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bruce, douglas, revelsBefore our epic interview with historian Philip Dray continues— please review Part I and Part II at your leisure— I’d like to clarify a few things. The reason we are talking about Reconstruction is precisely because it’s so unfamiliar. Here in Brooklyn, if you have ever wondered what happened to Weeksville or  the first black magazine in America, the Anglo-African (founded by Thomas Hamilton of Brooklyn in 1858), ever been inspired by such exceptional Brooklyn politicians such as Shirley Chisholm or Charles Barron, then the story of what happened when black people first got the right to vote is your story also. That Brooklyn has been, from the Great Migration onwards, something of an extension of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina and so forth heightens our connection to this often overlooked and misrepresented period of history. Dray brings us the guts of it, the lives of the actual men (remember, women couldn’t vote until  1920) voted into office and the great obstacles they and their constituencies faced.

Likewise, I’ve taken the opportunity to point out Walt Whitman’s persistent and lifelong racism (there is no more polite word for it, although white supremacist fits also) because it’s a simple fact that has to be confronted if we care to learn anything about Brooklyn or America during his lifetime. Uncle Walt was both hugely exceptional (in  his best poetry, as exemplified by the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass) and very very typical: it may only be one reason black people were, essentially, written out of 19th century Brooklyn history in any individuated way but Whitman, his self-created myth and the subsequent fluffing of it by gulled acolytes are definitely a reason. As for Whitman’s printed support for Reconstruction, or his poems about any of the Capitol Men, such texts are non-existent. As Martin Klammer explains in Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass (2004):

Finally, Whitman’s postwar vision for America’s future, Democratic Vistas (1871), begins with the question of universal suffrage but then turns away from any consideration of blacks, an absence all the more remarkable in light of the recently passed Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Whitman, in fact, feared that blacks would vote as a block and acording to [Horace] Traubel, “he took the ground that the Negro franchise would never be truly granted till the Negro vote was a divided, not a class one.”  And in his very last years Whitman seemed increasingly to exclude African Americans from their place in American society and culture. “Of the Negro, he had a poor opinion,” reported Charles Eldridge of the firm Thayer and Eldridge, the publisher of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. “He said that there was in the constitution of the negro’s mind an irredeemable trifling or volatile element, and he would never amount to much in the scale of civilization.” Indeed, Whitman even speculated that “The Nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not… Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.”

If the casual reader is asking why we’re hearing other persons’ accounts of Whitman’s racial views, maybe it’s because philip dray capitol menUncle Walt couldn’t be bothered write them himself? (Those looking for exculpation via Whitman’s intermittent career as a hack Brooklyn journalist will be sorely disappointed.) Although the story of Horace Traubel— who was a huge Whitman admirer, make no mistake—  is fascinating, neither self-contradictory bards nor their crumb-filled beards can detain us any longer. Philip Dray and the Capitol Men are waiting.

Brian Berger: We were talking about Thaddeus Stevens earlier but the other remarkable white figure of Capitol Men is Charles Sumner, who’s probably best known to most for getting beat down on the Senate floor in 1856. What was Sumner’s role in the Civil Rights legislation of the 1870s and how do you feel about him? It seems people are as happy to criticize his personality as laud his principle, which is fine but perhaps doesn’t give him enough credit for standing by unpopular opinion.

Philip Dray: One of the more fascinating characters in 19th century U.S. politics, to be sure. There’s great stuff about his early years in Massachusetts, like once addressing a July 4th crowd in Boston, with dozens of uniformed military brass on stage with him, and jaws dropping as he goes off on a fierce denunciation of the Mexican War! pozole madnessHe was famous for his melodramatic oratory – supremely eloquent, laced with allusions to the Bible and antiquity and Shakespeare, as well as acid remarks about his opponents – that probably more closely resembles right wing talk radio today. So he was loved, and hated. He’s hard not to admire for his staunch abolitionist views and his insistence that the “work” of abolition did not end with emancipation, but required additional guarantees, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was really his baby (it was called “Sumner’s Law”). The Act would provide for equality in Americans’ daily lives – on trains, streetcars, in hotels, theaters, etc.

Where he went off the tracks was in his inability to compromise on the terms of the law – such as giving up “equality in charles sumnercemeteries and schools,” which most of his colleagues knew were beyond reach. Also, he developed a keen hatred of President Grant for his alleged corruption, nepotism, and the folly of the idea to buy Santo Domingo, and lambasted Grant viciously in a series of Senate floor speeches. When Sumner’s distaste for Grant led him to endorse a nobody like Horace Greeley in 1872, old colleagues like Fred Douglass disowned him for allowing personal pique to replace sound judgment. Blacks adored both Sumner and Grant, and the rift between them was painful to watch, with most blacks (and most Americans) siding with Grant, who, despite obvious shortcomings, was a popular and mostly competent president, still beloved as the military savior of the Union.

In Sumner’s defense it might be said that he had never fully recovered from the 1856 caning, was in failing health, and might not have been functioning at full capacity. All that said, he did adhere to the emancipationist creed for decades in the Senate and died exhorting others to carry the Civil Right bill forward; it was ultimately passed partly as an homage to him. It proved to be about 90 years premature, but was a noble endeavor nonetheless.

restoration dayBrian: One of the lesser known— & most egregious— examples of American Imperialism was the mooted plan to for the U.S to annex Santa Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic), a scheme even Frederick Douglass was a supporter of. This seems daft today, as well as quite disrspectful to the Dominicans but Douglas was no dummy; what was he thinking here and is it possible to generalize about the Capitol Men’s interest in any kind of mass resettlement of blacks?

Phil: The Grant administration hatched the Santo Domingo annexation plot with the idea that it would open that island nation to mineral exploration, that it would plant a US presence in the Caribbean, and that it might serve as a colony for ex-slaves. The notion of some out-migration of freedmen was still appealing to a lot of people (although Lincoln had given up on it), and Fred Douglass seems to have come on board with the prospect of being in a position to advise and safeguard the freedmen’s interests. It’s curious because just seven years later Douglass vehemently opposed the Exoduster movement, saying that blacks should not flee the South but remain there and demand their rights. Many Capitol Men also opposed it for similar reasons, and found themselves the objects of scorn by Exodus leaders, who painted the black politicians as out of touch with the poor sharecroppers eager to relocate.

Douglass paid for his fealty to the Santo Domingo project when he was treated as a second-class steerage passenger on the US ship that went to the island, and then snubbed at a White House dinner afterwards; black editorialists mocked him for going along with such a stupid idea and for not seeking revenge on those who had slighted him.


Brian: I don’t want to say the telling is repetitive, as each state had personalities and circumstances, but we reach a point esp. in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina where various forces are working very hard to fight Reconstruction. This includes the terror of the Klan, White Riders, etc. and every possible political machination, esp. the travails of P.B.S. Pinchback; I’ll remind our readers that Senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913. Is there an identifiable point at which the black Republicans realize they are likely doomed? It can’t be reassuring that there was little-to-no corresponding movement towards black political power in the northern states.

Phil: On one hand I think they all knew that there would likely be some white backlash to their ascent and that they’d better make hay while the sun shone. But I don’t think they nor most others anticipated the degree to which the Redemption movement in the South would seek to so utterly banish black voting and “power.” As for a tipping point, I suppose there were several Greeley’s campaign in 1872 which, while a loser, hit a chord of national reconciliation that was cheered; the 1874 Congressional elections, in which the Democrats scored huge gains based on the public’s anxiety about Sumner’s Civil Rights law (“the putting of the nigger in our tea and coffee”); and all the various outbreaks of racial violence (Colfax, Coushatta, Liberty Place, Yazoo City, Clinton, Edgefield, Ellenville, Cainhoy, etc) for which the federal government really had no adequate lasting fix and which helped wear down the North’s and Congress’s commitment to more and more Reconstruction. Really I suppose the undoing of Reconstruction, from a tactical perspective, is best located in the “Mississippi Plan” of 1875 which advocated not big confrontations or assaults on blacks that would demand a visible federal reaction of troops and horses, but rather a slow wearing down of Northern will through voter harassment, the breaking up of Republican rallies, the lauding of white pride candidates like Wade Hampton, etc.

Brian: As we speak, America is supposed to concerned about the erstwhile “collapse” of certain financial institutions. In Capitol Men we read of what seems a more noble failure, The Freedman’s Bank and its relation to the Panic of 1873. Did this effect Reconstruction or just hasten its already fated demise?

freedman’s bank passbookPhil:  Technically the failure of the Freedman’s Bank was probably not that significant in terms of the money lost, but symbolically it was huge. The bank had been started as a glorious extension of Reconstruction – applauded and endorsed by Lincoln, Sumner, Grant, etc – and its mission, to offer freed slaves a way to learn how to save their wages – could not have better fit the idealism of the immediate postwar era. So its crash in the early 1870s due to irresponsible investing by white trustees that went against the bank’s original charter, was a brutal comedown – critics pointed out that the government had implied that it backed the bank’s assets; this proved to be untrue. Former black soldiers, sharecroppers, small businessmen who’d been encouraged to assimilate into the American economy and keep their meager savings in a bank, were left mostly empty-handed, their savings squandered. Even Fred Douglass, sent in to try and restore confidence in it, could not bring the bank back to life, and efforts by Blanche Bruce, John Roy Lunch and other black congressmen to force the government to cover the losses were turned down.

To be continued!

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