When Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868, he resolved to change the way the United States dealt with Native Americans. It was obvious that previous approaches to the “Indian problem” had failed miserably, and it was Grant’s hope that the reforms he sought would usher in a new era of enlightened United States-Indian relations. Central to this new approach was the reformation of the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs, which Grant endeavored to clean up by replacing administrators and agents with persons of upright and honorable character. These positions had been viewed previously as patronage appointments, and had been filled by awardees of the spoils system. Grant and his supporters recognized the graft and corruption inherent in such an approach, but many members of Congress reacted strongly to any attempts to change the way in which appointments to the Bureau of Indian Affairs were made.
Much has been written about the Peace Policy, and historians are divided on whether or not it succeeded, though most, such as Robert Keller, Jr. and Robert Utley, conclude that it did not. Some, however, such as Francis Paul Prucha, have focused more on the spirit of the policy, and have noted that Grant’s attempts at reform utterly changed the way the United States dealt with Native Americans through the end of the nineteenth century and long after the Peace Policy itself had been formally rejected. In that context, according to Prucha, the Peace Policy was a success.
British historian David Sim, in his article “The Peace Policy of Ulysses S. Grant,” surveys the historiographical record of Grant’s Peace Policy, and concludes that historians have missed the point in their discussions of whether the Peace Policy succeeded or failed. Much more interesting and salient to Sim is the notion that the Peace Policy was characterized by inconsistency and political considerations throughout its development and execution. He focuses on three specific events in the formulation of the policy, which he rightly reads as having been interdependent: the failure, in January 1870, of the transference of oversight of Indian affairs from the Interior Department to the War Department; the increasing dependence upon religious denominations and their members to fill the ranks of the Indian bureau, which began in July 1870; and the end of the treaty system in 1871. In each of these areas, Sim explores how contingencies and circumstances forced the Grant administration into reactionary roles, and how, taken as a whole, the Peace Policy developed incoherently and by happenstance.
In discussing the failure of the transfer of Indian affairs to the War Department, Sim explores the attitudes of soldiers and ex-soldiers, many of whom had extensive and first-hand experience in dealing with Native Americans. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer are noted as having been in favor of transfer, due in large part to their more realistic understanding of Indians and their cultures in contrast to the idealized conceptions of Eastern humanitarians. Unfortunately, as Sim points out, a series of questionable actions on the part of the Army provided ammunition to humanitarian reformers in their attempts to keep the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior. Although, interestingly, Sim does not discuss Sand Creek, he does point out the role that Pawnee Fork and the Battle of the Washita played in galvanizing opposition to the question of transfer, and he notes that the Piegan massacre took place at the height of the debate, in January 1870. This final incident sounded the death knell for any opportunity for military control of Indian affairs.
Regarding religious appointments to fill vacancies in the Indian bureau, Sims posits that this had not been Grant’s original intention, and that Grant was not in fact a particularly religious man. He only hit upon this idea after his other attempts to end the patronage system had failed, and, despite his noted opposition to mingling church and state affairs, Grant was forced by contingency to explore this alternative. Sim discusses Grant’s irritation at Congress’s success in blocking the appointment of Army officers to civilian Indian posts, and quotes Sherman’s version of a meeting between Grant and Congressional leaders. In it, Grant acknowledges his defeat, but vows to the Congressmen that he will ultimately prevail, because he plans on “divid[ing] these appointments up among the religious churches, with which you dare not contend.”
Finally, Sim points out that the Indian treaty system had for decades endured significant and reasonable criticism. He goes on to discuss the ways in which resentment about the system came to a head in the House of Representatives during Grant’s first term. The House had long taken issue with the fact that treaties were proposed and ratified entirely outside their purview, and began flexing its legislative muscle by blocking appropriations for annuities to tribes, funds promised to those tribes by the President and ratified by the Senate. Grant realized that such a situation was untenable, and that Native Americans, already suspicious of the United States government, would only become increasingly so and that hostilities would surely be initiated. Once again, Sim concludes, Grant was forced by circumstances beyond his control to alter his vision of how the United States should treat with the Native Americans.
Sim gives a good overview of the historiographical treatment of Grant’s Peace Policy, and discusses the views of the most prominent historians in the field. He proposes an intriguing thesis in that the Peace Policy was formed and implemented in incoherence and contingency, and he provides plenty of primary evidence to support his thesis, from both sides of the debates. Sim also does a reasonably good job of untangling the jumbled issues of the policy, and he points the way to other avenues of research, such as the role executive-legislative skirmishes may have played in the failures of other Indian policies. Ultimately, though, and despite the fact that this was not his point, I want to know: does David Sim believe the Peace Policy failed or not?