The Last High White House Official Indicted While in Office: U.S. Grant's Orville Babcock

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at any Cost (HarperCollins), from which the following article is drawn.

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Orville Babcock, a West Point graduate, had been in the army with Grant, serving with him in the difficult days of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania campaigns, among others. Grant subsequently had hired him in the White House to serve as his chief of staff (though the position formally was known as secretary to the president). Babcock was a very energetic, very well-organized assistant and Grant liked him immensely. Grant probably spent more time with Babcock than with any other member of his administration, putting him at a desk located just outside the president’s office door. Babcock loved Grant, loved working with him in the White House, but Babcock, a newlywed, had a great love of money, too. And in 1869, just a year into the administration, he found a way to make lots more money than was due him as Grant’s assistant. It was through his friendship with John MacDonald, the supervisor of the Internal Revenue Service at St. Louis.

John MacDonald was a snake of a man, very conniving. Babcock, however, liked him and agreed to join MacDonald in a plot with mid-western liquor distillers to evade the government’s steep taxes on whiskey. MacDonald promised that with Babcock’s help the scheme could net millions in kickbacks from the distillers. Cheating on the whiskey tax had been widespread in the Middle West since the Lincoln administration, which had dramatically jacked up the tax to help pay for the war. But MacDonald’s nefarious plan was fantastic, an utterly brazen swindle, and would, over time, come to involve literally hundreds of people. But for five years the conspirators managed to keep a lid on their activities and to keep raking in the boodle. Eventually, of course, the authorities caught on to the loss in revenues and began an investigation. It was very preliminary, however, and when they reported to Grant they did not yet know of Babcock’s involvement. Grant, unafraid at this point that the scandal could hurt him or his assistant, publicly announced that he wanted the officials to get to the bottom of the mess. “ Let no guilty man escape,” he said. The Whiskey Ring (as it came to be called) must be crushed!

Then he found out about Babcock.

Grant himself was very honest and his honesty was not in question. But he found it hard to let the investigation go forward. He trusted Babcock, had stood side by side with him in battle, had given him high positions in both the army and the White House. To let the government go after Babcock would seem disloyal. Worse, perhaps, a government probe would undoubtedly reflect badly on the administration, might sink it in public contempt, might sink Grant himself; already there were charges that some of the profits from the scam had gone into his re-election campaign. So Grant decided to do what no president before him ever had (but which several presidents afterward would). He tried to derail the investigation. He could not put a stop to it altogether. Things had gone too far for that. His own secretary of the treasury, Benjamin Bristow, was pressing hard for a thorough search for the truth. But Grant could sabotage the probe and that is precisely what he now proceeded to do by depriving the attorney general of the chief means of obtaining evidence against Babcock. He simply told the attorney general that in this case, unlike in other federal investigations, no witness was to be given immunity in exchange for their testimony.*

Babcock, as expected, was indicted anyway, in December 1875.

The trial began in February in the federal courthouse in St. Louis and things immediately went badly for Babcock. Prosecutors, hobbled but not entirely crippled by Grant’s order, presented so much hard evidence against the president’s chief of staff that his attorneys decided not to dispute it. Instead, like all good defense lawyers with a weak case, they argued that it shouldn’t be admitted. Babcock worried that he might be convicted, but acted confidently. He had some of the best attorneys money could buy. The Republican press was for him, daily running touching stories about the ordeal the government was putting his pregnant wife and children through. Even the judge was for him, repeatedly ruling in favor of his lawyers’ motions. (The judge apparently hoped to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and thought Grant just might do so if he helped cover up the administration’s fraud.)

But the question hanging over the trial from its inception was whether Grant would testify for Babcock and to that question there was for some time no answer. Babcock’s attorneys repeatedly wired requests to the president to testify and repeatedly he put them off. Finally, when it appeared that Babcock, despite all of the favorable press he was receiving, despite the friendly rulings of the judge, despite the handcuffs the president had put on the prosecutors, might actually be convicted, finally then Grant decided he would testify. At an emergency meeting of the cabinet in Washington he told his astonished listeners that he planned to take the very next train to St. Louis to appear as a personal witness on Babcock’s behalf. The cabinet, however, objected strenuously, arguing so vigorously against his appearance that even the stubborn Grant backed down. But the president insisted anyway on giving a deposition for the defense and he did so shortly afterwards from the White House itself, sitting through more than five hours of questions.

Grant’s deposition marked a turning point. The trial that had been going badly for Babcock suddenly went well for him. Grant hadn’t just testified in his deposition that Babcock was a fine fellow. He had gone further. He’d said that he was so close to Babcock that he, Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States of America, would have had to know about the fraud. And he did not.

As expected, given what the president had said—given that the conviction of Babcock would be tantamount to the conviction of the president himself—the jury acquitted Babcock on all counts. That night he was given a hero’s welcome by a crowd of four hundred, who stood in the cold Missouri winter to hear him give a celebratory speech lasting more than half an hour.

Babcock had won his freedom. Now he wanted his old job back. And three days after the trial he was back at it, sitting right outside the president’s door just as he had the previous six years. Grant had said at the outset of the scandal that he wanted it investigated thoroughly. But he had done everything in his power to save his guilty aide—obviously guilty to everybody but Grant—and now he had even let him return to the White House.

Babcock had to go, of course. Even Grant finally saw that. The country didn’t believe in Babcock’s innocence. Too many other people implicated in the scandal had also been indicted for prosecutors to have made a mistake about his involvement. (Two hundred and thirty people would eventually be indicted; one hundred and ten would be convicted, including four government officials.) But the president insisted on letting Babcock keep a second position he held as the superintendent of public buildings and grounds, a job he had held simultaneously with his White House post. The very next month, April, Babcock was back in the news. He’d been indicted again. This time it was in connection with a burglary at the attorney general’s office. Two years earlier key evidence had been stolen from the office implicating Babcock in swindles committed in connection with his job as public buildings superintendent. Prosecutors alleged that Babcock had planted the evidence on a critic of the administration, a well-known reformer, to implicate him in the burglary and the swindles. Once again Babcock was tried. Once again, he was acquitted. Afterwards the authorities alleged the jury had been tampered with.

Grant, however, remained faithful to his friend to the end. He kept him on as superintendent and then gave him yet an additional post, as an inspector of lighthouses. At the end of his term Grant praised Babcock “for faithful and efficient service.” “He has my acknowledgments and thanks,” wrote Grant, “and the assurance of my confidence in his integrity.” (After Grant left office Babcock continued on as an inspector of lighthouses. A few years later, while on an inspection, Babcock drowned when his boat capsized in a storm.)

*Geoffrey Perret maintains that Grant disallowed grants of immunity because he saw no reason why the “small fry” should be allowed to go free. I believe this is a naive view. See Perret’s Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President (1997), chapter 30. For a more realistic view of Grant’s role in the investigation see William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (1981), chapter 24. McFeely does not say what he believes Grant’s motive was in withdrawing grants of immunity, but is convinced that in the affair Grant acted to protect Babcock.

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HNN - 11/4/2005

Donovan--secretary of labor in the Reagan administration--doesn't count. He was a cabinet member not a White House official. Start including cabinet members and there's Albert Fall, Attorney General Mitchell, Attorney General Kleindeist, etc.

Michael Beatty - 11/2/2005

No. An indictment is a charge brought by a grand jury alleging commission of an act defined by statute as a felony, as required by the Constitution. Impeachment is an allegation by the House of Representatives, on its own initiative, taken by majority vote, that an "officer of the United States" has committed treason, or any other of an unspecified list of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

I don't believe a grand jury ever indicted either Nixon or Clinton. Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate coverup.

What ever happened to Ray Donovan, Interior (Housing?) Secretary under Reagan? Was he actually indicted, and if so, was he still in office at the time of the indictment? For that matter, was Bert Lance, who was Jimmy Carter's infelicitous choice for OMB Director, still in office when he was indicted?

Ricardo Luis Rodriguez - 11/2/2005