Looking Back at Another Age of Acrimony

I’ve got two big books in a holding pattern. First, there’s Grant, Ron Chernow’s enormous biography of Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve read most of it, but now that the Civil War is over and Grant’s been elected president, I’m having trouble going forward. The other one is the almost equally enormous The Republic For Which It Stands by the historian Richard White. Its subtitle is “The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896”. I’m only a few pages into that one.

The problem is that White’s book and the next 300 pages of Chernow’s both deal with Reconstruction — the failed attempt to give Black people equal rights in the South after the war — and the Gilded Age — the period from around 1870 to 1900 that featured rapid economic growth and increasing inequality in the whole country. It might be too much to read further about that important and relevant period while living through our own version of the Gilded Age, with its astounding inequality and troubled politics (now featuring dangerous attacks on voting rights).

Anyway, Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article about the same period. It’s by Jon Grinspan, the author of The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915. The article is much shorter than any of these books. Here’s most of it: 

. . . Most people don’t often think about the politics of the late 1800s. Call it “historical flyover country,” an era stranded between more momentous times, when U.S. presidents had funny names and silly facial hair. But for our current political crisis, this period is the most relevant, vital and useful. The nation’s wild elections saw the highest turnouts and the closest margins, as well as a peak in political violence. Men and women campaigned, speechified and fought over politics, in a system struggling with problems all too familiar today. . . .

American democracy held revolutionary new promise in the mid-1800s. For all its flaws, the nation was experimenting with a bold new system of government—one of the first in world history to give decisive political power to people without wealth, land or title. Working-class voters predominated at the polls. Poor boys grew up to be president. And reformers fought for votes for women and Black Americans.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, with slavery dead, the old aristocracy vanquished, and four million formerly enslaved people hoping for new rights, Americans began to talk about “pure democracy.” That concept was never well defined, but for many activists, it meant that it was time for the people to rule. But how to get a busy, distractable, diverse nation to participate?

Decades earlier—from the 1820s to the 1850s—campaigners tried to engage voters by building bonfires, holding barbecues and offering plenty of stump speeches while handing out booze. Then, on the eve of the Civil War, supporters of Abe Lincoln’s hit on a new style. Lincoln’s Republican party introduced the “Wide Awakes” clubs to America. Gangs of young partisans, wearing dark, shimmering martial uniforms and armed with flaming torches, stormed through towns and cities in midnight marches. For the half century after 1860, every political campaign worth mentioning borrowed this approach, organizing massive rallies of tens of thousands of uniformed, torch-waving marchers. Diverse crowds turned out, from boisterous veteran voters to rowdy boys, from grandmothers to young women, from journalists armed with pens to political rivals armed with their revolvers.

Such public politics became, in the words of one comedian, “our great American game.” Political rancor grew precipitously. Saloons resounded with heated debates. On train cars, Americans took straw polls to see how strangers would vote. At dinner tables, families bonded—or broke up—debating an upcoming race. Even when exhausted Americans threw down their newspapers, they looked up only to find partisan broadsides slathered on every wall. “Ignorance is bliss now,” complained one woman as she canceled her political newspapers, weary of the whole spectacle.

For voters, participation meant an even deeper immersion. Election Day was a communal, combative, boozy bacchanal. White’s metaphor was apt, when people voted, they literally got drunk on Election Day. One Norwegian wrote home from Chicago, remarking that “it was fun to see” crowds of workers leaving their factories to go vote, “either before or after stopping at a bar.” During the 1876 election, which drew an unprecedented 81.8 percent turnout—Rutherford B. Hayes’s campaign handed out massive oversize beer steins, despite the fact that Hayes and his wife were devout teetotalers.

All the carousing culminated at a rambunctious polling place, when a voter selected a colorful ticket from his party’s ballot “peddlers,” made his way past the opposing party’s intimidating “challengers,” and placed his vote in a wooden or glass ballot box. Amid singing, shouting and heckling from the other voters in his community, it was a scene of heated, convulsive political theater. The system seemed designed to take over life, distort opinions, attract bad actors, raise voices and destroy civility.

In northern cities, a sneering establishment worried that the system was dominated by a working-class majority who could always outvote them. The celebrated Boston aristocrat Francis Parkman famously complained that democracy didn’t work in his 1878 “The Failure of Universal Suffrage,” a screed that claimed that the voters were “a public pest” and that the real threat to America came not from above, but beneath. Belief in equality and majority rule, Parkman argued, was destroying America.

Equal suffrage met even more aggressive attacks in the South. White supremacist ex-Confederates, who lost the war and had remained on the fringes of politics for most of a decade after, used the Democratic party to terrorize Black voters, end Reconstruction and dramatically suppress voter participation. Within a few short years of the end of slavery, one million formerly enslaved Americans became voters, but most lost their rights nearly as quickly as Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow era began.

In the North, voter turnouts peaked from 1876 to 1896, and elections were never closer. No president in this period came to office by winning a majority of the popular vote [i.e. the presence of multiple candidates in the elections from 1876 to 1892 meant nobody got more than 50% ]. Even with racial issues falling out of the national spotlight, fights over money and inequality fired up voters.

Though the electorate turned out in huge numbers, marchers filled squares and newspapers attacked rivals, politics failed to bring real change. This system—overheating and yet standing still—led only to anger and agitation. In 1881, the mentally ill drifter Charles Guiteau, who had campaigned for President James Garfield at torchlit rallies, felt slighted and decided that America would be better off if the “President was out of the way.” So Guiteau bought the largest pistol he could find, and shot Garfield—the murder was the second assassination of a president in just 16 years. Within two decades, another madman would gun down President William McKinley. And every seven years, on average, a sitting congressman was murdered.

American politics had hit on an amazing ability to mobilize citizens, but also to agitate them to unspeakable violence. Citizens looked for someone to blame. Presidents were criticized, but really the executive branch was so weak that they could do very little. Powerful party bosses often nominated friendly, malleable do-nothings to the job. More people blamed politicians as a class. Brilliant cartoonists like Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler mocked politicians as snarling beasts, overfed vultures, sniveling rats and thuggish bosses. Others attacked the rising immigration rates, like Francis Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who blamed America’s out-of-control politics on “alien illiterates.” Others still aimed (more accurate) attacks at railroads, corporations, robber barons and lobbyists who seemed to be buying up America. The muckraking reporter Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that “liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.”

. . . Some well-to-do reformers blamed, not individuals or groups, but the culture and etiquette of American democracy. All those noisy rallies were nothing more than a “silly sort of show,” those busy polling places were “vulgar,” “venal” and “filthy.” American democracy, a growing upper middle-class movement argued, needed an intervention, and in an era of Temperance politics, reformers knew just how to achieve it.

First, they went after the booze. Reform organizations pulled the liquor licenses from political fundraisers, closed saloons on Election Day and passed prohibition laws on the county and state level. Voters were more clearheaded, but those partisan saloons had been key institutions for working-class men. Shutting them down meant shutting many out.

Cities banned marches without permits and used police and militias to punish unlawful assembly. And parties desperate to win over “the better class of people,” as one reformer put it, stopped paying for torches, uniforms, fireworks and whiskey. Campaigners shifted from thrilling street-corner oratory to printed pamphlets. To some, these changes looked like innovations. The Los Angeles Times cheered the citizens who had spent previous elections “on the street corner shouting, or in the torchlight procession,” but could now be “found at home” reading quietly.

Starting in 1887, state after state switched to the secret ballot—a dense government form that was cast privately—and dispatched with party-printed tickets. By isolating each voter “alone with his conscience” in the polling booth, or behind a voting machine’s curtain, he was certainly made more reflective, but also more removed. Those who could not read English, who had previously voted by color-coded ballots, were out of luck with the complicated machines, text-heavy ballots or unsympathetic poll workers. And those who participated in Election Day because they enjoyed the day as a nationwide happening, with its the sense of community and membership, saw little appeal with the new confessional box style.

Predictably, turnout crashed. In the 1896 presidential election, 80 percent of eligible Americans were still voting, but by 1924, voter participation plummeted to fewer than 49 percent. Voters who were poorer, younger, less well-educated, African American, or immigrants or children of immigrants were especially shut out of the political arena. White, middle class Americans cheered the trend, with some even bragging about the low turnouts. “It was gratifying,” reported an Augusta, Georgia, newspaper in 1904 “to see voting booths free of noisy crowds.”

The revolution lasted for a century. What Americans now consider “normal politics” was really stifled Democracy, the post-intervention cool, calm model—lower drama but lower participation. Now, however, those old tendencies may be creeping back.

. . . Tribalism, division and “general cussedness” (as they used to call it) is up, but so is attention and turnout. The two might go hand-in-hand; the 2020 election was the first since 1900 to boast turnouts above 66 percent. . . .

Unquote.

I agree with the author that more democracy would be a good thing. The question is whether more democracy can be achieved without more political turmoil and strife (and more bullshit peddled by one of our major parties).

Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands

Ulysses S. Grant has been called “the most underrated American in history”. But he wasn’t underrated by his contemporaries. His achievements during the Civil War made him a national hero. He was elected President twice and probably would have been elected a third time if he’d chosen to run. He was celebrated around the world as the greatest living American. His death was mourned throughout the nation, even in the South. Eulogists compared him to Washington and Lincoln.

Yet he is mostly known today (if he is known at all) as a drunk, a relatively competent general, a terrible President and the occupant of Grant’s Tomb. It isn’t clear why his historical reputation suffered. One theory is that his enemies were better writers than his supporters.

In recent years, however, Grant’s reputation has improved, partly as the result of two biographies: Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and this book, The Man Who Saved the Union, by H. W. Brands. It’s hard to know how accurate any biography is, but Brands’ book suggests that Grant was a true American hero. Aside from Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for winning the Civil War. As President, he was the person most responsible for unifying the North and South. 

The strongest impression I got from reading The Man Who Saved the Union, especially from reading Grant’s own words (which Brands frequently quotes), is that Grant was an extremely decent and sensible man. He seems to have always chosen the honorable course over the expedient one, for example, by using the power of the federal government to protect the rights of the freed slaves, over violent opposition in the South, and by seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Indians in the West. 

As you would expect, Brands’ book loses some momentum when it gets to Grant’s post-war career. Still, it’s a wonderful, highly-readable biography of someone who was beloved in his own time and deserves to be appreciated in ours.