Thursday, January 09, 2014

Anti-Presidents' Day!

Last year I devoted my entry on this subject to the three “Doughfaces” (Northern men, Southern principles) who preceded Abraham Lincoln, and who helped lay the groundwork for the American Civil war. For the sake of symmetry, this year I believe we should commemorate the three less-than-successful chief executives who followed Lincoln, and who helped the Union lose the peace.

Andrew Johnson: Added to the 1864 Republican ticket to attract Democratic votes, Johnson succeeded to the presidency courtesy of John Wilkes Booth, and assumed initial responsibility for readmitting the former Confederate states to the Union. Johnson's reconstruction plan initially followed Lincoln's, but he added to it mass pardoning of former Confederates, vetoing laws that Congress passed to protect the four million Southern freedmen, and denouncing Congressional Republicans as “assassins” and campaigning against them in the midterms. Voters showed what they thought of Johnson by giving his GOP adversaries a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. When the new Congress passed a Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto, the president discussed with General Ulysses Grant the possibility of using the army to drive the national legislature out of town.  Fortunately for the republic, General Grant refused to help Johnson play Cromwell, and Johnson's subsequent efforts to remodel the War Department won him impeachment and near-removal from office. Twentieth-century historians with pro-Southern leanings tried to whitewash Johnson's record and portray him as a martyr to Republican radicalism, but later scholarship has been more sympathetic to my own view, which is that President Number 17 had it coming.

Ulysses S. Grant: That U.S. Grant was a good general and a crap president is a historiographical commonplace, though perhaps he deserves high marks for trying, as Johnson did not, to protect the civil rights of Southern freedmen. Grant used the Army to suppress the first Ku Klux Klan in 1871-72, and to occupy counties convulsed by white-supremacist violence in 1873-4. But Grant crippled his presidency by appointing or tolerating officials who were wildly corrupt. His subordinates took advantage of the federal government's newly expanded scope and power to line their and their cronies' pockets, taking funds from the customs houses, bribes from whiskey distillers, graft from the Indian Department, etc. A financial panic in 1873 and a subsequent depression did not improve the GOP's standing with voters. There wasn't much Grant could have done to end the depression, but his support for the deflationary gold standard didn't help. By 1876 the Republicans had lost control of the House of Representatives, and in that year's election it lost control of the presidency too...

Rutherford B. Hayes: ...or it would have done, if party wire-pullers and GOP officials hadn't stolen the election, by arranging a recount of votes in the Republican-controlled states of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, all of which Hayes then “won.”After a Republican-controlled special election committee endorsed the recount, Southern Democrats in Congress threatened to delay Hayes' inauguration indefinitely with a filibuster. To shut them up, the Republicans agreed that Hayes would pull federal troops out of the South and allow Reconstruction to end, which Hayes soon did, laying the groundwork for a century of one-party, white-supremacist rule. Hayes instead used the Army to mop up Indian resistance on the northern Plains and crush a massive, nation-wide railroad strike, making it clear where the Republicans' new priorities lay. Following an abortive attempt to reform the civil service - the only useful thing Hayes tried to to do, though it split his party and exhausted his political capital - President Number 19 spent the rest of his term swanning about, making speeches about how great Rutherford B. Hayes was and receiving public plaudits for doing very little. His wife Lucy, meanwhile, banned the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the White House, earning herself the nickname “Lemonade Lucy” and making life that much more unlivable for Hayes' staff.

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