A Fee-Based Government

President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Rutherford B. Hayes, from the moment that he “won” the Election of 1876, had many opponents. And, because he believed that having opponents meant you must be doing something right, he relished the fight with his opposition. One issue that Hayes prioritized was reforming the fee-based governance system, the system that empowered government officials to use “fees, bounties, subsidies, and contracts with private individuals or corporations to enforce laws and implement public policy.”[i] With the federal government having significantly grown from the antebellum era, those officials had accrued and would continue to accrue power in novel ways. Reforming that system—if, in fact, Hayes sought to do that—would not be something he could have hoped to do during his time as President.

Read more

Reconstruction

Charleston, South Carolina. 1865.

The years after the Civil War, until 1877, were replete with novel uncertainties. The country had changed: the qualities that defined antebellum America had vanished; those who had been the most vocal before the war—soon-to-be Confederates—had seen their soapbox taken by the “Radical Republicans,” Republicans who sought to not only end slavery but to bring into effect equality amongst the races. Regardless of political party or geographic location, the country and its citizens had the task of reconstructing the United States, every one of them, and that task began before the Civil War’s end. President Abraham Lincoln spoke of his hope to reconcile the “disorganized and discordant elements” of the country, and he said: “I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable.”[i] Lincoln died four days later without fully setting forth his vision for how the nation may reconstruct itself, but events would soon render that vision—broad and ambiguous as it was—antiquated: soon after his death, the same federal government that had grown to enjoy extraordinary power (such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus) would go from having an authentic political genius, Lincoln, at its helm to having Andrew Johnson, a disagreeable at best (belligerent at worst) as executive; and not so long after Johnson took power, roving bands of the Ku Klux Klan acted in concert with state officials throughout the South to subjugate—by any means—those who had been freed.

Read more

The Election of 1876

The Inauguration of the 19th President of the United States. 1877.

In celebrating America’s first centennial, on July 4, 1876, one must have recalled the tumult of that century: a war to secure independence, a second war to defend newly-obtained independence, and then a civil war the consequences of which the country was still grappling with eleven years after its end. But there also had been extraordinary success in that century, albeit not without cost; by the 100-year mark, the country had shown itself and the world that its Constitution—that centerpiece of democracy—was holding strong (with 18 Presidents, 44 Congresses, and 43 Supreme Court justices already having served their government by that time), and the country had expanded several times over in geographic size, putting it in command of a wealth of resources as its cities, industries, and agriculture prospered. Several months after the centennial celebration was the next presidential election, and during the life of the country, while most elections had gone smoothly, some had not—the elections of 1800 and 1824 were resolved by the House of Representatives choosing the victor as no candidate secured a majority of Electoral College votes and the election of 1860 was soon followed by the secession of Southern states. And yet, even with those anomalous elections in view, the upcoming election of 1876 was to become one unlike any other in American history.

Read more

The Nineteenth Century Liberal

View from the Capitol 01 detail
Washington, DC in 1870.

The two dominant American political parties of the late 1860s, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the parties that continue to dominate the political landscape into the early Twenty-First Century. Although they are the same parties in name, many of the policies they espouse—and the place on the political spectrum their supporters find themselves—have almost entirely reversed in the intervening century and a half. In modern parlance, a liberal is one that finds himself or herself on the left side of the political spectrum and is more likely to be a member of the Democratic Party. In the late Nineteenth Century, the term had an entirely different meaning. Read more

The Election of 1868

GrantColfax1868
A Campaign Poster for Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. M.B. Brown & Co., New York. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

In 1864, as the election neared, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, wagered that his re-election prospects depended on having a unity ticket: rather than choose a fellow Republican for the nomination for Vice President, he opted for a War Democrat and southerner, Andrew Johnson. With Johnson being from the South, condemning the Confederacy, and supporting the prosecution of the Civil War without negotiated peace—unlike the faction in his party known as the Copperheads (which called for immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy)—he served as a useful balance to the Republican, Lincoln, whose party was increasingly vocal about abolition and subjugating the South, political issues that chilled some parts of the electorate to Lincoln. By 1868, much had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, Johnson had poorly navigated Washington politics (and had come to within one vote of the Senate removing him from the presidency), and Ulysses S. Grant had continued his meteoric rise in popularity. There was little doubt that Grant would be the Republican nominee; he was one of the most popular Americans of the 1860s and would remain so for the duration of the 19th Century. The bigger questions were who the Democratic Party would choose as its nominee and whether that nominee would have a chance at becoming the first Democrat elected to the Presidency in twelve years—when James Buchanan won the election of 1856. Read more

A Nation Reborn

President Andrew Johnson. By: Mathew Brady.

In the same way that the Second World War would reshape the globe in the Twentieth Century, the Civil War reshaped America for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. Veterans of both wars came to define their respective generations and rise to positions of power: just as Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s meteoric rise culminated in him becoming President three years after the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower would find himself being elected President seven years after the war of his generation. Lesser generals also worked their way into office—some of those offices being elected and others being executive offices of companies in the emerging industries following the wars—but that would occur over the course of decades: the last Civil War veteran to reach the presidency, William McKinley, occupied the White House as the Nineteenth Century faded into the Twentieth. As ever, those who held power determined the direction of the country’s future. In the weeks and months following the end of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, people in power would be sketching out the contours of a post-war America; and it was then, at that nascent stage of the newly reborn nation’s life, that new factions emerged—factions that would vie for weeks, months, and even years to cast the die of America in their own image and either keep, or make, the nation they wished to have.

Read more

The Second Father

gardner
Abraham Lincoln.

In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the Western Railroad Depot carrying his trunk tied with a rope and with the inscription, “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” Friends and family prepared him for the train ride from Illinois to Washington which would take twelve days and bring the President-elect into contact with tens of thousands of citizens. Lincoln had been “unusually grave and reflective” as he lamented “parting with this scene of joys and sorrows during the last thirty years and the large circle of old and faithful friends,” and when he went to his law partner for sixteen years, Billy Herndon, he assured him that his election to the presidency merely placed a hold on his partnership role: “If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.” As he stood on his private train car and addressed the crowd of well-wishers, the sentiment was no less heartfelt: “My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. . . . I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” And so, with the crowd moved to tears, Lincoln would leave Springfield for the last time in his life with the train slowly moving “out of the sight of the silent gathering.” Within the train car, furnished with dark furniture, “crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet,” Lincoln “sat alone and depressed” without his usual “hilarious good spirits.” Read more

Appomattox

new-york-parade
A Victory Parade in New York. Harper’s Weekly.

Conceptualizing the Civil War’s end, even during the opening months of 1865, was nearly impossible: who could imagine Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering himself and his men to the custody of the Union army? How many members of the Confederate government would be taken prisoner and be tried for treason and any number of other crimes for defying the United States federal government? What would come from an Abraham Lincoln presidency that was not entirely consumed with prosecuting the war? And perhaps the most troubling question of all: how, after all the fratricidal blood shed and destruction wrought against one another, could the Confederate states be readmitted and the country continue to exist? On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when General Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the contours of a post-war America were beginning to be defined—and for the Confederates, it appeared, with Lee’s surrender, that the future would be one of subjugation to the northern states. Read more

Tightening the Cordon

William_Tecumseh_Sherman_and_staff_-_Brady-Handy
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and His Staff. By: Mathew Brady.

By the end of 1864—with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman having cut his way through Georgia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant having confined Confederate General Robert E. Lee to a defensive position in Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln having won his bid for re-election—the Confederacy was desperate for any sign of encouragement. While the rhetoric from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens had remained buoyant, and despite newspaper headlines throughout the South continuing to cheer for the cause, the Confederacy was nowhere near the crest it had enjoyed in 1863. Having lost the chance to put the Union on the defensive that year, the rebels now found their western and southern borders closing in on them. If ever there was going to be a negotiated peace, the chances of it occurring were rapidly diminishing as 1865 dawned. Read more

Andersonville Prison

e1e1eff6f5b7f3d8b920420060e0d967
The Prisoners in Andersonville.

Throughout the Civil War, there was no shortage of suffering on the battlefield, but even the newest soldier knew that being taken prisoner was likely to lead to more suffering. While a Confederate prisoner may have reasonably expected that he could obtain improved rations in a northern prison—particularly as the war progressed and rebel supplies had become increasingly stretched—a Union soldier could precisely expect the converse: that if he were taken prisoner, he would receive fewer and poorer rations than that of his starving adversary. While any rebel military prison was expected to be an unwelcome place because of smaller rations and numerous other factors, none has had the enduring reputation of being the site of vileness as the prison situated in Andersonville, Georgia, which operated from the Winter of 1864 to the Spring of 1865. Read more