Monthly Archives: January 2018

Gilded Age Historian Speaks a Truth

(January 29, 2018) In his recent Oxford history of the United States from 1865 to 1896, Richard White admits a truth that modern Reconstruction Era historians generally refuse to concede. Specifically when writing of the Southern carpetbag regimes in The Republic for Which it Stands White says, “The corruption of the Republican governments and the high taxes for small landowners were not just Democratic slanders; they were Republican failures.” To be sure, the author also chants the familiar mantra about white Southern “terrorists.” But at least he affirms that corrupt carpetbaggers were a significant cause of Reconstruction’s failure.

In contrast, the leading Reconstruction Era historian, Eric Foner, generally dismisses carpetbag corruption by noting that all of America was rife with corruption at the time.  Similarly, modern Ulysses  Grant biographies usually fail to admit that the reprehensible ethics in Washington during his presidency radiated across the country as a model for local governments. Perhaps nowhere was the pernicious effect more pronounced than in the carpetbag governments, which were the very offspring of Washington Republicans.

But even White fails to realize how the carpetbagger’s “high taxes for small landowners” contributed to racial animosity. Here’s what happened.

The carpetbag regimes had two ways to raise money. First was to sell bonds, which the taxpayers of the applicable state would ultimately have to repay. Second was to collect taxes, mainly property taxes. Both were abused and the victims were chiefly white property owners because few blacks owned land. Yet, under the guidance of the Union Leagues and the Freedman’s Bureau, ex-slaves overwhelmingly voted for Republicans who would flood the state governments with money. Even though nearly all of the funds raised went to carpetbaggers, scalawags and other politically connected whites, black leaders got a small share. Ex-slaves found it hard to reject even the small slices when it was the white property owner that paid the bill and when it was within the power of non-taxpaying black voters to kick the consequences of the Ponzi scheme down the road.

Such circumstances were bound to create, or amplify, racial animosity. This was especially true among whites who lost their homes through tax deficiency sales.

In short, modern historians generally fail to appreciate that the carpetbag regimes could not have survived after they became perpetually insolvent. Unlike the federal government, no state government is allowed to sustain deficit spending forever. They are generally subject to the same requirements to ultimately live within their financial means as any individual citizen. Moreover, the economies of the underlying states would be wrecked as an ever-growing number of small landowners went bankrupt. Under such circumstances, taxpayers—whether they be black, white, green or even Yankee—are certain to eventually eject the financially irresponsible government, one way or another.

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Robert Krick on Confederate Monuments

(January 26, 2018) In the excerpt below Civil War author Robert Krick offers pithy comments about those who want to remove, or destroy, Confederate monuments.

Krick then lobs a dead cat into the moral reformer worship service: “It is impossible to imagine a United States in the current atmosphere that does not include zealots eager to obliterate any culture not precisely their own, destroying monuments in the fashion of Soviets after a purge and antiquities in the manner of ISIS. The trend is redolent of the misery that inundated the planet during the aptly named Dark Ages, arising from savages who believed, as a matter of religion in that instance, that anyone with opinions different from their own was not just wrong, but craven and evil, and must be brutalized into conformity.”

The above is excepted from Old Virginia Blog, which is excerpted from the October, 2017 issue of Civil War Times.

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The Wisdom of J. P. Morgan

(January 24, 2018) J. P. Morgan once said “A man always has two reasons for the things he does­—a good one and the real one.” The legendary banker was implying that the “good” reason is a false, benevolent explanation that conceals the true self-serving one.

Consider, for example, the current political debate over youthful illegal immigrants under the rubric of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.) Democrats generally want to set minimal requirements for DACA citizenship. They promote their position with noble-sounding slogans such as, “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It is who we are as Americans,” and etc.

But Republicans mostly believe the Democrats have a second, unspoken, reason. Specifically, since recent immigrant citizens overwhelmingly vote Democratic, the GOP feels that the Democratic Party’s DACA stance is chiefly selfish. Even “no action” on DACA favors the Democrats, they believe, because the number of DACA illegals will eventually grow too large for Congress to resist the group’s demands to make them legal citizens. As a rejoinder to Democratic sloganeering, the GOP replies, “We either have a country or we don’t.”

A similar situation prevailed 150 years ago when the postbellum Republican Party advocated black suffrage. Modern historians commonly attribute the infant GOP’s motive to a push for racial equality. They generally minimize the fact that ex-slaves voted robotically for Republicans. They downplay the point even though freedmen were an especially powerful voting block in the eleven former Confederate states where they represented 40% of the population and carpetbag governments often blocked ex-Confederates from voting or holding office thereby putting the black electorate in control. Republican Ulysses Grant, for example, won only a minority of America’s white popular vote in the 1868 presidential election.

The recent federal government shutdown is causing many Americans to ponder whether the Democratic Party’s stance on DACA is a morally superior position, or merely a selfish one. Presumably, time will reveal our verdict and future historians will report it as the accepted narrative. As students of the Civil War era, the present might also be a good time to consider whether the postbellum Republican Party motives for black suffrage were primarily driven by morality, or self-interest.

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Some Reconstruction Era Republicans Admit Party Racism

(January 11, 2018) As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, modern historians are generally less willing to examine the political motivations that partially, perhaps chiefly, motivated Reconstruction Era Republicans to support suffrage for African-Americans. Instead, as in recent Ulysses Grant biographies, the motivation is generally portrayed as an enlightened advocacy for racial equality.

If the racial-equality interpretation is valid, however, then Republicans should have favored suffrage for all racial minorities. . . but they did not. For example, they did nothing to help Chinese-Americans who were the most common lynching victims in nineteenth century California. In fact, America’s biggest lynching happened in Los Angeles in 1871, in the middle of the Reconstruction Era. The victims were Chinese-Americans.

Finally, a minority of delegates at the Republican convention in 1876 disclosed the  hypocrisy implicit in the eleventh plank of the Party’s platform:

It is the immediate duty of congress fully to investigate the effects of the immigration and importation of Mongolians on the moral and material interests of the country.

When a minority of delegates objected that the plank contradicted the Party’s traditional stance on racial equality they were voted down 532-to-215. Only 29% of the delegates supported them. During the floor debate delegates in favor of the plank explained that it was intended to protect white Westerners from unfair coolie labor and Chinese prostitutes.

In short, it appears that Republicans were interested in black suffrage, instead of minority suffrage per se, for two reasons. First, they knew that blacks could be counted  as reliable GOP voters. Moreover, blacks represented a large voting block by composing 40% of the population in the former Confederate states. Second, in contrast, Chinese-Americans were a tiny voting block. For example, they were most prevalent in California where they never represented more than 10% of the population. From a political viewpoint, Republicans had more to lose by alienating white workers than they could gain from Chinese-Americans by supporting racial equality for the latter.

To be sure, the Democratic Party was also hostile toward Chinese-Americans. The key difference is that the GOP limited its concern for minority suffrage and civil rights to Republican-loyal black voters and largely ignored the plight of other “non-white” minorities. (They were also hostile toward Native Americans and the ethnic minorities of recent immigrants such as Irish Catholics.) As a result, it is difficult to conclude that Republicans were genuinely interested in minority rights, except for the solitary minority that would help keep the Party in power. Such a conclusion changes the complexion of the currently dominant Reconstruction interpretation that minimizes Republican Party self-interest.

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Politics of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act

(January  10, 2018) The 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act gave the federal government sweeping powers to intervene in state elections whenever Republicans were suspicious that either voter fraud or intimidation was present. It is popularly represented as an Act to enforce the voting rights of post Civil War blacks—but not other racial or ethnic minorities—under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

The Act allowed President Grant to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in geographic areas were he felt Republican votes were under-counted or blocked through intimidation. Thus, he could empower federal marshals to arrest anyone without needing to charge them with a crime. It was the first peacetime application of such power. Since the Klan was relatively inactive in 1868, Grant did not need the Act in order to be elected that year to his first term as President. The Act was adopted only later, in order to insure Republican victories in future elections, after the Klan started to reduce Republican power in the South.

As the table below documents, Republicans held 84% of the seats in the Senate and 72% of those in the House in the Forty-First Congress when Grant moved into the White House. Generally, there was little Klan activity in the 1868 elections because Southern white Democrats hoped to win the black vote. But it was a forlorn hope. Grant won about 90% of the black vote. In fact, his black share was strong enough to offset the point that he received only a minority of white votes across the country. The natural tendency for Southern blacks to vote the Party of the Civil War’s Great Emancipator was amplified by the persuasion of the Union Leagues and the Freedmen’s Bureau, which were basically arms  of the Republican Party.

After Southern Democrats failed to win black votes in 1868, the Klan became aggressive. Consequently Republican power in the Senate, and particularly the House, declined in the Forty-Second Congress. Republican Senate seats dropped from 84% to 77% and House seats dropped from 72% to 57%. Thus, the Ku Klux Klan Act was a politically motivated response to a drop in Republican congressional representation.

As the table’s third column shows, the Act successfully increased Republican strength in the Forty-Third Congress, as intended. The Klan had ceased to be a factor.

In order to justify the Act, a joint Senate-House “Ku Klux Committee” took testimony to document Klan violence. Historians point to the Committee’s thirteen volume report for plenty of such evidence. Simultaneously, however, many modern historians often fail to explain that Democrats from ten of the eleven former Confederate states were not even members of Congress and could therefore not be assigned to the Committee.  That’s because all Southern  congressional representatives, except Virginia, were composed of Republican carpetbaggers or scalawags. Thus, the Committee made no meaningful inquiry into voter fraud by the Republican regimes that controlled the election machinery in the Southern states. Given the composition of the Committee, that would be like asking the criminal to investigate himself.

On January 9, 2018 the U. S House of Representatives passed 415-to-2 resolution supporting Iranian protestors. If Iran were to respond by holding “democratic” elections under the glitter Iranian Army bayonets, the House resolution implies that few Americans would consider such an election to be free. Yet many of today’s historians seem to teach students that the federal marshals and soldiers deployed in the South during Reconstruction were used to guarantee impartial elections. It’s the Devil’s own nonsense.

While a fair evaluation of Reconstruction should concede Southern racism, it should also admit that the Republican puppet regimes in the South were much more likely to commit voter fraud than out-of-power Southern whites.  After all, it was generally the Republicans who controlled the election machinery in each state. In fact, the 1872 elections in Louisiana were so obviously fraudulent that even the Republican Congress refused to seat members from either side.

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Was President Grant Personally Corrupt?

(January 1, 2018) The many hagiographies of Ulysses Grant  released in recent years—including three in 2017—commonly portray him as personally innocent of the corruption during his presidency. Instead he is painted as a naive victim of associates who betrayed him. But his pattern of accepting gifts from influence peddlers and his connections to others who admitted to, were hounded by, or resigned under, accusations of impropriety give ample reason to question Grant’s honesty.  His role in the Whiskey Ring tax evasion scandal merits particular scrutiny.

The episode enabled distillers to evade about two-third’s of the taxes they owned in exchange for bribes that were used to line the pockets of recipients and to fund the campaigns of Grant’s political allies. The evasion ended only because Grant was basically compelled to appoint reform-minded Benjamin Bristow as Treasury Secretary two years into the President’s second term because Bristow’s predecessor had resigned in disgrace for unrelated tax collection improprieties. Ultimately Bristow’s investigation led to the threshold of the presidency when Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was indicted as a leading Ring participant that involved hundreds of lower status members. According to General of the Army, William T. Sherman, “…those who go to see the President see Babcock first. He is a kind of intermediator between the people and the President.”

In the fall of the year 2000, Timothy Rives authored a good summary of the episode in Volume 32, Issue Number 3 of Prologue Magazine, which is published by the National Archives in an article titled, “Grant, Babcock and the Whiskey Ring.”

Grant responded to the accusations against Babcock as follows:

  1. Since Babcock was an army officer as well as a personal secretary, Grant tried to get the investigation shifted to the Army. The President even went so far as to name the Babcock-friendly judge advocate (military prosecutor) as well as the equally Grant-pliable officers for the tribunal. The Justice Department prosecutor in St. Louis blocked the move by correctly replying that he could not send his evidence to the distant military tribunal because it was illegal to remove evidence from the court of jurisdiction. 
  2. Next, Grant hired a spy—at taxpayer expense—to infiltrate the St. Louis prosecutor’s office and report everything he learned. The spy, however, eventually sided with the prosecutors after Babcock told him to destroy all the evidence he could get his hands on.
  3. After an assistant prosecutor suggested in his jury summation that the President had usurped Bristow’s authority when he blocked the Secretary’s order (months earlier) to replace a Treasury employee and suspected Ring leader in St. Louis, Grant instructed his Attorney General to fire the assistant. (The St. Louis suspect was, in fact, convicted.) When Nixon tried the same thing a century later the attempt was widely condemned and became known as Watergate’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”
  4. After Babcock was indicted President Grant directed that his Attorney General no longer permit the prosecution team to arrange plea bargains with lower level Ring participants in exchange for testimony against those with higher status. Although Congress would criticize the directive, Grant got away with it. Consider how the course of history might have changed if John Dean had been prohibited to plea bargain for his testimony against Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
  5. After A. E. Willson replaced one of the convicted Treasury clerks he wrote future Supreme Court Justice John Harlan two days before Babcock’s trail began, “What has hurt Bristow worst of all & most disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the Ring and knows all about [it.]”

If Grant was not guilty, he certainly acted a lot like Richard Nixon, or like Nixon might have acted. First, he hired a spy to infiltrate the prosecution office, much like Nixon’s plumbers. Second, he fired a prosecuting attorney for citing facts unfavorable to the President, which was similar to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. Third, he ordered his Attorney General cease plea bargainings because they would make higher level government employees more vulnerable to conviction.

Are many of today’s Grant biographers corruption apologists?