"Probe Away!"

March 18, 1876

Thomas Nast

"Probe Away!"

Alcohol; Business Scandals; Business, Liquor; Federal Government Scandals; Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Economic Policy, Taxation;

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This Harperís Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast registers the dismay that Uncle Sam feels as he probes the Whiskey Ring scandal in which Treasury Department officials and whiskey distillers defrauded the federal government of liquor-tax revenues.

In the early days of the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) a minor whiskey cabal had been broken, and after the liquor tax was lowered significantly, the distillers were less inclined to avoid it. The lucrative incentive for Treasury Department officials to commit the fraud, however, remained the same, and they began pressuring distillers to join a wider and stronger conspiracy. Some distillers participated readily in giving illegal kickbacks in lieu of the tax, while those who hesitated were charged with technical violations of the law until they agreed to cooperate.

The fraud took place in cities across the country, but was centered in St. Louis (in the cartoon, it is the first barrel led away by the police). The St. Louis ring was headed by John McDonald, the Treasury Departmentís supervisor of internal revenue for the St. Louis area and an old army buddy of President Grant. Some of the fraudulent money went into Republican campaign coffers, but most was pocketed by the ring members for personal use. In an obvious attempt to fend off administration inquiries, McDonald gave expensive gifts to Orville Babcock, Grantís personal secretary and close friend. McDonald also later testified to giving the president lavish gifts, but the claim was not proven in court.

In June 1874, President Grant appointed Benjamin H. Bristow to replace Treasury Secretary William Richardson, who had resigned under the cloud of another scandal. Bristow soon learned that a Whiskey Ring was defrauding the government out of millions of dollars in annual revenue, so he ordered an immediate and thorough investigation. (His statement to that effect appears at the top of the cartoon.) Bristow, along with Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont and Treasury solicitor Bluford Wilson, secured indictments for 238 individuals, 110 of whom were eventually convicted.

In the summer of 1875, Grant was told that Babcock might be involved in the Whiskey Ring, and the disheartened president informed Bristow to "Let no guilty man escape." Babcock, however, was able to convince the president that he was an innocent victim of Bristowís desire to gain notoriety and thereby the Republican presidential nomination. By the time a grand jury indicted Babcock for conspiracy to defraud the government on December 9, 1875, the president was hostile to the investigation. When the governmentís special counsel, former senator John B. Henderson, hinted publicly that Babcockís involvement threw suspicion on the presidentís role, Grant removed him from the case.

On February 12, 1876, the president voluntarily gave a deposition at the White House, swearing to Babcockís innocence. Later in the month, partly on the strength of the presidentís testimony, a jury found Babcock not guilty. When Babcock resumed his position as the presidentís private secretary, a shocked public outcry forced him to resign. Shortly thereafter, he was indicted on the charge of complicity in the theft of incriminating documents, but was again found not guilty. Bristow also resigned and did become a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but lost to Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Probe Away!"
May 29, 2024

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