26. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory


Professor David Blight:
In his little novel The Hamlet, William Faulkner has
a line he puts in the mouth of one of his characters.
It’s one of the Snopes’. There’s lots of Snopes’ in
Faulkner’s novels, especially that novel.
It comes from the deep, dark heart, as only Faulkner
really wrote it, of the burden of the past,
of memory of slavery, the Civil War,
and Reconstruction on the South, but he’s really referring
to all of us, he’s referring to humanity.
It’s one of the best single sentence descriptive
explanations of what happened to the legacy and memory of all
these events I’ve ever read. He has his character say,
“Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what
they ain’t brave enough to try to cure.”
I’ll do it once more. “Only thank God men have done
learned how to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to
cure.” Can’t solve that problem,
weighed down too heavily by that problem,
don’t have the solutions for all the world’s ills,
it’s an ancient problem, it’s a natural problem,
forget it, try to forget it. Structure ways to forget it.
Americans weren’t forgetting by 1876, at least in a host of
ways. They were about to have the
magnificent centennial of their independence.
Now that year will bring, as we’ll see in a moment,
a pivotal election, to say the least.
It’ll end in a disputed–the first–not the first,
really the second–great disputed election in American
history, and a sordid political
compromise that most of us in textbooks and in teaching still
call the end of Reconstruction. But I’m going to leave that
question of when Reconstruction ended to all the great
forthcoming books of my various graduate students who are going
to solve that issue, and I’m going to probably
suggest before we finish that it’s never quite ended.
But listen to just a couple of the public commentaries,
that year, of America’s centennial of independence and
what they were thinking about. The New York Evening Post
announced: “The great work of the
century,” it said, “is finished,
and the year which is about to dawn will be the very first one
wholly free from the duty of dealing with the old and
dangerous subject. Slavery died in this country
ten years ago, but not until now have we
finished the work of readjusting our national life to the new
order of things. Not until now have the
questions which grew out of slavery been fully and finally
settled. Not until now have the echoes
of the war died out of our politics and our lives.”
Just listen to how conclusive that is–it’s over folks.
Or the Springfield Republican,
a Republican Party paper, an old abolitionist paper,
1876: “We must get rid of the Southern question.
There is no chance or hope of healthy politics until we do get
rid of it. So long as the war issues are
capable of being warmed over, from year to year,
and election to election, so long as a large section of
the country is disturbed by violence and paralyzed by
misgovernment, so long as white is arrayed
against black, so long will our politics be
feverish with this disease.” Multiple choice question:
what’s the disease? You can make up the answers and
you can pick. Or the New York Times,
not a liberal paper in these years: “Ten years ago the North
was nearly united in a feeling of sympathy for the freedmen and
in a determination to defend their rights.
Now, not a few believe that the rights of the whites are those
which have been infringed upon.” Historical memory is always a
contest, it’s always a struggle, it’s always a battle,
a debate over who gets to own it, control it,
narrate it, organize it, declare it.
And everybody was trying. But in Philadelphia they put on
the biggest show the United States had ever put on,
the biggest show the United States had ever attempted.
The United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in
1876, throughout that, from spring all the way through
the fall, was attended by–it’s really almost hard to
believe–but it was attended by ten million people.
That was close to one-fourth of the entire U.S.
population. Imagine today an exposition,
an event, attended–physically now, not on the Internet and
television–attended by one-quarter of us.
They had a wax replica of Cleopatra there,
a huge thing. What the hell that had to do
with the U.S. Centennial, God only knows.
But you know, when you want to be a great
country you got to reach over history and back to classical
times. The great theme of the
exposition, of course, though, was machines.
It was the Machine Age. It was the excitement of
technology. They had a telephone there,
a typewriter, an electric light,
a new floor-cloth called linoleum.
They celebrated packaged yeast and something called–are you
ready?–the internal combustion engine.
The Corliss steam engine. A gigantic thing,
it’s now today in the Smithsonian, in Washington–you
can see this, it’s an amazing thing.
It was 700 tons and forty-feet high, and people looked at it in
awe. This thing was going to make
energy, for the future. Machines and technology,
it was said, over and over and over and
over, were remaking American society,
would remake its future, and would make the United
States the greatest manufacturing,
industrial producing nation on earth.
True. All of this national
self-congratulation ignored or masked some of the less admiral
features of American life. And of course it would.
You don’t have a national centennial celebration and then
say, “Oh by the way, you can buy your ticket here to
celebrate and you can buy your ticket here to look at all of
our tragedies.” We don’t do that, do we?
But it doesn’t mean that history’s not happening.
The Pennsylvania and Massachusetts exhibitions–every
state had one–made no mention of the great labor strikes that
had just hit their states, even though twenty-seven of the
very textile mills that had just been struck in Fall River,
Massachusetts, exhibited their wares at the
exposition. There was no mention whatsoever
of the enduring economic depression, which was still
going on in 1876. There was a Women’s Pavilion,
added as an afterthought at the last minute.
It housed collections of needlework and weaving and
demonstrations of power looms. There were no mentions
whatsoever of women’s political subordination or activism,
the crusade for women’s suffrage which was going on
everywhere. Women suffragists tried to be
recognized and to protest, in fact, at the exhibition;
weren’t allowed to. Women’s place in this was
essentially apolitical. For African Americans there
were no exhibits at all about them.
They were even excluded from the construction crews that
built all the halls. There was something called a
Southern Restaurant, which according to the
guidebook featured, quote, “a band of old-time
plantation darkies performing songs.”
There was a bale of Benjamin Montgomery’s cotton,
from Davis Bend, Mississippi,
which won an agricultural medal at the exposition,
beating out cotton from all over the South and from Brazil
and from Egypt and the Fiji Islands and other places,
but no mention whatsoever made of the recent violent overthrow
of reconstruction in Mississippi.
American Indians were represented at the exposition
but almost exclusively depicted as a people of the past,
or as harmless and primitive noble savages.
They were either a vanishing Indian or an Indian of a kind of
cultural mystique, a deeply American mystique.
And then came the news right after the 4^(th) of July where
some real Indians rudely interrupted all the
celebrations. The news arrived that General
George Armstrong Custer had been defeated, indeed wiped out,
all his men killed–well almost all–by the Sioux,
led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse,
at a place called Little Bighorn.
Custer’s Last Stand, images of which would end up
behind the bar in every saloon west of the Mississippi,
and a hell of a lot of them east of the Mississippi,
for the rest of that century. That victory for the Indians,
of course, would be a pyrrhic victory in their struggle to
hold onto land, culture, place.
What was also occurring here, by 1876, of course,
the subtext of this great national celebration,
if not its central theme, was the sectional North/South
reunion, the great reconciliation from the Civil
War. Now one might say that’s
inevitable, it had to happen. I said this at the beginning of
our whole unit on Reconstruction,
the North and the South had to come back together.
The South wasn’t going to go somewhere, you couldn’t exile
them all to Brazil. But in that reconciliation,
as Faulkner said in that passage, there is a tremendous
amount of forgetting going on about that which people cannot
or will not cure. And what is going on in great
part is that peace among the whites that Frederick Douglass
had worried about the year before, in 1875.
Back up with me now though to 1874, at least quickly.
We’re going to look at two elections today,
which kind of move us toward what we can at least call some
vestige of an end of Reconstruction.
The 1874 congressional elections took on a significance
that off-year congressional elections don’t always have;
although we’ve had some of these kinds of off-year
congressional elections in our own lifetime,
in recent years. Like 1994, which you may or not
remember, when the Gingrich Republican movement took over
the Congress and after 40 years of Democratic rule they were
gone. And then in ’06,
the Democrats take back both houses of Congress,
etcetera. In essence, the ’74
congressional elections were a referendum on Reconstruction.
You’ll remember the Slaughterhouse case had
come out in ’73. The Depression had set in
surely by 1874, deeply, and certainly by the
fall elections of 1874. This became the great takeover
of Congress by the Democratic Party, so under duress since the
Civil War, since they had been the party,
in many ways, that had not favored the war
for the Union or the war to free the slaves.
And its coverage in the press after this tells it all.
The Buffalo Advertiser says, in the wake of it,
its headline: “Republican Party Struck by
Lightening,” it said. Or another newspaper,
the Louisville Courier Journal, a Democratic paper,
said, headline: “Busted, the Radical Machine
Gone to Smash.” But what happened was this.
The Democrats captured the House of Representatives.
It went from a Republican majority of 110–that’s how many
more Republicans there were than Democrats on the eve of this
election. This is the Republican Party
now that has run Congress, since Abraham Lincoln’s
election. For the whole Civil War and
Reconstruction it’s been a Republican Congress.
They went from a Republican majority of 110 overnight to a
Democratic Party majority of sixty.
In the wake of the election there were 109 Republicans left
and there were 169 Democrats. And it upset patterns,
the election did, in state after state after
state, that were two, at least two decades old,
in American political culture. Democrats took back a small
majority of the Senate. But at the state and local
level it was just as important. Democrats won the Governor’s
Office in New York and Massachusetts;
in fact, they won the Governor’s Office in something
like twenty-three states. Of thirty-five states holding
elections, twenty-three state legislatures went to Democrats.
Southerners now, with their party,
the Democratic Party, which was now a national party,
no longer have to feel like aliens in their native land.
And this is what newspapers all over the place kept writing,
over and over, in celebration.
Listen to this one. This was a Tennessee paper,
a Nashville paper, which said, I quote:
“The recent election was not an election,” said the Tennessee
paper. “It was a country coming to a
halt and changing front. The whole scheme of
Reconstruction stands before the country today a naked,
confessed, stupendous failure; at once the most remarkable and
the most inexcusable failure in all of history.”
A little hyperbole, but making their case.
The cause is, of course, relatively obvious,
but it was still a shock, certainly to Republicans.
There was tremendous fatigue with the reformist–in the
political culture, including the North,
or especially the North–there was tremendous political fatigue
with the reformist spirit of the Republican Party.
The economic depression was absolutely central to this
election and why the Dems came back.
The scandals and mismanagement of the Grant years already
setting in. It was a big deal by ’74;
it’s going to be an even bigger deal by 1876.
The Democrats are going to portray themselves now as the
Reform Party, the party of civil service
reform, the party of clean government. Most of all,
I’d say, the Republican Party by 1874–and how many times have
you seen this in American political history?–the
Republican Party of 1874 paid a high price for its recent
history of support of black rights and the idea of racial
equality. Just exactly as the Democratic
Party would do in the wake of LBJ’s Great Society,
the ’64 and ’65 Civil Rights Acts, the famous moment when
Bill Moyers tells us–or was it Bill Moyers who said to LBJ;
was it LBJ that said to Bill Moyers, after they passed the
’65 Civil Rights Act; which way was it?
It’s LBJ to Bill Moyers, as only LBJ could.
He probably said something–well I’ll clean it
up. “Well Bill, we’ve done lost the
South for a generation, because of what we just
passed.” And LBJ will only live to 1971,
of course; he won’t live to quite see it,
but he was absolutely right. Southern redemption kept
happening, although seven of the eleven Southern ex-Confederate
states were already back under the control of the Southern
Democratic Party, even before this.
Now in the wake of this election–one more will come
more the next year, and only three will be left,
by the ’76 presidential contest;
South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana
unredeemed, as the South put it. This was an election also all
about this emerging reunion, or reconciliation,
of some kind. Let me give you a couple of
illustrations of what happened in the wake of this election.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi,
the following summer–and there’s actually,
there’s a bit about this in Nick Lemann’s book,
which you’re reading, and I’m sparing you any
lecturing about what happened in Mississippi in 1875 because
that’s what Lemann’s book is all about,
the so-called Shotgun Policy, the violent overthrow of
Reconstruction by the white Democratic Party in Mississippi.
But in Vicksburg, Vicksburg of all places,
blacks held a very public 4^(th) of July celebration in
1875, and that took courage, it was bold.
Their own politicians spoke. A black Republican circuit
judge gave a speech. The black secretary of state in
Mississippi gave a remarkable speech, a somewhat challenging
speech to the Democrats. And just as he was ending his
speech a mob of about fifty white people invaded the big
hall they were having it in, and a shot was fired as a
signal, and they opened up, and they just started firing.
They killed two on the spot, wounded about ten,
that died later. It was a 4^(th) of July
celebration, stopped by cold-blooded murder.
There was an observer, at this event,
an African-American, who wrote an account of it,
under the pseudonym Veni Vidi, which means I came,
I saw, and it was published in the New York Herald
Tribune, as well as the Christian
Recorder and some other places.
He laid the blame for this not on that white mob.
I mean, they were tired of blaming white rednecks in the
South for killing them. Veni Vidi blamed it on national
reconciliation. He said the killings on the
4^(th) of July in Vicksburg were because,
quote, “Boston and Ohio were holding the coats for Georgia
and Mississippi while they slay the common victim of northern
prejudice and southern hate.” That’s a very clear,
on the ground, eyewitness description of where
responsibility now for this may lie;
not just with the mob but with the folk who are allowing the
mob to do its business. All right, between 1874 and
1876 arguably what the country is assessing–and you can see
who’s winning–what the country is assessing is the question,
which revolution is actually going to win?
If this is a second American Revolution, which is a
construction historians have put onto this over time,
with different meanings; Charles Beard had a different
meaning than Eric Foner, and others of us have used it.
But which revolution would prevail?
Is it the revolution of 1863 to ’65?
Is it the revolution that Abraham Lincoln finally named,
and then said would be enforced, very bluntly,
in his Second Inaugural? “With every drop of blood shed
by the lash it shall be paid in blood shed by the sword.”
Or is it the other revolution, the counter-revolution,
the white Southern Democratic revolution against
Reconstruction, against the changes of the
Civil War, against the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments? Which revolution?
The revolution of black freedom or the redemption of white
supremacy? Those are the stakes.
Those are very, very high stakes. In fact, just let me use a
picture or two for the heck of it.
This may go without saying, but not really.
Which image did Americans, white Americans,
which image, in their minds,
in their brains, when they went to the
polls–what image when we go to the polls now do most white
Americans want of black people? Is it him?
Is it that genius in his perfect white shirts who could
speak and write like Goethe, and would remind you of it,
and would explain things in language that might make you
quiver in your seat? Is it black genius they wanted
to see? Or–I don’t know if you can see
that–did they want to see Chloe and Sam?
It’s a painting by Thomas Hovenden, a wonderful painter.
He’s the same painter who painted that colossal painting
of John Brown with the rifle in one hand and the Bible in the
other and hair on fire; it’s at the Metropolitan Museum
in New York, go see it. Anyway, Hovenden’s painting
here, a beautiful, a sentimental–I’m not sure how
carefully you can see this or how well you can see this with
the lighting in here. It’s Chloe and Sam,
it’s two old freedmen. Sam seems to be cooling down
the teapot maybe. Chloe’s ironing.
They got their own house. He hunts.
They’re peaceful, they’re settled.
They’re the old slaves. There’s Aunt Chloe and Uncle
Sam, and they’re not going to threaten anybody. Well forgive this image,
this is–I don’t know who drew this, it just comes from the
Library of Congress. Or is this an image now that a
lot of Americans, they may not prefer it,
but are certainly willing to accept about the sons and
daughters of Chloe and Sam, who got really assertive,
who wanted to vote, who were holding office,
who were walking in their perfect white shirts and their
suits in the halls of Congress and the halls of state
legislatures, who insisted on education and
property ownership and all those crazy rights of citizenship? Where should black people be in
that imagination? All right, the election of 1876
comes. If the election of 1874 was a
referendum on Reconstruction, the election of 1876 was a
referendum, if you like, on reunion.
How indeed would this reunion actually occur?
Would there really truly be a reunion?
Now this was an election, of course, where both parties
now, for the first time since the Civil–well for the first
time really since before the Civil War.
In fact you certainly could argue that it’s the first time
since really 1856 that two parties in an American
presidential election have faced each other as truly national and
virtually equal in power, authority, membership to some
degree, and so on. It’s the Centennial year.
It comes in the wake of these tremendous scandals of the
second Grant Administration. The Whiskey Ring wasn’t blown
open until the second term. Crédit Mobilier wasn’t
blown open ’till the second term;
the Belknap Scandal not ’till the second term.
The Democrats now, in ’76, they’re going to
portray themselves again–as they had in ’74 but now it’s a
presidential election–as the party of reform,
the party of clean government and, thank you very much,
the party of white supremacy that’ll finally put
Reconstruction to death in those three states in the South where
it still exists in some form. The election was a test of
either reunion or redemption and on whose terms.
The Democrats ran for president Samuel J.
Tilden. He was the governor of New York.
Governors of New York have often been candidates for
president for a whole variety of good reasons.
He was one of the richest men in the United States.
He was a very wealthy trial lawyer.
He had a reputation for reform based largely on the fact that
he had gone–as the governor of New York–he had gone after Boss
Tweed, who ran the boss system of New
York City, and as the press always put it,
he bagged him, he got him.
He found him–he got him on charges.
They were able to prosecute against Boss Tweed.
So Tilden cleaned up New York, they said, to some degree.
Now the Republicans, on the other hand,
now needed a new face, somebody untainted by the Grant
Administration, and somebody who had some
distance from Reconstruction. But it was still terribly
important to run a veteran. And this is going to be the
case for years in American history.
In the South, you couldn’t get elected a
governor or a senator from a southern state for the next 25
years if you weren’t a Confederate veteran.
And it surely helped you in the North if you were a Union
veteran. So they went to Ohio,
that seedbed of presidents–no more jokes about Ohio–and they
found Rutherford B. Hayes.
Now Hayes had many things going for him.
He had indeed been a Civil War–he was a Civil War veteran.
He’d been wounded about six times in the war.
He was a serious combat survivor.
He’d also been elected Governor of Ohio three times.
He was known to be a conservative,
not terribly engaged in Reconstruction issues.
Oh, he supported black rights in some sort of general way.
He will promise something for almost everyone,
depending on where he went, in the vaguest possible terms,
and he will inspire, once again, that cynical SOB,
Henry Adams, for one of the best
descriptions I’ve ever read of Rutherford Hayes.
A little unfair, as Adams always was as a
satirist. Henry Adams said Rutherford
Hayes was a, quote, “third-rate,
non-entity whose only recommendation is that he is
obnoxious to no one.” You know, how many times have
we done this in our politics though?
Find somebody that nobody quite knows, doesn’t have a lot of
enemies, got elected, no strong views,
and run him; yes, and provided you don’t
have a year and a half bloody primary to put him through. Now, this would be a brutal,
brutal election, in its rhetoric.
Just an example or two. Republicans now,
facing this frankly virulently, openly white supremacist
campaign on the part of the Democrats,
but also facing the charges of scandal and corruption,
which are very real, they want to misdirect
people’s, their attention. They don’t want people to think
about those scandals, and if they can help it they
don’t even want people to have to think about Reconstruction
for awhile. So what do they do?
They wave the bloody shirt. When in doubt in the nineteenth
century, for the Republican–and they’re going to keep doing it
right on up through the 1896 election,
against William Jennings Bryan; that’s getting ahead of
ourselves. But man, they’re going to trot
out every living, surviving, sentient Civil War
general, by as late as 1896,
put them on trains and barnstorm them all over the
country, and paint William Jennings
Bryan as a secessionist, because he was a populist.
At any rate, here’s one example of the kind
of bloody shirt rhetoric that the Republican Party trotted out
against the Democrats in 1876. This came from Colonel Robert
Ingersoll, a famous agnostic; a very popular orator,
especially at Grand Army of the Republic reunions and political
gatherings. He said this in September of
’76. Quote–classic bloody shirt:
“Every state that seceded from the United States was a
Democratic state. Every man that tried to destroy
this nation was a Democrat. Every man that loved slavery
better than liberty was a Democrat.
The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat.
Every man that raised bloodhounds to pursue human
beings was a Democrat. Soldiers, every scar you have
got on your heroic bodies was given to you by a Democrat.”
And those Union veterans would get up and cheer,
“Yay, scars, Democrat scars.”
[Laughter] It worked, it worked in a lot
of places. The war is only ten years ago,
and there are hundreds of thousands of Union veterans.
They are the base of the Republican Party,
a deep, broad base, especially across the Midwest,
which is where they’re all moving, and in the far West;
Civil War veterans are moving west.
In the election again the rhetoric got terrible and when
the election was held it was a very violent election.
We’ll never know, no one will ever know,
how many thousands of African-American voters,
especially in the three states of Mississippi,
Louisiana and South Carolina–excuse me,
Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana as
well, but also Florida–we’ll never know how many were
intimidated and kept from the polls.
We know it was thousands, hundreds of thousands in all
likelihood. One Republican official in
Mississippi, observing the election, said in his view the
white population was essentially one vast mob.
Now what happened, of course, is that Tilden
carried all of–a map here may be useful–Tilden–I don’t know
how well you can see that but at least you see the contours of
it–Tilden, the Democrat,
carried all of the solid South except–now solid Democratic
South–except three states, the three states remaining
under teetering Republican regimes, Louisiana,
South Carolina and Florida. Tilden also carried four
northern states: his own, New York;
New Jersey; Connecticut;
and Indiana. Hayes carried all the rest of
the North and much of the West. But without the three southern
states counted, Louisiana, Florida and South
Carolina, the electoral count–and when
the returns came in, that night and the next day;
and it took longer in those years, it took at least
twenty-four hours after an election ended,
and sometimes forty-eight hours before they even had real,
official counts. In the Electoral College–now
first of all there’s no question that at least in the votes cast,
Tilden won the popular vote. If you like,
in terms of numbers, he’s the Al Gore of the 1876
election, he won the popular vote, of the votes cast.
Now how many hundreds of thousands, particularly of black
Republicans who didn’t vote, for fear for their lives,
we don’t know. In the Electoral College,
before you count the three disputed states,
the number was 184 to 166, Tilden to Hayes.
It took 185 to be elected. The handwriting on the wall
initially was that–well, even in the official Republican
Party offices in Washington DC, as the returns were coming in
the next day, they were about to hold news
conferences, send out messages and say,
“Well guys, guess we lost.” And then quickly,
quickly, inside their offices, they realized that there were
nineteen electoral votes in the three disputed states,
and they said, “No news conferences,
we’re going to win those three.”
How? Well that remains to be seen.
The disputed election of 1876 was disputed over the three
states, that still had Republican regimes,
that had widespread fraud, violence and intimidation
practice in their elections. No one will ever know,
as long as we live, exactly who won where,
although we do have some good guesses now from scholarship.
But what ensued was the longest disputed election we’ve ever
had. The Gore/Bush affair of 2000
lasted, what, thirty-five days before the
Supreme Court chose our president.
It isn’t going to be a lot different here,
although the Supreme Court will have only a very limited role.
The official popular vote count in 1876 was four million,
two-hundred and eighty-four thousand-some odd votes for
Tilden and four million, thirty-six thousand and some
odd votes for Hayes. That was an official popular
vote. One of the best ways to think
about this election is that frankly the Democrats stole it
and then the Republicans stole it back.
I hate to sound so cynical but frankly folks that’s essentially
what happened. Under the Twelfth Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution,
of course, if there’s a disputed election and no one
gets a majority of the Electoral College–we ignored this one in
2000; I just thought I’d point that
out–it is supposed to go to the House of Representatives,
and the House of Representatives,
in its good councils, shall choose the President,
says the U.S. Constitution. They followed the Constitution
in 1876, they actually did; well, to a degree they did.
With the country waiting, with all kinds of rumors flying
in the press–I went back and studied the press in these
disputed months for this earlier book I did on memory,
and it’s amazing the rumors. You’ve got southern papers like
the Atlanta Constitution printing long stories about
local militias in upstate New York that are drilling,
calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, readying themselves to
march into the South. And you’ve got northern papers
like the Chicago Tribune printing article after article
about Confederate mobs and militias,
they’re drilling all over the South and preparing themselves
to march into the North; most of which were completely
false. But it became long,
tense, winter months of fear. And now, of course,
when fear sets in, blood memory sets in.
The United States House of Representatives decided to
establish an Electoral Commission.
It would have 15 members. There would be five
Republicans, five Democrats, and five Supreme Court
Justices–fifteen people. Sounds relatively fair.
Not quite. Three of the Supreme Court
Justices were Republicans, two of them were Democrats.
That means there eight Republicans and seven Democrats
on this Electoral Commission. The job of this Electoral
Commission was to investigate the voting returns of the three
disputed states of Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina.
They were to study the returns. The Democrats in Congress
initiated a long filibuster, and they held it.
They started a filibuster in December of ’76 and they’re
still doing it. They’re reading city
directories and whatever other garbage–they didn’t have phone
books yet. They were just reading
newspaper articles, day in and day out,
until the third week–fourth week of February of ’77.
Nothing went on in the U.S. Congress.
There were threats of disunion. Hot-headed Democrats would
announce the slogan ‘Tilden or fight.’
President Ulysses Grant, lame duck, can’t wait to get
out of office; already has his ship booked for
his grand tour around the world. He’ll leave on May 17^(th) for
the greatest tour any American ever made of Planet
Earth–that’s another story. But Grant quietly began to
rebuild and re-garrison some of the forts around Washington DC.
And lo and behold, the commission met,
and lo and behold they voted. Guess what?
It’s a suspense. They voted eight to seven that
the Republican, Hayes, had won in Louisiana,
Florida and South Carolina, based on the theory of
widespread fraud and violence. Now there’s a lot to that.
They never really knew what those voting counts were,
to be honest. But the way in which the
disputed election of 1876 was settled, of course,
was ultimately not even by that Electoral Commission.
It was settled in the Wormley Hotel, on February 26th and
27^(th) of 1877, in a forty-eight hour meeting
between five Ohio Republicans, representing Hayes,
and four Southern Democrats, representing Tilden.
The Compromise of 1877, as it is called,
was a deal. It was a deal based on
interests, not on votes. The Democrats were willing to
give up the presidency if they could get in return what they
most needed. They wanted federal subsidies
for a Western Pacific Railroad, at least one,
with a southern terminus. They wanted their harbors
dredged. They wanted federal subsidies
to rebuild the infrastructure of the South.
Lo and behold, they wanted federal money;
all these states’ rights southern Democrats,
thank you very much, they wanted federal money to
rebuild their society. “Bring us your investments,”
they’d been saying for a long time to carpetbaggers,
“just don’t come here and try to get elected.” Here was the deal.
And by the way, one of the chief brokers,
there were several chief brokers.
One was James Garfield, of Ohio, a close personal
friend and associate of Rutherford B.
Hayes; later succeeded him as
President of the United States, and to be assassinated.
But the other great broker at the ’77 Compromise was Tom
Scott, the president of the Texas Pacific Railroad.
He’d been one of the great American railroad kings for
years and he brokered really especially the
economic/financial parts of this deal.
Here was the deal. Home rule, the Republicans
said, would be returned to Louisiana, South Carolina and
Florida. The Republicans agreed to let
the southern Democrats take over those three states,
abandoning their own party leaders, abandoning a lot of
black elected officials who are still running those governments,
and the Republicans promised they would help get Democrats
elected governors of those states.
They agreed to remove all final federal troops from the South.
And this has always been a big symbolic thing;
well, which is exactly what it is, it’s a big symbolic thing.
There were very few troops left anywhere in the South and those
few thousand that were still there are located in forts along
the coast. And quietly Ulysses Grant
signed a bill in the third week of February, just before the
deal at the Wormley Hotel, that repealed the law placing
those troops in the South. One, and possibly two,
cabinet positions in Hayes’ cabinet were promised to
Southern Democrats. They particularly promised the
Postmaster Generalship, because of its patronage
powers. The Democrats agreed to help
James Garfield become Speaker of the House.
It’s a deal folks; quid pro quo, tit for tat.
The Democrats agreed to enforce–well,
I can almost not say this one–the Democrats agreed to
enforce the Civil War amendments and black civil rights–uh
huh–and the Democrats agreed to stop their filibuster,
accept the official count, and allow Hayes to be
peacefully inaugurated three days later or four days later.
On March 3^(rd), Rutherford B.
Hayes was privately inaugurated.
No outdoor inauguration on the steps of the capitol,
as they are always done. They feared violence,
interruptions. They didn’t know what was going
to happen. He was privately inaugurated,
quietly in the East Room of the White House.
Catastrophe had been averted, but at what a price.
C. Vann Woodward once accurately
called this compromise a treaty, as much as a compromise.
And if the Compromise of 1850, you’ll remember,
is so often referred to as an armistice,
rather than a compromise, this Compromise of 1877 was,
in some ways, a treaty.
And, oh by the way, Hayes made it very clear,
in private communications, what he’d been really saying
publicly, and that is that his southern
policy would be essentially–his own phrase–a let-alone policy.
The South would be allowed to control its own social
institutions, its political culture,
its lives. Even Grant himself had said
that Reconstruction was dead and maybe we made mistakes and
shouldn’t have even tried. Grant himself said to his
cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, he said,
had, quote, “done the Negro no good.”
Oh Ulysses. And right after the
inauguration an editorial in Nation Magazine–now a
fuming, reformist magazine; they want to clean up American
corruption–E.L. Godkin, its great editor at the
Nation, said–he rejoiced in fact at
this compromise, this settling of this
dispute–and he announced, his words: “The negro,” he
said, “will disappear now from the
field of national politics. Henceforth the nation as a
nation will have nothing more to do with him.”
Now there are many meanings, legacies, implications of this
compromise. There are many long-lasting
implications and legacies of this compromise,
in this particular end of Reconstruction.
And it does seem like a sort of dead end, a lights-going-out
kind of moment to all that idealism,
or whatever we wish to call it, that emerged from the war.
It would leave a person like Frederick Douglass in a certain
degree of despair. He would begin to make
speeches, and he will the rest of his life, about trying to
hold onto an emancipationist, abolitionist,
memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
He makes a speech a few years later where he’s lamenting what
has now been betrayed and lost and is eroding out of their
fingers. He says Reconstruction is
only–was only perhaps a rope of sand.
But, he drew upon, at the end of that speech,
he drew upon one of the most revolutionary moments in the
Bible, to try to keep a certain degree
of hope alive about what had at least been started.
He went to the Lazarus story, the story of Jesus raising
Lazarus literally from the dead. And Douglass said,
“The assumption that the cause of the Negro is a dead issue now
is delusion, utter delusion. For the moment he may be buried
under the dust and rubbish of endless discussion concerning
civil service reform, tariff and free trade,
labor and capital, but our Lazarus is not dead,
he only sleeps.” See you next week.

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