Pious Cause Mythology

(November 28, 2017) Given that “Lost Cause Mythology” has mutated into a phrase synonymous with racism, a contra-term is required for the false belief that nineteenth century Republicans advocated for Southern blacks purely on the merits of racial justice. One choice might be “Pious Cause Mythology.”

One “Pious Cause Mythologist” suggests, for example, that the claim of a “white Northern Retreat from Reconstruction” is a dubious “trope.” Since he is among those who will most readily label others as “Lost Cause” proponents and portray them as racists, perhaps he will consider evidence from a Reconstruction-era black leader that validates the very “trope” he doubts.

Specifically, in September 1874 Mississippi carpetbag Governor Adelbert Ames asked President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to protect black voters in the November election. Grant declined and Mississippi Republicans lost decisively at the polls. Ames ever afterward blamed the defeat on Grant’s failure to send protecting federal troops.

Only after about four decades was the reason for Grant’s inaction made public when one of the Mississippi Republican congressmen who survived the election debacle explained what happened. Specifically, a former mulatto Congressman named John Lynch revealed that Grant had told him in November 1874 that Mississippi was politically sacrificed to Ohio.

Specifically, Ohio Republicans worried that they could lose their autumn elections if Grant intervened in Mississippi. Like many Americans, Ohioans were appalled when Grant’s federal troops forcibly installed a Republican regime in Louisiana that included one of his own brothers-in-law after the 1872 elections. The Ohioans urged that he keep federal troops out of Mississippi, and the President complied. Significantly, there is good reason to believe that the Ohio worries were justified because the state’s legislature adopted a resolution condemning Grant for interfering a second time in Louisiana after December 1874.

In short, a contemporary black leader disclosed that Grant confessed to him that the President “Retreated from Reconstruction” in Mississippi for purely political reasons that favored Northern Republicans over Southern (mostly black) Republicans. Thus, in order to reconcile history to their agenda some “Pious Cause Mythologists” might feel compelled to try to discredit Lynch’s statement, but…could that be racist?

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Why Civil War History Needs Shelby Foote

(November 26, 2017) In a recent article a Rice University PhD student urges that the twenty-five year old Ken Burns PBS Civil War documentary be re-released in a form that eliminates Shelby Foote’s contributions due to Foote’s alleged racism and supposed endorsement of Lost Cause Mythology. Specifically, William R. Black writes:

I think…some historians…would like a fan-edit of The Civil War sansFoote. Shelby Foote makes some eighty more appearances in the documentary than Barbara Fields, who is The Civil War’s only black historian—and an actual trained historian, unlike the novelist from Greenville, Mississippi…[who] repeats the chief myths of the Lost Cause…

Black thereby argues that Foote’s contributions should be altogether removed for three reasons. First, he was not African-American. Second, his was a novelist instead of a “trained historian”. Third, he was from Greenville, Mississippi. Given Foote’s three presumed flaws, Black went hunting for evidence of the author’s racism and commitment the Lost Cause legend in Conversations With Shelby Foote, which is a compilation of interviews published in 1989.

Out of nearly three hundred pages Black cited one paragraph where Foote opined that blacks sometimes “celebrated” their long delayed freedom violently. Black promptly reasoned that two-plus-two added to sixteen. He condemned Foote for “invoking the very [black-men-are-violent] mythology used to justify lynchings in the early twentieth century.” But if Black had bothered to look elsewhere and correctly add two-plus-two to get four, he would have found abundant evidence that Foote was sympathetic to the difficulties of African-Americans.

One example is in the afterword of the second volume of Foote’s Civil War Narrative that was published in midst of the civil rights era in 1963, twenty-six years before Conversations with Shelby Foote was released.

…I am also obligated to the governors of my native sate [Mississippi] and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing in their actions during the several years that went into the writing of this volume, much of what was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln.

If he had tried, Black could have found even more evidence of Foote’s progressive racial attitudes, criticisms of white Southerners and rejection of Lost Cause Mythology within the very interview he cited. On page 253, for example, Foote says, “I put a very high value on the injustices I saw [in the South], especially with regard to blacks, which taught me a great deal.” Other examples include:

Q: Do we still have any problems today that brought the Civil War to a head?
A: Oh, absolutely. It doesn’t matter whether you are opposed to slavery, or peonage, or segregation. They’re all problems…
Q: How do you account for the awful things that happened [during 1960s integration in the South]?
A: I blame the “decent people” for…[letting the riff-raff take over]…They [decent people] were wrong. They were wrong as they could be, and they know that now.
Q: Was this a loss of nerve…?
A:…It [originally] happened in Reconstruction…our grandfathers had a great chance to do the thing right. But it was a missed chance. They held the Negro down and left him for us to deal with when he finally busted out.

Q: What do you think of “Gone With the Wind”?
A: …I don’t think it amounts to anything.

Although attempts to discredit Shelby Foote’s Civil War Narrative on the alleged basis of racism and Southern bias are popular among today’s “trained historians,” their efforts are probably motivated by jealousy. Foote is more popular and writes far superior history. No doubt “trained historians” see red when they read comments such as:

Carr: You wouldn’t advise the life of the academy?
Foote: I would advise against it as strongly as I could.
Carr: What do you think about…[academic] writers getting grants and living from grant to grant?
Foote: I think grants are a bad thing for young, beginning writers…It is very important that you make your living, pitifully poor…though it may be, with your pen. It gives you a sense of accomplishment,…which a grant will interfere with.
Carr: I know a guy who drank up two Rockefeller [Foundation] grants and doesn’t have a word to show for it.
Foote: Sure.

Unfortunately, too many “trained historians” are soaking up grant after grant and giving donors nothing valuable in return. Typically all that results is more spin on the same Pious Cause Mythology that has dominated Civil War and Reconstruction interpretation for fifty years. The surge of Ulysses Grant hagiographies is merely the latest cultural expression of the disease. The most objective books on Ulysses Grant, for example, result from independent work by authors such as Frank Varney and Joseph Rose. Civil War era research would benefit if the federal government discontinued financial grants for five to ten years thereby forcing “trained historians”—and their PhD students—to challenge the hidebound mantras of the last fifty years.

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A Review of Chernow’s Grant

The Ongoing Civil War

The deification of Ulysses S. Grant has now reached apotheosis. For decades readers have been treated to sympathetic portrayals of Grant. Although popular enough books, the kind of work that can inspire a heavily biased but well composed musical is at long last here. In the war to make Grant great again, this is Appomattox the sequel.

I will give Chernow some credit. He is a solid writer, if a bit too detailed at times. Unlike the other Grant apologists he does not sweep his drinking under the rug. I really appreciated this part, since it makes Grant more human.

Of the rest of the book I have little good to say. I read it alongside T. Harry Williams’ account of Beauregard. Williams was fair to a talented and complicated man. Chernow has come not to bury Grant but to praise him, and there is a lot of praise here.

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Chernow’s Spin on President Grant Gives Whiplash

(November 23, 2017)       True history is the final fiction. – Gore Vidal

Unfortunately, the new surge of Ulysses Grant biographies compete with one another to saturate readers with “true history” in the Vidal context. While recent posts offer several examples of politically correct falsehoods, misrepresentations and omissions, Ron Chernow’s biography delivers yet another. He fails to fault President Grant for backing a wicked Louisiana state government that unnecessarily provoked white resentment thereby leading to racial violence. Moreover, he fails to investigate whether Grant personally profited by doing so.

Specifically, Grant used military force to buttress carpetbag Governor William P. Kellogg’s regime that counted a Grant brother-in-law—James F. Casey—among its leaders. As customs tax collector in New Orleans, Casey held one of America’s most lucrative federal patronage posts. Moreover, Chernow fails to even consider whether the President may have profited personally from Casey’s activities. The author begins as follows:

Although Kellogg emerged victorious, his foes refused to concede the [1872] election, which had been marked by illegalities on both sides.

The undisclosed story behind the phrase, “emerged victorious,” undermines Chernow’s credibility. Specifically, Kellogg did not “emerge victorious” in the balloting; he “emerged victorious” as a result of a questionable intervention by a possibly corrupt federal judge.

First, Chernow imprecisely identifies Kellogg’s opposing candidate, John McEnry, as a “Democrat.” In truth, McEnry was on both the Liberal Republican and Democratic tickets, as was Presidential candidate Horace Greely, who lost to Grant that year.

Second, the state government settled Chernow’s “illegalities on both sides” in favor of McEnry where he admittedly benefitted from the near dictatorial powers of the incumbent carpetbag governor who opposed Kellogg. As future governor, however, Kellogg would proceed to use even greater dictatorial powers to perpetuate his own interests, as well as those of Washington Republicans. He would, for example, steal the 1876 presidential election for “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But that’s another story, and a good one.

Third, Kellogg appealed to Louisiana’s only federal judge, Edward Durell, to block McEnry’s inauguration. Although mostly criticized in Louisiana and the South, the interference of a federal judge in a state election was questioned all over America. It had no basis in law but for the 1870 Enforcement Act passed two years earlier.

The act essentially enabled the federal government to step-in anytime a carpetbag regime complained that Southern whites had intimidated black voters. Judge Durell suspiciously declared a hastily organized Kellogg-dominated Election Returning Board as the only legitimate board thereby arbitrarily putting Kellogg into the governor’s office.

Fourth, in January 1874 the House Judiciary Committee in Washington started to investigate Durell. Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Butler chaired the Committee. Butler, it should be noted, had few native Louisiana friends because of his confiscatory policies as commander of the New Orleans occupation army during the Civil War.

The Committee voted six-to-five to impeach Judge Durell for systematic bribery in bankruptcy cases and for exceeding his authority in the 1872 elections. After the 1874 elections increased the Democratic majority in the House and because he felt the Senate would convict him, Durell resigned.

In sum, Kellogg “emerged victorious” because a federal judge that Congress appeared likely to impeach only two years later unilaterally selected Kellogg as the winner. While the anger among Louisiana whites provoked by Judge Durell and Governor Kellogg does not justify racial violence, it verifies that resentment toward Kellogg was not a mere byproduct of endemic Southern racism as Chernow implies. Although a currently popular interpretation, the implication is merely the latest fiction.

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Presidents Trump and Grant

(November 10, 2017) How would today’s intelligentsia react if President Trump prohibited his Attorney General from plea-bargaining with witnesses whose testimony might convict someone in the White House of participating in a massive multiyear bribery scandal?

If the reactions of most modern Ulysses Grant biographers guide us, they’d have no problem. Even though that’s precisely what President Grant did, today’s academics normally censure earlier historians for condemning the corruption in his Administration instead of strictly praising him for his civil rights actions.

In the first year of his eight year presidency, Grant appointed an old army buddy, General John McDonald, as collector of internal revenue in the Midwest in 1869. Although tariffs were the chief source of federal taxes there were also some taxes on the “internal” economy. The prime sources of such “internal revenue” were the tax stamps required on bottles of distilled liquors. For six years after his appointment, McDonald permitted distillers in his region to pay only a small fraction of the tax in exchange for bribes.

When President Grant replaced Treasury Secretary William Richardson in 1874 because of Richardson’s connections to a separate federal tax collection scandal, the President felt compelled to choose a reform-minded successor. His choice of Benjamin Bristow was widely applauded owing to Bristow’s reputation for honesty.

Bristow promptly uncovered McDonald’s Whisky Tax fraud. A year after taking office the new Treasury Secretary’s investigation resulted in three hundred indictments against whisky distillers and government employees. However, after Bristow told Grant that one of the President’s personal White House aides, Orville Babcock, was increasingly suspected as being “the head and center of all the frauds,” the Treasury Secretary suddenly became persona non grata with Grant.

The President first tried to get Babcock’s case transferred to a military court because the aide was an army officer. After that failed, he instructed his Attorney General that Whisky Ring prosecutors must not be permitted to offer any more plea bargains. Finally, Grant provided a deposition attesting to Babcock’s character and integrity. As a result, Babcock was acquitted at trial but thereafter put at an increasing distance by Grant.

Many Grant biographers—even among today’s hagiographers—question Babcock’s acquittal. Owing to a technicality, the sequestered jury was denied knowledge of condemning evidence that was known to newspaper readers. Thus, Grant biographer Charles Calhoun wrote, “Still, despite his [Babcock’s] acquittal, the evidence known to the public left his reputation beyond repair.”

Yet, at most, biographers only mildly fault Grant. Furthermore, most reject the logical suspicion suggested by Grant’s quick about-face toward Bristow, to wit Grant may have been guilty himself. In fact, one of Bristow’s clerks told fellow Kentuckian and future Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, “What has hurt Bristow worst of all and disheartened him is the final conviction that Grant himself is in the [corruption] Ring and knows all about [it].”

Unlike Babcock, General McDonald was sentenced to three years in prison where he wrote a book about the scandal that indicated Babcock belonged in jail with him. Even more surprisingly, McDonald suggested that President Grant also profited from the bribes, although he never gave any proof. Suspiciously, however, during his lame duck presidency, Grant pardoned McDonald in January 1877 after the former tax collector had served less than half of his three-year sentence.

Some Grant hagiographers applaud him for moving Babcock out of the White House after the latter was dubiously acquitted. Yet Babcock’s remaining post of supervising public buildings in the District of Columbia put him in contact with Alexander “Boss” Shepherd who was the political boss of the District. Shepherd was notorious for excessive municipal spending whose chief beneficiaries were allied real estate developers and other Shepherd business associates.

Babcock was soon in court again, this time charged with helping corrupt D.C. building contractors plant false evidence in an investigation against them. Although he was acquitted on the evidence-planting charge, Babcock may well have profited from his association with the contractors.

Although Benjamin Bistrow hoped to be elected President in 1876 to succeed Grant, it was not to be. Grant had become an implacable Bistrow enemy who spitefully opposed the latter’s candidacy at every turn.

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This series of posts on Grant’s presidency started with a quote by Alexander Dumas— “The difference between a traitor and a patriot is a matter of dates.” The story above suggests that it might be paraphrased when comparing Grant to Trump:

Among today’s intelligentsia the difference between a civil rights hero and a crook may be a matter of dates.

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