African-Americans & the Presidency
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Book Review: H W Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union. New York: Anchor Books, 2012

Mainstream politicians in white American politics have always had to consciously strategize how they will utilize the reality of the strength of the stench of anti-black prejudice to achieve electoral victory. The thought out views of both Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln strongly suggest that they were unable to empathize fully with the pain blacks felt resulting from being enslaved. The thought of eternal slavery and the total absence of human rights would seem to be the worst nightmare of anyone who truly respected human rights. The openly professed greater value of preserving the beleaguered American Union than that of respecting black human rights, suggests a cultural rot at the heart of the soul of the nation. Later, the total commitment to the perceived welfare of blacks, the confidence in the racist assessments of black capacity, and an unmatched cultural selfishness, tended to maintain the currency of genocidal prescriptions for the problem of race in America.

Generals William Sherman and Ulysses Grant were deeply ambivalent about the question of whether emancipation would be a just result of the war. Yet, by the war's end their names elicited good feelings and positive vibes when heard by African-Americans. The political and social situated dictated their historical roles as the military leaders who would finally smash down the Slave Power. During a period when William Sherman's brother was a rising Republican star who was known to be staunchly against slavery, the soldier himself felt the "peculiar institution" had a functional role in American society. Advising his brother John he urged him to maintain the traditional silence on slavery. "Avoid the subject as a dirty black one," he counseled complaining that everything seemed reducible to "the nigger question." He candidly stated, " would not if I could abolish or modify slavery. I don't know that I would materially change the actual political relation of master and slave. Negroes in the great numbers that exist here must of necessity be slaves." (105)

Vowing to stand by and defend the South, "[I]f they design to protect themselves against negroes, or abolitionists," Sherman fiercely opposed secession. If that case, he would place his loyalties with Ohio and the "Northwest." (106)

Although Grant was not as hostile toward African-Americans, he too, was a Democratic supporter of Stephen Douglas and suspicious of the early Lincoln. By marrying Julia Dent, Grant became closer to slaveholders and eventually became one. Despite his professed dislike of slavery, it didn't come close to his love for the Union and the unity of the states. He had voted for James Buchanan in 1856 believing that this would perhaps stabilize the system and forestall the crisis, but with Lincoln he forsaw the disruption of the union(109-10).

After the war broke out, Grant believed that it would be a short one. "A few decisive victories in some of the southern ports will send the secession army howling, and the leaders in the rebellion will flee the country." This would result in the depreciation of African-American's property value leading to the withering away of the institution of slavery. For Ulysses Grant this would result in something the nation's leading politicians had been struggling for since the American Revolution peace and stability based on the institution of slavery. "The nigger will never disturb this country again," Grant optimistically predicted. That blacks would continue to suffer in slavery was a notion that completely bypassed Grant's thinking.

Events soon overcame these naive beliefs and within one within one month's time, Grant's life had been dramatically changed, from minding the store to traveling up and down the state recruiting, supervising, and issuing orders. Within only weeks, he was suddenly one of the state's most important men. Brands guides the reader through the details of the great general's battles with the Confederacy, and within the Union army hierarchy itself. At one point Grant had packed his bags to head back home leaving the army in frustration until William Sherman talked him out of it.

During his early period as a general Grant adhered to an almost amoral position with regard to African-American rights. He approached issues as they came to him in the context of the Union war effort. "I have no hobby of my own with regard to the negro, either to effect his freedom or to continue his bondage." He would do as the president orders, whether that involved continued oppression or an emerging freedom. Solidly in the mainstream of American opinion vis-a-vis blacks and slavery, Grant had no problem with a perpetual black slavery.(203)

Brands highlights Horace Greeley's pressure on President Lincoln to abolish slavery in order to crush the southern rebellion. He warned that if slavery is not obiterated, war would resume after a brief period of respite. Lincoln's inital response was his well-known statement: "'My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I not believe it would help me save the Union.'"(204)

Notwithstanding that statement, for a week afterwards, Lincoln would jot down a few notes every morning. Gradually a draft of proclamation of the emancipation of the masses of blacks held as slaves took shape. Then, heeding advice from Seward, Lincoln waited for a propitious moment for the historic announcement. Preferably it would be following a decisive Union victory on the battlefield, lest the emancipatory move be seen as a sign of desperation.

Following the proclamation, General Grant's most beloved role soon emerges as he carries the proclamation of freedom to every part of the South his troops liberate. Grant agreed with Lincoln that employing blacks as soldiers was key to ending the conflict. "I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support," he wrote to Lincoln. "This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy. . . . By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers, and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us.'" He noted the anger this move of arming blacks elicited in white southerners, they "rave a great deal about it and profess to be very angry," Grant said.(263)

The Confederacy moved slaves out of the path of the approaching Union army leading Grant to step up the search for black recruits by creating two separate patrols to search for them among the slave communities. In addition, an entire brigade was relocated from Tennessee to Vicksburg to facilitate this objective.

For all of William Sherman's anti-black sentiments he was impressed by the tremendous outpouring of gratitude by the thousands of happy ex-slaves. The "stone" that was "moved" was his own heart:

"Wherever they heard my name, they clustered about my horse, shouted, and prayed in their particular style, which had a natural eloquence that would have moved a stone. I have witnessed hundreds, if not thousands, of such scenes, and can now see a poor girl, in the very ecstasy of the Methodist 'shout', hugging the banner of one of the regiments and jumping up to the 'feet of Jesus.'"(339-40)

The glee African-Americans displayed with the burning of their home plantations should have impressed Sherman and other observers who clung to stubborn beliefs that blacks were content under the yoke of slavery. As the slaveholders and die-hard defenders of slavery poured out of the burning Confederate capital of Richmond to many blacks it must have seemed like God's vengeance upon the wicked.

Even at that point, it was clear that despite the great costs of the war and the tremendous human sacrifice, in blood and treasure, the conquering Northern whites were generally much more eager to forgive and forget than the liberated African-Americans. Anxious to get back to normal relationships yet mindful of the ongoing disagreements and hostility existing between the former adversaries, the old attitude of blacks as the cause of the war held sway among some. The terms Grant dictated to Confederate general Robert E. Lee were exceptionally generous and attempted to allow the defeated, starving soldiers to return home with a little dignity.

After the war's end, General Grant argued for the broadest conceivable amnesty to be given to the former Confederate soldiers. The warm and fuzzy feelings he felt during their initial meeting remained and was reflected in his favoring amnesty for General Robert E. Lee maintaining that it would serve to facilitate the healing process and help uplift the moods of southern whites. Not only did he wanted the mass of hungry confederate soldiers to hurry home to be able to put a crop in, he also favored their enlistment in the Union army(383).

Following the victory celebrations President Andrew Johnson, knowing Grant was far more popular than himself, asked Grant to accompany him on a tour across the South. His tour led him to the conviction that the leading southern whites were now loyal and non-resisting eager to "accept the present situation of affairs in good faith." Grant did not, however, think that they were ready for self-rule and felt that military occupation was necessary for the foreseeable future. He gave precedence to the wishes of local whites who maintained that black troops would be bad for white morale, African American morale, and perhaps give rise to violence. He felt that African-American troops were disrespected by both black and white civilians, and through his actions gave some legitimacy to this view. Similarly Grant wanted to disabuse blacks from the notion that they would somehow gain access to land, this was discouraging their hard work for minimal remuneration for the budding post-war southern elites. He sought to discourage the resistance they demonstrated by their reluctance to enter into annual contracts by eliminating hope that a better work arrangement would emerge in the postwar era.

Grant readily absorbed the accepted and convenient wisdom of the day. "In some instances, I am sorry to say, the freedmen's mind does not seem to be disabused of the idea that a freedman has the right to live without care or provision for the future. The effect of the belief in division of lands is idleness and accumulation in camps, towns, and cities.' ..." Grant foresaw a rough future for the former slaves as a result of these beliefs. "In such cases I think it will be found that vice and disease will tend to the extermination or great reduction of the colored race."

The relationship between General Grant and President Andrew Johnson further deteriorated after the president convinced Grant to go on another tour with him, the well-known "swing around the circle." The embattled president was accompanied by two other celebrated figures, George A. Custer, and Admiral David Farragut in addition to Grant. In town after town, President Johnson traded barbs and banter with his hecklers, setting a new standard for behavior regarded as unbecoming an American president. "Shut up!" was even heard during these disrupted speeches(Dray, 2008, 35). Grant himself quickly grew tired of Johnson's self-serving speeches defending his role in postwar politics, writing his wife Julia candidly that he had "never have been so tired of anything before as I have been with the political stump speeches of Mr. Johnson from Washington to this place. I look upon them as a national disgrace." He was careful, however, to urge his wife not to show that letter to anyone(397-98).

Although the celebrated general disliked politics, he felt he had to enter the presidential race for to not do so would be "leaving the contest for power for the next four years between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would lose to us, largely, the results of the costly war which we have gone through." (418) The Democrats nominated former New York governor Horatio Seymour, and Missouri's Francis Blair when they met in their convention in July in New York City. Earlier Blair distinguished himself by condemning Reconstruction policies that he felt placed blacks in a superior position over whites. Blair called for "nullification" of the reconstruction policy by Democrats if they win the presidential election. Under his scheme, "the President-elect [would] declare these acts null and void, compel the army to undo its usurpations at the South,[and]...allow the white people to reorganize their own Governments and elect Senators and Representatives.'"(419)

In Grant's inaugural address he voiced a hope that the black vote was now guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. "The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citixens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any state," Grant said. He continued, "It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now, and I entertain the hope and express the desire that it may be by the ratification of the fifteenth article of amendment to the Constitution." (427)

President Grant and the Issue of the Annexation of Santo Domingo

President Grant became a strident advocate of the annexation of Santo Domingo pointing to several perceived advantages. He pressed forward on the issue believing he had the full support of Senator Charles Sumner, and maintained that the move would help end slavery in the Western Hemisphere since its products of sugar and coffeee would replace the slave-produced sugar and coffee of Brazil and Cuba. (455) Grant believed that Sumner was in support of his project of Santo Domingo annexation, especially after he visited Sumner's home and got the impression that the Senator favored it when he said to Grant as he left: "Mr. President, I am an administration man, and whatever you do will always find in me the most careful and candid consideration." (458)

In a special message to Congress in response to this setback, President Grant maintained that annexation would deal a heavy blow to slavery (458). Contending that the people of Santo Domingo "are not capable of maintaining themselves in their present condition, and must look to outside support," Grant warned that if the United States refused to satisfy the natives' desires for annexation, the nation would be ripe for takeover by an ambitious European power. Congress refused to satisfy Grant on his desires for Santo Domingo annexation, but, despite this, Grant persisted. Later, Sumner accused Grant of harboring designs of aggression toward Santo Domingo and Haiti. Pointing to Grant's arguments for annexation, he said, "We are called to consider commercial, financial, material advantages, and not one word is lisped of justice or humanity. . . . What are these, if right and inhumanity are sacrificed?" (461)

Sumner knew that Grant's aides had been busy buying up Santo Domingo real estate at the same time they were pushing for annexation. Persisting with the notion that blacks should leave or be removed, Sumner tied it to the lack of effort to protect black rights in the South. "Had the President been so inspired as to bestow upon the protection of Southern unionists, white and black, one-half, nay one-quarter the time, money, zeal, will, personal attention, personal effort, personal intercession which he has bestowed upon his attempt to obtain half an island in the Caribbean sea, our Southern Ku Klux would have existed in name only, while tranquility would have reigned everywhere within our borders."(Dray,121)

Sumner argued that it was morally wrong for the United states to seize the island. "Already by a higher statute is that island set apart to the colored race. It is theirs by right of possession, by their sweat and blood mingling with the soil, by tropical position, by its burning sun, and by ulalterable laws of climate." Sumner's well-received speech hurt Grant and doomed his efforts. Grant refused to give up, however, establishing a commission which reported in favor of annexation. Enlisting the aid of Frederick Douglass, who traveled with the commission to Santo Domingo, Grant was pleased to witness Douglass issuing of the shocking statement: "If Mr. Sumner after that shall persevere in his present policy, I shall consider his opposition fractious, and regard him as the worst foe the colored race has on this continent." In the end, however, Grant was forced to let the issue drop off the national political agenda.(462)

In early 1870 President Grant was constantly bombarded with urgent pleas for federal intervention in Georgia despite the reality that the state government was led by a Republican governor, Rufus Bullock. Protesting that the governor was violating the 14th Amendment and the federal Reconstruction Act, a strong case was made for the need for federal protection. With scores of beatings, church burnings, school burnings and murders in broad daylight by the Klan and similar groups, Grant was urged to intervene. After Georgia ratified a new constitution, elected a governor, legislature and performed other necessary acts under the reconstruction acts, Grant commended them. As soon as the new governor and legislators took power, however, they promptly ejected the African American legislators and returned other previously disqualified ex-Confederates to the legislature (465). In response, Grant pushed for Congress to pass legislation that would require Georgia to ensure black civil rights including the Fifteenth Amendment while abiding by the basic laws of the nation. Until then it would remain under military rule.

In order to enforce the 15th Amendment the first enforcement act was passed to prohibit the use of "force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means" to prevent voters from exercising their 15th Amendment rights. The second enforcement act gave federal officials the right to supervise voting in the states and enforce violations of the 15th Amendment. (467)

The changing atmosphere of the nation with regard to black civil rights and reconstruction was a factor constantly tugging Grant to the right. Once stalwart anti-slavery figures such as Carl Schurz had now flipped on federal intervention and black civil rights favoring a "state's rights" position and voicing negative assessments as to the black capacity to engage in political life. Termed a carpetbagger after having migrated to Missouri and becoming a Senator, Schurz and other important individuals and organizations now favored a hands-off approach to the South. Despite the clear knowledge that massive human rights abuses, atrocities and more awaited African-Americans in the wake of a complete federal withdrawal, for political and other reasons, The Nation, and prominent northerners now favored federal withdrawal from the South.

President Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act in April 1871 giving some confidence to the thousands under the threat of violence across the South. In South Carolina the reports were so numerous and serious Grant dispatched Amos Akerman, a cabinet officer and a former Confederate, to investigate. A Republican in the post-Civil War period, he was known as a strident defender of black rights when he served as the federal district attorney for Georgia (474). His investigation revealed the overwhelming support the Klan had in at least nine counties in South Carolina. Armed and criminally intent on violating African-American rights in every way, Akerman concluded that these groups must be forcibly suppressed. Grant concurred and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the nine worst counties. This provoked a strong outcry in Congress from Democrats, notably Francis Blair of Missouri. Yet, even in Grant's own cabinet dissident voices could be found as Hamilton Fish professed exasperation with the stories told by Akerman of atrocities committed against blacks in the South. (477)

Despite the outcry this was perhaps the major accomplishment of President Grant during this period. The raids in South Carolina arrested hundreds of Klansmen and stopped the organization and movement in its tracks for a period. With the jails clogged, plea bargains were made by the hundreds as short sentence were generally given out to those who had been jailed. Most served only six to eighteen months in prison, but the impact was that the Klan was repressed and intimidated for a period.

Philip Dray, author of Capitol Men concluded that as president was an unreliable defender of black civil rights:

"Grant had always been inconsistent in his willingness to enforce Reconstruction policies--in some instances acting convincingly to defend the freedmen's rights, at other times shrinking from that responsibilitiy."


Dray, Philip. Capitol Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008

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