18. Reconstruction under Siege
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451 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 18 RECONSTRUCTION UNDER SIEGE The Panic of 1873 not only devastated the nation’s economy. It also undermined the Republicans’ drive for a successful Reconstruction. As economic distress struck countless Americans, Grant and RepubliFDQ OHDGHUVIRXQGLWLQFUHDVLQJO\GL΀FXOWWRSHUVXDGHQRUWKHUQZKLWHV frightened for their own futures to support the cause of racial justice. In the South, the former slaves, already at the lowest rung of society, saw their lives grow ever more desperate.1 Moreover, a few months before the panic, the Supreme Court’s decision in the famous 6ODXJKWHU+RXVH&DVHV threatened prospects for mounting any new civil rights initiatives or even sustaining the progress already made. Although the cases involved the regulation of butchers in New Orleans and did not deal directly with the freed people, it bore grave implications for the federal protection of civil rights. Drawing on traditional notions of federalism, the Court maintained that despite the Fourteenth Amendment, most privileges and immunities enjoyed by citizens remained under the jurisdiction of the state governments and were not “placed under the special care of the Federal government.” The decision delighted white southerners and dismayed Republicans.2 Grant thought Congress should respond by passing additional legislation . In his December 1873 annual message he called for “the enactment of a law to better secure the civil rights which freedom should VHFXUHEXWKDVQRWHͿHFWXDOO\VHFXUHGWRWKHHQIUDQFKLVHGVODYHµ2Q CHAPTER 18 452 the same day, Charles Sumner reintroduced his supplementary civil rights bill, which mandated equal access to public accommodations, common carriers, places of amusement, public cemeteries, and public schools and barred racial discrimination in jury selection. Sumner had long advocated such a measure, and a few days later a similar bill was introduced in the House. In mid-December Grant met with delegates from the National Colored Convention and argued that enfranchisement and equal rights should have come automatically with emancipation . “It is unfortunate that any enactment is necessary to secure such rights, but existing prejudice seems to have rendered it necessary. I hope the present Congress will give the relief you seek.” But “if such a bill is defeated,” he added, “it will probably be because an extreme measure is urged by some person who claims to be a particular friend of the colored man.”3 “Some person,” of course, was Sumner, and as in past debates over his bill, the schools provision was the main sticking point. As a longtime trustee of the Peabody Education Fund, Grant strongly supported education for blacks and whites in the South. But he shared fund leaders’ doubts about moving directly to mixed schools. Though fully committed to racial equality before the law, he hesitated to put children on the front OLQHVLQWKHÀJKWWRDFKLHYH´VRFLDOµHTXDOLW\0RUHRYHUUHFRJQL]LQJWKH ingrained prejudice throughout the country, Grant feared the impact of such a move on Republican prospects in the coming midterm congresVLRQDO HOHFWLRQV&RQVLGHUDWLRQRIWKHELOORFFXUUHGÀUVWLQWKH+RXVH where Ben Butler reported it from the Judiciary Committee. Soon after debate started, Grant and the Peabody Fund’s general agent conferred with Butler, and the president advised him it would be “unwise to attempt to force mixed schools upon the South.” Butler got the message. Expressing concern for “what on the whole is best for the white and the colored child,” he moved immediately to have his bill referred again to committee, and it did not emerge for the remainder of the session.4 In the Senate, Sumner’s bill lay dormant for months. Before it emerged from committee, the sixty-three-year-old senator’s ORQJVWDQGLQJ KHDUW GLVHDVH ÀQDOO\ RYHUWRRN KLP DQG KH GLHG RQ March 11. The ensuing obsequies rivaled those accorded Abraham Lincoln, and African Americans were prominent among the mourners. Grant and the entire cabinet attended the Senate funeral. In the words of one reporter, the president’s face bore an “expressionless look,” and “it was impossible to discover by the movement of a muscle throughout the ceremonies any sign of emotion.”5 RECONSTRUCTION UNDER SIEGE 453 Controversy did not die with Sumner. Three years earlier, in the wake of his failure to win reappointment as Foreign Relations chairman , he had written a violent anti-administration speech. His friends persuaded him not to deliver it, but he distributed it privately in printed form. Less than a month after his death, this “suppressed” speech, dwelling mostly on the dismissal of Motley and the Santo Domingo issue...


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