NY Times: Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Start of U.S. Grant's Presidency


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Pat Young

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#2
From the article:

Grant’s inauguration felt like the beginning of a new era of reform and revitalization. For nearly four years, Americans had suffered through the tumultuous presidency of Andrew Johnson, who drove the nation to political crisis with his virulent racism, erratic behavior and leniency toward the defeated secessionists.

Grant, by contrast, backed the rights and privileges of freed black Americans. He supported the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1870) extending voting rights to black men and deployed federal troops against vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan (itself started by a former battlefield foe, Nathan Bedford Forrest).

But the laudable commitment from Grant and the Republican Congress to the political rights of the former slaves was fatally undermined by their indifference to the vast social and economic inequality of the postwar South. Unable to see past an ideology of “free labor” and “free soil,” they also couldn’t grasp how slavery and racial stigma gave black Americans a fundamentally different relationship to economic life. The result was actions that ultimately sowed seeds for new relationships of race hierarchy in the South and the nation at large.
 

Pat Young

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More from the article:

Grant’s election both defused the ideological crisis of the Johnson era and weakened the radical movement within the Republican Party, which derived much of its influence from its conflict with the former president. Grant’s principal allies, the Columbia historian Eric Fonerwrites in “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” were the “Stalwarts,” leaders whose power “rested on control of federal patronage.”

They had grown tired of — and impatient with — the “ideological mode of politics that had shaped the party at its birth,” Foner argues. For these political professionals, “the organization itself, not the issues that had once created it, commanded their highest loyalty.”

That the Stalwarts were less ideological did not make them anti-ideological. Many had cut their teeth in the antislavery crusade of the 1850s and were still committed to Reconstruction on the basis of “free labor” and “free soil,” where whites and blacks would work for wages as rational individuals responding to market incentives. “The free labor social order,” writes Foner, “ostensibly guaranteed the ambitious worker the opportunity for economic mobility, the ability to move from wage labor to independence through the acquisition of productive property.”
 

DanSBHawk

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A thought-provoking article. His point as I take it, is that Grant should have been much more heavy-handed towards the south. Reconstruction should have forced redistribution of land to the freed slaves and forcibly imposed a new social order of racial equality.

He could be right. Too much emphasis was placed on reconciliation and not enough on reformation. I've often thought the postwar period may well have been too soft on the former slave power.
 

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I think the author may have a point here in saying "But Southern society still rested on ideas of hierarchy and caste that still shaped behavior for former masters, former slaves and poor whites. “To the plantation planters such a wage contract was economic heresy and social revolution,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “Black Reconstruction in America.” Many poor whites, likewise, “faced with the dilemma of recognizing the Negroes as equals,” saw them as a “threat” to their “very existence.”

It would not just be blacks who were disadvantaged in this society, but poor whites also. And class structures would encourage either the sense or the need to keep people in their place or for them to scramble for higher position. In some ways I don't really see this as being any different than in a Northern society culture and how things would operate in any capitalist situation. The criticism seems to exist around a potential redistribution of land which would have advantaged both blacks and poor whites alike. As a more socialist ideal I can see how that would have been considered revolutionary. But it may have put these folks on a more equal footing. If the land was being redistributed to railroads and western settlers then is this not also an option for these people to seek opportunity further afield?

I'm also not sure that Grant 'acquiesed to white racism and financial power' as much as his Government did in the circumstances. Party politics seems to have at times marred his ability to do what he would have wanted to do.
 
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Pat Young

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I think the author may have a point here in saying "But Southern society still rested on ideas of hierarchy and caste that still shaped behavior for former masters, former slaves and poor whites. “To the plantation planters such a wage contract was economic heresy and social revolution,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “Black Reconstruction in America.” Many poor whites, likewise, “faced with the dilemma of recognizing the Negroes as equals,” saw them as a “threat” to their “very existence.”

It would not just be blacks who were disadvantaged in this society, but poor whites also. And class structures would encourage either the sense or the need to keep people in their place or scramble for higher position. In some ways I don't really see this as being any different than in a Northern society culture and how things would operate in any capitalist situation. The criticism seems to exist around a potential redistribution of land which would have advantaged both blacks and poor whites alike. As a more socialist ideal I can see how that would have been considered revolutionary. But it may have put these folks on a more equal footing. If the land was being redistributed to railroads and western settlers then is this not also an option for these people to seek opportunity further afield?

I'm also not sure that Grant 'acquiesed to white racism and financial power' as much as his Government did in the circumstances. Party politics seems to have at times marred his ability to do what he would have wanted to do.
I read a lot of the comments posted on the article that agree with your point.
 

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A thought-provoking article. His point as I take it, is that Grant should have been much more heavy-handed towards the south. Reconstruction should have forced redistribution of land to the freed slaves and forcibly imposed a new social order of racial equality.

He could be right. Too much emphasis was placed on reconciliation and not enough on reformation. I've often thought the postwar period may well have been too soft on the former slave power.
Not sure he is saying that all, he seems to concede their was little political will among the republican party to do so. What Grant does or should do, has to be shaped by what there is or was actually will to do.
 

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I read a lot of the comments posted on the article that agree with your point.
I went back to the article and read some of these comments, Pat. I was surprised and delighted to see how many folks came to the defence of Grant in terms of his Civil Rights record. I was not expecting that. And they seemed to be quite well versed in the details as well. Many of them had read Chernow's biography and were recommending it (amongst others). So, I am grateful for being pointed in the direction of the comments in order to see just how many supporters Grant has in the circumstances.

Also, seems like the Constitution itself was going to stand in the way of any type of land redistribution.
 

contestedground

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#10
To upend this relationship, Republicans would have to transform the property relations of the South. Without land redistribution and a measure of material equality, political rights for blacks (and whites) would falter under the weight of planter power and racial caste. As Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and an ardent support of black civil rights, argued in the first months after the war, “How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse, exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs?” He continued, “If the South is ever to be made a safe republic let her lands be cultivated by the toil of the owners or the free labor of intelligent citizens.”

Deeply entwined as they were with Northern capital and committed to the protection of private property, neither Grant nor the Republican Party was willing to take those steps.


Those steps would have to have been taken before 1869. Pardons and amnesty included the restoration of property rights, and that's done before Grant was even a likely presidential prospect.

It's an ignorant assessment.
 
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#11
I questioned elsewhere the statement in the article that Grant refused to ride with Johnson to his inauguration. I wonder if anyone else knows if there's any truth to that. I happened to read a very well written book about William H Seward recently (author is Walter Stahr) in which Johnson kept his cabinet working right through the inauguration. It was one of many interesting episodes in the book.

I tend to give more credibility to Seward's biographer than to the columnist. So unless someone knows better, the lack of research on the details makes me doubt any of the conclusions and concur with @contestedground about the ignorance of the assessment. A wasted opportunity.
 

Pat Young

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I questioned elsewhere the statement in the article that Grant refused to ride with Johnson to his inauguration. I wonder if anyone else knows if there's any truth to that. I happened to read a very well written book about William H Seward recently (author is Walter Stahr) in which Johnson kept his cabinet working right through the inauguration. It was one of many interesting episodes in the book.

I tend to give more credibility to Seward's biographer than to the columnist. So unless someone knows better, the lack of research on the details makes me doubt any of the conclusions and concur with @contestedground about the ignorance of the assessment. A wasted opportunity.
From the new Charles Calhoun history of the Grant administration:

Certainly the current occupant of the White House harbored no illusions about his successor’s genius. To Andrew Johnson, Grant would always be “a liar, guilty of duplicity, false to his duty and his trust.” Gideon Welles labored to convince Johnson and his cabinet colleagues to boycott the inauguration “of this ignorant, vulgar man.” Grant may have heard of Welles’s efforts, for he let it be known that he would not ride to the Capitol with Johnson. The inaugural committee suggested separate carriages, but in the end, Johnson refused to go at all. On the morning of March 4 the retiring president busied himself signing bills, and at noon he and his allies departed the White House. Later that day Welles confided to his diary that Grant had ridden up Capitol Hill followed by “a long procession, mostly of negroes,—at least two thirds, I should judge.”16 Upon arrival at the Capitol, the president-elect walked to the Senate chamber for the swearing in of Vice President Schuyler Colfax. During that ceremony, according to one observer, Grant exhibited “his imperturbable expression as unchanged as ever. . . . There he sits, quiet, ‘calm,’ self-possessed, as though he were at his own fireside, instead of being in the presence of the assembled wisdom, wealth, intelligence and power of the country, whose destinies have been confided to him.”

Calhoun, Charles W.. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) (p. 66). University Press of Kansas. Kindle Edition.
 
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#13
From the new Charles Calhoun history of the Grant administration:

Certainly the current occupant of the White House harbored no illusions about his successor’s genius. To Andrew Johnson, Grant would always be “a liar, guilty of duplicity, false to his duty and his trust.” Gideon Welles labored to convince Johnson and his cabinet colleagues to boycott the inauguration “of this ignorant, vulgar man.” Grant may have heard of Welles’s efforts, for he let it be known that he would not ride to the Capitol with Johnson. The inaugural committee suggested separate carriages, but in the end, Johnson refused to go at all. On the morning of March 4 the retiring president busied himself signing bills, and at noon he and his allies departed the White House. Later that day Welles confided to his diary that Grant had ridden up Capitol Hill followed by “a long procession, mostly of negroes,—at least two thirds, I should judge.”16 Upon arrival at the Capitol, the president-elect walked to the Senate chamber for the swearing in of Vice President Schuyler Colfax. During that ceremony, according to one observer, Grant exhibited “his imperturbable expression as unchanged as ever. . . . There he sits, quiet, ‘calm,’ self-possessed, as though he were at his own fireside, instead of being in the presence of the assembled wisdom, wealth, intelligence and power of the country, whose destinies have been confided to him.”

Calhoun, Charles W.. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (American Presidency Series) (p. 66). University Press of Kansas. Kindle Edition.
Thanks. Grant declared that he would not ride with Johnson but Johnson did boycott the inauguration.
 

Pat Young

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I'm glad to see so many people sticking up for Grant in the comments section. Perhaps the tide is turning.
I was interested to see that 440 people had commented on the article on a newspaper web site. We often hear from folks on Civil War Talk that the public is not interested in history. The response here was pretty strong and many of the respondents offered some indication of having read at least Chernow.
 
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#16
A thought-provoking article. His point as I take it, is that Grant should have been much more heavy-handed towards the south. Reconstruction should have forced redistribution of land to the freed slaves and forcibly imposed a new social order of racial equality.
.
Sounds like a recipe for a Rhodesia/Zimbabwe economic disaster.
 



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