Willoughby: A popular president worth remembering on July 4 in Aspen
Legends & Legacies
The Aspen Times reported a decline in the health of former President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885. The city had stalled, just six years after its founding. Major mines languished in a lawsuit over who owned the silver deposits. Despite those setbacks, Aspen had grown to a noticeable size with an optimistic future. Diverse businesses established a financial foundation. Daily, silver discoveries enthused the populace. And two railroads planned to service the town. Yet compared to Aspen’s ups and downs, news of Grant’s health won local hearts and headlines.
The first report, March 4, tracked Grant’s throat cancer. Between that report and Grant’s death in July, 36 front-page pieces announced his condition. On days when Grant’s health deteriorated rapidly, doctors would report every few hours. The paper printed every pronouncement.
In a roller coaster ride of news, the end of March found Grant in critical condition. In early April, his family remained at his bedside. By April 8, he had hemorrhaged blood from his throat and most thought his life had neared the end. Queen Victoria sent Grant’s wife a message of condolence. But by the end of April, Grant was recovering. He went for a ride in the park near his home in New York.
Grant had lost nearly all his money in the Panic of 1893, and felt concern about how his wife would manage financially. To ease her outlook, he had been writing his memoirs. Mark Twain came to the rescue and offered to publish the book. By May, Grant had returned to the writing project.
In June, Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his private railroad car to take Grant and his family out of the city. They traveled to Mount McGregor, where Grant would convalesce. Some thought mountain air would help him heal, others thought it would kill him. By the middle of the month, Grant’s health had improved. But by the end of the month, his health declined. That trend continued until July 23, when Grant died. His book, a best seller, secured his wife’s financial future and remains a classic of American literature.
Outside the South, Grant ranked as one of the most popular figures of his time. He easily won the presidency for each of his two terms. But newspaper writers referred to him as General Grant, rather than as former President Grant. As with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Grant’s leadership during war outshone his popularity as president.
Although corruption scandals had plagued Grant’s appointed officials during his second term, Grant wracked up some notable achievements. He supported and signed the 15th Amendment, which recognized African American men’s right to vote. Also, he initiated reforms for the civil service in the executive branch. He proposed to replace the system in which the winning party appointed public officials with a merit-based system.
Toward Grant, Aspen’s residents held an extra element of fondness: his connection to the West. After he graduated from West Point in New York, Grant served as an officer in the Mexican-American War. A few years later, he was sent to Benicia, California, and interacted with gold miners in San Francisco. Then he was sent to Columbia Barracks in the Oregon Territory. Built on first-hand experience, love and understanding of the West, the native Ohioan developed into an American expansionist.
As president, Grant oversaw what he called the Peace Policy with Native Americans. From experience, he felt these people needed protection. But white settlement of the West, pushed by the railroads and mining in Indian territory such as Aspen, superseded his intended implementation. Overzealous generals conducted genocide, and corrupt reservation agents cheated the survivors.
The Aspen Times took pride in becoming the only Colorado morning daily that reported Grant’s death on the day he died. The editor’s admiration showed in Grant’s obituary, “He has lived in a time of extraordinary activity in the development of this country, and has figured in its history more conspicuously than any other man living.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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