Monthly Archives: October 2017

History is a matter of dates

(October 29, 2017) Those who have read his Count of Monte Cristo can readily appreciate the wisdom of Alexander Dumas who wrote, “The difference between treason and patriotism is a matter of dates.” Similarly, Civil War era historical interpretations are a matter of dates.

Consider the example of President Ulysses Grant.  While the many corruption scandals during his presidency cannot be denied, modern biographers and historians commonly minimize them by emphasizing his role in protecting black voting rights in the South. Moreover, they generally characterize his civil rights motives—and those of fellow Republicans—as grounded in the morality of racial equality.

Historian Sean Wilentz has gone so far as to declare, “The evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.” Similarly in 2017 Ron Chernow opined, “[Grant’s] pursuit of justice for southern blacks was at times imperfect, but his noble desire to protect them never waivered.” In 2012 H. W. Brands wrote, “Nearly a century would pass before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” When reviewing Ron White’s 2016 Grant biography, T. J. Stiles explained, “Reconstruction dominated Grant’s presidency. Unlike many, he knew it brought liberation, not occupation, empowering African-Americans in states where they were a majority or large minority. White describes how he pushed Congress and his own administration to essentially invent civil-rights enforcement.”

But Reconstruction-era Republicans also had a selfish motive for sponsoring Southern blacks. Specifically, when Grant was first elected President in 1868 the Party was only about a dozen years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in the cradle if the former Rebel states rejoined the Union without readmission terms that insured that Republicans would keep control of the federal government. Since there were few white Republicans in the South the Party concluded it needed to create a new constituency. Ex-slaves were the obvious choice. In fact, Grant would have lost the 1868 popular vote without them because he only won a minority of white votes throughout America. (Like Donald Trump, he would have still won the electoral vote.)

Thus is revealed the issue that should be the central historical debate about Radical Reconstruction and President Grant’s role in it. Specifically, at question is whether Republicans chiefly sought Southern black suffrage in order to promote racial equality or to use it as a political tool for sustaining Republican control of the federal government by creating puppet regimes in the South.

Consensus opinions have fluctuated over the years. Prior to 1970 historians commonly mentioned both factors, with differing emphasis of one over the other. But as noted above, recent historians usually suggest that racial equality was the prime motivation. In contrast, earlier historians will also point to failings, compromises and motives of Grant and his Party that are seldom heard today.

In 1950, for example, historian Herbert Agar suggested that ex-slaves could have become “truly” free if Republicans had been willing to provide federal economic aid and fund black education. Instead, impoverished Southern states were required to pay the eduction bill even though it resulted from emancipation, which was a national—not regional—policy.

If the Negro had been made a property-owner and if his thirst for learning had been slaked at federal expense, he would have become a truly free man. As professors Morison and Commager say, “[A] government which found it possible to give forty million acres of public land to a single railroad might well have purchased ten million for the freedmen.” But neither the Northern capitalist nor the Republican politician would be helped by making the Negro free and independent…

[Instead] Congress provided a South wherein ignorant and destitute freedmen were supported by Northern troops in their “right” to vote the Republican ticket…

It was wicked to force the Negro to rule the disfranchised white man [former Confederates who lost their voting rights], when everyone knew the positions would be reversed as soon as Northerners grew sick of governing their fellow Americans with the sword.”

In 1969 historian Avery Craven wrote, “The Republican party…could muster the vote to pass sharp legislation for the benefit of the southern Negro, but it could not support the abstract principles behind that legislation.” Thus, a single railroad was awarded land grants as large as the state of Missouri, while ex-slaves got none. Race consciousness in margin-of-victory states such as Connecticut, Indiana, New York and Ohio sometimes forced the Party to choose between conscience and political expediency. 

Similarly, in Grant the Politician William B. Hesseltine wrote in 1935, “Fearful [that] the return of the Southern states would result in the overthrow of the Republican Party, the Radical leaders largely agreed on the necessity of imposing Negro suffrage on the South.” Hesseltine later added, “Republican Reconstruction polices were explained on the basis of justice to the Negroes, but frequently the orators admitted that the restoration of white government in the South would endanger their own [Republican] congressional supremacy.” In 1963 John Ezell wrote in The South Since 1865, “Further rationalization by the Republicans led them to claim that if the war victory were to be insured, the party that produced it had to stay in power…by giving votes to the freedmen who would presumably vote Republican from gratitude…”

But it was not merely pre-1970 historians who expressed such viewpoints. The chief architect of Republican Reconstruction—Congressman Thaddeus Stevens—argued that the Southern states should never be admitted as “valid states, until the [U.S.] constitution had been so amended…as to secure the perpetual ascendency of…[the Republican Party.”] Nearly four years after he left office and had tried for a third Presidential nomination, even Ulysses Grant implied that his true motive for backing black suffrage had been to keep white Southerners out of power in Washington. Speaking in Syracuse in October 1880 in support of the actual Republic ticket he opined that Southerners controlled the Democratic Party. If Democrats came to power, he warned, they “would sweep down…all of your industries and prosperity, all of your banks and your manufactories.” At Rochester he added that “Rebel brigadiers” might rule the nation and argued that only Northern men should be permitted to govern America. In short, Grant suggested that his true aim all along had been to protect Northern economic prosperity and dominance, not to provide for racial equality

Finally, as explained in this earlier post, President Grant and the infant GOP declined to combat transgressions against races that were unlikely to become reliably Republican.  Examples include Chinese-Americans and Native-Americans. Between 1850 and 1900, for example, two-thirds of California’s lynch victims were Chinese-Americans, yet the race never accounted for more that 10% of the state’s population. Unlike the ex-slaves who accounted for about 40% of the population in the former Confederate states, Chinese-Americans were not permitted to vote. Moreover, even though they became the victims of the biggest lynching in American history during 1871 in Los Angeles, Grant and the Washington Republicans did nothing to help them.

Alexander Dumas’s insight suggests that historical interpretation will always be subject to the zeitgeist of the era in which it is written. But it should not shut down debate as it does presently, especially on college campuses. The “Lost Cause” interpretation of Civil War history has been replaced by an erroneous “Pious Cause” mythology that defines the Civil War as a conflict between Northern Angels and Southern Demons. It has taken a wrecking ball to free speech as well as century old statues. Yet it was the speech-tolerant Demons of the 1960s and beyond who gave the academic Angels podiums from which to make their case. Guided by the tenet that if a lie is repeated often enough it erroneously becomes accepted as the truth, too many of today’s “Angels” demand censorship of contrary viewpoints. They are like the salt of the earth. Nothing grows where they’ve been.

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Chernow versus Vidal on President Grant

(October 21, 2017) The first sentence of chapter 34 in Ron Chernow’s Grant biography endorses the hagiographic interpretation of his presidency: “It is sadly ironic that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest.”

In contrast, the narrator in Gore Vidal’s forty-one year old novel, 1876, comes to a different conclusion after the last day he spent in the President’s company: “It is late. I am tired. I am no wiser on the subject of General Grant than before. I suspect he is as corrupt as the men about him; otherwise he would not have such men as intimates. Certainly, I shall never believe the usual Stalwart explanation: that Grant is a simpleton and does not understand politics or people. He understands both very well indeed and, I suspect, likes neither.”

Although 1876 is a work of fiction, it is well researched and insightful. An example of its insight is provided in the conversation below between the fictional Bulgarian Ambassador—Baron Jacobi—and former general, present Congressman and future President James A. Garfield.

[Nobody knows the truth about an historical figure] except the subject and he—like Caesar—is more apt than not to lie.

But, says Garfield, we now have letters, diaries, newspaper clippings—

Dear General, is there a newspaper in the country, other than [the decidedly Republican] New York Times, whose reports you believe?

[Garfield laughs] Well if future historians will read only the Times—

They will think that the Grant Administration was absolutely superb…and entirely free of corruption. As for letters, journals, who ever writes the truth about himself?…I would make a bonfire of all historians [with few exceptions].

But how then would you learn about the past?

From Dante, Shakespeare, Scott—all fiction writers.

But Shakespeare’s history is always wrong.

But his characters are always right.

Although Vidal’s story is fictional, it detracts not one ounce from his narrator’s questioning of Grant’s honesty on the basis of the President’s companions. For example, during the Gold Corner scandal six months after Grant’s inauguration his social associations with Jim Fisk were public and undeniable even though he confessed that he knew Fisk to be a disreputable character. It is, therefore, legitimate to question why Grant would keep such company unless he himself profited by it.*

* Charles W. Calhoun, The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, 130, 144

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Ron Chernow’s Biography on Ulysses Grant

(October 18, 2017) Nearly all authors recognize the importance of a book’s first line as do most readers. We can, for example, often identify a previously read book merely by seeing its first line. Examples might include, It was the best of times, the worst of times… and All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Finally, It was a Monday in Washington January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. It is with the conceded significance of the first line that I was surprised by Ron Chernow’s choice.

Provided below is a guest post by Joseph Rose who is the author of Grant Under Fire. Joe shares his reaction to the “wrong-headed” first sentence of Chernow’s new Grant biography.

The opening line of Ron Chernow’s new biography on Grant—“Even as other civil war generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print”—seems positively wrong-headed. It plays on the rather false image of the modest Ulysses. Instead, his staffer, Adam Badeau, began Grant’s military history in 1865. Grant later told Badeau:

“Your first volume was prepared in my office, while you occupied the position [of] an officer on my staff, with the temporary rank of Col. This gave you [pay three grades beyond your actual rank,] access to papers and documents that other writers at the time could not have convenient access to. You also had the assistance of several very intelligent staff officers to aid you in hunting up data, relating insidents[sic], furnishing military terms with which you were not then familia[r] &c.

Your second and third volumnes[sic], were prepared abroad while you were holding office under the government. A great deal of time was spent by my staff officers in furnishing you information that you called for from time to time, and in some instances in sending you books and papers from the Archives in Washington at the risk of their being lost. You had possession of a copy of the records of my headquarters,—my work really—kept for my special use, until you were through with your work. I also read through every chapter of your book before the latter appeared before the public. I knew what care had been taken to get the facts of history correct. and corrected the facts.”

Other books on Grant coming out in 1868 with the first volume of Badeau’s work are those of Albert Richardson, Charles A. Dana and James H. Wilson, and Henry Deming. All were “carefully guarded against any expression which could be used against Grant by the politicians,” in the upcoming presidential election. Another campaign biography that year was penned by James G. Wilson.

If “other civil war generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity,” Ulysses S. Grant did the same, but took somewhat longer in doing so. Throughout the war and after, he befriended journalists and authors who praised him without qualification. And, in his Personal Memoirs, Grant subtly built himself up, while disparaging the people he didn’t like. Very often, when doing so, he stole the laurels from those who actually deserved it to place on his own head. All of this, and more, belies Chernow’s claim of modesty.


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A Black Advocate of Confederate Monuments

(October 10, 2017) Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article about eighty-eight year old Nelson Winbush who is a Florida black man and proponent of Confederate monuments. His grandfather, Louis Napoleon Nelson, was a Tennessee slave who followed his master and sons into the Confederate military. Initially Louis was a cook but later became a rifleman and a chaplain under the command of cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

According to The Post, Winbush “said his grandfather believed he was defending his home state of Tennessee from “Yankee” invaders, not fighting to preserve slavery. His final wish, Winbush said, was that he be buried in his Confederate uniform…This pride has been embraced by Winbush, who joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans nearly three decades ago.”

The Post reporter (Kimberly Kindy) quotes remarks by historian David Blight that suggest few Southern blacks were loyal to the Confederacy, or their masters. (In response to my email yesterday, however, Dr. Blight replied that he never spoke to Kindy. Although he added that he does not know where she obtained quotes attributed to him, he speculated they may have come from some of his talks on YouTube. For her part, Kindy never replied to my email.) Nonetheless, Kindy’s article states:

Blight said the version of events that recalls black soldiers as co-signers to the Confederate Army’s mission emerged after the war, growing out of the Lost Cause tradition.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Blight said, the Sons of Confederate Veterans began to promote this as historical fact, saying that many Southern blacks had supported the war. “It’s a popular mythology — the trusted, contented slave, Blight said. “And if you want the Confederacy to be somehow palatable in the post-civil rights era, it helps if people believe there were a whole lot of black people who supported it.”

While the number of blacks bearing arms for the Confederacy was small, significant numbers traveled with the Rebel armies as servants and workers. According to eyewitness British military observer Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur J. L. Fremantle who marched with Lee’s army to Gettysburg, each regiment was accompanied by twenty to thirty slaves. Although few may have used a weapon in combat, Fremantle was convinced of their loyalty to the South. They could, he averred, be converted into effective soldiers due to “the affection that undoubtedly exists as a general rule between the slaves and their masters…”

Although Dr. Blight is fond of quoting a racist pre-war speech defending slavery by Alexander Stevens who became the Confederacy’s Vice President, Stephen’s remarks to the Georgia legislature less than a year after the war ended contradict the skepticism about slave loyalty attributed to Blight by The Post as well the suggestion that Stephens disdained blacks.

Wise and humane provisions should be made for [ex-slaves]…so that they may stand equal before the law, in the possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty and property. Many considerations claim this at your hands. Among these may be stated their fidelity in times past. They cultivated your fields, ministered to your personal wants and comforts, nursed and reared your children; and even in the hour of danger and peril they were, in the main, true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude, as well as acts of kindness.

I speak of them as we know them to be, having no longer the protection of a master or legal guardian; they now need all the protection which the shield of law can give. But above all, this protection should be secured because it is right and just…

The Post article also (perhaps falsely) implies that professor Blight has concluded the Confederate constitution identified slavery as the chief cause of secession and the Civil War. In truth, however, the CSA constitution differed from the USA constitution in four ideological ways:

1. Corporate welfare was outlawed. The Confederate government was forbidden to pay subsidies (“bounties”) to private industry.

2. Protective tariffs were prohibited. The Confederate government could only collect tariffs for revenue. Any tariff designed to protect an industry from foreign competition was illegal. Such tariffs were regarded as another form of forbidden corporate welfare.

3. With minor exceptions, the Confederate government was prohibited from spending money on public works. Such spending was regarded as an obligation of the states individually—a form of state’s rights.

4. Slavery was explicitly legalized.

The contrasting interpretations between Nelson Winbush and those that reporter Kimberly Kindy attributed to David Blight may underscore the wisdom of Blight’s fellow Yale professor, Carlos Eire, who escaped Castro’s Cuba as a boy.

“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.”

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Maryland, My Maryland

(October 9, 2017) Recently the University of Maryland ordered that the school’s marching band discontinue the tradition of playing the state song, Maryland, My Maryland, during its pre-game performance at each football game. The decision was triggered by a feeling that the lyrics should be censored because they suggests that many—perhaps most—of the state’s 1861 residents were opposed to coercing the seceded states back into the Union and that they objected to the dictatorial methods used to force Maryland to remain in the Union.

The first verse lyrics are provided below, excluding the “Maryland, My Maryland” refrain:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore.
His torch is at thy temple door.
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore
And be the battle-queen of yore.

William Safire explained in a 1984 New York Times column why the anthem should be retained even though the “despot” allusion in the first line is to an ever-sacred Lincoln.

Maryland was a slave state with strong anti-Union sentiment. Detective-bodyguard Allen Pinkerton had to slip the new President through Baltimore in the dead of night and in disguise on the way to his inauguration in Washington. In cracking down on the disloyal element in Maryland, President Lincoln usurped Congress’s power to suspend habeas corpus and authorized arbitrary arrests, and went on to dispatch General McClellan to arrest Maryland legislators before they could meet to vote secession.

These Presidential actions may be described in history classes as having been necessary and in a good cause, but if practiced by a Central American ally today would rightly be denounced as ”despotic.”

If some student, lustily singing the state song in school assembly, is inspired by the once [and future] incendiary words to ask his teacher who the supposed despot was, or what the trouble in Baltimore was all about, does education suffer? Of course not; in our art and artifacts can be found the vestiges of the issues that aroused our ancestors, and we should do all we can to preserve rather than obliterate them.

Safire’s explanation that Lincoln’s actions in Maryland “if practiced by a Central American ally today would rightly be denounced as despotic,” also applies to elections during Reconstruction that took place under the glitter of Federal bayonets.

Although Maryland never joined the Confederacy, the story of why she didn’t merits scrutiny.

Shortly after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the cotton states rebellion, Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks convened a special session of the legislature on April 26, 1861. Since Hicks was a Union-loyal man he did not want the session held in the state capital at Annapolis because of the prevailing Southern attitudes in the eastern part of the state. Therefore he chose Frederick, which was a strongly pro-Union town northwest of Washington.

The session starting on April 26 adjourned on August 7 without voting to secede but agreeing to reconvene again in Frederick on September 17. However, the April-to-August session did approve two items hostile to the federal government. First, it voted to refuse to reopen railroad connections to the Northern states that were cut when bridges north of Baltimore were destroyed four days after Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Second, it passed and delivered a resolution to President Lincoln protesting Union occupation of the state.

After the Confederate victory at First Bull Run on July 21, Southern sentiment gained potency in Maryland. Another Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri the following month strengthened the impression that the Confederacy would win its independence. (It would be another six months before a significant Union victory would suggest otherwise.) By mid-September many legislatures increasingly believed Maryland could join the winning side by seceding whereas picking the winning side earlier appeared to be a more speculative matter.

Although Maryland voters had previously chosen their legislators in free elections, President Lincoln concluded he would selectively prevent those representatives suspected of harboring pro-secession attitudes from attending. Consequently, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus and arbitrarily arrested legislators presumed to be pro-Confederate. He never brought any of them to trial for the simple reason that they had not committed any crime.

Thirty-one legislators were arrested. Many others were prevented from attending because they realized that if they journeyed to Frederick they too would be jailed if Lincoln suspected them of Southern sympathies.

While nobody can know whether Lincoln’s “intervention” (usurpation?) prevented Maryland’s secession, at least one authoritative participant said that it did. Specifically, Assistant Secretary of State Fred Seward—son of Secretary of State William H. Seward—who was directly involved in the arrests, wrote that he believed the 17 September session of the Maryland General Assembly would have voted to secede if legislators had been permitted to freely attended. It was only by illegally blocking them that Maryland artificially remained in the Union.

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