(June 23, 2018) In the nineteenth century, banker J. P. Morgan once observed, “A man always has two reasons for the things he does—a good one and the real one.” He was implying that the good reason is a false, benevolent explanation that conceals the real self-serving one.
Consider, for example, that historians who came of age during the 1960s civil rights era or later, such as Eric Foner and his acolytes, almost universally explain that President Grant and the Republican Party insisted upon voting rights for ex-slaves as a moral conviction. In contrast, earlier historians—and contemporaries of the Reconstruction Era—often admit that there was a self-serving explanation as well.
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Specifically, Republicans realized that they could lose control in Washington if the Southern states re-entered the Union without a significant Republican voting bloc, which almost certainly would have happened if whites dominated the Southern electorate. The infant GOP was vulnerable because at the end of the war it was only twelve years old and its members were predominantly Northerners. But they soon realized that continued Republican control of Washington could be assured through two federal actions. First was to create a Republican-loyal constituency out of the freed slaves, which accounted for 40% of the former Confederacy’s population. Second was to shrink the South’s opposing electorate and power by denying voter and office-holding rights to many former Confederates.
The impact was almost immediate. During the first presidential election after the war in 1868 President-elect Ulysses Grant lost the white vote of the entire nation. His ultimate 53% popular vote majority resulted from an overwhelming sweep of Southern blacks.
Although modern historians applaud Reconstruction Era Republicans for advocating black civil rights they generally decline to mention that the Party failed to protect other racial minorities that were not solidly Republican. In fact, the Republican-sponsored 1866 Civil Rights Act and the three constitutional amendments of the era mostly ignored “non-white” American residents who were not black. The Party did nothing for abused racial minorities such as Indians and Chinese-Americans. (Both groups were legally considered “non-white.”) It also used federal powers to suppress the immigrant vote in Northern big cities because recent immigrants tended to vote Democratic.
Consider the case of Asian-Americans. Two thirds of the lynching victims in California between 1849 and 1902 were Chinese. America’s biggest lynching happened in Los Angeles in 1871 when nineteen were lynched, including one woman. Although California had far fewer lynchings than the South, the number of Chinese-Americans in the state never topped 10% until late in the 20th century and few were permitted to vote until 1943. Just imagine the greater white violence against Chinese-Americans that might have resulted in California if the Asian immigrants had been permitted to vote while representing as large a share of the population as the 40% that blacks did in the South.
Since Californians recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment would automatically bestow citizenship on the offspring of Chinese-Americans born in the USA, they took three actions to minimize such possibilities.
First, they persuaded the Republican-controlled Congress to pass the 1875 Page Act that blocked Chinese women from immigrating at a time when nearly all of the Chinese in America were males. Second, in 1905 California passed a miscegenation law, which prevented Chinese and white intermarriage. Third, despite the results of the Civil War, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in People v. Brady (40 Cal. 198 – 1870) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to California because it was a “sovereign state.” California basically nullified, with impunity, a part of the U. S. Constitution that it did not like. But it was just such a nullification among Southern states that was taken as the official reason for the Civil War. The same constitutional principle was not applied to California because . . . well, that’s different, see?
There is no denying that much of the nineteenth century hostility toward Chinese-Americans also came from the white laboring classes of the Democratic Party that competed for employment with the Asian immigrants. The key point, however, is that the GOP hypocritically limited its concern for minority suffrage and civil rights to Republican-loyal black voters and ignored other “non-white” minorities. As a result, it is difficult to conclude that Reconstruction Era Republicans were genuinely interested in minority rights, except for the solitary minority of blacks that would keep the Party in power.
The recent lawsuit involving Harvard University’s admissions discrimination against Asian-Americans demonstrates that the group continues to suffer racial injustices. Once again Asian-Americans find they are dismissed by one of the major political parties, although this time it is the Democrats doing the rejecting. And once again they are ignored for a similar reason as during Reconstruction. Specifically, this time they are not sufficiently Democrat-loyal and simultaneously a large enough group to swing the Washington power balance toward the “Happy Days” party. Such factors may explain why Democrats focus attention on other disadvantaged minorities such as Latinos and blacks that generally vote overwhelming for the Party’s candidates.
Recent developments in illegal immigration on the Southern border underscore how the Reconstruction Era Republicans and present day Democrats seem to fulfill J. P. Morgan’s adage. Just as Reconstruction Republicans wanted the black vote in order to assure GOP control in Washington, it is hard to avoid concluding that today’s Democrats want illegal immigrants released into America’s interior because they want the future votes such families can provide via anchor babies and similar factors. For example, Washington Post columnist Max Boot not only condemns the Asian-American lawsuit against Harvard but also argues that the only way to keep illegal immigrant families intact is to release them thereby providing future voters for Democrats.