FISH had no breathing-space, no time for preparation, when he unexpectedly took charge of the State Department. Some Secretaries enjoy a halcyon calm of four years; but he had scarcely put his desk in order, he had not mastered his clerk's names or learned one Latin-American Minister from another, before he was in the midst of stormy issues. The Alabama question roared down upon him. It was followed instantly by the Cuban problem. Before he had fairly grappled with them, and while Washington was still sweltering under summer heat, Santo Domingo was demanding attention. He rose with confidence, with a new sense of latent power, to these responsibilities; Congressmen wondered as they saw the tall figure, erect and alert as a man of forty-five, step out of the carriage which whirled up to the old Orphan Asylum that housed the State Department. Here was an Unknown who had suddenly emerged as one of the strong men of the country. But to be pitchforked into this boiling cauldron of international affairs was a grim test. The strain was not lessened by the fact that Fish had simultaneously to adjust himself to Cabinet members whom he had never before seen, and to appraise Ulysses S. Grant with cautious and puzzled eye.
Indeed, one of his first and most imperative tasks was to try to penetrate that great national enigma, the President. Even today Grant is partly an enigma; then he was wholly so. Men waited--and hoped. The "tidal wave of expectation," as Henry Adams called it, remained full for months. Americans expected the President to give bold orders, to reawaken the idealism of wartime, to lead the march against entrenched evils. Civil service reform was needed, as Representative Jenckes pointed out; tariff reform, as Commissioner Wells explained; financial reform, as Secretary McCulloch had argued; above all, a reform of the Southern policy. Would Grant fight it out on a constructive line if it took all summer? His friends were making lavish promises. Schuyler Colfax said at Providence in June that the word Honesty was already written upon the Administration in letters of glittering light, "the cornerstone upon which its policy is securely grounded." It took the Crédit Mobilier scandal three years later to teach people that Colfax did not regard honesty either as a glittering light or a cornerstone. But