Pressured in 1875 to declare himself for or against a third term as president, Ulysses S. Grant found it equally difficult to decide what he wanted and to explain himself to the nation. In May, he pronounced the idea of a third term both constitutional and potentially expedient, and defended the right of the people to choose their own leaders. Grant disavowed any desire to continue as president but expressed gratitude at being chosen twice already. His conclusion left room for doubt. “I would not accept a nomination if it were tendered unless it should come under such circumstances as to make it an imperative duty, circumstances not likely to arise.”
As he pondered a third term, Grant’s second term came under increased scrutiny. The first signs of the Whiskey Ring scandal emerged early in 1875. Investigations uncovered several well-established “rings” of distillers and officials conspiring to skim tax revenues. Indictments were handed down in May, notably in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. Those indicted in St. Louis included some of Grant’s own friends. Evidence soon connected the scandal to the capital, and ultimately to Grant’s longtime aide and secretary, Orville E. Babcock. Warned in July, Grant brusquely ordered prosecutors to “Let no guilty man escape,” even those “who insinuate that they have high influence to protect, or to protect them.” But in December, when Babcock made a questionable demand for a military court of inquiry to clear his name, Grant backed him up. The idea soon fizzled, and by year’s end Babcock faced trial in St. Louis.
Grant faced further tribulation in the south. In Louisiana, supporters of rival legislatures clashed on the streets of New Orleans. Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, accused of interfering on behalf of the Republican legislature, described armed Democrats as “banditti,” a remark that became a rallying cry for southerners and those northerners opposed to federal intervention. Grant did recognize the limits of northern patience. In September, after violence flared again in Mississippi, he hesitated to intervene, noting that “the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the government.”
Rumors of gold in the Black Hills signaled a new threat to Grant’s Indian policy. Prospectors flocked to Dakota Territory, and many slipped through military patrols ordered to stop them. Grant sent an emissary to the Sioux with a proposal to buy the Black Hills. Red Cloud responded: “Look at me! I am no Dog. I am a man. This is my ground, and I am sitting on it.” In May, Sioux leaders traveled to the capital, where Grant renewed efforts to persuade them to relocate to Indian Territory, “south of where you now live, where the climate is very much better, and the grass is very much better, and the game is much more abundant.” The Sioux refused, returned home, and rebuffed a commission sent out to resume negotiations. In November, Grant tacitly dropped the military patrols.
Grant left in September for an extensive western trip. In St. Louis, he arranged to sell assets at his farm, which he had resolved to lease after persistent losses. At a veterans’ reunion in Des Moines, Grant spoke against the use of public funds for parochial education. “The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation.” Traveling as far west as Salt Lake City, where he met Mormon leader Brigham Young, Grant could not have relished the prospect of returning to Washington, D.C. The Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives prepared to challenge his administration at every turn.