Know Nothingism

Tyler Anbinder
Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s

Anbinder argues that the Know Nothing party was formed and motivated by combination of anti-Catholic, nativist, and anti-slavery sentiments. Anti-slavery attracted many northerners, swelling the ranks of the party initially, but eroding its strength as more specifically abolitionist political options became available. Anbinder also suggests that interest in the party reflected a lot of pent-up frustration with the Whigs and Democrats. This generalized discontent also facilitated the shift from Know Nothingism to Republicanism.

“From 1845 to 1854, some 2,900,000 immigrants landed in the United States, more than had come in the seven previous decades combined. As a percentage of the nation’s total population, the influx of immigrants...amounting to 14.5 percent of the 1845 population, has never been surpassed.” (3)

“Irish immigrants to the United States in the two decades after the War of 1812 tended to be...well-to-do farmers and middle-class city dwellers...[and] usually brought business or artisanal skills with them. (4)

Then the potato blight struck in 1845. “It is estimated that between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Irishmen died either of starvation or of starvation-related illness (out of a total pre-famine population of 8,000,000) during the famine.” (6)

“Although they received less publicity than the Irish, nearly as many Germans emigrated to the United States during the mid-1800s. In fact, in the peak year of immigration, 1854, German emigration to the United States outpaced that from Ireland by two to one.” (and “the sources of greatest emigration do not correspond to the areas of revolutionary unrest.” 7)

“By 1855, immigrants outnumbered native-born citizens in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and...would soon surpass the native in New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnatti.” (8)

“Samuel F. B. Morse charged in a series of published letters that the monarchies of Europe had enlisted the aid of the Catholic Church to subvert the spread of democracy by sending Catholic immigrants to take control of the under-populated American west.” (9)
Like father, like son...

Lincoln, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “
all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Anbinder’s argument with William Gienapp seems to revolve around Gienapp’s claim that in the 1854 elections, nativism trumped anti-slavery, and that’s why the Know Nothings did so well. Anbinder suggests that a Know Nothing “vote usually carried both anti-Catholic
and anti-slavery connotations. The temperance issue also drew many voters to the Know Nothing ticket, as did a general resentment toward the existing parties.” (66-7) Even so, Anbinder agrees that “if the question is posed...to determine whether anti-slavery or Know Nothingism played a key role in the Democrats’ defeat...it is evident that Know Nothingism was the decisive factor in bringing about the Democratic setback in Pennsylvania.” (67-8)

Progressive politics

Peri E. Arnold
Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, 1901-1916

Arnold examines the three presidents of the Progressive Era, arguing that “to examine only a president’s personal characteristics masks the opportunities and constraints within which he or she works. But, to examine only the president’s role and its political context is to miss
how an individual functions within a given role and context.” (2) The unique contributions of Roosevelt and Wilson (and failure of Taft), then, are based on a lucky combination of character and the historical moment they found themselves in. This seems a reasonable enough argument, echoing the old saying that achievement happens when opportunity meets preparation, on a grand scale.

Arnold points out that in the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, the winner averaged 47.72 percent of the popular vote. (3) That means, on the average, nearly 53% of Americans voted against the (mostly) Republicans who presided over the Gilded Age. He also notes that “Democrats controlled the House for nine of the eleven sessions from 1874 through the 1894 election.” This is interesting, especially given the decidedly “populist” look and feel of many of Roosevelt’s initiatives. Were they welcomed by a Congress that was sent to Washington to make just those types of reforms? The Dems lost the House in the 1894 mid-term elections, because Grover Cleveland was blamed for the financial crisis of 1893 (actually caused by the McKinley tariff). They regained a lot of ground in 1896, in spite of Bryan’s defeat, but remained the minority party. (
wiki has a really good set of pages on this, complete with maps)

Arnold describes what others might call Theodore Roosevelt’s opportunism as a political /philosophical journey. He points out that Roosevelt’s politics were never determined by party platforms (as McKinley’s were, he says -- but didn’t McKinley write the party platform, at least as far as the tariff was concerned?), and he sees this change as a watershed. Roosevelt was independent enough from Republican dogma to say in 1907 that:

The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign--that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole--some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct. (7th Annual Message)

“Whatever McKinley ‘saw’ was through the lens of being a Republican of the Civil War generation, his organizational experience as a party man and governor in Ohio, and his role as a Republican leader in Congress.” (14-5) But in addition to being a generational issue (all Civil War Republicans weren’t McKinleys, after all), Arnold also notes that McKinley’s main experience was in politics, while Roosevelt’s was in appointed, administrative government. So naturally they’d have different perspectives on what an executive should
do, what government was for, and on the purpose of public rhetoric. (17, 18)

In contrast to Roosevelt, Arnold portrays Taft as a president who was initially committed to continuing progressive reform, but who was temperamentally unable to embrace the new format of presidential leadership. Taft did not have the “tools,” and he mistakenly tried to retreat to an older model of leadership that, if it was not dead as Arnold says, was at least impossible to step back into immediately following Roosevelt. Wilson, on the other hand, “was invested in the possibility of a prime ministerial stance within the American constitutional framework.” (200) But of course, prime ministers stand and fall with their party’s dominance of the legislature. “Had Wilson not entered the presidency accompanied by a Democratic Congress,” Arnold says, “it is hard to imagine how he would have constructed his leadership.” So in this sense, Roosevelt was the progressive president, Taft was a backslider (albeit unintentionally), and Wilson was a reflection of the Democratic party’s legislative agenda.

Arnold refers to Clifford Geertz’s “Centers, Kings, and Charisma,” in
Local Knowledge, 1983 -- would probably be worth a look sometime.

Handlins on Commonwealth

Oscar Handlin & Mary Flug Handlin
Commonwealth, A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861

Dedicated to Schlesinger, this is an attempt to look behind economic and political events and actions, to find “a large body of ideas, unformalized preconceptions, that embodied people’s notions of the kind of world in which they lived and the kind of world in which they wanted to live” (xv).

“All franchises included an element of privilege, permitting to a few, as special assistance in a worthwhile enterprise, what was forbidden to all others.”

“Toward the end of 1791 Massachusetts shed the early reluctance to make large grants. As a sensational boom turned men’s minds to the prospect of getting rich from stocks and land, as the merchants looked about for new channels of investment, the government, like its colonial predecessors, began to seek out venturesome customers. In 1791 it alienated almost two million acres...” (82)

“In 1781 the Commonwealth chartered the Massachusetts Medical Society to regulate and encourage a desirable, but suffering, profession.” (97)

“In 1803 the Cambridge corporation [the Harvard Medical department] won the right to bestow degrees which automatically carried the license to practice, a privilege later extended as well to the chartered Berkshire Medical Institute of Williams College.” (129)

“The question of liability did not arise as long as the power of unlimited assessment gave the corporation access to the resources of its members.” (145)

“William Jackson and Theodore Sedgwick...suggested that the state abandon the use of intermediaries and adopt instead the alternative of building and operating directly a canal or railroad...the old canals and turnpikes had fallen into the hands of ‘speculating proprietors’; only direct state control could ensure the management of the new enterprises for the public good.” (this was argued in 1825 -- how did MA experience influence NY in Erie Canal era? 173)

By the early 1830s, “The interests the merchants’ families shared with the rest of the state waned...The industries also lost their ties with the countryside. The new mills, unlike the old, had little contact with the surrounding agricultural areas, drawing their raw materials from distant sources and working them up entirely within the factory.” (is this true, outside of cotton? 186-7)

“The growth of factories further weakened the position of rural Massachusetts by taking away an important source of income, the domestic system.” (188)

“Without a common interest to cherish and defend, the General Court merely legislated for the select few...” and caused everybody to criticize every act as catering to the welfare of one interest group or another. (191)

“Criticism of banks easily turned into fulminations agains a ‘financial aristocracy’ ...Locofocos and debt repudiators who seized control in other states...raised a terrifying specter for this minority: to weaken privilege at any point would be an entering wedge that would ultimately leave all wealth entirely at the mercy of every future legislature.” (really? Are they falling for the rhetoric? 194)

“What right had simple business organizations to the attributes of a governing body? ‘They are
not for the public good -- in design or end,’ complained a moderate newspaper, ‘they are for the aggrandizement of the stockholders -- for the promotion of the interests of the few...We wish to have pubic good and private speculation more distinctly separated and understood.” (quoting Boston Daily Herald, Sept. 6 1836, 213)

This is the key point. Even where people didn’t necessarily oppose business or corporations, many wanted to specify the difference between business activity and state activity. This continues into the anti-monopoly period...

“Divested of its communal functions, the corporation became an anomalous creature, privileged but unprincipled, armed with power yet devoid of responsibility.” (214)

When recession came, “responsibility for the panic of 1837 fell upon Jacksonian finance, discredited the conception of a specie-rooted currency, and barred any program of reform that rested on that basis.” (216)
Okay, but was this really the issue? The fact that Jackson was wrong doesn’t mean the Locofocos were right. Economically? Maybe, morally...

“How far could the state act to terminate a self-created monopoly?” (226)

Impending Crisis

David M. Potter & Don E. Fehrenbacher
The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Henry Steele Commager introduces this posthumous edition of Potter’s magnum opus (completed by Fehrenbacher) by praising Potter’s ability to see that although “slavery was indeed the overshadowing problem of the decade,” it seems not to have “monopolized the politics of the decade as it now tends to monopolize its history.” (xiv) And Potter does come back to this point again and again. Lincoln was hardly a household name in 1850, and it was far from inevitable in the minds of most Americans that slavery would lead to secession, emancipation, and Civil War. Even in “Bleeding Kansas,” Potter says “a majority of the inhabitants apparently did not care very much one way or the other about slavery...an overwhelming proportion of the settlers were far more concerned about land titles than they were about any other public question.” (202) This is especially interesting to me right now, as I seem to be spending a lot of my time wondering what the regular people out in the countryside actually thought about all the “historic events” I’m reading about in all these books.

Potter begins his story with a description of Polk’s response to the Mexican treaty in 1848. Polk didn’t want to sign, but was pressured by his knowledge that the war, which was “highly unpopular throughout a large part of the country,” had to end. (4) The peace, Potter says, created a nation and also its greatest challenge. A few pages later, he suggests that the Missouri Compromise allowed slavery to take center stage, arguing that “the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged.” (43) For the most part, Potter bypasses these voices and issues on the periphery of the main political story, but it’s interesting to speculate how they might be motivating some of the otherwise inexplicable decisions of the central players. For example, “the Whigs passed over their party leader, Henry Clay, and nominated Zachary Taylor...a Louisiana planter who owned more than a hundred slaves but whose nomination had been engineered in part by two prominent anti-slavery Whigs from New York--Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward.” (81) I’m reminded of a couple of 1844 letters I found from New Englanders traveling in upstate New York. Their main political goal in that election year was to
stop Henry Clay. How much of that feeling was still strong in Weed and Seward’s constituency, and how did influences from home play on the national politics practiced by Congressmen, Senators, and Presidential candidates?

Potter’s description of the 1848 election returns also suggests I should look at this more closely, especially when I get around to studying third parties. “The results of Van Buren’s candidacy,” he says, “were especially confusing, for he carried enough normally Democratic votes in New York to throw the state to Taylor, but enough normally Whig districts in Ohio to throw the state to Cass. He did not carry any state, but he ran ahead of Cass in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. His vote was large enough to make all northern Democrats respectful of the Free Soilers, but small enough to discourage his followers from continuing their third-party organization, so that in 1852 most of them returned to the Democratic ranks.” (82) Later, in 1856, after building a large and apparently strong organization, the nativists “were giving their supprt to John C. Frémont, a man who had never been in a Know-Nothing lodge and whose marriage to the daughter of Senator Benton had been performed by a Catholic priest.” Stories like this, which Potter calls one of the most “obscure and neglected aspects of American political history,” just seem to be screaming for someone to take a closer look at them. (254)

Potter’s skepticism leads him to ask interesting questions throughout his story. “Was the underground railroad,” he wonders, “really a large-scale organization, actually operating to facilitate the mass escape of fugitive slaves, or was it not rather a gigantic propaganda device, more significant psychologically than as an institution?” (137) I can imagine the controversy a question like this could cause. But I
am fascinated by Potter’s repeated arguments that “It is also realistic to recognize that for many people there were other public issues more important than slavery.” (145) Even if we ultimately condemn these people a little bit for their limited, parochial outlook; if that’s what a large portion of the population were thinking, it’s important for us to know it. One of our difficulties understanding Free Soilers and nativists seems to be that it’s hard to imagine the frustration of people in upstate New York and the (old) West, who had just spent a generation or two carving out farms and towns from the forest; and just when things are settling down for them, change begins to accelerate. A rising tide of immigration and the extension of plantation slavery and southern social organization into the territories threatens to overturn the new society they’ve just worked so hard to build. Why is it a moral failure if some of them are more concerned about the challenges to their neighborhoods and families, than about the plight of faraway strangers or about an abstract ethical/political argument?

The Free Soil party, Potter says, “mitigated the strain on the old parties by removing the strongest anti-slavery pressures within them.” (229) He attributes part of its disappearance after the 1848 election to the fact that “43 percent of the Free Soil vote had been concentrated in the Empire State,” and “In 1849, John Van Buren led most of his father’s Barnburner followers back into the Democratic fold.” (228) In Ohio, where Potter says the Free Soil party “collapsed,” the election resulted in “giving the state’s Senate seats to Chase and Wade, two of the most pronounced anti-slavery men in public life.” The irony of this result suggests we might need to reevaluate how we measure success and failure in third party politics

Potter reminds us that party choices were not always made for high ideological reasons. English immigrants, he says “went Whig by a ratio of 75:25,” while by 1844 (according to Benson) “the Catholic Irish of New York were Democratic by a ratio of 95 to 5...The Irish, one imagines, took one look, saw the British and the Puritans on one side, and knew they must belong to the other.” (244-5) He also reminds us that our ideas of what motivated politics do not necessarily apply. “The antislavery and nativist groups frequently avoided a contest with one another,” he says, “for the good reason that both appealed to the same elements of the population.” “American historians have been slow to recognize the relation between Know-Nothingism and Republicanism in 1854,” he says, partly because “it has been psychologically difficult, because of their predominantly liberal orientation, for them to cope with the fact that anti-slavery, which they tend to idealize, and nativism, which they tend to scorn, should have operated in partnership.” (251-2) And he calls attention to John R. Commons 1909 article “
Horace Greeley and the Working Class Origins of the Republican Party,” which suggested that “homestead policy was the primary motive force of the Republicans.” (n. 44, 430)

Potter also alludes to some stories that may hold the potential for interpretations he doesn’t necessarily see. He briefly mentions Asa Whitney, who in 1844 proposed to build a railroad from Milwaukee to the Pacific if the government would sell him a “strip of land sixty miles wide...for sixteen cents an acre.” (146) Potter says Whitney’s scheme created three “articles of faith” for railway enthusiasts: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” I don’t know the whole story (yet), but I don’t see the inevitability of private ownership, trusts, and the Credit Mobilier in Potter’s description of Whitney’s proposal. Maybe Potter was so focused on the central, political story that he failed to apply the same skepticism to events on the periphery.

Another really interesting moment (and the one that convinced me to buy the book, so I can read it again more closely when I’m done with the PhD) was “On the evening before Washington’s birthday, George N. Sanders, the American consul in London, held a dinner party at which the guests included seven reolutionists--Massini, Garibaldi, and Orsini of Italy, Kossuth of Hungary, Arnold Ruge of Germany, Ledru-Rollin of France, Alexander Herzen of Russia--and [Minster to the UK] James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Sanders was one of the most aggressive members of the Young America movement, whose members believed emphatically in both the world mission and the territorial growth of the United States. He and his guests drank toasts to ‘a future alliance of America with a federation of the free peoples of Europe.’” (quoting Curti,
Young America, 34-55. 178)

Evildoers who hate our freedoms

Eric Rauchway
Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America

Rauchway’s main point is that, contrary to the contemporaries and historians who have tried to portray him as a madman, Leon Czolgosz was rational. “He said plainly that he shot the President of the United States because he hated the politics of state-supported capitalism that the President and his party represented,” Rauchway says, “and in so doing he echoes hosts of critics in the United States and around the world.” Since Rauchway probably wrote this in the wake of 9/11, there are immediate, obvious connections to a present in which much of the world (and not just Islamic fundamentalists) are more or less antagonistic to the imperial corporate state they believe America has become. But Rauchway also makes some subtle and interesting points about the arguments the assassination precipitated regarding environmental influences on behavior, threats to social order, and the role of the state in mitigating the harshest effects of the free market economy, to prevent the growth of a permanent, revolutionary underclass. Theodore Roosevelt emerges from the obscurity of the Vice Presidency, to take a central place in all these discussions. In contrast to standard depictions of the cowboy President, Rauchway presents a “canny and manipulative Roosevelt...who made his career by controlling stories.” (xiii) Roosevelt uses his famous patriotism and temper to enact a Progressive agenda remarkably like the platform of his party’s populist opponents. Without coming right out and saying it, Rauchway leads us toward a suspicion that this wasn’t entirely accidental.

In spite of the fact that 1893 saw the beginning of the worst depression until the Great one, William Jennings Bryan failed to beat William McKinley in 1896. McKinley presided over the Spanish-American War, claiming that God told him to “take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” (7) In 1900, McKinley campaigned on “Prosperity at Home, Prestige Abroad,” and beat Bryan again. In neither case would Bryan have won, even if he had received all the votes that went to minor party candidates (Prohibition, Social-Democratic, Populist, Socialist Labor, National Prohibition). These results suggest that a majority of Americans supported the Republican vision of progress. Czolgosz showed that those who did not could not be dismissed with impunity.

Theodore Roosevelt was a wealthy New Yorker, and a veteran Republican appointee. He became governor of New York on the basis of his family ties and well-documented war record as leader of the Rough Riders. Rauchway says that, although he remained a loyal Republican, Roosevelt “did not like the smell of the men behind” McKinley, especially Mark Hanna. He wrote to his sister, lamenting his “gloomiest anticipations” of “our gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered future.” (13) Roosevelt was offered the Vice Presidency (an offer he couldn’t refuse) to neuter him. “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wold man,” Hanna complained on McKinley’s funeral train. “Now look, that damned cowboy is President.” But even more interestingly, Rauchway says that after meeting privately with Roosevelt during the same funeral trip, Hanna returned to his companion, “smiling broadly. ‘He’s a pretty good little cuss after all!’” Hanna told his friend, leaving us to wonder what the two had discussed that had changed Hanna’s mind about the new President. (38) Maybe a clue is contained in Rauchway’s argument that “Roosevelt and McKinley saw the same flood tide of revolution rising in the land; they differed only insofar as McKinley wanted to dam it up, while Roosevelt wanted to ride it.” (35) On the other hand, Roosevelt said of “the negro,” and by implication “all the plaintive portions of the American population,”

Inasmuch as he is here and can neither be killed nor driven away, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have. (36)

This is really interesting. If you strip off the introductory clause, it’s a radical statement. The “no more” part sounds like old-fashioned free labor; but the “no less” is a little trickier. Does Roosevelt mean that those who show themselves “worthy” of great wealth should have it? Or is he subtly suggesting that there’s something a person “shows himself worthy to have” simply by existing? And what about that “more” part: is it possible for a person to have more than he is worthy of, and if so, what should society do about it? Rachway later quotes Roosevelt saying “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” (173) Another statement that can be taken a number of ways -- but at least it acknowledges the fact that the corporate charter is a social contract. Is Rauchway suggesting that Roosevelt used his excessive, testosterone-driven rhetoric as a cover for a really radical agenda? At this point I know too little about Roosevelt to form an opinion -- but I definitely want to learn more!

There are a lot of interesting details in the text about “Fred Nieman” Czolgosz’s family, his statements at the trial and afterwards, and the psychologists and commentators who argued his sanity so publicly. And about James Parker, the black man who knocked Czolgosz down and tried to throttle him. He’s a hero for a while; then he’s written out of the story. There’s even a lynching moment, where a newspaper headline shouts “Negroes Lynch Negroes,” (76) and Booker T. Washington says that 125,000 people “have been engaged in this anarchy of lynching” 2,516 victims in the previous sixteen years. “We cannot sow disorder and reap order,” Washington warns. (77) And there’s a technology history moment, when Herman Hollerith remembers “seeing a railway conductor in the West produce what was known as a ‘punch photograph’ -- using his pocket hole-punch, the conductor took a ticket and punched out a pattern indicating the hair color, height, skin color, and other defining features of a passenger.” (130)

Talking about
Murdering McKinley with my reading partner, who had just finished Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, we were struck by the strange similarity between Southern segregation and Roosevelt’s fear that “Harvard and Yale graduates” were failing to procreate enough to prevent “rapid race suicide.” (143) His anxiety over anglo America, and his “strenuous life” paternalism toward imperial targets, are difficult to reconcile with the portrayal Rauchway seems to be advancing of Roosevelt. More reading may help me understand this better.

cf. Johann Most,
The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, 1885
cf. Abe Isaak,
Free Society (Chicago newspaper)

Death of Reconstruction

Heather Cox Richardson
The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901

Richardson expands on the racism/politics argument of Foner and others, saying that Northerners, “seeing ex-slaves as abstract figures in a free labor society...ignored the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and economic dislocation in the postwar black experience.” (241) Moderate Republicans couldn’t understand why blacks were not satisfied with the “free labor” social ideology that whites had associated with abolition from the earliest, pre-war, Free Soil days. They completely missed the point, ironically demonstrated by affluent blacks, that many more ex-slaves might have embraced this ideology, if only they had been allowed to actually participate. But when most “Southern African-Americans could not overcome the overwhelming obstacles in their path to economic security,” and asked the government to intervene on their behalf, “Northerners saw this as a rejection of free labor ideals, accused them of being deficient workers, and willingly read them out of American society.”

The story is really punctuated for me by two phenomena: the black exodus of 1879 and the wholesale lynching of black men in the late 1880s and 1890s. I’ll probably try to dig deeper into both of these events, as I read on. The Exodusters seem to answer an obvious question I repeatedly had while reading Foner: was it possible to leave the South? And if so, wouldn’t that have been
my response both to having been enslaved there, and then to the Black Codes, the Klan, etc.? Seems like that would have been the first thing to do, if there were any places that were even remotely welcoming. And on the lynching side, I think that could have used a little more graphic coverage. I think Professor Richardson said something once in a class about being asked to tone that down when the book was in production -- but I think it should have been starker and maybe a little less comfortable for the reader, to really make the point that Northern Republicans who were outraged about the “spoils system” of political appointments, were somehow able to ignore vigilante murders of lower-class black men (and, in 1891, of 11 Italian Americans). The fact that affluent blacks also excused this behavior is interesting, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. The race issue might even hide a more general shift in the Republican party, as the middle class turned its back on workers of all types. This is mentioned briefly in the context of the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and President Hays’s redeployment of the newly professionalized national guard against workers (instead of recalcitrant Southerners). But I think it could be an even bigger point, for me. The Republicans were consolidating a class-based party. It’s interesting that William Graham Sumner’s 1875 social-Darwinist tract pretty much marked the end of the Republicans’ insistence on economic and social harmony. Sumner “reminded readers that human history was ‘one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so as to win earthly gratifications at the expense of others.’” (191)

It’s also interesting that this “social, economic, and political suppression...coincided with the birth of the Progressive movement, which demanded that the American government redress the excesses of the nation’s new industrial society,” (244) but also established the authority of elite, urban, middle class professionals to identify society’s problems and manage the remediation. The “logical connection between disenfranchisement and the Progressive movement” was not only the ability to “ameliorate the abuses of the industrialism without fearing the triumph of socialism,” but also to harness a huge, new government machine to the needs of the “better classes” rather than the lower. They demonized the people they couldn’t or wouldn’t help, took control of activist government, and put it to work for themselves.

The combination of idealism, ideology and rationalization still isn’t quite clear to me. I suspect that a lot of the time, high-sounding rhetoric is a cover for motives that people would prefer to keep hidden. But that doesn’t mean some of these politicians didn’t believe these ideals they knew moved the masses, at least some of the time. The question, in
Death of Reconstruction, is what was the process that took ideals and made them into party slogans? Who was pulling the strings in the Republican party, how did that change over time, and what were the consequences for workers (black and white) and the country at large? And how did some of these free soil, free labor ideals manage to migrate to the other side, and become the slogans of the other party just a few decades later? I need to go back through this again, because it seems like elements of these competing ideas (blacks as “good” free laborers or “bad” loafers, two types of workers, etc.) are present all along, and it’s more a question of which one happens to be on top at any given time.

The sources Richardson uses are primarily large, mainstream newspapers and
Harper’s Weekly, which a contemporary called “one of the most powerful organs of popular opinion” and sold over 100,000 copies a week. (xii) She says the perspective these sources offer mirrors that of contemporaries (especially rural ones), giving us “the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a Reconstruction era American and observe distant events the same way a literate nineteenth-century Northerner would have.” This is an interesting claim, since I’ve been wondering how widely distributed and uniform the news and opinion reaching rural Americans was? Was there an appreciable change in content after the telegraphic wire services began broadcasting? Did local editors cease offering their opinions? Did local readers feel more connection to distant events than they had a decade earlier?


Eric Foner
Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Foner’s task in this book is to retell the story of Reconstruction, and take it back from a “fraternity of professional historians,” who rewrote history, to the profession’s “everlasting shame.” (609) He begins with a historiography that includes a short description of the story Burgess and Dunning told their Columbia University students:

When the Civil War ended, the white South genuinely accepted the reality of military defeat, stood ready to do justice to the emancipated slaves, and desired above all a quick reintegration into the fabric of national life. Before his death, Abraham Lincoln had embarked on a course of sectional reconciliation, and during Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67) his successor, Andrew Johnson, attempted to carry out Lincoln’s magnanimous policies. Johnson’s efforts were opposed and eventually thwarted by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Motivated by an irrational hatred of Southern ‘rebels’ and the desire to consolidate their party’s national ascendency, the Radicals in 1867 swept aside the Southern governments Johnson had established and fastened black suffrage upon the defeated South. There followed the sordid period of Congressional or Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), an era of corruption presided over by unscrupulous ‘carpetbaggers’ from the North, unprincipled Southern white ‘scalawags,‘ and ignorant freedmen. After much needless suffering, the South’s white community banded together to overthrow these governments and restore ‘home rule‘ (a euphemism for white supremacy). All told, Reconstruction was the darkest page in the saga of American history. (xix-xx)

Foner notes that WEB DuBois published
Black Reconstruction in 1935, but it was largely ignored. (xxi)

Frederick Douglass said of Lincoln, “He treated me as a man...he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins.” (6) Foner (like the Dunning School, actually) avoids attacking Lincoln, but he does point out that the president’s main motivation, even for emancipation, was winning the war and preserving the Union.

Foner characterizes rural, upcountry southern whites as essentially pre-commercial, in the sense used by historians like Steven Hahn (whom he cites, 15). Many of these rural regions “like East Tennessee and western North Carolina...would embrace the Republican party after the Civil War and remain strongholds well into the twentieth century.” (18) But while the southern economy was wiped out by the war, the North experienced “a time of unprecedented prosperity.” Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson told Congress in 1867 that during the war years “the loyal states have accumulated more capital, have added more to their wealth, than during any previous seven years in the history of the country.” (
I wonder what the context was, and what else he said? 40th Congress, 2d Session, 246, 18) “Many farmers, as agricultural machinery magnate Cyrus McCormick complained, took advantage of inflation to liquidate mortgages an other debts; they ‘pursued [their creditors] in triumph and paid them without mercy.’ McCormick, however, also knew how to take advantage of the war, borrowing large sums in order to hoard raw materials, and buying up farmland and urban real estate with as small a down payment as possible. By 1865 he was Chicago’s largest landlord.” (cf Rasmussen, “The Civil War: A Catalyst of Agricultural Revolution,” Ruggles, “Economic Basis of the Greenback Movement in Iowa and Wisconsin,” Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick, 19)

“Perhaps 1 million northerners,” Foner says, “ended up owning shares in a national debt that by war’s end amounted to over $2 billion. But most bonds were held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions, who reaped the windfall from interest paid in gold at a time when depreciating paper money was employed for all other transactions.” (22) He goes on to say that “a tax of 10 cents on each dollar effectively ended the printing of money by by state-chartered banks.”
This couldn’t have ended without some protest from upstate New Yorkers... “The minimum capital requirement of $50,000 and a proviso barring national banks from holding mortgages on land restricted these institutions to large cities.” Again, this legislation couldn’t have passed uncontested. There’s a story here... And finally, “The federal budget, amounting to $63 million in 1860, rose to well over $1 billion by 1865.” (23) And these are the Republicans, the champions of free labor who want to keep the government small...

cf Merck,
Economic History of Wisconsin During the Civil War Decade, 1916

In a section called “The Meaning of Freedom,” Foner says “freedom meant more than simply receiving wages. Freedmen wished to take control of the conditions under which they labored, free themselves from subordination to white authority, and carve out the greatest measure of economic autonomy.” (103)
This is the rub -- see Richardson. The freedmen were seen as setting themselves against not the former slaveholders (on whom people like Stevens saw they had a legitimate and possibly enforceable claim), but against white workers with whom they should have been standing in solidarity. They were led to this by...who? Seems like either naivete or a classic divide-and-conquer play. Of course, as Foner says, it was not easy for the blacks to fit themselves into a free labor version of the cotton South, when “regulators...are riding about whipping, maiming, and killing all negroes who do not obey the orders of their former masters, just as if slavery existed.” (Nashfield Press and Times, quoted in Hartford Courant, 2-6-1867, 121)

What was Andrew Johnson doing in the Republican party? “Some 15,000 Southerners, the majority barred from the general amnesty because of their wealth, filed applications for individual pardons. At first, the President granted pardons cautiously, but by September they were being issued wholesale, sometimes hundreds in a single day. By 1866, over 7,000 Southerners excluded from amnesty under the $20,000 clause had received individual pardons.” (191)
Hard to not see this (and support for it) as class solidarity across party and sectional lines.

Stevens “knew that a landed aristocracy and a landless class were alike dangerous in the republic, and by a single act of justice he would abolish both.” (quoting Kelley’s posthumous remarks, 40th Cong 3d session 133-4, 236)

“Appropriate out of the vast amount of the surplus lands of the wealthy, a comfortable home for the helpless and dependent black man whose arduous labor for the last two hundred years justly entitles him to such inheritance.” (petition by J. Robert and ten others to John Sherman, 5-1-1867, 302)

“Once Grant had been nominated, Congress moved to consolidate the party’s position for the fall campaign, readmitting seven Southern states to the Union.” (338)
So Foner agrees with Dunning that it comes down to political gamesmanship -- he just sees a different set of villains.

Foner isn’t too sympathetic to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s frustration, and criticizes her “racist and elitist arguments for rejecting the enfranchisement of black males while women of culture and wealth remained excluded.” (448)

cf the change in the North, reflected in
The Education of Henry Adams, 237-8.

“Banker Jay Cooke, the ‘financier of the Civil War’ and leading individual contributor to Grant’s presidential campaign, not only had the Republican party in his debt, but a remarkable number of its leading officials as well.” (467)
So what was the process that led from the (supposedly) idealistic formation of the party to this rampant corruption an spoilsmanship? Or were the seeds of this corruption there at the beginning?

cf Charles Francis Adams, Jr. & Henry Adams,
Chapters of the Erie and other essays, 1-96: “the Erie battle seemed most of all to demonstrate that ‘our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control.” (468)

cf. Miller,
Railroads and the Granger Laws, 1971; Unger, The Greenback Era, 1964

After the failure of Jay Cooke’s bank in 1873 caused a panic and depression, “
The Nation linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” (519) But I wonder how much easier was it to demonize all these dangerous outsiders when most of these Northern poor were not anglos?

Foner says “1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens.” (582) He goes on to say, “Yet the government was not rendered impotent in all matters,” citing the ongoing campaign against Native Americans. The real point seems to be, that the government became much more focused in its activism, and increasingly only used it in the service of corporations and imperial expansionism. As a result of the “Great Strike” of 1877, when state volunteer militias had “proved unwilling or unable to suppress the uprising,” Charles Eliot Norton demanded they be “‘essentially remodeled’ so as to provide an ‘efficient force for the protection of life and property and the maintenance of order.‘ In the aftermath of 1877, cities retrained and expanded their police forces, while the...National Guard were professionalized and equipped with more modern weapons. In the next quarter century, the Guard would be used in industrial disputes over 100 times.” (585-6) President Hays withdrew troops from the South, and deployed them against striking workers. This was the core of the change: government power was no longer to be used to protect the citizens, but to protect the wealthy from the citizens.

Mr. Madison's War

J.C.A. Stagg
Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830

Stagg admits that the dominant feature of almost all literature” on the War of 1812 “has been its emphasis on the sheer ineptitude of the American war effort.” But even so, “to stress ineptitude as the theme of the War of 1812...is to neglect an important, albeit obvious, point about its history--which is that no administration could have actually intended what happened to have occurred.” (x) The question is, was there a realistic plan behind Madison’s policy, or was he too a source of incompetence? “The incompetence that seemed all-pervasive during the war years was more than simply the failings of so many individuals; rather it was symptomatic of political and administrative problems deeply rooted in the government of American society. Yet the founding fathers, including Madison himself, had justified the introduction of a new constitution in 1789 very much on the grounds that it would provide the United States with a more efficient system of government and prevent a recurrence of the disorder that had characterized the War for Independence.” (xi) This is an interesting point, because it suggests that the founders were particularly concerned about facilitating a united military, in expectation of future wars with Britain. And because it suggests a lack of concern with what the American people actually wanted, both in the minds of the founders and of Professor Stagg.

At the end of his introduction, Stagg also seems to admit that the war didn’t really resolve anything. Nor did “the sudden rise of Anglo-American ‘friendship’ after 1815.” (xii) The real change in British-American relations was brought about by neither Britons nor Americans, but by a change in the global balance of power created by “the emancipation of Latin America.” So in that sense, a study of politics and American foreign policy through 1830 that doesn’t say another word about Spanish American independence, seems fatally myopic.

Madison’s decision for war is hard to see as sensible. When it declared war on Great Britain, the U.S. “could command little more than six thousand regular troops and a naval force consisting of sixteen vessels of all sizes.” In contrast, the British controlled the seas with “six hundred vessels in active service while also supporting a regular army at home and abroad that totaled nearly one quarter of a million men.” (3) Stagg says Madison believed America could easily take a large part of Canada, and that this would bring Britain to the negotiating table. But in 1812 his Jeffersonian political allies seem to have been on the same page: “The best-known statement of American optimism about the ease of seizing Canada was Thomas Jefferson’s claim that ‘the acquisition of Canada...as far as the neighborhood of Quebec will be a mere matter of marching.’” (note 8, 5) The critical issue was denying Britain access to raw materials it needed in order to maintain its West Indian colonies and its navy. “The growth of Upper Canada was a significant step toward freeing the British empire from the effects of American economic restrictions.” (41) Canada, as an alternative source of nearly everything supplied by the U.S., had to be neutralized. Ironically, an American diplomat in the West Indies in 1827-8 reported, “the inhabitants of this island [Barbados] as well as the others, have less regard for Mr. Jefferson than any of our Presidents (not excepting Mr. Madison...yet they say he nevertheless, though not intentionally, rendered them a great service by laying on the Embargo, which taught them to find resources within themselves, that is to say, by cultivating ground provisions, which they never did before, and were entirely dependent on the United States.” (quoting Robert Monroe Harrison to Henry Clay, 516)

Interestingly, “the growth of Canada was also stimulated by, and in turn contributed to, the growth of the United States...and the settlers in this northeastern region were as likely to cross into Canada in search of new prosperity as they were to remain in the United States.” (refs Lambert,
Travels through Lower Canada and the United States, 1813, 244-55, 40) There’s a story here...

Another interesting point, that Stagg mentions several times but doesn’t develop, is the government’s apparent difficulty raising troops. In spite of the fact that “the society of the early Republic greatly esteemed the virtuous citizen who willingly assumed public duties in a selfless, disinterested manner, recruiting in the northeast and northwest was hampered by men’s loyalty to their regions (and regional militia) in preference to national army service. (195) Troop levies in the northwest were “hampered by a series of petty obstructions, usually arising from attempts to use writs of
habeus corpus to get men discharged on a variety of grounds, mainly wrongful enlistment.” (172) This is another story, especially in light of the government’s claims that one of the “popular” reasons for war was British impressment of American seamen.

A final dramatic moment (amidst several hundred pages of really dry political history) comes on January 5 1815, when the Hartford convention convened to discuss possible New England secession. An observer warned Monroe that they “would have to be crushed immediately. If the rebellious New England states were given time to organize an effective government, he believed they could, by virtue of their large populations and well-equipped militias, successfully ‘bid defiance’ to the Union, seize all the property of the federal government, and perhaps enter into an alliance with Britain. Monroe took the advice to heart. He increased the guard on the Springfield armory and on January 10 authorized New York Republican leaders...to draw on more money and volunteers to crush a rebellion or an invasion.” (481-2) Another story here, about regional interests, force, and national union.

This is an interesting period, and it seems there are several interesting stories waiting to be told about it. Something to keep in mind....