Tag Archives: Gilded Age

My New Book: U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency

(March 7, 2019) Earlier today my newest book, U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency was released and is now available at Amazon. The paperback is $19.95 and the Kindle is $4.95. There are 230 pages, thirty-one illustrations, 250 footnotes and a bibliography.

The book examines the eighteenth president free from the hagiographic bias that has dominated Grant biographies during the past thirty years.

Given his acclaim for having won the Civil War, no leader was better positioned to reunite the country “with malice toward none and charity for all” as the earlier martyred wartime President Abraham Lincoln intended. Unfortunately, Grant put his own and Republican Party interests ahead of the country’s needs. Although he benefitted personally from eight years in the White House, his Administration was rife with corruption while his Reconstruction policies left the South impoverished and burdened with racial unrest for more than a century.

Those wanting to buy a signed copy should email me at phil_leigh(AT)me.com. The price is $19.95 plus $3.50 shipping in the USA.

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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Washington Post: Reconstruction Op-Ed

Two historians recently wrote an Op-Ed at the Washington Post recommending that the federal government fund a Reconstruction Memorial in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Every reason cited involved the black experience. There was no mention of non-blacks except to remark that “20th century…white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake.”  Regrettably the remark seems to falsely imply that anyone identifying non-racial faults with Reconstruction is a white supremacist. In truth, however, the consequences of Reconstruction were far more multiracial and lasted much longer than the currently popular race-centric narrative suggests.

1938 Black Sharecroppers

1938 Black Sharecroppers

The elephant in the room is Southern poverty. A century after the end of the Civil War eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 report on Southern economic conditions disclosed that whites comprised half of the region’s sharecroppers and two-thirds of its almost equally destitute tenant farmers. Roosevelt’s report stated univocally that white sharecroppers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.”

Sharecropper incomes ranged from $38 to $87 annually in 1938 thereby equating to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. By comparison during the depression that followed the 1873 Financial Panic sixty-five years earlier, the Ohio Department of Labor Statistics estimated the poverty line at one dollar a day.

1938 White Sharecroppers

1938 White Sharecroppers

Shortly after the Great Depression of the 1930s began, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan—honored presently by the MIT Sloan School of Management—voluntarily cut his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by Mississippi’s two million residents that year. Widespread Southern poverty also led to lower life expectancies. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, for example, South Carolina was in 1930 the only state with as much as half of its population under the age of twenty.

The Post editorialists ignore the national agendas that contributed toward protracted Southern poverty. Examples include high protective tariffs that averaged 45% for fifty years after the war, generous Union Veterans pensions that did not even stop growing until 1921 and approximated 40% of the federal budget in 1893, discriminatory railroad freight rates, discriminatory banking regulations, absentee ownership of Southern resources, lax monopoly regulation, and the requirement (after termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1870) that the nearly indigent Southern states alone bear the financial burden to educate the children of former slaves even though emancipation was a national policy.

Another common flaw of modern Reconstruction historians is their failure to adequately examine how developments in one part of the country affected other parts. The Post Op-Ed makes no mention of such intersectional factors. There is instead a tendency to portray the “white supremacist” South as an evil twin to the rest of the country and largely responsible for today’s lingering racial problems. At the least, however, a valid picture of Reconstruction requires knowledge of how the Gilded Age in the North impacted the South. The experience of Amos Akerman is an example.

Five years after Akerman served as a Confederate quartermaster during the Civil War, President Ulysses Grant appointed him attorney general. He was the most vigorous of Grant’s five attorneys general in pursuit of Southern racial justice. After only a year in office, however, Grant abruptly asked him to resign after Akerman had taken actions contrary to the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad and railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould. Akerman’s replacement would later resign amid bribery accusations.

In short, the interpretations of many modern Reconstruction historians focus too much on racial injustices and not enough on the political and economic factors affecting all races of Southerners. At best, such historians are substituting one mythology for another. Their narratives are driven by the zeitgeist of our era and ignore the wisdom expressed by Carlos Eire who was a child refugee from Castro’s Cuba and won the National Book Award for his memoir of his escape and re-settlement in America: “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.”