25. The “End” of Reconstruction: Disputed Election of 1876, and the “Compromise of 1877”
Articles,  Blog

25. The “End” of Reconstruction: Disputed Election of 1876, and the “Compromise of 1877”

Professor David Blight:
The last book you’re reading in this course is by a
great journalist, Nick Lemann.
It’s called Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil
War. There seems to be a contest
right now in writing about and publishing about the violence of
Reconstruction. It’s really been discovered by
American publishers and certainly by American writers.
There are no less than three new books out on either the
Colfax Massacre, which we’ll talk about in a
minute, or what Lemann does mostly in
his book, which is the story of Mississippi–sometimes called
the Shotgun Policy, sometimes called the
Mississippi Plan–but, in effect, a coup d’état
whereby the white Democrats of Mississippi took back control of
that state, largely by terrorist violence,
political violence, in 1875.
The titles of these books strike me.
Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil
War. Charles Lane’s book,
a good journalistic popular writer, a whole book on the
Colfax Massacre entitled The Day Freedom Died–one day.
And there’s another book by a young, New York private high
school teacher, proof that good books can be
written by anyone, The Colfax Massacre:
The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror and the
Death of Reconstruction. Now all those titles are true.
It’s not the redemption, of course, that you hear about
in Bob Marley’s Redemption Song,
but I might recommend that you put Marley on while you’re
reading about this stuff. It might be a nice antidote.
No, I’m not going to sing it. But I am going to start with a
very brief little poem, one of the best illustrations
in poetry I know of, of this idea that revolutions
can go backward, that revolutions usually do go
backwards, for awhile, that revolutions
always cause counter-revolutions.
It’s a poem by Langston Hughes. He wrote it right near the end
of his life, in 1965– note the date.
He entitled it “Emancipation,” and then a subtitle:
“Long View Negro.” Two simple verses:
“Emancipation, 1865, sighted through the
telescope of dreams, looms larger,
so much larger, so it seems,
than truth can be. But turn the telescope around,
look through the larger end, and wonder why,
what was so large becomes so small again.”
The metaphor is powerful, if vexing.
Look through the opposite end of a telescope.
Look back at history and not forward, and wonder why what was
such a dream, what was so large,
can become so small again. Now, when that Fifteenth
Amendment passed, that I talked about briefly the
other day, there were just amazing
celebrations, when it was finally ratified,
in 1870, all over the place.
I’ll only cite a couple. Grant in his Message to
Congress in effect said Reconstruction was now largely
over. Frederick Douglass,
though he wasn’t thrilled with the fact that it was the most
conservative version of the Fifteenth Amendment and so on,
nevertheless said, “We can now breathe a new
atmosphere; we have a new earth beneath and
a new sky above.” That’s a dream. One Republican newspaper called
it the nation’s second birth; second founding.
And Wendell Phillips, again the Massachusetts
abolitionist, said it was now the real
birthday of the nation because now the Declaration of
Independence applied to all. Now, that was placing a great
deal of hope in a somewhat limited amendment,
to say the least. That’s 1870.
Now go ahead just five years with me.
This is the period now of Southern redemption,
defined of course as the Southern white Democratic
Party’s counter-revolution in taking back control of its state
governments. Happens very quickly in some
Southern states. Some are redeemed as early as
1870 by the Democrats and the last three or so not until
1876/77. But think of what you just
heard there, that almost unfathomable hope,
rooted in this Voting Rights Amendment,
and then listen to this statement from the floor of
Congress by one of the most brilliant young black
politicians who got himself elected– among those hundreds
who got elected, among the sixteen who got
elected to Congress– John Roy Lynch, a former slave,
self-taught, he educated himself;
like Frederick Douglass there’s mysteries about the brilliance
of this guy. But he’s elected to Congress
when he’s twenty-six, from Mississippi,
under Mississippi’s Radical Reconstruction government,
so long as it lasted. He’s still there in 1875,
and on the floor of the Congress– which was then,
as you’ll see in a moment, after the ’74 Election,
now ruled by a majority of Democrats– he looks them in the
eye and he says, “Think of it for a moment,
my colleagues. When I leave my home in
Mississippi to come to the capital of the nation to take
part in the deliberations of this House,
and to participate with you in making laws for the government
of this great republic, I am treated,
not as an American citizen, but as a brute,
forced to occupy a filthy smoking car,
both night and day, with drunkards,
gamblers and criminals, and for what?
Not that I am unable or unwilling to pay my way,
not that I am obnoxious in my personal appearance or
disrespectful in my conduct, but simply because I happen to
be of a darker complexion.” Now here’s the irony and the
point. The majority of those men he
was speaking to that day in the Congress, in their minds,
when they heard him, to the extent they listened
when he said that, I think we can safely assume
were thinking, “yeah, that’s just exactly the
way you should be treated.” Now, to 1873 for the moment.
The day freedom died, according to Charles Lane’s
book, is the day of the Colfax Massacre.
That day–I wouldn’t quite say freedom died on one day,
that’s a little ahistorical, but so be it;
that’s probably a publisher’s title more than an author’s
title. But April 14,1873 is in some
ways one of those days we could call in American history a day
of infamy. The Supreme Court that day– at
least it’s the date of the decision, even though it was
Easter Sunday– handed down its decision,
five to four, in the Slaughterhouse Cases,
so-called, a collection of five cases that came out of
Louisiana, which was the court’s first
major ruling on the Civil War Amendments, on the meaning of
the Thirteenth, the Fourteenth and in effect
the Fifteenth Amendments. That day, the same day,
Easter Sunday, in Colfax, Louisiana–a town,
not very big, named for Schuyler Colfax,
the Vice-President of the United States in the Grant
Administration–in Grant Parish–renamed by the
Republican regime for Ulysses Grant–the largest mass murder
of Americans ever in American history occurred,
in the political violence stemming from the divided
election in Louisiana, back in the fall of 1872.
Now 9/11 of course killed more Americans.
We can get caught up in categories of what is domestic
violence and foreign violence and so forth,
but this is the largest mass murder of Americans in our
history, so far as we can tell. That divided election produced
in effect two competing governments in Louisiana:
the Republican regime which did win the election,
for all practical purposes, in spite of the tremendous
political violence committed against particularly black
voters in that fall ’72 election;
but a so-called Fusion ticket of basically a kind of white
supremacist coalition also claimed to be the legitimate
government of Louisiana. And in this situation of
essentially an ongoing vigilante war, throughout many of the
parishes, counties, of Louisiana,
a standoff took place in Colfax.
I’ll come back to that in a moment.
But back to the Slaughterhouse Case that came down that day.
It was, in the end, a testing of the Privileges and
Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1869 the City of New Orleans, under its Republican
state government, created a corporation to move
the slaughterhouse of New Orleans–there actually had
never been a legitimate slaughterhouse in New Orleans.
What the butchers of New Orleans would do,
the white butchers of New Orleans would do,
is they’d herd the hogs through the streets of New Orleans and
basically they’d butcher the things wherever they wanted to,
and they always threw all the–this gets ugly–all of the
offal from the hogs into the Mississippi River,
up river from the city, before the river reached the
main water pipeline into the city.
This had long been a problem, long been a series of
complaints. And so this was an attempt at
clean government and clean cities.
The city, and the state backing it up, created a corporation
that created a new slaughterhouse.
They moved it across the Mississippi River and downstream
from the city, for health reasons.
They put in a state-appointed inspector, and the white
butchers of New Orleans were angry.
Some butchers and some critics charged this was a monopoly and
an unfair practice. Twenty-five butchers brought
suit, with support from the reviving Democratic Party–
white butchers. The lower courts in this
particular suit found in favor of the new corporation.
It was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It got on the docket in ’72. It was decided April 14,1873.
It was a five-to-four decision. Seemingly on the surface,
when you read it– it’s like many court decisions,
it’s a bit boring at first; five cases from butchers and so
on and so on, and you wonder what the hell’s
this about? Then you keep reading and you
realize it became a fundamental decision.
Justice Samuel Miller, for the majority,
argued that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were
intended– this was the good part of the decision–to end
slavery and advance the rights of the freedmen.
But he made a sharp–in other words, not to protect a bunch of
white butchers in New Orleans. And by the way,
the lead lawyer, for the butchers,
in the Slaughterhouse Cases, was none other than a man named
John A. Campbell, a Georgia-born,
former member of the Supreme Court.
He had been part of the six-man majority in the Dred Scott
decision of 1857; resigned his position in the
U.S. Supreme Court in 1861 to go
home and fight for the Confederacy.
He didn’t fight on the battlefield;
he became Assistant Secretary of State in the Confederacy and
served in that position, and other high-ranking official
positions, in the Confederate national government throughout
the Civil War. And when the war was over he
was one of those high-ranking Confederate officials denied the
right to vote, disfranchised for up to four
years. He was part of the final set of
amnesty and pardons that Andrew Johnson enacted just before
leaving office in the spring of ’69.
And Campbell had made it his business, as a Redeemer now,
in the South, to thwart and fight
Reconstruction at every turn. He hated black suffrage.
He hated black people. He was a virulent white
supremacist. He took this case on because he
wanted to crush Reconstruction. He even argued,
by the way, in the Slaughterhouse Cases– which
Miller turned right back on his head–he even argued that the
rights of the butchers were being violated under the
Thirteenth Amendment. He said that these butchers
were now being forced into a form of involuntary servitude
because they had to take their hogs across the Mississippi and
slaughter then downriver. It was violating their right to
make a proper livelihood by their own individual choice.
And frankly, folks–I read this decision
this morning; well I got through most of
it–if you want to read the origins of our modern day uses,
and some would say misuses, of civil rights language and
legislation, in our own time, the ways in which some American
politicians, lawyers, judges, etcetera,
pundits, etcetera, etcetera,
etcetera, have appropriated the language of the modern Civil
Rights movement–especially the language of the “content of our
character”–to sometimes some scurrilous ends,
the roots of that are in John Campbell’s arguments in the
Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873. Miller threw the Thirteenth
Amendment argument back at Thompson [ph?]
and told him, in effect, to–well–stick it
somewhere. Now, however,
back to Miller’s opinion, in a five-to-four case,
the real importance of the Slaughterhouse Case is that even
though Miller argued that the purpose of these amendments were
to advance black freedom and the rights of the freedman,
he nevertheless made a clear distinction between national and
state citizenship. In these years we don’t even
think of–well, I don’t think we think in terms
today of our state citizen– do you think of yourself as a
citizen of the State of Virginia?
Maybe you do, I don’t know. Maybe today in Pennsylvania,
where people are voting in droves, they’re thinking of
their citizenship as Pennsylvanian,
I don’t know. But we tend to think in terms
of citizenship now, certainly in the early
twenty-first century, as a national phenomenon.
One has Portuguese or German or American or whatever,
Brazilian, citizenship and in some countries dual and so on.
Rarely do we think of ourselves as citizens of states.
But they did in the nineteenth century.
Now what Miller did in this decision though was a bit weird,
in retrospect. He named various national
privileges and immunities–that’s the language
of the Fourteenth Amendment–like entering the
nation’s ports, or protection out on the high
seas, the ability to run for federal office,
and to travel to the seat of government,
and so on. But he never mentioned basic
civil rights, access to public facilities,
etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
He never mentioned the right to vote.
He said all of those rights are only under the jurisdiction of
the state, not the national government.
In other words, traditional federalism,
this separation of what states can control–like the right to
vote; like what is a civil right;
which civil rights; what kinds of equality are to
be adjudicated in court–would be left to the states.
Slaughterhouse set in motion then this federal retreat,
at least in the courts–and the retreat is already happening
elsewhere– from Miller’s own definition,
ironically, of the meaning of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth
Amendments. Back to Colfax,
Louisiana, April 14,1873. I don’t have time for all the
gruesome details of this massacre, and I’ll spare you
most of it. But it is in some ways an
American My Lai Massacre, a Katyn Forest Massacre–what
the Soviets did in 1944 in Poland.
One of these authors of this new book, I think a bit
inappropriately, uses the term genocide,
that it was a result of a wish for genocide.
It is mass murder by any definition.
What happened is that with these two competing governments
in Louisiana–Democrat Fusion government and the Republican
government–both would appoint sheriffs in the same parish.
So there was the Republican sheriff, who was black,
and there was the Democratic sheriff, who was white.
Local officials of all kinds are being appointed.
Well what happened is that the violence in the countryside got
so bad, in Grant Parish, that the blacks in the area
began leaving their cabins and leaving their small farms,
and they came into Colfax, because Colfax had become a
symbol of protection and safety for blacks in the great Red
River District of Central Louisiana.
By the way, the Red River Region of Central Louisiana was
some of the richest soil in all of the South.
It was a tremendous sugar and cotton plantation region.
Several thousand acres of that Red River District,
right around Colfax, was owned by a white landowner
named Willie Calhoun, William Calhoun.
He was the son of Meredith Calhoun, who had been a very,
very proslavery, huge slaveholder before the
Civil War. But his son Willie,
who had been raised in part in Europe, because his parents kept
living half the time in Paris, as a kid was badly,
terribly injured. His back was broken.
He spent his life as a hunchback.
And God only knows how he came by his sympathies and his
beliefs in the rights of former slaves,
but he became a Unionist during the Civil War in an area
where–it was not healthy to be a Unionist in the Red River
District. And after the war was over,
Willie Calhoun became an early-and-often scalawag,
a Republican. And he, in effect,
turned over much of his land, without even selling it,
to the settlement of hundreds and hundreds of freedmen and
their families. Willie Calhoun would spend the
Colfax Massacre watching probably 150-odd blacks murdered
in cold blood, as a kind of a prisoner on his
front porch. But at any rate,
blacks gathered in Colfax for weeks before the spring of ’73,
because it was–it had been, at least, the Calhoun Landing,
as it was called, had been a place of safety.
Blacks took over the courthouse in Colfax.
They occupied it. They collected lots of weapons.
They were ready. They built trenches all the way
around the courthouse. They were ready for battle.
And it is battle they got from a huge mob of disparate,
paramilitary whites, many of whom were former
Confederate soldiers, many of whom were former
members of the Ku Klux Klan; some now called themselves
Knights of the White Camellia–they went by all kinds
of different names. And what happened on April
14^(th) was indeed, in effect, a pitched battle.
The whites had a cannon, lots of weapons.
Blacks couldn’t hold them off, they fled into the courthouse.
The whites captured a black man and forced him to take a torch
and they said, “We’ll kill you or you take the
torch and light the roof on fire.”
He lit the roof on fire and the courthouse began to burn down,
which, of course, smoked most of the blacks out
of the courthouse, although a few stayed and were
burned to death, hiding under the floorboards.
And as they came out many of them were executed right around
the door. Before the thing was over that
night, the estimate runs from about eighty to possibly as
high–we’ll never really know–as 150 blacks were
killed–most of them execution style;
most of them with shots to the head, many of them shots to the
back of their heads, and many of them,
in the wake of being shot, having their bodies mutilated.
The First Representatives of the Louisiana State Government,
the Republican Louisiana State Government,
arrived forty-eight hours after the massacre and recorded,
one after another corpse, shot in the back of the head
and then shot many more times, and then somebody’s mutilated,
and they kept this–this is this kind of gruesome need to
describe you find in these reports.
They also described many of the bodies being eaten by dogs and
turkey vultures. Well, Colfax led to a national
sensation. Harper’s Weekly and
Leslie’s Weekly had illustrated articles about it
within a week, the famous pictures of blacks
carrying their dead home to bury them;
quotations from women describing–a woman describing
dragging her son away from the dogs who were eating his body,
and so on and so forth. And it led to a national
investigation, a federal investigation,
led by the Republican appointed U.S.
Attorney in New Orleans, whose name was James Beckwith,
a northern-born New England, old abolitionist fellow with a
good deal of zeal who heroically tried to bring indictments and
prosecutions. There were indeed many
indictments but only three convictions, in the wake of
Colfax. It took over two years and it
led to the second great Supreme Court case that turned around
Reconstruction. That case, first argued in
Louisiana, was for the three men convicted of leading the Colfax
Massacre. One of the names was a man
named William Cruikshank, c-r-u-i-k-s-h-a-n-k;
I don’t think I put it on the outline, or did I?
I guess I didn’t, sorry. In the United States versus
Cruikshank, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case
of these convictions in Louisiana.
The court by this time, early 1876 when the Cruikshank
case came down, had a new chief justice.
His name was Morrison Remick Waite, w-a-i-t-e,
who’d been appointed by Grant in 1874 to replace the recently
deceased Salmon P. Chase, who had been appointed
Chief Justice by Abraham Lincoln.
The court by 1876 was seven Republicans and two Democrats.
Most of them now had been appointed by Lincoln or Grant.
This was a thoroughly Republican Party Supreme Court. Waite by the way–we’ve been
through many Supreme Court appointments in our recent
lifetime and we know how political these things can
get–Waite was Grant’s fifth choice.
The first two people he asked turned him down.
I don’t want to be on the Supreme Court,
there’s no political future there.
Supreme Court justices in these years often ran for President
while they were on the court, and it’s–they don’t do that,
at least they don’t do that now.
The next two people he appointed, or he wanted to
appoint, were turned down by the Senate.
Waite was his fifth choice. Nobody had ever heard of him.
He was known in Ohio, but as one of his own Supreme
Court colleagues called him, said Waite was,
quote, “at the front rank of second rank lawyers.”
And maybe it proved the old adage– apologies to anyone from
Ohio; you know the old saying;
Ohio’s had more presidents I think even than Virginia– some
are born great, some achieve greatness,
some just come from Ohio. Morrison Waite will write the
opinion, in a nine-to-nothing decision, unanimous decision,
in the Cruikshank case. This was a test,
this case now, of really the Enforcement Act
passed in 1870, the Enforcement Act as part of
the Ku Klux Klan Acts, authorizing the federal
government to enforce the right to vote,
with military action if necessary, in the South.
This was a case now testing that;
also, of course, testing the Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments. The court decision in
Cruikshank found the indictments, it said,
faulty. It overturned two of the three
convictions. It ruled that those immortal
phrases of ‘due process’ and ‘equal protection,’
those two great clauses in part one of the Fourteenth Amendment,
applied, they said, only to state actions,
and not to the actions of individuals.
If a man murders another man in Colfax, Louisiana,
in a political way or any other way, that’s a state matter.
Even if it’s around voting it’s a state matter,
not a federal matter; can’t be adjudicated in the
federal court. Federal government does not
have the power to enforce the right to vote,
the right to civil rights, and so on.
The Cruikshank case–the implications of the Cruikshank
case–immediately were obvious. It meant, number one,
that mass murder went unpunished in the United States.
Two, it meant that blacks increasingly now would be at the
mercy of now hostile state governments.
Back when Justice Miller wrote that decision in Slaughterhouse,
there were still a lot of Republican Regimes.
And he claimed to his dying day he was leaving adjudication to
states, under sympathetic Republic governments.
Yeah, but Justice Miller, what if a government’s no
longer sympathetic, what if it’s run by Klansmen?
And three, it opened up–Cruikshank now opens up–as
a federal court decision, all manner of discriminatory
laws passed by what will be Democratic Redeemer governments
in the Southern states. Why was there a nine-to-nothing
decision in 1876 on this, with seven of the justices
appointed by Lincoln and Grant and so on?
Well, one, you have to realize that by ’75 and ’76,
when these guys were adjudicating this decision,
there was a tremendous amount of just flat-out fatigue with
Reconstruction. And I’ve been to all–I’ve been
to a lot of your sections now and I’ve heard you say the same
thing, and I’m not chastising you, I’m not.
But sometimes we read back into the past even our own fatigue
with certain issues. They were sort of fed-up with
Reconstruction in the North. Well yeah, they were,
but look at the consequences. It’s clear, even in their own
writings, that many of the justices just wanted to get rid
of Reconstruction and leave it to the South.
It signaled now, most importantly–and Foner
makes this point in the one little paragraph he gives you on
the Cruikshank case–it signaled now that the federal government
was, in effect, exiting
Reconstruction; certainly the Supreme Court was.
And as Foner says, terror was given a green light
anywhere that a state government was unwilling to enforce the law
or protect people. Now, why was Radicalism waning
in the 1870s, or even at the beginning of the
1870s? What is it about the Grant
years, especially the second Grant Administration,
that leads–that just practically paves these roads to
a Southern redemption, a Southern counter-revolution?
Well there are many factors, and let me kind of run through
them and then focus especially on the scandals,
for a moment, and then on this larger
question of violence; in case you haven’t heard
enough about violence. First of all there’s the Panic
of 1873, which hit in the spring of 1873.
A major economic depression had hit the country–eventually the
entire country–that led to a great deal of labor strife and
violence. It meant in the wake of
the–well, in the midst of the Panic of ’73,
into ’74, ’75, that the issues now that
politicians were most concerned about, and that voters were most
concerned about, particularly in the North,
were things like currency, tariffs, unemployment,
railroad subsidies, labor strife,
whether a union had the right to strike here or the right to
strike there. And across the great Midwest,
among farmers, the biggest issue was the price
of wheat, which dropped from two dollars
a barrel to fifty cents in a year and a half.
Wages for manufacturing laborers in the United States,
in a year and a half, dropped by fifty percent across
the country; that’s for those who kept their
jobs. The Panic of 1873 shifted
people’s minds, to say the least.
Then there’s the factor of–the nature of Grant’s presidency;
the way in which Grant himself even defined the presidency.
Grant, you’ll remember, was a rather reluctant
politician, at first. He actually got a little better
at it than his historical reputation has sometimes led us
to believe. Grant could be very political.
Although he did have this idea that the presidency ought to
be–especially in these crisis years,
with the tremendous bitterness, bloody shirt tensions after the
Civil War; and after all,
he’s the general that won the war and obliterated
Virginia–that the president ought to be now just basically a
caretaker, ought to have as few opinions
as possible; a caretaker presidency,
not so much a leader as a unifier.
Now his hands-off approach to so many things,
of course, is what, in part, led to the scandals
that have so long been associated with him,
or at least with his administration.
I would argue that Grant has gotten, to some extent,
a bad rap, from some historians,
although if you look at any of those lists that come out every
year, when they survey historians–the greatest
presidents, the worst presidents–Lincoln’s
always at the top and then you get FDR;
now Reagan is always in the top three, for reasons I don’t even
want to discuss. [Laughter]
Well, a lot of airports are named for him,
I guess that’s why. At any rate, enough on that.
Grant has always been down near the bottom.
I can’t resist this. The great American cynic of the
nineteenth century, one of our greatest historians
and one of our most beautiful writers–but what a cynic–Henry
Adams, son of Charles Francis Adams,
grandson of Quincy, great-grandson of John.
This was his description of Grant, and he was living the
Grant Administration: “Grant had no right to exist.”
[Laughter] “He should’ve been extinct for
ages. That 2000 years after Alexander
the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be
called and should actually and truly be the highest product of
the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous.
The progress of evolution, from President Washington to
President Grant, was alone evidence enough to
upset Darwin. Grant should’ve lived in a cave
and worn skins.” Oh.
[Laughter] That’s cold,
and unfair. But under his leadership a
whole series of four or five different scandals that sort of
set the standard [laughs] for scandal to come in American
history; although we’ve had some much
worse ones since than some of these.
Most of them were of course financial.
There’s almost no sex in the Grant scandal years,
so far as we can tell. The first was the Gold Scandal.
This was an attempt to corner the gold market by one Jay Gould
and James Fisk. These were Wall Street guys in
New York. This is in 1869,
right after Grant took office. They did indeed corner the
market on gold. They tried to buy up all the
gold in New York, and then they planned to force
bankers and business people to buy the gold from them at
inflated prices–it’s an old cornering trick.
They made eleven million dollars in three weeks doing
this, in the nineteenth century. They were eventually selling
that gold at $163.50 per ounce. And the only way to break their
corner was–suddenly, because it happened so
fast–was for the Federal Government to begin selling all
of its gold, put it on the market,
get the prices down. Grant’s brother-in-law–never
appoint your brother-in-law to anything–Abel Corbin was a sort
of personal emissary. He assured and promised the
plotters, Gould and Fisk, that he had influence on Grant
and that Grant would never permit the government’s gold to
be sold. But he was wrong and Grant did
allow it to be sold. And then Grant’s treasury
secretary, George Boutwell, got involved.
The scandal finally broke open in the press,
and though nothing ever really happened to Gould or
Fisk–setting in motion a history of who gets caught and
who doesn’t get caught in the Wall Street world–it was the
first scandal of its kind that began to lead to cries of civil
service reform, which became a big rallying cry
in the 1870s. Then there was the Whiskey Ring.
Man, this was old-fashioned, just unadulterated fraud.
This began in the early 1870s. It first started in St. Louis.
It was really a cartel, what we in modern times would
call the creation of a cartel. These were whiskey distillers,
all over the country, who banded together to cheat
the U.S. Government out of excise taxes;
the luxury tax on whiskey. The way that they did it is
many distillers were forced to join this ring of people around
the country or have their businesses ruined;
join or we’ll run you out of business.
The Whiskey Ring had branch offices all over the country,
in cities like Milwaukee and Peoria,
New Orleans, Chicago, Cincinnati,
in Washington, and many other cities,
North, South, West, you name it.
And then they started bribing the Treasury Department,
which of course is where the excise taxes would go to.
Many officials in the Treasury Department were soon on the
payroll of the Whiskey Ring, especially the chief clerk of
the U.S. Treasury Department,
the man who kept the books. One General Orville Babcock,
the president’s private secretary, was implicated;
more than implicated, he was involved.
He was charged eventually, although acquitted.
Grant entered a deposition on his behalf and his good
character and so on, in court–which he never should
have done. He didn’t really look at the
facts, he didn’t look at the evidence.
The point of all this one is that millions and millions of
dollars in liquor revenues were lost to the U.S.
Government, from about 1870 to 1875, and most of that money
went into the pockets of whiskey distillers and a lot of it went
into the pockets of Treasury Department officials who were
themselves supposed to be collecting the tax.
The estimate is that between forty and fifty million dollars
was grafted in this particular scandal.
The scandal broke in 1875. There were about 150 people
indicted in the liquor business, about eighty-five people
indicted in the federal government.
There were 110 convictions, although nobody served terribly
long in any prison. And thirdly,
there’s this thing called Crédit Mobilier.
This was the company that was first chartered in 1859 as part
of–it was the finance company for the Pennsylvania,
it was called the Pennsylvania Fiscal Agency originally,
it was the finance company for the Union Pacific Railroad,
that got the greatest contract in American history to build the
Transcontinental Railroad. The Union Pacific had a charter
from the federal government to build this great railroad to the
Pacific, or possibly two or three of them.
For each mile of track built the Union Pacific was to receive
ten sections of public land, and from 16,000 to 48,000
dollars, depending on how difficult the terrain was to
build on. The Union Pacific arranged the
construction contracts with its own firm, that it called
Crédit Mobilier, so that all government money
would get spent. You know the old routine,
if you get a grant, make sure you spend it because
they won’t give you as much next time.
Crédit Mobilier, and therefore Union Pacific,
made enormous profits. The shares of stock in
Crédit Mobilier skyrocketed, and to keep the
federal government in line and to let this continue to go on,
many congressmen–we’ll never know exactly how many–were on
the take, were simply being bribed,
in old-fashioned handfuls of cash, by the Union Pacific.
This scandal too broke in 1873. All kinds of people were
accused, including Vice-President Schuyler Colfax.
Congress reprimanded one government railroad agent and
two congressmen, and then just left it alone.
So far as I know, no one’s ever really put a
price tag on the graft committed by the Union Pacific in the
Crédit Mobilier case. This kind of spoils-men
financial corruption became rampant in the Grant years,
and again a huge political distraction away from the issues
of the South, the issues of the freedmen,
the issues of Reconstruction. The other major path to
Southern redemption, the success of the white
Southern Democratic Party, was of course the uses of
violence. But before I give you a little
more litany on the level of Klan terrorism, think with me for
just a moment what those Radical Republicans originally–almost
none of whom are really in power anymore: Thaddeus Stevens died
in 1869; Charles Sumner dies in 1874;
Benjamin Wade is long gone, as a senator from Ohio.
The old leadership of the Radicals is really no longer
there by 1874, when the Democrats are going to
throw the Republicans out of the leadership of the Congress
anyway. But think with me for just a
moment, back to what Foner called the Radicals’ civic
vision. That civic vision again was
rooted in Free Soilism, Unionism, winning the war,
and ending slavery, emancipation,
and then to at least the beginnings of racial equality.
You cannot mistake that they believed in at least the
beginnings of that in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments. But think for a moment,
in the nineteenth century how would most Americans think about
the idea of equality? I would argue that in our
history, this nation in the modern world that probably tried
to do more about the idea of equality than perhaps any place
else, has gone through three
definitions of equality. The first we might simply call
equality in the eyes of God, or natural rights.
The old Enlightenment–it’s not just from the Enlightenment,
it’s in the Epistles of Paul, it’s ancient in some ways–but
the idea that somehow you’re born equal before God or nature,
that you have a natural capacity that’s equal.
It doesn’t say anything about human affairs.
It doesn’t say anything about government or law.
The second kind of equality that came into history is
equality before law. That was never codified,
never spoken, until the Fourteenth Amendment;
the equal protection of the law. That’s where it begins.
If there’s a third kind of equality in our history it’s
probably what we came to call, in the twentieth century,
and especially in the Civil Rights Revolution and its wake,
an equality of opportunity. In the nineteenth century
trust–they never got to that one, and they didn’t get
terribly far with equality before law.
The Radical Republicans’ ideas were up against–and here you
can just give up and say, “well you see,
what–they tried to go too far too fast;
they were ahead of their times; gee whiz, Reconstruction
failed, maybe it should’ve failed, can’t do anything about
it, so be it; well the lights went out for 75
or 80 years but that’s– you know, some things are inevitable
in history.” If you’re comfortable with
that, fine. But the Radical Republican
ideology at least set in motion a tradition.
The problem was they got cornered themselves by their own
language, because the language they got cornered by was the
language of guaranteed rights. If you guaranteed somebody’s
beginnings of equality in law, what else is there to do?
If you and I are equal before the law, at least the law says
we’re equal before the law, what else can government do?
But the Radical Republicans in Reconstruction launched that
question into our history, as no one ever had.
What do governments owe people and what do people owe
governments? The trouble,
of course, was that on-the-ground in the South,
the Klan, and all of its imitators,
were winning Reconstruction by terror, by political violence,
by intimidation. Now you’ve read about the Klan.
I’ve given you statistics on Klan violence,
especially in 1868 up through 1871.
But it was the first Grant Administration–and we’ve got to
give Grant credit for this, and Henry Adams should’ve at
least thought of this when he wrote that God-awful
passage–the Grant Administration did act,
in 1870 and ’71, against the Klan.
May 31,1870, it passed the so-called Force
Act, or the First Enforcement Act.
It made it a federal offence to interfere with any person’s
right to vote and made it punishable in a federal court.
That’s the very law the Cruikshank case is going to
come, along six years later and say,
“no, the federal government can’t enforce that,
only the state can.” It’s one of those moments you
want to go back into history and just grab some people by the
collar and say, “No, no, no,
no, think one more time.” But, of course we can’t do that.
February 28,1871, the Second Force Act,
provided a machinery for the federal supervision of
registration and voting in the South.
It had at least tried. And finally they passed what
was called the Ku Klux Klan Act; April 20,1871.
It authorized the President to use the Army and to suspend the
writ of habeas corpus wherever he deemed necessary,
if there was a state of insurrection–which there was in
South Carolina, in about twelve counties.
Move the Army in, if necessary,
to protect the safety and security of elections.
Now, under this authority of these Enforcement Acts and the
Klan Acts, approximately 3000 people,
mostly white Southerners, were indicted for Klan
violence–murder, intimidation,
torture. Thousands were arrested.
Many of those 3000 indicted pleaded guilty and got suspended
sentences. About 600 were convicted,
250 acquitted. Most received fines or light
jail sentences. Sixty-five people were
imprisoned for up to five years in a federal penitentiary in
Albany, New York. All of them were out by 1875,
before the Cruikshank Case. The thousands of people
murdered by the Klan, the thousands tortured,
the thousands kept from voting–sixty-five people were
prosecuted. If you think back to the other
day, that quotation I asked you to keep in your head,
when Frederick Douglass gives that speech in 1875,
imagining the following year the centennial of U.S.
independence, and he worries about all the
hosannas to American patriotism and to independence,
and he says “if war among the whites brought freedom to
blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”
It is a peace among the whites that was happening,
by 1875. On Thursday we’ll move this
toward one of the ends of Reconstruction.

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