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Bret Baier: What would Ulysses S. Grant do? The first 'executive order' president on consequences of overreach

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14.09.2021

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If President Ulysses S. Grant were to step into office today, he would find a familiar scene: A divided nation scarred by violence, a recalcitrant Congress, a hostile media, and a sense that the very fundamentals of the Republic were on shaky ground. And perhaps he would be tempted to grab the presidential quill and achieve by executive order what he could not secure from Congress.

After all, in his day Grant had been the master of executive orders, issuing 217—a record. Early presidents made scant use of them—Jefferson, Madison and Monroe issued one each—and even Lincoln only reached 48. Yet in many ways Lincoln was Grant’s model for executive overreach.

Lincoln notoriously suspended the writ of habeas corpus, declared martial law, seized private property and set himself up with special war powers that were expressly forbidden by the Constitution. He justified this extra authority by the emergency of war and the singular objective of preserving the Union.

When Grant stepped into the presidency in 1869, he believed Lincoln’s justification still held weight. The nation was out of the war but not quite into the peace.

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The South, though defeated, was unprepared for the new reality. The heartbroken citizenry, their homes and communities torn apart by war, their families destroyed, and their economy shattered, faced an uncertain future.

It was a dangerous transition, as Grant acknowledged in his inaugural address: "The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained."

Those words dispersed into the wind to little effect. In reality, the South was growing so inhospitable to Blacks that Grant embarked on an ill-fated plan to annex the Caribbean nation of Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) to make an alternative home for them. Congress doomed that plan as the situation in some parts of the South grew more dire. During Grant’s first years in office, the Ku Klux Klan, an organization composed of the most embittered remnants of the Confederacy was emboldened in its terror campaign against Blacks, burning their schools and........

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