A few days ago the distinguished Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote a fine piece on the relevancy of Reconstruction to the United States today. Foner neatly summarizes a lifetime of Reconstruction scholarship in the essay and convincingly argues that as long as society continues to discuss, debate, and define the meaning of U.S. citizenship, rights, and democracy, “how we think about this era . . . forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.” The essay is well worth your time.
Foner and other historians–most recently Douglas Egerton–emphasize the importance of understanding the very beginning of Reconstruction from roughly 1863 to 1868 and the ways policy decisions, legislation, and constitutional amendments during this period simultaneously expanded civil rights for all Americans while limiting the success of various initiatives that included meaningful land reform and educational/healthcare opportunities for newly freed African Americans. President Abraham Lincoln began this process by offering amnesty to most Confederates as long as they laid down their weapons and accepted the abolition of slavery. That vision for Reconstruction expanded shortly before Lincoln’s assassination when he called for expanded voting rights for free blacks and black veterans of the Civil War.
After initially stating his intention to make treason “odious” following Lincoln’s death in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson did an about-face and allowed for the creation of remodeled Southern state governments mostly run by ex-Confederates who quickly enacted “black codes” that limited African Americans’ abilities to obtain land, own property, set the terms of their labor and employment, and move freely in public spaces. President Johnson, more so than any other person during the Civil War’s immediate aftermath, held the power to shape the terms of Reconstruction. His desire for the quick return of former Confederate states into the body politic on the basis of white supremacy reflected his deeply held belief (stated in his 1867 message to Congress) that blacks possessed less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”
Johnson’s role in Reconstruction cannot be overstated, but the process of establishing new governments in the South and enacting new legislation to create and protect African American rights did not end with Johnson’s departure from the Presidency in 1869. As the Edinburgh Review remarked that year, President Ulysses S. Grant faced the enormous task of “[binding] up the wounds left by the war, to restore concord to the still distracted Union, to ensure real freedom to the Southern negro, and full justice to the Southern white” (Simpson, 133) while building support for the proposed 15th amendment to the Constitution, which would grant all males regardless of color the right of suffrage.
With the exception of a few notable studies by Brooks Simpson, Josiah Bunting, and Jean Edward Smith, however, U.S. Grant’s efforts to end Reconstruction on the basis of political equality and federal protection of civil rights remain understudied by historians and largely misunderstood by the public. And Grant, for whatever reason, doesn’t get much attention or acknowledgement from Foner. Grant hardly shows up in Foner’s magisterial study of Reconstruction, and when he does, it is usually negative and heavily reliant on William McFeely’s well-researched but extremely unbalanced biography of Grant that appeared only a few years before Foner’s publication (We’ve discussed McFeely on this blog before). Where is U.S. Grant?
Foner’s perspective on Grant seems not to have changed much since 1988. In the New York Times piece linked above Foner only says that “There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed.” In other words, the biracial state governments in the South during Grant’s presidency had their issues, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Grant’s corrupt administration, which is apparently the only noteworthy aspect of his presidency.
Scandals were certainly a serious problem in Grant’s administration, although the vast majority of these scandals occurred during Grant’s second term in office and some are just “claims” of corruption. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page devoted to these scandals. But focusing exclusively on scandals and corruption ultimately leaves us with an incomplete assessment of Grant’s Presidential performance and blinds us to other meaningful accomplishments worth noticing.
Just like the debate about Grant’s drinking, we must strive to clearly define our terms. One person’s definition of “corruption” can be completely different from another person’s, and that was certainly the case in Grant’s time. Frank Scaturro convincingly shows in President Grant Reconsidered that many of the “corruption” charges levied towards Grant came from disgruntled office-seekers and prominent New England politicians like Charles Sumner who took umbrage to a Westerner with little experience in political office calling the shots in the White House and appointing people to his inner-circle without consulting Sumner and his fellow Washington elites. White Democrats north and south also lobbed charges of “corruption” towards Grant and his fellow Republicans based on their opposition to black political rights and the use of federal power to enforce the stipulations of the 1867 Military Reconstruction Act and the 14th and 15th amendments. To use the bayonet to enforce these laws was a “corrupt” excuse for democratic governance according to Democrats (although the use of extra-legal violence to intimidate, lynch, and murder African Americans apparently didn’t constitute a violation of democratic principles).
Thus we find Eric Foner in an ironic position with his stance on Grant. The historian who has done so much to inform our thinking on Reconstruction over the past twenty-five years and who has done so much to give African-Americans their rightful agency in the creation of U.S. history has seemingly accepted a sentiment popularly embraced by angry white supremacist contemporaries who accused Grant of corruption because he sought strategies for ensuring fair elections and the end of political terrorism against African Americans. They weren’t the only ones who crowed about “corruption,” of course, but the larger point is that we should take some of these claims with a grain of salt before dismissing Grant’s entire legacy as President.