Between yesterday’s presidents thread and the fact that I’m teaching Pam Brandwein’s Rethinking the Judicial Settlement of Reconstruction in my semimar today, I was compelled to look up Garfield’s inaugural address. Pretty interesting:
The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress. With unquestioning devotion to the Union, with a patience and gentleness not born of fear, they have “followed the light as God gave them to see the light.” They are rapidly laying the material foundations of self-support, widening their circle of intelligence, and beginning to enjoy the blessings that gather around the homes of the industrious poor. They deserve the generous encouragement of all good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.
The free enjoyment of equal suffrage is still in question, and a frank statement of the issue may aid its solution. It is alleged that in many communities negro citizens are practically denied the freedom of the ballot. In so far as the truth of this allegation is admitted, it is answered that in many places honest local government is impossible if the mass of uneducated negroes are allowed to vote. These are grave allegations. So far as the latter is true, it is the only palliation that can be offered for opposing the freedom of the ballot. Bad local government is certainly a great evil, which ought to be prevented; but to violate the freedom and sanctities of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the Government itself. Suicide is not a remedy. If in other lands it be high treason to compass the death of the king, it shall be counted no less a crime here to strangle our sovereign power and stifle its voice.
It has been said that unsettled questions have no pity for the repose of nations. It should be said with the utmost emphasis that this question of the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States or to the nation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballot free and pure by the strong sanctions of the law.
Obviously, this would be better without the discussions of voter ignorance, although Garfield does go on to make clear that the solution to the alleged problem is quality universal education, not disenfranchisement. But, still, in the context of 1881 this is pretty powerful stuff, and as Brandwein says it wasn’t just guff. Prosecutions of voting rights violations increased substantially, and while Arthur was a machine hack without Garfield’s history of support for the rights of African-Americans he continued to make efforts to protect the ballot. And despite the assumptions of many (including, until recently, yours truly) that Cruikshank and Reese made federal voting rights enforcement effectively impossible, the Supreme Court in fact upheld federal indictments of both state actors and private terrorists in broad language that suggested something very close to a federal police power to supervise federal elections. The traditional view that the selection of Hayes was the end of any Republican efforts to sustain Reconstruction isn’t really right. As Brandwein puts is, the Republican Party of the 1880s wasn’t what it was in 1870, but it wasn’t what it would become either. And it was Republican elected officials, not the Supreme Court, that were primarily responsible for the full Republican retreat from civil rights after 1891.
I’ll probably have a follow-up to the presidents thread, but while we’re here I wanted to make a point about Grant (who I’m inclined to agree Yglesias is probably overrating, although I’ll grant I don’t have a great alternative for #4 myself.) I do think blaming Grant for the Redemption that occurred while he was in the White House involves no little anachronistic Green Lanternism. You have to remember that Grant had nothing like the resources of the modern federal government available to him, and this goes double after the horrible economic depression created by the Panic of 1873. I suppose he didn’t do absolutely everything he could, but given both his limited enforcement resources and a media that was able to minimize the scope of Klan violence, I think he did about as well as could have been reasonably expected in terms of civil rights enforcement.
The contrast with Eisenhower is interesting. Ike, who found school segregation personally unobjectionable, never said a word in defense of Brown v. Board and schools in the South were essentially as segregated the day he delivered his (admittedly excellent) Farewell Address as the day he was inaugurated, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. And, yet, Ike gets enormous credit for his reluctant, one-off decision to send the Screaming Eagles into Little Rock. Grant did more with vastly fewer resources at his disposal against even more brutal opposition, and remains widely derided as ineffective. I don’t get it. When Yglesias ranks Grant over Eisenhower, I think he has a point.