Monthly Archives: June 2016

Washington’s Reconstruction Experiment

If you’ve ever wondered why Washington, D. C. did not have a permanent elected government until the 1960s, this post is for you.

Since Southern racism and violence against blacks were prominent characteristics of Reconstruction, modern historians provide abundant examples, to the near exclusion of other matters. The present standard Reconstruction textbook by Columbia’s Eric Foner, for example, makes no mention of the incident below beyond noting that the Freedmen’s Savings Bank made bad investments in Washington, D. C. He does not explain why the investments soured.

As an object lesson for the rest of the country, in January 1867 the Republican-controlled Congress granted African-Americans the right to vote in Washington City and mandated racially segregated schools in the town. Three years later the city was so impoverished that the mayor’s furniture was seized to pay municipal debts. In response, Congress organized a unified territorial District government, which became known as Washington, D. C.

220px-Alexander-Robey-Shepherd

After serving as Vice Chairman of the District’s Public Works Board, Republican Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to be territorial governor in 1873. Among Shepherd’s initiatives popular with voters who paid little in direct taxes was an ambitious spending program to modernize the capital city. Partly because of strong support among black voters Shepherd was able to get a bond referendum approved to finance the expenditures. Although a vote was not officially required, the victory enabled  Shepherd to proclaim that his program was consistent with the popular will. The District’s mostly white direct taxpayers and property owners, however, were horrified by the implications of the ballooning debt.

A year later the $6 million program had already exceeded $9 million. When local taxpayers complained of losing properties for tax deficiencies caused by the reckless and fraudulent spending, the House of Representatives formed a bi-partisan investigative committee. It learned that the program’s chief beneficiary was a ring of Shepherd business associates and real estate developers.

While Republicans were unwilling to perpetuate a censured government that might continue to be vulnerable to irresponsible manipulation of black voters by corrupted whites, they did not want to backtrack on African-American suffrage. Congress might otherwise be compelled as a matter of consistency to spread the retrenchment to former Confederate states thereby losing the Republican Party’s largest and most reliable voting block in eleven states. Consequently, the committee recommended unanimously that the District’s territorial government be abolished and replaced by a presidentially appointed board of commissioners. All voters were disfranchised.

The District went into bankruptcy after an audit revealed its bills were $13 million in arrears. Among the casualties was the Freedmen’s Savings Bank whose chief depositors were ex-slaves. In response to the temporary boom triggered by Shepherd’s unsustainable spending, the bank had invested heavily in Washington real estate. When its doors closed in 1874 it had only $31,000 to cover the deposits of 61,000 accounts. Boss Shepherd moved his family to Mexico in 1876 after declaring personal bankruptcy. The District did not completely repay the Shepherd era debts until 1916.

After the commission government was functioning, Congress agreed to pay half the District’s municipal operating expenses. Elected government would not return to Washington, D. C. until the 1960s civil rights era. Shepherd’s misgovernment, partly enabled by manipulation of poorly educated black voters, brought some of the evils common in Carpetbag regimes that Southern whites had been complaining about to the doorstep of congressmen from the rest of the country. The sobering experience was one factor that prompted Northern politicians to increasingly question the merits of Radical Reconstruction and to consider the potential merits of Southern home rule.

=========================================

My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

=========================================

Advertisements

Secession and Coercion

Hopefully, Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union demonstrates that Civil War is not a necessary consequence of secession.

Negotiated settlements are workable and peaceable alternatives. In fact, the recently updated Article 50 of the EU Constitution requires a negotiated settlement. While the Confederacy could not point to a similar article in the U. S. Constitution to justify its departure, neither could the remaining members cite an article that prohibited such action. Moreover, when New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia ratified the federal Constitution they did so conditionally by reserving their rights to withdraw from the Union whenever it was in their best interests.

Dissolved

While admitting differences between Great Britain’s withdraw from the EU and the Confederacy’s split with the USA, there are frightening similarities in the rhetoric of the unionists. Chief among them is the attempt to portray the departing states as morally depraved and the truncated unions as ethically superior. In America 150 years ago such language did precede Civil War. As to the present situation, consider remarks excerpted from some of the most popular reader comments in today’s New York Times article about the Brexit vote.

“What I found distasteful in the UK “leave” debate was the full Monty bigotry card. Nationalism fueled by fear and hatred of others…” —D. L. Willis, M.D.

“Immigration is what this is all about and the racists and fear mongers have won.”—Jon Champs

“Hopefully the racist, xenophobic, sentiment that helped the “leave” campaign win won’t similarly help Trump…”—Spencer

“Trump supporters are exactly like the Leave storm troopers; xenophobic and racist.”—Robert

If the remaining members of the EU attempt to force Britain back into their Union the resulting war will not be “all about” racism, bigotry and xenophobia, just as the American Civil War was not “all about” slavery. It will be at least equally about coercion.

Assuming the U. K. is as racist and bigoted as Brexit opponents quoted above think, should the Union Jack be removed from Hawaii’s flag?

=========================================

My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

=========================================

Wikipedia Book Burning

I once attempted to correct a Wikipedia article by citing Robert Selph Henry’s 1938 The Story of Reconstruction. The change was automatically rejected by software explaining the book was an unacceptable source. Next, I changed the article’s mistake by citing Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: The Unfinished Revolution, which was published fifty years later.

Born in 1889, Henry grew up in Nashville. His parents lived through Reconstruction. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1911 where his professors knew people who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction.* Henry added graduate work at Queens College in Cambridge. He was a lawyer until becoming a leading railroad industry executive. He wrote at least four American history books and a similar number on other topics.Three are still in print.

wikipedia

Modern critics accuse Henry of being ill informed about Reconstruction’s impact on African Americans. Nonetheless, his sources include a good representation of what was available in the 1930s including:

Booker T. Washington: Up From Slavery
John R. Lynch: The Facts of Reconstruction
A. A. Taylor: The Negro in the Reconstruction of Virginia
Carter Woodson: The Negro in our History
W.E.B. DuBois: Black Reconstruction in America

In contrast, Foner was born in 1943 in New York City and educated at Columbia where it is unlikely he knew anyone who had lived through Reconstruction.* He came of age during the 1960s Civil Rights Era, which influenced his choice of The Unfinished Revolution as his book’s subtitle.

Aside from racial matters, however, Foner’s book includes almost nothing about other “unfinished”—meaning 20th century—aspects of Reconstruction. For example, he ignores lingering Southern poverty. Yet, two-thirds of Southern tenant farmers where whites as late as 1940. According to a report prepared for President Franklin Roosevelt the white tenant farmers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.” When the General Motors CEO reduced his pay  by $160,000 during the Great Depression, the cut was more than all of the income taxes paid by Mississippians in the same year. Even in 1960 eight of the ten poorest states were former Rebel states.

Foner’s 600-page book mentions Union veterans pensions only twice, even though it represented over 40% of the federal budget in the early 1890s. He does not explain that payments did not stop growing until 1921, which was fifty-six years after the war had ended. Nor does he mention that by 1917 the pensions had already exceeded twice the amount of the combined Civil War spending of the federal government and all of the Northern state governments. Finally he seems to be unaware that the taxes former Rebels paid to help fund the pensions were a penalty that would basically have been reparations had the Confederacy been an independent defeated foe.

Given the site’s popularity, banning a book from Wikipedia is equivalent to burning the book. Although Wikipedia may properly challenge opinions in Henry’s book, there is no justification for reflexively rejecting the facts it reveals while automatically accepting Foner’s. A fact is a fact whether it is written in Henry’s book or Foner’s. For those who only want citations from primary sources, then neither Henry nor Foner’s books  should be accepted, but Wikipedia does not require primary sources.

*Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all. — Carlos Eire

=========================================

My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

=========================================

Falsely Demonizing Lee

While listening to a radio interview about the future of Robert E. Lee’s Charlottesville, Virginia statue I learned just how far some historians go to demonize Lee. While the critic conceded that Lee’s statue should not be torn down he argued that it should be updated with qualifying signage to reveal the general’s underlying racism. He claimed that Lee was “livid” when the general learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and referenced a January 1863 letter as evidence. After investigating I discovered that the applicable letter was one Lee wrote on January 10, 1863, which was nine days after the second version of the Proclamation. (Keep in mind the term: “Second Version.”) The letter made a single reference to the “degradation” that would result if his army were not reinforced.

The problem with the historian’s claim is summed up by Mark Twain’s humor: “Most things did not happen when they were supposed to and some never happened at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” Lee’s critic basically invented something that never happened.

W&L Stamp

Lee’s cited letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon was a plea for more civilian troop recruitment in order to avoid the “degradation” of defeat. One Fredericksburg battlefield historian speculated in 2011 that the “degradation” mentioned in the letter referred to the emancipation of slaves. The usual suspects jumped on his bandwagon. Nonetheless, there are several problems with the interpretation.

First, the January 10, 1863 letter to Seddon does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation. It does not even mention slaves or African-Americans.

Second, on the same day Lee wrote Seddon another message complaining of “the atrocious orders of Federal General Milroy” who had occupied Winchester, Virginia nine days earlier. A 2003 study of Civil War Winchester by Jonathan Noyalas explains Lee’s anger:

Milroy fought a war not only against Confederate troops but against the Confederate population as well. He firmly believed that only an Old-Testament style scourge of the land could rid this country of slavery and restore the Union. Milroy’s strong convictions moved him to inflict his will on the Winchester population. Exiles, arrests of civilians (women and children included) secret detectives and widespread destruction of property were the norm under Milroy’s occupation.

Third, the original nineteenth century compilers of the Official Records of the Civil War specifically notated that the “degradation” referred to was Lee’s expression of the consequences of failure to defeat opponents like Milroy. They concluded that the two letters in the first and second points noted above were directly connected.

Fourth, if Lee were to be reflexively angered over the Emancipation Proclamation it would not likely have been in January 1863. It would have happened three months earlier in September 1862 when the surprising preliminary version was first announced. The January ’63 version was mostly an official follow-up.

A delayed response by Lee would have been comparable to a Hillary, or a Donald, supporter getting enraged when the opposing candidate is inaugurated in January 2017. It’s more likely that the anger would surface in November 2016 when the election results first become known.

In the instance of the Emancipation Proclamation the case for an earlier expression of anger by Lee—if there ever was one—is even stronger. Many people, including Union Major General George McClellan, felt that the September ’62 version was a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the South. In contrast, the January ’63 version had a more moderate tone because it urged the people thereby made free “to abstain from violence except in necessary self-defence.” Such advice was missing from the September ‘62 version.

It is pointless scholarship to replace one myth with another, but it might be a political agenda.

=========================================

My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

=========================================

How Tariffs Foster Monopolies

Tariffs were the primary source of federal government revenues in the nineteenth century. Those that were higher than necessary to fund the government were generally termed Protective Tariffs because they were intended to protect domestic manufacturers from more economical producers overseas. As the center of an emerging industrial empire, the Northern states normally favored protective tariffs.

In contrast, Civil War historians generally cite three reasons why the South opposed protective tariffs and why they were outlawed in the Confederate constitution.  First, the duties inflated the cost of consumer items that might otherwise be imported at lower prices. Second, since the South’s was an export economy a high tariff wall made it difficult for overseas buyers of American exports to generate the exchange credits needed to buy such exports. Third, the South had few manufacturing plants that would benefit from such tariffs.

Many, perhaps most historians of the era, fail to cite another reason the South opposed high tariffs because it only became obvious later in the nineteenth century. Specifically, high tariffs are a prime source of monopolies.

Many students of the Civil War and Reconstruction fail to appreciate the connection between protective tariffs and monopolies because industrial trusts did not become a familiar part of the business landscape until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In reality, however, Southern Reconstruction extended far beyond the conventionally accepted terminal year of 1877. The first federal response to monopolies was the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Unfortunately, the act targeted only the apparatus of monopoly instead of the cause. Nine years later the president of the American Sugar Refining Company, which controlled 98% of its market, admitted in testimony to an industrial commission:

The mother of all trusts is the customs tariff bill…

[Production economies of scale]…in the same line of business are a great incentive to [trust] formation, but these bear a very insignificant proportion to the advantages granted in the way of protection under the customs tariff…

The tariff bill clutches the people by the throat, and then the governors and attorneys-general of the several States take action, not against the cause but against the machinery…[used]…to rifle the public’s pocket…It is the Government through its tariff laws, which plunders the people, and the trusts…are merely the machinery for doing it.

The monopolistic consequences of tariffs have been obfuscated over the years by the political rhetoric of those who favor them. Nonetheless, the danger was recognized in the U. S. Constitution when the founders outlawed tariffs between the states. Other things being equal, the smaller the territory protected by a tariff the more readily competitors inside the tariff wall will combine to regulate prices. Thus, to understand how tariffs foster monopolies consider the hypothetical result if tiny Rhode Island were to build a tariff wall against the other states.

Table 1

If Rhode Island adopted a steep tariff on lumber, the state’s sawmills would soon start charging higher prices than mills in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Lumber would cease to be available in Rhode Island at prices lower than it could be imported from neighboring states, even though Rhode Island lumber yards would theoretically be competing with one another. Basically, the adoption of a tariff would be an invitation to the state’s sawmills to raise prices. Moreover, the yards could hardly be blamed for deciding to consolidate their operations into a single trust. Continue reading