Eric Foner: Corruption Apologist

(April 21, 2017) When discussing Carpetbag Era corruption in his YouTube lectures, Columbia History Professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author Eric Foner said:

Most of the Reconstruction officials…were very poor…and they needed to make a living out of being in office.

A lot of money flowed through the [Southern state] governments for the first time, far more than before the [Civil] War. There [was] a lot of money flowing in and a lot of money flowing out and there was a tendency for that to stick to the fingers of people in power. [After Jefferson Long became Georgia’s first black U.S. congressman he]…had…to make a living in politics…from the salary as a congressman and also [by] gathering up as much money as he could.

Essentially, Dr. Foner implies that it was okay for Republican Southerners to profit from political corruption because they were poor. He fails, however, to consider that nearly all Southern Democrats were also poor. Perhaps that’s because such a consideration suggests that he should also excuse even the corrupt among the Democrats that later replaced the Carpetbaggers at the end of the era. Anyone familiar with Dr. Foner’s work knows that it about as likely as a Cherokee Indian getting elected Pope.

Foner also excuses the high taxes of the Carpetbag regimes because, he claims, such taxes were fairer. From the end of the war in 1865 to the end of 1868 most Southern state governments were financed by a poll tax, which was initially unconnected to voting. Instead it was flat per capita amount that all adult males paid annually. Carpetbaggers augmented, or replaced, it with a property tax, which was common up North. Foner applauds the change because property taxes put a bigger burden on landowners whereas a poll tax is the same for everyone, regardless of economic status.

Unfortunately, Carpetbag Era property taxes were far more onerous than Foner indicates. In 1870, for example, assessed Southern property values were less than half of the amounts in 1860, yet property taxes more than four times higher. The eight-fold increase in tax burden provides good reason to suspect that the Carpetbagger’s true aim was to force Southern landowners to sell their holdings at fire-sale prices, much as depicted in Gone With the Wind.

After pushing property taxes to the limit, Carpetbaggers sustained their excessive spending by heedless borrowings via bond issues that wrecked the previously good credits of the Southern states. By 1874 Southern indebtedness was bigger than the assessed value of all property in the former Confederate states at the end of the war. Put another way, Southern states could not have paid-off their 1874 public debts even if they had sold every acre of land at the 1865 tax-assessed valuations.

A complete rebuttal of Foner’s recorded comments above is best presented in a state-by-state analysis. Unfortunately, all but the most dedicated student of Reconstruction would likely fall asleep from boredom while trying to make sense out of the many episodes and convoluted methods of stealing from the taxpayer. Since, however, Foner partially focuses on Georgia in the link above, readers may want to consider the following points that he fails to mention about that state.

First, Georgia had no debt at the end of the war but had over $50 million by the middle of 1871. The debt was larger than all other former Confederate states except Louisiana where in four years the Carpetbag governor compiled a $500,000 fortune on an $8,000 annual salary and admitted, “Corruption is the fashion and I do not pretend to be honest, but only as honest as anybody in politics.”

Second, prior to the war the expenses of Georgia’s state government were almost entirely paid by earnings from the state-owned railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga. After taking office Carpetbag Governor Rufus Bullock leased the line to friends for a small fraction of its value thereby enabling the leaseholders to collect exorbitant profits. He also illicitly signed over taxpayer guaranteed bonds to a railroad promoter and political ally.

Bullock vacated his office before the end of his term because he was charged with malfeasance and corruption on some of those matters. Although the contra-parties to his agreements and actions benefitted, there was no proof that he illegally gained personally. He was, therefore, acquitted when he returned to the state to stand trial.

Third, in 1868 the poll tax was specifically intended to fund Georgia’s public schools, white and black. Instead all of it was allocated to the expenses of the legislature where it went into the pockets of members, clerks, and other officials.

Fourth, during the inclusive eight years from 1855 to 1862 the expenses of the Georgia legislature averaged about $100,000 annually. Although by 1868 there had been no increase in the number of members, legislative expenses that year were almost $1,000,000, which was about 1000% higher than the earlier average.

Finally, Foner fails to connect the culture of corruption in Republican-controlled Washington with that of the Southern Carpetbag regimes. The first four years after the Civil War under President Andrew Johnson’s Administration were virtually free of corruption. During the next eight years, however, when Ulysses Grant was president and Republicans generally controlled both houses of congress, corruption was rife. The Wikipedia “Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Administration Scandals” article discusses twelve different incidents, which averages one every eight months.

Corruption apologist instruction from Dr. Foner is available to Columbia University students for $72,000 a year.

Sources: John Ezell The South Since 1865, 85; Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction, 155-56; Walter Fleming The Sequel to Appomattox, 225; Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 386; William B. Hesseltine The Tragic Conflict, 493-500

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Add “Fearless Girl” to Sherman’s Statue

(April 16, 2017) Like a tocsin warning of the approaching 1930s Great Depression the Dow Jones stock market dropped 11% on October 11, 1929. Almost precisely fifty-eight years later on October 19, 1987 the Dow crashed over twice as sharply, losing 23%. Few investors that witnessed the second crash imagined that such a steep drop was possible and nearly everyone worried about the economic implications for the future. In order to reinforce confidence a sculptor built a Charging Bull statue and installed it in the Wall Street district in 1989. Since attacking bulls throw their victims upward a Bull Market has long been an informal synonym for a rising market.

Last month an investment advisory service installed a statue of a Fearless Girl staring down the charging bull. Their spokesman explained, “[Fearless Girl is] not angry at the bull — she’s confident…and she’s wanting the bull to take note.” Yet when a presumably objective New York Times reporter described the tableau she wrote, “At just over four feet tall, [Fearless Girl] appears ready to take the bull by its horns.” The bull’s sculptor gets the same impression as the reporter. Fearless Girl, he says, changes the entire—positive—meaning of his art.

One Civil War blogger suggests that “Fearless Girl” might be a model for re-interpreting Confederate monuments. Rather than tear them down—although he feels that is sometimes the only proper solution—adding new sculpted elements can enable the monuments to be correctly interpreted. He quotes a “very smart friend” as saying, “What if….we were to add slaves to the base of statues of Lee, Davis, or Stonewall Jackson…? Or what if a US Army solder were added…with a bayoneted musket leveled at Lee and Davis enforcing…the constitution and defiantly…[opposing]…their secession and treason?”

Perhaps his friend’s response was triggered by those who feel that Confederate monuments should remain while the addition of new monuments can demonstrate tangibly how historical perceptions gradually change.

There are, for example, memorials to Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Memphis, Montgomery, and Austin, among other Southern places. Statues to the nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 were erected on the grounds of the state capitol on the fiftieth anniversary in 2007 without any moral instruction from the blogger noted above or his “friend.” Yet the same grounds include two Confederate statues put up in 1905 and 1913, respectively: One for the ordinary Rebel soldier and one honoring the women of the Confederacy.

If, however, the blogger and his “friend” are sincere they may wish to urge that a statue of a ten-year-old girl be placed in front of General Sherman’s sculpture located on the edge of Central Park across from the Plaza Hotel where it is passed by tens-of-thousands of people daily. Rather than signifying a make-believe girl, however, the child’s statue could represent a true incident recorded by one of Sherman’s soldier’s during the burning of Atlanta. The testimony of Union Sergeant Allen Campbell can be added on a bronze plaque in front of the girl’s statue:

As I was about to fire one place a little girl about ten years old came to me and said, “Mr. soldier you would not burn our house would you? If you did, where would we live?” She looked at me with such a pleading look…I dropped the torch and walked away.

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Carpetbagger Spending

(April 12, 2017) Most modern historians of the Reconstruction Era are apologists for the Carpetbagger Regimes.

They excuse Carpetbagger corruption by claiming that it was no worse than was experienced in the Southern state governments that followed or preceded the Carpetbaggers. A thorough rebuttal requires a detailed state-by-state analysis that is likely to try the patience of all but the most dedicated students of the era. The table below, however, illustrates at a single glance how the previously sound credit of the Southern states was exploited in the post-war period when the states were impoverished and least capable of absorbing additional debts.

 

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Did President Kennedy Glorify Slavery?

(February 19, 2017) In 1957 freshman Senator John F. Kennedy chaired a five member senate committee to select the names of five former senators for which portraits were to be made and put on display in the Senate Reception Room. The five members had to agree unanimously on each selection.

After pondering the matter for two years, Senator Kennedy announced the selections in 1959. Among the chosen was South Carolina Senator and slaveholder John C. Calhoun, whose name was recently removed from a residential college at Yale University where he was an alumnus.

kennedy

If our society will not permit Calhoun to be evaluated as a man of his own time, should the same apply to Kennedy? Should future historians evaluate our morality based upon the standards of today, or upon the standards fifty to a hundred years hence? Consider, for example, a hypothetical America in 2117 that universally deplores abortions. Whose monuments and memorials should be removed then?

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