Friends & Fellow Citizens

#125: Dismantling the Whisky Ring - How Benjamin Bristow Fought for Government Reform

July 10, 2023 Sherman Tylawsky
Friends & Fellow Citizens
#125: Dismantling the Whisky Ring - How Benjamin Bristow Fought for Government Reform
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Discover the intriguing life and impactful legacy of Benjamin Bristow as this episode journeys through his career as a Union Army officer and major Republican Party reformer. Hear how his dedication to government reform and civil rights advocacy as a Kentucky state senator, US district attorney, first Solicitor General of the U.S., and Secretary of the Treasury.

We also dive into the Whisky Ring scandal of 1874 that shook the Republican Party and how this massive scheme involved briberies from distilleries to IRS agents and millions stolen from the American people. Learn how Bristow took down this illegal operation and how the involvement of President Grant's personal secretary complicated the relationship between the Treasury Secretary and the 18th President. Finally, hear how Bristow may have helped Grant secure a more positive legacy despite the administration's numerous scandals.

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NOTE: All views expressed by the host are presented in his personal capacity and do not officially represent the views of any affiliated organizations. All views by guests are solely those of the interviewees and may or may not reflect the views of the host or Friends & Fellow Citizens.

Speaker 1:

patriotism, faith, national unity, education, fiscal responsibility, civility the values that define America. Fascinating stories and talks from America-loving patriots dedicate to preserving freedom, opportunity and justice. Welcome to the Friends and Fellows Citizens Podcast. Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 125 of Friends and Fellows Citizens. I'm your host, sherman Tyleoski. Thank you all so much for joining me for this solo episode. Just a couple quick announcements. First of all, as always, a big shout out and thank you to our Patreon supporters. They really keep this show going and without them none of this would be possible. So, once again, a very, very big thank you to those who contribute to our Patreon memberships. And also, if you haven't already checked out the last few episodes, we do have a promo code if you wish to attend Freedom Fest 2023. We did an episode last month with Valerie Durham and she was kind enough to give us a special code for our show. You can get $50 off with the code down in the show notes below. So if you are planning to be in the Memphis area or you know anyone who wants to be in the Memphis area and participate in Freedom Fest, there is a code down in the show notes below. Check that out, as always. If you haven't already. make sure to subscribe also to Friends and Fellows. Citizens. This is your first time. Welcome, this is not your first time. Welcome back again to our program.

Speaker 1:

Today we'll be discussing another individual who I think had a profound impact, probably a bigger impact than a lot of people like to admit. I thought of this man because, after doing some research, i realized that a lot of people really wanted to learn more about what it means to reform government. You hear this term a lot in the midst of scandals and corruption that we see, depending on what part of the country you're in. Obviously, the federal government certainly has its own issues there. But what does it mean to reform government? Is it really just a conservative term or is there something larger? Is there really a desire for government reform? I think the answer is yes, but what tends to happen a lot in current politics and this is certainly more on the political leadership is that there really isn't as much of a reflection on the people who actually did those reforms. What does it mean to actually do reform, especially at a very tough time? Well, there's one gentleman I wanted focus on today, and his name is Benjamin Bristow.

Speaker 1:

Benjamin Bristow was born on June 20th 1832 and he was a military officer for the Union Army and was a major Republican Party reformer and also really did a lot of work to essentially clean up government, not only to reform but to really clean up the existing mess already. You know, it's kind of like cleaning up the mess after a child. After a child throws a tantrum, you got to clean up the mess and you got to figure out ways to prevent that child from throwing a tantrum and making a mess again. Bristow was a lawyer for much of his life. He was served in the Union Army course during the Civil War and he was actually very seriously wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, which I did not know. I did not know the extent really of how these cabinet members of later presidents after the Lincoln presidency and how they served in government and compared to how much they served in the Union Army. But undoubtedly a lot of Union officers entered politics, some for good reasons and others for really bad reasons, and we'll see a little bit later on what I mean by that.

Speaker 1:

Bristow was someone I think was very much admired. His personality was is not considered the best in terms of the most joyous person out there. He had a lot of different histories of having feuds with other cabinet secretaries in the Ulysses Grant administration which he served under, but none of that says you'll hear with the story You can see that if you had just like a really joyous kind of quirky sort of smile around him, i don't think you'd be very fitting for the kinds of work that he did. He is rigid, from Kentucky so already you know as someone who supported the Union, supported the Republican cause, you know that this is gonna be a very, very tough environment and it certainly was when it kind of came to civil rights. But Bristow was very much in favor of civil rights advocacy and he did a lot of work to lay the foundation for future reform and not just reform in government but the advocacy of civil rights. You know, just last month was Juneteenth and I don't think that there is enough recognition of what the Union arm and what future, what later politicians did during reconstruction, after reconstruction, to set up for what a lot of people know about in terms of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Speaker 1:

Let's go back to really the beginning of the grant administration. So Bristow had served previously as a Kentucky state senator from 1863 to 1865. Once again, he was a very, very big supporter of Lincoln and various big support of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. He later became a US district attorney from 1866 to 1870 and I read that he actually worked with the future Supreme Court Justice, john Harlan. Justice Harlan was very much also in favor of civil rights and of advocating for freedom for those who did not have that same freedom as everybody else, and Harlan obviously would be one of the dissenting votes in the Plessy B Ferguson case.

Speaker 1:

Much later in the 1890s, bristow was chosen as the first US solicitor general in 1870. He served for two years. A solicitor general basically is the main individual in charge of representing the executive branch in front of the Supreme Court. So when it comes to Supreme Court cases, the solicitor general is the main person in charge within the Department of Justice. Now remember that Department Justice actually created in the late 1860s. So Bristow was not only the first US solicitor general, i would argue he was one of the first pioneers of what we know as the US Department of Justice. And during that time this was a very rough period. After the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, ulysses Grant becomes president and things are just not doing so well and a lot of it is not because of Grant, in my opinion, and really just based on what had happened around that era.

Speaker 1:

Bristow was in the front lines of dealing with the Ku Klux Klan. Ku Klux Klan really started coming out in droves in terms of groups being formed in the Confederacy. There's obviously this huge movement to bring about white supremacy again, even after the end of the Civil War, and this was obviously during the era of Reconstruction, and during Reconstruction it was very, very hard to implement a lot of these policies because of just really how difficult it was. The environment, as a historian once put, it was that the Union I'm paraphrasing here but that the United States was complete again, but it wasn't united, meaning that the southern states were forced back into the Union, but the unity element as America still needed a lot of work.

Speaker 1:

Bristow had that huge challenge of dealing with the KKK and one of his biggest priorities, and one that I truly admire, was how aggressive he was at prosecuting the KKK. He worked very closely with the Attorney General Amos Ackerman, and I don't know how someone can do this, especially given how difficult the environment was. This was a huge mandate. He obviously personally believed in this idea of persecuting and clamping down on any unrest in the South, especially during Reconstruction. But imagine how much work it took, without the technology that we have nowadays, for him and Ackerman to prosecute thousands of these clansmen. He indicted a number of them and literally a lot of hundreds not thousands of these clansmen were actually found guilty. His courage and he really marks not only the foundation for Reconstruction I would also argue that this was really beginning of him also making General Grant and now President Grant a key leader during this very difficult time.

Speaker 1:

A lot of times we discussed presidents and their accomplishments, and that's certainly valid. However, there's so many more people who are involved in these administrations and for Grant to pick Bristow admits a lot of crazy things going on during that time is, i think, an achievement itself. I think without Bristow and his prosecution of the Cougarous Clan, as the Solicitor General and really as a US Attorney, grant would not have the kind of reputation that he had among many Republicans. Now, obviously, a number of them were skeptical of the Grand Administration and critique the administration for a lot of scandals. I actually spoke about one of them called Crédit Mobilier, which is a major scandal involving the railroads. Again, a lot of these really, really hurt the administration.

Speaker 1:

But I want to backtrack a little bit because, as we discuss the presidency and past presidencies, while there is a lot of bad stuff for lack of better term on the corruption and elements of the Grand Administration as well as other administrations, however I don't I think we really need to look at the big picture and understand that These scandals cannot cloud certain accomplishments. We need to go out, obviously I am. What I'm saying is we need to obviously go after and condemn obviously the people who are doing them, the bad actions. But to portray the entire administration as corrupt, i think is too much of a stretch. I think Bristow's actions can clearly show that there was a clear schism. In my view, of Grant administration officials again, number of them coming from the Union army, probably would expect oh you know, i'm gonna have all this, this great political power and all that. And, as you imagine, while the Union obviously was a great cause and everything, there are just clearly a lot of opportunities and I my guess is that grant really And not necessarily his personal fault, maybe it could be just of his visors, but there's definitely numbered them who were not vetted very well.

Speaker 1:

And I want to move on to this next part here about Bristow's career. Bristow was pointed on June 3rd 1874 as Secretary of the Treasury, which is a little surprising given that he's an attorney and it really doesn't have a whole lot of experience with economic affairs. One has to know that this is probably a good timing element because around this time was something called the panic of 1873, which is a massive economic crisis. People lost so many jobs around this time and I remember, think Bristow having built a really great reputation and a trust from from President Grant, he got rewarded this job And I'm sure there's some people maybe some some people in the Senate back in those times probably gets a little skeptical of Bristow's potential to do well in this job. And while he wasn't able to really too much to turn the economy around, he did make a lot of reforms. Once again in government he not only served to make sure that The corruption was cleared out, but he fired a lot of people who did not support these reforms that he was calling for. Notably, he was concerned that a lot of people were taking advantage of the Treasury Department and he just again probably with that, with that stern personality that a lot of people probably didn't like about him. But he came in and he, like battering around, just went in and fired all these people, which is Probably something that we don't hear much about people getting fired in the federal government for not doing well enough But that was one of that was his characteristic, that was something he personally embodied in his career, and I don't think that there would have been a better, better man for that position than Bristow.

Speaker 1:

One major element that characterized his term as Secretary of the Treasury was this handling of a major scandal. But it wasn't a scandal within the administration, wasn't like. It wasn't one like credit and creating mobilié. This was not only a scant, a major scandal where people profited from Unfairly, from the tax system and from the American taxpayers. It was also a scandal within his own party, the Republican Party. Bristow started to look at something called the whiskey ring And to give you some background on what the whiskey ring was, whiskey ring was essentially a major scandal where whiskey distillers formed relationships with people in the IRS.

Speaker 1:

Now if you dislike the IRS already, you're going to dislike the IRS even more. I tell you what is happening here. The distillers were such close allies with certain revenue agents that revenue agents essentially helped the distilleries pay fewer taxes, even though there was a tax on your per barrel of whiskey. But IRS agents would basically give. Some of them would give these distilleries like a discount Essentially not even just a discount. A discount sounds to be positive. It was really stealing money from the taxpayer. It was not only breaking the law, it cost the Treasury millions of dollars. They reused revenue stamps. When IRS agents look and other agents look at products, they have to label these products. A barrel of whiskey, you put whiskey on it, but what they did was that they actually labeled whiskey as vinegar, which has fewer taxes.

Speaker 1:

By literally cheating and lying, irs agents and distilleries started this whole scheme of bribery and essentially tax avoidance, not to mention tax evasion, as well as just pure corruption. That was happening in the internal revenue service And Bristow had heard of these claims of fraud and he received some money from Congress in 1874 and he decided to send his own people to check out and see what is happening, using ciphers and messages and, i think, really just amazing little tactics that the Secretary of the Treasury can use. They found that the center of these operations was in St Louis, missouri, and he was able to secretly collect evidence and found that this was not only a scheme within his party. That involved a man named John McDonald. John McDonald was a former general in the Union Army and he was the St Louis collector of internal revenue. Mcdonald was not only an appointee of President Grant, he was also a close friend. Bristow, i think, felt he had a big choice He could either not say much about this investigation or anything at all to try and please his boss, or he could tell the truth and report his findings to the President. Well, i'm really happy to tell you that he told Grant about what he found and he told the President something along the lines of Mr President, we need to act quickly, we need to go after these bad guys. And Grant was very pleased to hear that his Secretary of the Treasury was doing his job and he told him to prosecute anyone who has been breaking the law and encourage Bristow to be forceful, ensure that people are obeying the law.

Speaker 1:

I want to read a quote that I saw from a video about the Grant administration. This is a quote from that grant say quote let no guilty man escape. If it can be avoided, be specially vigilant or instruct those engaged in the prosecution of fraud, to be against all who insinuate that they have high influence to protect or to protect them. No personal consideration should stand in the way of performing a public duty. Now I'm going to stop here because there is someone else who is also involved in this scheme and he was very involved in making sure that this whiskey ring was kept a secret. His name was Orville Babcock, and Babcock was the personal Secretary to General and President Grant. Unfortunately, bristow found that Babcock was very much involved in this and Grant continues this quote. He said quote if Babcock is guilty, there is no man who wants him so proving guilty, as I do, for it is the greatest piece of traitorism to me that a man could possibly practice. Quote. Now it seems like everything is going right. You've caught these people and it does seem to be a great story for President Grant.

Speaker 1:

Bristow moved forward with the help of other sub cabinet secretaries and other agencies and they started rating these offices of the whiskey ring. They arrested people, they found documents, they found messages, they found objects that can help them prove their case, to convict these people and certainly, at least very minimum, charge these people with these crimes. He was able to force essentially force McDonald to acknowledge that he was involved in this and he, along with the St Louis deputy collector, john Joyce, were indicted and convicted. But what about Babcock? Bafcock, unfortunately, was acquitted because Grant faced a very, very difficult situation. I don't know the details of how General or President Grant got to this point, but you would think that after that quote that he would move forward. However, bafcock was perhaps too influential. Perhaps there was some other backdoor deal, perhaps there was some other reason that historians and people including myself are not aware of, but unfortunately, grant tried to, in a way, defend Bafcock. Now Bafcock was eventually resigned, but this was a very, very different tone that Grant had told the Bristow. I always wonder why this is the case. Obviously, when you have someone like the personal secretary involved in this major scheme of literally stealing millions of dollars from the taxpayers, from voters, i think this is very tough And I wish that Grant had moved forward with what he had told his secretary of the treasury.

Speaker 1:

Relations between Grant and Bristow unfortunately did not improve afterwards And while Bafcock did have that trial in St Louis, however, i wonder if Bristow not had the maybe intentions to run for president, which he eventually did in 1876. I wonder how that would have changed, because Grant certainly was thinking about running a third term. He eventually did not And for the election of 1876, the Republican Party chose rather for his as like the compromise candidate, especially with all the different candidates who were reformers and radical Republicans. And so you go in for someone who could maybe bridge the gap between different factions of the Republican Party. That certainly is understood, but I wonder if the election of 1876 or the campaign had anything to do with the relationship between Grant and Bristow.

Speaker 1:

After the prosecutions, which I'm very successful, a lot of media attention, the upcoming election came about and obviously Bristow was not working very well with Grant, even though Bristow had a lot of amazing accomplishments, having recovered $3.2 million as of 1870, $40 US dollars, which I looked up was $84 million in 2022, which I mean think about it as a lot of people for one person to be able to save, especially when times were tough with the economic crisis going on. I think this is a major accomplishment by Benjamin Bristow. With the risky whiskey ring, he had about 100 convictions. Despite all that, he decided to leave as Secretary of the Treasury in June of 1876. He eventually ran for president. He actually did pretty well. He was basically around third place for almost virtually all the rounds of voting. Obviously he was not even selected to be the running mate for Rutherford Hayes. He was disappointed and I'm sure a lot of his allies were disappointed as well. Remember, he was part of that reformer wing of the Republican party. So you bet that a lot of people, a lot of influential Republicans, were disappointed that someone like Bristow was not chosen as the nominee. He eventually went back to practicing law and he continued to be very much involved in reforming the civil service and reforming government. In 1896, he suffered from something called appendicitis and he passed away at his New York City home on June 22, two days before his 64th birthday.

Speaker 1:

I point out Benjamin Bristow here because he was a man who didn't have the best personality but his forcefulness to go after people, even people within his boss's circle. That, i think, is a testament to the kind of the politician and public servant he was. I mentioned earlier that it's important to also not only recognize the Presidents but also the people who work for the President, who help determine the fate and really the success of the presidency. I found a quote from Frederick Douglass and this was about President Grant in 1872. He wrote, quote I see him in him the vigilant, firm, impartial and wise protector of my race from all the malign, reactionary social and political elements that would well them in destruction. They soon giving praise to what Grant had done. While obviously Douglass, i think rightfully had the intentions, the right intentions, to praise Grant for his work, i would argue that it was so many more people like Bristow, who are forgotten history, who helped make the Grant administration successful in certain areas. Obviously, the Grant administration face a lot of scandals and, as any normal American would say, that is not acceptable. And certainly there were a lot of areas that President Grant could have done and proved on to prevent his administration from being tarnished the way it was. However, after some reading and I look forward to reading even more about President Grant now now because of people like Bristow and of others in his cabinet You know President Grant really laid out the foundation with reconstruction and while reconstruction did not last, it certainly not last beyond the Commerize of 1877.

Speaker 1:

However, i think without reconstruction, without the efforts that the Grand Administration made, a Lot of what we know now of civil rights advocacy would not even be possible. So I'd like to leave just just with a few takeaways here. The first is really on the, the president's reputation That is heavily built on the work of the cabinet. You know the cabinet, it goes out and they advise the president on certain matters. The wave the president Hires or points people and fires cabinet members is certainly not only one that the media is interested in. I also think historians and local scientists and really the general public can get a lot from The presidency. By the way the president deals with the cabinet, bristow and his work, his diligence, really cemented a lot of what reconstruction meant and And Imagine how tough the political climate was. I'm sure he got a lot, had a lot of political capital, especially as the Republicans were obviously on the offense here, having won the essentially these, the Civil War and Eventually I was getting gaining a lot of those offices and across the United States and Literally with because reconstruction policies, being able to have a presence in the South. I Think the, the people who do this work, i think should could be, should be commended and it should be part of the record for presidential administrations.

Speaker 1:

The second is that government form is possible but it takes a lot of courage, leadership and hard work, knowing that it's so hard to nowadays to hear of Incompetent people in government being fired. I wonder if people nowadays can maybe get some inspiration from Benjamin Bristow. People maybe can see that you know it is possible to reform in government. And, yes, a lot of times it takes one individual and you kind of have to be lucky. It's almost like winning a lottery here. But we need to Focus on efforts to try and recruit people to enter politics, to have this Mindset and have these qualities, to reform government.

Speaker 1:

Reform government is good, regardless of your political affiliation. It makes a government more efficient. Government already is quite inefficient in so many ways, and it's not to say that the grand administration was efficient on every single matter. Obviously, though, this whiskey ring going on in the 1870s, with the political machine that was operating, it certainly is very, very difficult to Maintain some level of efficiency there, but to make it more efficient than what it was before, that is a victory for the American people. And lastly, we need more political courage in today's politics, one of the defining factors, and I don't care if Benjamin Bristow was a Democrat, republican, i think he would have done the same thing if he was a Democrat.

Speaker 1:

It's important for the vitality of both parties and really of the entire nation, when people can stand up against Bad behavior. We're just not seeing that as much. In my opinion, it seems like a lot of times we just let members of our parties Say and do crazy things and then we just say, oh well, you know, that's what it is. Is it? is it just what it is? Is that? is that the only response that we have towards bad behavior? Well, it's just what it is. That numbness of bad behavior, i think, is very detrimental and People can have a right to express to the penis. There's no, there's no question about that. But when people start breaking norms and when people start acting disrespectively, that's when people have to draw a line and say You know, they say having a different opinion does not mean being disrespectful. You need to be able to be respectful and have your own opinion.

Speaker 1:

Seeing this kind of courage, especially how influential the party was, i Hope that we have more of Benjamin Bristow's out there who know what they're doing, who are focused on the tasks that they're given and They know that it is within the is for the public interest to be able to recover. You know, 84 million dollars, which was rightfully For the taxpayers. Probably millions more could have been recovered, but for the efforts that he took. This, i think, is important and We need the political courage, we need people to be able to stand up against The naysayers, against people who say, well, change is not possible, change is possible. It's not easy and I don't think if you, if you were to go to Bristow and say, wow, boy, you may look easy, i don't think you would agree, because there were a lot of political forces in in play and he had a deal with. And While no person is perfect, and Bristow included, however, he, i think, can serve as an example of What it means to have courage to reform government and to go after bad behavior. We need to have more people nowadays to go after bad behavior, condemn it and find ways to mitigate that and With that, thank you all so much for listening to episode of 125 about Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow.

Speaker 1:

I hope you enjoyed this talk and please make sure to subscribe to friends of fellow citizens. You have read already as a reclined reminder. Have a great rest of your week and remember a day in America is always better When we are with our friends and fellow citizens. You, you.

Benjamin Bristow and Government Reform
Whiskey Scandal Investigation
Encouragement to Subscribe and Connect