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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,363

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This is the grave of Amos Akerman.

Born in 1821 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Akerman grew up in one of those gigantic 19th century families (he was the 9th out of 12 kids), but despite the size of the family, they still had plenty of money. Akerman went to Phillips Exeter and then was on to Dartmouth. But he wasn’t real healthy. He had a lung problem. I don’t think it was tuberculosis, which was by far the most common lung issue at this time, but if it was that, I think the sources would just state it. In any case, his response to his bad health was to find somewhere warmer to live, which was common for those who could afford it well into the twentieth century (lungers were critical to the development of the tourist industry in the Southwest well into the 20th century for instance).

So Akerman decided to move to the South. He had plenty of ability to get a job as a teacher. Not a lot of Dartmouth grads floating around as teachers in the 19th century South. He first taught at an academy in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, a small town in eastern North Carolina near the Virginia border. Then Andrew Jackson’s former Attorney General, John Macpherson Berrien, hired him to teach his children. Berrien was a prominent lawyer and had a big law library in his plantation house. Akerman began reading through it and Berrien encouraged his intelligent young teacher to pursue the field. He did and passed the bar in Georgia in 1850. He decided to move back north, briefly, working in Peoria, Illinois. But he didn’t last long back in the colder weather and he headed back to Clarksville, Georgia to practice.

Now, all of this time in the South led Akerman to see slavery first hand and, well, he didn’t care. He was fine with it. Most northerners were, even after seeing it first hand. Like any lawyer at the time, he became involved in politics and was a locally prominent Whig. But when Georgia committed treason in defense of slavery, he happily went along, even though he was from New Hampshire. He didn’t really need to fight since he was in his 40s, but as the war went on and the South became more desperate, Akerman signed up. He served under Robert Toombs, the former senator who was now a general in the Treason Army, and then became part of the vital quartermaster department. By this time, that was a nearly impossible task as supplies for everything in the Confederacy were running very low and keeping an army clothed and fed was much, much harder than it was for the North.

So the war ended and so did slavery. Akerman had something of a turn. As a big time ex-Whig, he always supported Republican economic policies. With slavery dead, he became part of the former Confederacy that just realized that the system was over and it was time to move on and go with the Republican plans to give at least limited rights to the ex-slaves and support northern-style economic development. In short, he became a strong proponent of Reconstruction. He was always more a man of expediency than ideology, so it wasn’t that hard for him to make that political turn. In 1868, Georgia had a constitutional convention to try and get back in the Union and Akerman was a strong supporter of accepting the reality of Reconstruction.

Akerman was rising fairly quickly in American politics now and this made congressional Republicans quite nervous. Rumors in Washington were that Akerman was supporting Horatio Seymour, presenting running the most openly racist presidential campaign in American history (though Donald Trump would try and match it). Akerman responded by publishing an open endorsement of Ulysses Grant based on the need for law and order and to end the violence in the South. He stated that Andrew Johnson was wrong and Congress was right in promoting Reconstruction. Moreover, he came around to the conclusion that the freedmen should get to vote.

Well, all of this led Grant to nominate Akerman to be U.S. district attorney for Georgia. His nomination was still held up by Republicans who did not trust anyone who had committed treason in defense of slavery and, well, it’s hard to blame them. Akerman responded appropriately. He immediately used the power of the office to promote Black rights. When Richard White, a mixed-race man, won an election for a state court position, his opponent sued saying that a Black man could not hold the office. Akerman actively defended White. The state courts ruled against him, but the Supreme Court overturned that and White got to hold office.

This led Grant to appoint Akerman as U.S. Attorney General in 1870. Yes, a man who had committed treason in defense of slavery just a few years before was now AG promoting a vigorous Reconstruction. He was the only ex-Confederate to be in Grant’s Cabinet. He led Grant’s enforcement of the Force Acts to crush the KKK in the South, among other things. And that was pretty good, but this was no easy time to be AG. Not because of Reconstruction per se. Nope, it was because the rest of the administration was so unbelievably corrupt that Akerman had to head investigations of the administration that had chosen him. This included the ridiculous level of just stealing money in the Interior Department, mostly around what was supposed to go to the tribes. Then there was Credit Mobilier, when the Union Pacific created a fake company to steal money from the UP and distributed it to chosen friends for favors, including Grant’s VP Schuyler Colfax, his future VP Henry Wilson, and future president James Garfield.

All that said, Akerman wasn’t bad at the job. He was pretty effective in the South and his office convicted over 1,000 people of civil rights violations. He would act against railroads, shocking those railroad executives who thought they had a bought and sold administration. When he ruled against the Union Pacific’s attempt to get a bailout over a subsidiary that failed to build a line, Collis Huntington and Jay Gould both demanded that Akerman be fired. Hard to find better enemies than Klansmen and railroad execs.

Akerman was also an early promoter of civil service reform, which would take another decade and a dead Garfield to come to fruition. He helped build up the Justice Department into a semi-modern agency. And when it came to the KKK, Akerman went to the South himself to personally lead the raids on those bastards, knowing the region so well.

This did not end up so well for Akerman. Basically, Grant forced him out in late 1871 for two reasons. First, the railroad execs who were so angry at him and second, he was uncomfortable that Akerman was taking such personal measures against the KKK.

Now, today we live in an era in which liberals have turned Grant from a monster, as he was presented by the Dunning School, into a vastly overrated president. Some of this has to do with the cheapness of how we evaluate presidents, i.e., everything that happens in an administration is a credit or fault to a president and we really don’t get into the weeds or the context. So Grant is promoted as a great president because he prosecuted the KKK. But then we get into the details. We see that, yes, that did happen. But the AG who did it got fired because of it. One of Grant’s biographers, William McFeely, was pretty straight forward about what this meant, writing that with the forced resignation “went any hope that the Republican party would develop as a national party of true racial equality.” That’s probably slightly overstated and Akerman’s replacement did do continued work against the KKK. But it’s fair to say that Grant was a) a completely bought and sold man of the railroads and any other rich man since he genuinely believed the rich were smarter than the rest of us and was the ultimate mark of all time and b) he didn’t like the KKK, but he was still a pretty conservative guy on racial matters and didn’t want to go to far here.

As for Akerman, he was still a strong Grant supporter. He just went back to Georgia and reopened his law practice. He died there in 1880, at the age of 59.

Amos Akerman is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Cartersville, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other members of Grant’s Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State for nearly the entirety of the two terms, is in Garrison, New York, and Elihu Washburne, who was Secretary of State for just a moment before preferring to be the minister to France, is in Galena, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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