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19th Century Patronage Politics


As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I am preparing to teach the Civil War course this fall. So this summer, I am doing more reading than usual in the period’s historiography. One book I read recently was Brian Luskey’s Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America. It’s a quite a good examination of the ways that, despite all the talk about free labor in the North, there were all sorts of opportunities for people to make tons of money by coercing labor and it happened all the time. This could be taking advantage of freed slaves and then not paying them. It could mean dragooning people, especially immigrants, into the military instead of you and just disappearing without paying. Luskey goes into a lot of detail here.

One of the points Luskey makes is how closely connected these scammers and fraud artists were to leading figures in the government. One of the ways he makes his case is through the correspondence from these guys to people like Edwin Stanton, for instance. They were constantly working angles to get advantages from the government, defending themselves when the truth of the frauds came out, stuff like that. And Stanton, Seward, even Lincoln himself, had to respond to these letters. It was just part of the practice of politics.

This struck me–not that I didn’t already know this. But the sheer amount of time and energy presidents and Cabinet members had to spend dealing with individuals demanding things of them because said person got out the vote in some county in Indiana or knew the president’s third cousin twenty years ago or whatever is just astounding. This is a pretty good discussion of just how much time this took from Lincoln, which was worse than everyone else, because one thing the government was doing in the Civil War was learning how to actually govern the nation without the institutions to do so. That meant finding people, many of whom were grifters with agendas. This is an excerpt from John Nicolay and John Hay‘s memoir of being Lincoln’s aides during the war.

“The city was full of strangers; the While House full of applicants from the North. At any hour of the day one might see at the outer door and on the staircase, one line going, one coming. In the anteroom and in the broad corridor adjoining the President’s office there was a restless and persistent crowd, – ten, twenty-, sometimes fifty, varying with the day and hour, each one in pursuit of one of the many crumbs of official patronage. They walked the floor; they talked in groups; the scowled at every arrival and blessed every departure; the wrangled with the doorkeepers for the right of entrance; they intrigued with them for surreptitious chances; they crowded forward to get even as much as an instant’s glance through the half-opened door into the Executive chamber. They besieged the Representatives and Senators who had privilege of precedence; they glared with envy at the Cabinet Ministers who, by right and usage, pushed through the throng and walked unquestioned through the doors. At that day the arrangement of the rooms compelled the President to pass through this corridor and the midst of this throng when he went to his meals at the other end of the Executive Mansion; and thus, once or twice a day, the waiting expectants would be rewarded by the chance of speaking a word, or handing a paper direct to the President himself – a chance which the more bold and persistent were not slow to improve.

It’s really just quite striking to read about this stuff.

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