Profiles in Courage: Season 1, Episode 17

Hamilton Fish (7 Mar. 1965)

TV Episode  -   -  Biography | Drama | History
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Robert Emhardt
Frank Silvera
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7 March 1965 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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How the U.S. missed having the state of Dominican Republic!
29 October 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

A below par episode, despite it's best intentions, because (frankly) it made up most of the story to give a glowing look at the best figure of the Grant Administrations (1869 - 1877). Keep in mind this is the view of 1965 American historiography.

For many years if you looked at lists of the American Presidents (not in chronological order or alphabetical order, but in order of their success or failure as leaders) people not in the know would be surprised that sharing the bottom rung was Warren Harding (no real surprise there, although Harding's reputation is being somewhat rehabilitated these days), and General Ulysses S. Grant. How one of our greatest military leaders is considered (or was considered) one of the two worst Presidents boggles the mind. The fact is Grant never held political office before 1869, when he was elected President. He had voted only a few times (in 1856 he actually voted for Buchanan, the Democrat, over Fremont, the Republican - when pressed about this he smiled and explained he knew what an idiot Fremont was from military days together). Grant's two terms were considered examples of crony-ism and corruption rampant throughout the Federal government and the cabinet, with Grant unable to do anything, or unwilling to do anything. So he was considered a flop.

That was in 1965. Today we realize that much of the view of Grant in that year was due to relying on one of America's leading 19th Century writers and historians: Henry Adams. But Adams was a social and intellectual snob who looked down on most people. His views on Grant were very unfair. It is now obvious that Grant did his best, and in some ways was very admirable. Unlike Andy Johnson ignoring the plight of African - Americans, Grant tried to raise their economic and social conditions with the Freeman's Bureau, and other Reconstruction Policies.

He had a good Secretary of State in Hamilton Fish, and was able to get Britain to pay millions back in damages due to the British built Confederate Raiders Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah (damages determined by one of the first international arbitration). He pushed for support for a Polar Expedition under Captain Charles Hall. He also made efforts to protect the frontier and be fair to the American Indian (which turned out not to be too successful). However there was widespread corruption in his cabinet. But then, this was the age of corruption in urban governments too, such as the Tweed Ring (which was run by Democrat - controlled Tammany Hall).

Grant is slowly being raised a bit towards the lower middle as a better President than we used to think. But this episode imposes the old corrupt Grant image. That is meant to build up Secretary of State Fish as an incorruptible and good public servant.

Oddly enough Fish does not appear in PROFILES IN COURAGE. Kennedy may have thought him above average as a capable Secretary of State, but he had not made any choice of a career threatening type for principle over politics. At least none against Grant. The show decided to change that.

One of the less well thought out ideas Grant had was to purchase the portion of the island of Hispaniola that was the Republic of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). The offer was made by the then dictator of the country, General Baez, and Grant thought it a good idea, actually thinking (he eventually stopped thinking this) that African-Americans would decide to emigrate there. Fish thought it a screwy idea at best (there was no massive desire to migrate to the island). Moreover there were questions of legality: Baez seemed to be treating the country as though he owned it and could sell it!

But in reality the scheme crashed in 1871 because Fish would not push it, but more important the head of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts refused to seriously back it for the reasons I just gave! Sumner's intransigence (I would call it intelligence) prevented the Grant - Baez agreement from passing. Grant (in retaliation) had Sumner stripped of his Chairmanship. But the treaty never succeeded. Actually, Sumner's actions deserved being considered courageous here!

Now, this episode actually lies in several ways. It suggests that Grant's first Secretary of War, his wartime aide General John Rawlins, was pushing the treaty for secret gain (Santo Domingan bonds he had secretly bought, which the U.S. Government would have to pay him for). Rawlins, a man dying of tuberculosis, died in 1869, long before Grant decided to become an empire builder. The Santo Domingo Treaty matter occurred in 1871 - 1873. It was an annoyance to poor Fish, but he simply ignored it, realizing that Sumner and his chums would eat it and spit it out quickly.

If they had shown how Fish handled the Virginius Affair with Spain over Cuba, and over the antics of General Daniel Sickels (our Minister to Spain) in 1873, they would have shown Fish at his best.

I am giving the episode a "5" for reminding us of this curious incident, but otherwise everything was wrong about the episode.


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Absurdly, not on DVD. coop-16
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