Today’s selection — from American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White.
U.S. presidents did not receive pensions until well into the 20th century. Prior to that time, a president was expected to return to work to earn his living after serving. For U.S. Grant, who was never well situated financially, this was a challenge. For this reason, late in his life, he joined a small Wall Street firm that had been started by his son Buck and Buck’s friend Ferdinand Ward, who was reputed to be a financial wizard. Soon he learned to his horror that his firm was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, and he was soon destitute:
“Today, we might call [Ferdinand] Ward’s maneuvering a Ponzi scheme, made infamous by Bernie Madoff in 2008. In Grant’s day, it was called ‘rehypothecating.’ It worked like this: Ward paid abnormally high interest to his customers by pledging securities as collateral on a loan, whereas the same securities had previously been pledged for other loans. As a result, Ward was able to pay his investors their interest by siphoning off money from new investments. None of his customers knew, including the two Grants. [By late 1883, Grant] estimated his wealth at $1.5 million, mostly thanks to Ward’s investments. …
“Sometime in early 1884, Horace Porter, Grant’s former aide and now president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, felt compelled to warn the general that the profits he had heard about could not be legitimate. It just so happened that when he arrived at Grant’s house, Ward was present. And after listening to the enthusiastic Ward and watching the general’s appreciative response, he withdrew, deciding not to interfere.
“On Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1884, Ferdinand Ward rang the doorbell at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street. Ward’s visits to Grant’s home were always welcome, but usually he did not come uninvited. A maid escorted him into the parlor, where he was greeted by Grant and Buck. He told the two men the Marine Bank was in grave difficulty because the city chamberlain had decided to withdraw some of the city’s funds.
“Grant expressed surprise and asked how this matter concerned him. Ward replied that since Grant and Ward had $660,000 deposited there, this could put the firm’s financial position in jeopardy.
“Buck interjected, But isn’t the bank good for the funds?
“Certainly. Nothing to be worried about in the long term. But the firm would need money to cover the potential shortfall. Ward said he already had checks for $230,000 but wondered if the general could borrow another $150,000 that day. Ward assured Grant the money would be needed for only twenty-four hours.
“Grant agreed to try to borrow the money. With Ward and Buck in tow, he traveled in his carriage down Fifth Avenue, stopping at the turreted fifty-eight-room home of William H. Vanderbilt. Once inside, embarrassed by his unannounced call, Grant explained the reason for his visit. Vanderbilt, eldest son and heir of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, made it a habit not to make personal loans. Known to be a cantankerous man, he told Grant, ‘I care nothing about Marine Bank. To tell the truth I care very little about Grant & Ward. But to accommodate you personally I will draw my check for the amount you ask. I consider it a personal loan to you and not to any other party.’
“Grant accepted the check for $150,000.
“He rejoined the younger men in the carriage and returned to Sixty-sixth Street, where he endorsed the check and handed it to Ward. [The] young Napoleon assured the old general the whole matter would be all right.
“On Tuesday, May 6, the Marine Bank opened its doors promptly at ten A.M. The bank’s directors arrived and assembled for their weekly meeting. But … where was Ward? Someone contacted his office, but no one had seen him.
“The directors’ meeting ended at eleven A.M. A few minutes later, all doors to the bank were locked even as depositors began to congregate outside. …
“In midday, Grant arrived at his office at 2 Wall Street. Crowds milled in the street, but newspaper reporter Alexander Noyes wrote, ‘The general looked neither to right or left.’ As Noyes watched, ‘Nobody followed him, or spoke to him, but everyone in the cynical “hard-boiled” group took off his hat.’ The young reporter declared, ‘It was not so much a tribute of respect to a former Chief Magistrate as spontaneous recognition of the immense personal tragedy which was enacting before our eyes.’
“Behind closed doors, Grant asked Buck what had happened.
” ‘Grant and Ward has failed, and Ward has fled. You’d better go home, Father.’
“Not saying a word, Grant steadied himself on his crutches, which he still used five months after his [recent] fall, walked silently past the gathering crowd, and made his way home.
“Deeply humiliated, he told Julia all that had happened. Then he opened his wallet and removed its contents: $81. She had $130. All his dreams for retirement had vanished….
“Grant determined he would repay every debt, starting with what he owed William Vanderbilt. He prepared an accounting of all he owned: his farm in Missouri, homes in Galena, Philadelphia, and Washington, plus land in Chicago. He gathered his swords, campaign maps, the gold medal awarded by Congress, the pen used to write orders for the Battle of the Wilderness, and rare souvenirs acquired on his world tour. Julia contributed jewelry and vases, including her prize vase filled with gold coins given them in many countries. Grant held back nothing. In the end, he believed the total amounted to almost exactly $150,000.
“He sent everything off to Vanderbilt. Upon returning from a European vacation to find Grant’s shipment, the financial titan was perplexed. He notified Grant he would return everything. Grant would not hear of it.
“In the end, Vanderbilt accepted the repayment and wrote Julia, ‘All articles of historical value and interest shall at the General’s death, or if you desire it sooner, be presented to the government at Washington where they will remain as perpetual memorials of his fame, and of the history of his time.’ Vanderbilt acted both to preserve Grant’s pride and to preserve his story for future American generations.
“Even though Vanderbilt took title to the house at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street, he insisted Grant and Julia continue to live there.
“The public did not blame Grant. Most Americans believed him an uninformed bystander to Ward’s gigantic swindle. Known and unknown persons stepped forward to help.
“Charles Wood, who owned a brush factory in Lansingburgh, New York, wrote the general, ‘I enclose check for five hundred dollars on account my share due for services ending about April 1865.’ He did so because ‘I owe you this for Appomattox.’ Reading of ‘the Grant Failure’ in the Troy Daily Press, Wood simply wanted to help.
“Grant immediately wrote Wood to acknowledge this gift from a stranger. Within days, two more checks from Wood totaling $1,000 arrived. ‘The country will rally for you but large bodies move slowly,’ he encouraged. …
“On the afternoon of May 27, the doorbell at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street rang. Once again, Ferdinand Ward stood at the entrance. Having been arrested on May 21, and destined to spend the next eight years in jail, he was free on bail. He wished to see Grant for only a few minutes. The general sent his answer: he had no more to say.”
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