by the dishonesty of those he trusted.

Grant was never able to end the corruption that undermined his presidency. By the end of eight years, every single one of his executive offices had come under congressional investigation. He stated, "I never wanted to get out of a place as much as I did to get out of the presidency." But after he left office, his bad luck continued. He continued to trust others more than he should and he became the victim of an incredible Wall Street fraud that left him bankrupt. Desperate to provide for his wife and children, Grant took advice from his friend, Mark Twain, and began writing his memoirs as a source of income. He had barely begun work when a final crisis threatened during the summer of 1884. He was eating a piece of fruit, grabbed his throat and exclaimed, "I think something has stung me from that peach!" Grant's cigar habits had caught up with him, he had developed throat cancer. By the following summer, working hard to complete his memoirs at a cottage in the Adirondacks, Grant knew his end was near. "There cannot be a hope of going far beyond this time," he confessed, "it is nearly impossible for me to swallow. It pains me even to talk." Writing in extreme pain, he produced a brilliant autobiography of lasting literary value and he forced himself to stay alive until he completed it. Perhaps not surprisingly, Grant chose to write almost nothing at all about the loneliness and misery of his early life and he commented only briefly on events of his presidency. Instead, he wrote about the only time in his life he had truly succeeded, in war. He died of throat cancer on July 23, 1885 in Mount McGregor, New York emaciated down to 100 pounds. He left us with these words, "Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace." The major events of his presidency included: the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the establishment of Yellowstone, the first national park, and the invention of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone.

A graduate of Harvard Law School in 1845, Rutherford Birchard Hayes of Delaware, Ohio was born on October 4, 1922. At the start of the Civil War, he became a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and rose to the rank of brevet major general. He was wounded during the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland in 1862 and took part in the second Battle of Winchester and the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in 1864. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives but did not take this position until after the Union victory in April 1865. He was a popular figure and a war hero in Ohio where he served three terms as Governor. He became the 19th President of the United States in one of the most contentious elections in history. Samuel J Tilden of New York won the 1876 popular vote, but neither candidate won enough Electoral College votes, Tilden, 184 and Hayes, 165. Twenty Electoral votes were disputed from South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. The electoral commission awarded Hayes all 20 and because of the political division surrounding the election, he secretly took the oath of office in the White House two days before his inauguration on March 5, 1877. Hayes was not a familiar leader outside the state of Ohio, for this he was nicknamed, "The Great Unknown." He did bring in badly needed integrity, skill and a measure of stability into a war-torn nation. President Hayes revolutionized the system of government appointments based on merit and not by political or personal ties (the spoils system). He fought for the rights of minorities and the poor, especially in the South and ended Reconstruction by withdrawing Federal troops from the south and appointing former Confederates to government positions. His economic policies engendered confidence among business leaders. Among the technological advancements during his time were Thomas Edison's phonograph and incandescent lamp along with the installation of the first telephone in the White House by Alexander Graham Bell. He refused to seek a second term as promised and turned over a prosperous and peaceful nation to his successor. His memorable quote, "he serves his party best who serves his country best." He retired and died in Fremont, Ohio on January 17, 1893 of a heart attack "neuralgia of the heart."

James Abram Garfield, the last of a series of "Log Cabin" Presidents from poverty, was born on November 19, 1831 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Raised by his widowed mother from the age of 2, he worked on odd jobs and canal boats to put himself through Williams College in Massachusetts. He graduated in 1856 and became a classics professor and college president at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College in 1857). He won a seat in the Ohio Senate and became a member of the new Republican Party with his fierce and vociferous opposition to slavery. He joined the Ohio Volunteer Infantry after the start of the Civil War. He commanded a brigade at the battle of Shiloh in 1862 and participated in the battle of Chickamauga in 1863. He was a major general when he reluctantly resigned from the army as persuaded by President Abraham Lincoln to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in late 1863. Lincoln found Garfield more valuable as a loyal Republican in Congress than on the battlefield. He was re-elected to the house for eight consecutive terms and became the only sitting member in the House to be elected President. As the 20th President, he was renowned scholar and professor, we was known as the "Teacher President." His stance against political corruption cost him his life. He was shot on July 2, 1881 in Washington, DC by a disgruntled office seeker, Attorney Charles Julius Guiteau. Mortally wounded, he was bedridden and essentially incapacitated until his death some 79 days later when he died on the New Jersey shore at Elberon on September 19, 1881 from an infection caused by the bullet wound. He was the second President killed by an assassin's bullet (Lincoln, the first) and his 199 days in office was the second-shortest after Wiliam H. Harrison's 32 days. Other than the founding of the American Red Cross, there were no meaningful decisions or legislation during his brief Presidency. We are graced by these words he left us, "Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained."

"Elegant Arthur," was born in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829. He was a teacher, studied law, admitted to the bar and practice law in New York City. Although he saw no military action, he achieved rank of brigadier general for providing supplies to the troops. He was against slavery, supported Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant. President Grant appointed Chester Alan Arthur as collector of the Port of New York out of loyalty. This position at the nation's busiest port was lucrative, powerful and responsible for operating the customs house and hiring thousands. Before his presidency, Arthur was a benefactor and promoter of the spoils system within government service as such one was hired and promoted based on political allegiance and not necessarily on competence. In 1878 Hayes removed Arthur from his position as part of his reform of the Port of New York and crusade to end the spoils system. As the 21st President many worried about his close association with supporters of the spoils system. However, President Arthur confounded his critics by passage of the Pendleton Government Jobs Act which reformed civil service, accomplished Hayes' crusade and eliminated the spoils system. In 1881, he was the third President to hold office within a year which has only occurred once in US history. Hayes' term ended March 4, Garfield was assassinated and Vice President Arthur became President on September 20, 1881. Arthur was renowned for his stylish appearance. Tall and distinguished, many believed he looked like a President. His most visible public appearance occurred on February 21, 1885 during the dedication of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC. He contracted Bright's Disease or chronic glomerulonephritis soon after taking office, suffered in secrecy during his Presidency and died of cerebral hemorrhage on November 18, 1886 in New York City. His memorable quote was "Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken."

Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey on March 18, 1837. Unable to afford college, he studied law on his own in Buffalo. He was admitted to the New York bar and became renowned for his honesty and intelligence. Cleveland was elected sheriff in Erie County where he carried out executions by personally hanging convicted criminals. He was elected mayor of Buffalo and developed a reputation as a law-abiding reformer who was trustworthy and fought corruption. Within a year, he was elected Governor of New York. Within two years, he was elected the 22nd President of the United States and the first Democrat to be elected President after the Civil War. His most distinctive physical features were his drooping moustache and bow tie. Cleveland was a bachelor when inaugurated in 1885 and was the only President married in the White House to 21-year-old Frances Folsom at a White House ceremony on June 2, 1886. She remains the youngest First Lady in history. During his presidency, he fought corruption with a policy to appoint people to government based on merit and not on political cronyism. He vetoed many bills most of which were fraudulent Civil War pensions. He coerced the railroad system to return millions of acres of western lands provided by the government that were not used for its intended purposes. Because of the number of bills he vetoed he was nicknamed "Veto President." His most famous appearance occurred at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. He will later be elected the 24th President, but for this presidency we are left with this memorable quote, "A truly American sentiment recognizes the dignity of labor and that fact that honor lies in honest toil." Two final points, his biographer, Allan Nevins attests, "It is as a ... man of character that Cleveland will live in history." Also, when the Clevelands left the White House after his first term in 1889, the First Lady told the servants, "I want to find everything just as it is when we come back again..." She was right, they moved in again in 1893. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant
  2. William S McFeelyy, Grant: A Biography
  3. Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B Hayes: Warrior & President
  4. Allan Peskin, Garfield: A Biography
  5. George Frederick Howe, Chester A Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics
  6. Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. Volumes I and II

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image