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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,219

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This is the grave of Henry Blair.

Born in 1834 in Campton, New Hampshire, Blair went through a tough childhood. Both his parents died young and he was an orphan at age 12. But that wasn’t super uncommon during these years and a 12 year old boy could provide useful farm labor, so his family’s neighbors took him in. He got his common schooling in, locals saw he was a smart kid, so he eventually got an offer to read for the bar, even though he had no higher education. Well, it was the 1850s and it’s not as if the leading lawyers of today (checks federal courts) learned anything useful with all that education outside of fealty to the rich and to Opus Dei.

Anyhoo, he was admitted to the bar in 1859 and the next year, got named prosecuting attorney for Grafton County. He had trouble fighting in the Civil War because of health issues and was turned away twice before finally being accepted on his third attempt, where he enlisted as a private and then was elected as a captain based on his social class. Ah, the Civil War military. He was wounded twice at the Siege of Port Hudson, was discharged in 1863, and spent the rest of the war recovering from his wounds.

Shortly after the war ended, Blair decided to go into politics. He served a term in the New Hampshire legislature and then a term in the state senate. In 1875, Blair won election to Congress. He served there two terms. One of the things he did was….introduce the first constitutional amendment for Prohibition. Well, we’ll try but fail to hold that against him (I’m writing this from Foam Brewing in Burlington, sorry Blair you lose). Generally though, as most Prohibitionists were, Blair was a strong supporter of an aggressive Reconstruction, one that defended Black rights in the South, as well as a supporter of most of your reform causes of the day.

Blair rode this into the Senate. New Hampshire sent him there in 1879 and he stayed for two terms. In truth, he was a pretty bog standard Republican senator. He supported high tariffs, wanted good pensions for Civil War veterans (America’s first welfare program!), pushed for temperance, conservative fiscal ideas, the gold standard, etc. He was a pretty standard guy. And like a lot of Radical Republicans, his ardor for Black rights faded as time went on. He, like many others, became more concerned with civil service reform and the problem of corruption.

Now, this has always vexed me somewhat. There’s no good reason per se why those Republicans who pushed for civil service reform had to abandon Black rights. But they did. I want to be clear here that Blair was far from the worst sinner here and he still usually voted the right way on issues around Reconstruction and later attempts to protect Black rights in the South, even if he had far less ardor on the matter than he used to. But it is still a good time to raise this question. All the way to 1910 or so, the most corrupt old-timey Republican politicians remained really very deeply committed to Black rights while the reformers saw the patronage system in which Black people benefited as part of the problem with the nation’s corruption, as personified in the entire Grant administration. And fair enough on that, Grant was a pretty bad president outside of race. I still find it strange.

In any case, Blair became a big civil service reform guy and tried to tie it to his hatred of drinking, attempting to amend the Pendleton Civil Service Act to bar “habitual drunkards” from government work, whatever that precisely meant. This was defeated as obviously absurd and Blair simply chose not to vote on the final Pendleton bill rather than either vote no or vote yes for a bill that allowed those of us who enjoy a tipple to work for the government.

Somewhat better, Blair attempted to create a federalized system of public education funding that took power away from the states and localities. Given the disaster of localized public education funding that has sent more resources to white schools from 1865 and before all the way to 2022 (Connor and Maddie deserve the best schools and I’m not a racist just because I don’t care if other kids don’t get as good of an education as my already privileged white darlings!) and the ways that states such as Texas basically mandate textbook writing to serve their right-wing standards, yeah, more federal control would be a good thing. Moreover, Blair framed it as a racial justice issue and worked with Frederick Douglass to lobby for it. It never passed, but it was still a good idea and it did pass the Senate on three different occasions before the House routinely killed it.

Also, like lots and lots and lots of Republicans who hated slavery and fought for Black rights, Blair was a total racist against the Chinese. He was one of the architects of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The idea that the abolitionists were a bunch of anti-racists who embodied 21st century liberal values on diversity and equality lasts precisely as long as you don’t actually seek evidence for the point. The key connection to all of this was free labor ideology and what the slave power seemed to threaten for whites, which for these people the Chinese also threatened since they seemed dependent and weak and undermined white labor. In fact, when Benjamin Harrison named an aging Blair Minister Plenipotentiary to China in 1891, the Chinese government was furious and refused to accept him, forcing Harrison to find someone else after Blair resigned. It wasn’t that common that the Chinese government was standing up to western powers at all in these years, which gets at just how much they hated Blair for his racism.

Blair was also a racist toward Latino people and personally held up New Mexico statehood when it nearly happened in the 1880s. But he said the potential state constitution was written while these drunken Mexicans were drinking again and thus statehood was not achieved until 1912. Of course he wasn’t the only person responsible for New Mexico being unjustly denied statehood despite clearly having the population for it, but he played his bad role.

Blair was then sent back to the House for another term in 1893. He chose not to run for reelection and stayed in Washington to practice the law and make bank Gilded Age style. He lived in DC for the rest of life and died in 1920 at the age of 85.

The University of Kentucky Press actually published an entire biography of Blair about ten years ago, but to say the least I haven’t read it.

Henry Blair is buried in Campton Cemetery, Campton, New Hampshire.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1878-79, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Logan is in Washington, D.C. and Daniel Voorhees is in Terre Haute, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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