A Letter to the Editor of the Missouri Humanities Council on Ulysses S. Grant’s Record on Civil Rights

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The Missouri Humanities Council publishes a magazine twice a year that is full of insights into the work of various humanities organizations in the state. Each issue also features a number of articles on Missouri history. For the Fall/Winter 2018 issue, Executive Director Steve Belko wrote an article entitled “Reflections on the Humanities: Letter from the Executive Director” (56-60) that focused mostly on the life and actions of reformer Henry Schoolcraft during Missouri’s early years of statehood in the 1820s. At the end of the article, however, Belko states the following:

In the end, Schoolcraft’s scheme was for naught, as the Missouri Question permanently ended the emancipation movement [in Missouri], and massive bloodshed would ultimately settle the question of slavery. Ironic, it is not, that massive bloodshed ultimately resolved the Indian Question as well. And we can, arguably, attribute the resolution of both questions to a single individual–Ulysses S. Grant–as general and president. Hence, the bicentennial of our statehood and of the start of Schoolcraft’s professional career, in Missouri, coincides with the start of the sesquicentennial of the Grant administration, which, as a sequel to civil war, oversaw the destruction of the freemen’s civil rights and the culture of the American Indian. Still, neither tragic event–civil war nor Indian war–ever resolved the issue of race.

Those comments got my attention, to say the least. Letters to the editor were encouraged, so I decided to write a response a few weeks ago. Here is what I stated:

“Dear Dr. Belko,

My name is Nick Sacco. I read your recent essay with the Missouri Humanities Council about Henry Schoolcraft with much interest. While I enjoyed the essay as a whole, I was taken aback by some of your comments about Ulysses S. Grant in the concluding paragraph of the essay. If my reading of your arguments is correct, you state that:

1. “Massive bloodshed” resolved both the question of slavery and the “Indian Question.”

2. The resolution of both of these questions can be attributed to the actions of Ulysses S. Grant both as Union General (slavery) and as president (Indians).

3. Grant’s presidency oversaw the destruction of both black civil rights and Indian culture, the primary responsibility of which falls solely on Grant’s lap.

While I certainly agree with number one in regards to slavery, I take exception to your rather simplistic interpretation of Grant’s role in arguments two and three. As a basic matter of historical interpretation, it is a reach to attribute major world-changing events to the actions of a single individual. For example, contemporary historians have rightly shied away from previous interpretations of Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” given the numerous other forces–the Union Army that Grant was a part of who conquered new territories and established contraband camps as the war became one to end slavery, enslaved blacks who resisted enslavement and took actions to aid the Union war effort, antislavery politicians and reformers, and even Jefferson Davis and the Confederates in overplaying their hand by attempting to secede–that also played a role in ending slavery. Grant evolved in his attitudes towards slavery during the Civil War and did in fact come to embrace emancipation and black enlistment in the U.S. military. But it is a stretch to attribute the end of slavery to Grant.

Likewise, it is not fair to attribute the resolution of the “Indian Question” to Grant. In fact it would be fair to argue that the “Indian Question” has never been resolved given the continued rates of poverty and suicide among American Indians, particularly ones living in reservations, that remain some of the highest in the country today (a somewhat similar argument could be made about African Americans in contemporary society). Here again, a multitude of forces contributed to ongoing conflicts with the various Indian nations during Grant’s presidency that cannot be whittled down to the actions of one person.

Your third argument is also questionable. Grant is not the primary person responsible for the destruction of the freepeople’s civil rights during Reconstruction. Grant supported the various Reconstruction Amendments and repeatedly called upon the white south to live in harmony with the freedpeople. He called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, helped establish the Department of Justice to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and consistently decried violence at the polls and terroristic massacres of the freedpeople throughout the south. The Grant administration, if anything, was criticized by both Democrats and conservative Republicans for going TOO far in prosecuting the KKK, which in turn led Grant to back away from military intervention in most cases after 1872, although his rhetoric criticizing racial violence continued. Once again, a combination of other forces–growing northern apathy to Reconstruction, an anti-Grant Liberal Republican political movement that called for an end to military intervention in the south during the 1872 election, continued resistance from the white south via violence and fraud at the polls, an economic depression in 1873, anti-Reconstruction Democratic victories in the 1874 midterm elections, Supreme Court decisions like United States v. Cruikshank that hobbled federal enforcement efforts–all coalesced to push Reconstruction towards its end. It is also noteworthy that when Grant’s name was thrown around for a possible third term in 1880, the most vocal supporters of that effort were black politicians–including those who were members of the “Immortal 306” who stood by Grant at the 1880 Republican National convention–who believed Grant was the best candidate to reestablish federal efforts at protecting black civil rights. Why would they support someone who they believed had destroyed their civil rights?

To be sure, I take a much more negative view of Grant’s Indian Peace Policy. While Grant acknowledged that the Indian nations of the west had historically been “put upon” (Grant’s words) by whites, his policy essentially called for the nations to be imprisoned in reservations, stripped of tribal sovereignty, and forced to assimilate into white Anglo-Saxon Christian society or else. The Peace Policy was, in my view, a form of cultural genocide. But again, putting the sole responsibility of destroying American Indian culture squarely on Grant’s shoulders is not only unfair but also diminishes both past and future conflicts over the role of Indians in American society. The various nations who continued to survive long after Grant left the White House were undoubtedly devastated by other federal actions such as when the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed and episodes like the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to occur. I might also add that not all Indian nations held the same view about Grant’s Indian policies. For example, the Choctaw Nation actually took the step of giving Grant a peace medal and thanking him for his efforts at peace when he left office. Some nations embraced assimilation while others–particularly the Sioux–resisted Grant’s efforts. Grant also relied on Seneca Indian Ely Parker to serve as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the beginning of his presidency and considered Parker a trusted confidant when it came to Indian policy. These details do not diminish or excuse the real hardships the various nations faced during Grant’s presidency or the fact that many historians look upon this aspect of his presidency in a negative light, but it does complicate the narrative by demonstrating that the Indian nations were not of one mind about Grant’s policies.

In both cases, claiming that Grant alone destroyed black civil rights and American Indian culture and that these questions were “resolved” diminishes the efforts of blacks and Indians who continued to resist their oppression and fight for their civil rights after 1877 by subtly erasing them from the narrative. It also leaves out the actions of future presidential administrations who had to deal with these same unresolved questions throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20 century.

I am not sure what resources you used in drawing your conclusions about Grant, but Charles Calhoun’s recent book on Grant’s presidency is the most comprehensive study of its kind and a necessary corrective to the common perception that Grant’s presidency was a complete and utter failure, particularly when it came to black civil rights.”

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Please Welcome Academic History Departments to the 21st Century

Every year the American Historical Association hosts its conference right at the beginning of January. It’s always hosted in a major city and is always very expensive to attend. The conference is huge and I have no doubts about the positive benefits of attending, particularly the networking opportunities it provides. The organization definitely caters to historians working in an academic setting, however, and the combination of high expenses and my job outside the academy has prevented me from attending their annual meeting.

There’s a longstanding tradition in academic history of interviewing potential candidates for professorships during the AHA meeting. What more or less happens is that history PhDs who are on the verge of finishing their degree begin looking for job opportunities in the academy and are instructed to attend the AHA to do face-to-face interviews with history departments. Sometimes the interviews take place in what’s called the “cattle call,” which I assume is a large room with tables set up throughout where prospective candidates can meet their interviewers, but sometimes they take place in areas such as hotel rooms, which seems like a recipe for discomfort at the least and sexual/mental abuse of the prospective candidate at the worst. The prospective candidates have no guarantees that they’ll leave the conference with a job offer. Many end up leaving empty-handed and thousands of dollars poorer than they were before the conference.

When I was in grad school a few years ago I was appointed by the history department to be the student representative on a search committee tasked with hiring a tenure-track professor of digital humanities and history. We did the right thing from the very beginning. One or two professors asked about meeting the top candidates at the next AHA meeting, but the rest of the committee quickly shot down that idea. We began by sorting through roughly 50 applications and picking our top six candidates. From there we decided that it would be best to interview those six candidates individually through a Skype call so that these candidates would not have to travel to AHA to do what we could do in thirty minutes with a video conference call. When we whittled the list down to two candidates, the university paid for those finalists to travel on separate days to campus for a tour and a face-to-face interview with the search committee. From there the rest was, as they say, history.

The option we went with was arguably better for the department and for those who applied for this opening. Video conferencing enabled the search committee to stay on campus and conduct their interviews in a timely fashion. For prospective candidates, their time and money was saved. For the two finalists, their travel expenses were covered by the university, who should have covered them anyway because the institution was in need of a highly talented historian to join the department in the first place.

I suppose this long-standing tradition of forcing people to go to AHA for a job interview continues in part out of habit and in part because it gets people to AHA, which helps justify the expense of putting together this annual conference. To be sure, some prospective candidates are perfectly willing to attend AHA and have the means to do so, and it could very well be most convenient for both parties to hold their interview at AHA under some circumstances. But history departments looking to hire should not force prospective candidates to attend AHA for their interview, nor should they defray the costs of conducting a job search to those looking for jobs, particularly when they are recent PhD grads in a poor position to take on those costs. This practice should be discouraged by both AHA and history departments around the United States. Some of us in public history were very vocal last year about the continued posting of unpaid internships and job postings without salary information on public history jobs pages. Through those efforts we were able to get several organizations to discontinue the former and strongly discourage the latter. The time has now come to push for an end to mandatory AHA job interviews someday.

To these antiquated history departments I welcome them to join the rest of the working world who use modern technology to conduct interviews and hire qualified candidates for jobs. Welcome to the 21st Century!

Cheers