Grant, Babcock, and the Whiskey Ring by Timothy Rives
This is an article from Prologue (the journal of the National Archives). This is a nice discussion of the Babcock case and Grant’s role in the trial as well as a look into the mind of Ulysses Grant, who was faithful to the last for anyone he considered a friend. Rives himself describes the article as:
This is the story of how far Grant went— and how much further he almost went— to defend his good friend Babcock against criminal charges. It is drawn from long-overlooked records in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration in Kansas City, the accounts of contemporary trial observers, and the work of other historians of the Grant administration.
President Grant chose to testify for the defense of General Orville Babcock, who was his private secretary and a close personal friend, in the Whiskey Ring scandal trial. Grant did not actually testify in person (which he wanted to do originally), but gave a disposition at the White House for inclusion in the defense. President Grant was (and still is) the only sitting President to every voluntarily testify at a defense trial.
Rives writes of Grant’s disposition:
Grant's legendary photographic memory consistently failed him throughout most of the deposition, but it did not fail him when it came to Babcock. The President had no trouble remembering his aide's fidelity and efficiency nor in testifying to his universally good reputation among men of affairs.
Grant’s testimony effectively ended the prosecution’s case. Unlike later US cases, the President was to be trusted and not to be questioned. Rivers reports this on the presiding judge’s remarks to the jurors:
Judge Dillon instructed the jury that "evidence of persons of good character has more scope than in cases where the proof of offense is positive and direct." Conversely, "the testimony of conspirators is always to be received with extreme caution and weighed and scrutinized with great care by the jury, who should not rely upon it unsupported unless it produced in their minds, the fullest and most positive conviction of its truth." (53) Circumstantial evidence made up the case against Babcock. The message to the jury was clear: Believe Grant.
Babcock was found not guilty by the court. Rives goes on to ask if this was a fair trial:
Secretary of State Fish raised the question of propriety when Grant announced his plan to testify. Did Grant "faithfully execute the laws"? Did he comport himself as the nation's "prosecutor in chief" should? Grant did nothing illegal by testifying for Babcock. Grant the fighter and loyal friend could do no less. Fair or unfair, historians agree: Grant saved Babcock. Of all the major St. Louis Whiskey Ring defendants, Babcock alone received acquittal.
What happened to Babcock? He was indicted yet again, acquitted again and appointed by Grant as Chief Inspector of Lighthouses (see the tenacity of Grant's friendship?). Babcock drowned in the line of duty in 1884.
Rives ends with this thought:
Although Grant's place in history as a Civil War general remains prominent and favorable— the hero of Appomattox who humbled Lee— his presidency is remembered most for the scandals created by the friends to whom he was so faithful and loyal.