Thoughts on Ulysses S. Grant, Reconstruction, and forgiveness in politics
I have spent the past month or so reading Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Dear Lord, is it timely. The sections of the book about Reconstruction — and, more specifically, how Reconstruction turned into Redemption — have an especially painful immediacy. I defy any honest person to read about the combined forces of authoritarianism and white supremacy destroying a multiracial democracy and not think of President Trump. As the man said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But the inspiration for this particular post concerns the so-called Mississippi Plan, which Chernow portrays as the de facto end of Reconstruction. The “plan,” which was more or less adopted throughout the South during the lead-up to the widespread establishment of the Jim Crow apartheid system, involved a combination of harassment, corruption, intimidation, and outright terror — all dedicated to the ultimate end of keeping the state’s Republican voters (both African-American and white) from the polls and ensuring the victory of the state’s white supremacist, unreconstructed Democratic Party. The plan worked, helping to usher in a kind of “second slavery” that endured for nearly 100 years.
Earlier this summer, The New York Times Magazine released “The 1619 Project,” which inspired multiple days’ worth of online discussion about the history of slavery in the U.S. and, more generally, the role white supremacy has played throughout America history. One point of contention between the Project’s defenders and its critics concerned moral standards; namely, whether it’s sensible to judge those in the past who made accommodations with chattel slavery as harshly as we would if we applied the norms of today. Sure, critics argued, we today see slavery as an absolute, monstrous evil but people in the past were living with different norms and we should judge them accordingly.¹
That’s true, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far. And it certainly doesn’t go as far as it would need to go in order to grant the framers of the Constitution, who made a Faustian pact with slavery in order to secure independence, the degree of forgiveness their apologists demand. I thought of all this as I read what Grant himself wrote about the end of Reconstruction. Because despite the supposedly unbridgeable gap between the moral codes of the late-19th century and of 2019, respectively, Grant’s verdict on Reconstruction’s collapse hardly differs from my own.
Chernow writes (emphasis mine):
Grant reflected on the deep changes wrought in northern Republican circles. He predicted ... that the northern retreat from Reconstruction would lead to Democrats recapturing power in the South as well as “future mischief of a very serious nature … It requires no prophet to foresee that the national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost ... What [happened] in the state of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.” ²
As Chernow notes, “This wasn’t a minor statement.” Indeed, there was probably no person on Earth more invested in the Civil War’s outcome than Grant. Except for Abraham Lincoln, no one sacrificed more—of himself, and of countless others—to convert the immeasurable anguish, death, and destruction of the war into “a new birth of freedom” for the United States. If Grant had succumbed to motivated reasoning and minimized the disastrousness of Reconstruction’s end, it would have been hard to blame him. That he did no such thing should only intensify our condemnations of those who chose differently.³
It’s no good, though, to pretend that a happier outcome for Reconstruction was ever likely, not with racism, and a desire to slough off the Civil War and focus instead on lucre, as pronounced as it was among Northern whites. Grant’s halting retreat from Reconstruction never had anything to do with his own dedication to the rights of African-Americans, which was stalwart; it was about politics. As a political matter white voters in the North, who were only somewhat less racist than their Southern counterparts, and who often hated African-Americans just as much as they hated slavery, had tired of Reconstruction and the fight against white supremacy. Overcoming this “moral fatigue,” as Chernow calls it, would’ve ultimately required a coup of some kind—which Grant, who revered the Constitution, would never do.
Which is not to say it couldn’t have happened. Under different circumstances, and with men less forgiving than Lincoln and Grant at the Union’s helm, it is imaginable that Reconstruction could have been the radical social and economic revolution that figures such as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens recommended. Confederate leaders could have been tried for treason — and perhaps even hanged as traitors; the lands once owned by South’s slaveholding oligarchy could have been forcibly redistributed to poor farmers — white and black, both; martial law could have been declared more often, for longer, and in more places. A scenario more like what happened in Germany and Japan after WWII — or, less optimistically, what happened in France after 1792 — was not impossible.
But, to paraphrase Robespierre, you can’t have a revolution without a revolution, and what Northern whites wanted in 1865 was anything but. There is a reason Grant’s successful 1868 presidential campaign’s slogan was “Let us have peace.” There is a reason that the concept of the Civil War as a kind of tragedy, a senseless slaughter in which fathers and sons and brothers killed one another simply because they lived on different sides of the Mason-Dixon, became so popular among white Americans — in the North as well as the South — in the ensuing decades.
In the face of the Klan, the White League, and myriad other white supremacist paramilitary groups terrorizing the South, ensuring African-Americans had the rights their citizenship and humanity entitled them to was going to be hard, bloody work. Northern whites didn’t have the stomach for it — especially not when they could tell themselves that their antipathy for African-Americans was actually a sign of mercy for Southern whites.
- While the arguments of not a few critics were barely more sophisticated than the straw-man/paraphrase offered here, I should note that fair-minded and thoughtful critiques of the 1619 Project do exist.
- Chernow, Grant, 817, Kindle edition.
- “Liberal Republicans” such as Carl Schurz and Horace Greeley especially deserve posterity’s contempt and scorn, I’d say.