From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Ageby Charles W. Calhoun
In the wake of civil war, American politics were racially charged and intensely sectionalist, with politicians waving the proverbial bloody shirt and encouraging their constituents, as Republicans did in 1868, to "vote as you shot." By the close of the century, however, burgeoning industrial development and the roller-coaster economy of the post-war decades had
In the wake of civil war, American politics were racially charged and intensely sectionalist, with politicians waving the proverbial bloody shirt and encouraging their constituents, as Republicans did in 1868, to "vote as you shot." By the close of the century, however, burgeoning industrial development and the roller-coaster economy of the post-war decades had shifted the agenda to pocketbook concerns—the tariff, monetary policy, business regulation.
In From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner-Pail, the historian Charles W. Calhoun provides a brief, elegant overview of the transformation in national governance and its concerns in the Gilded Age. Sweeping from the election of Grant to the death of McKinley in 1901, this narrative history broadly sketches the intense and divided political universe of the period, as well as the colorful characters who inhabited it: the enigmatic and tragic Ulysses S. Grant; the flawed visionary James G. Blaine, at once the Plumed Knight and the Tattooed Man of American politics; Samuel J. "Slick Sammy" Tilden; the self-absorbed, self-righteous, and ultimately self-destructive Grover Cleveland; William Jennings Bryan, boy orator and godly tribune; and the genial but crafty William McKinley, who forged a national majority and launched the nation onto the world stage. From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner-Pail also considers how the changes at the close of the nineteenth century opened the way for the transformations of the Progressive Era and the twentieth century.
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From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail
The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age
By Charles W. Calhoun
Hill and WangCopyright © 2010 Charles W. Calhoun
All rights reserved.
General in the White House
In 1868 Americans cast their ballots in the first presidential election since the end of the Civil War. To no one's surprise, issues related to the conflict and its aftermath, Reconstruction, cast a long shadow over the election campaign and its outcome. As its candidate for president, the Republican Party chose General Ulysses S. Grant, who had led the Union armies to victory in the spring of 1865.
A graduate of West Point, Grant had served capably as a junior officer during the Mexican War, demonstrating the resourcefulness and determination that marked him as a military leader to be reckoned with. Stationed at West Coast outposts during the early 1850s, however, he grew lonely and bored with peacetime service and resigned his commission in 1854. For the next seven years he struggled to support his family as he drifted from job to job, and 1861 found him clerking in his father's leather goods store in Illinois. The outbreak of the southern rebellion that year rescued him from obscurity. He returned to the army, and by early 1862 a series of victories in the western theater launched his rise in the Union army. His superiors soon recognized the depth of his strategic and tactical insight, his judgment regarding men, and his steady, unrelenting determination to achieve his and the nation's objectives. He had a clear understanding of the political questions at stake in the war and enjoyed good relations with most of his superiors, especially President Abraham Lincoln, but he showed little propensity for self-puffery. Unruffled by fame and taciturn almost to a fault, he allowed his deeds to speak for him. Three years into the war, Grant had risen to lieutenant general, a rank last held by George Washington, and he commanded all the Union armies.
Even before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, many Republicans had concluded that Grant was the ideal candidate to lead the party's hosts in 1868. Initially the general did little to encourage the movement. After Appomattox he remained at the head of the army as general in chief, a position that could easily satisfy a soldier's appetite for honor and usefulness. He showed scant interest in a political career, and as a military man, he properly forbore commenting publicly on political issues.
Yet when the fight over how best to reconstruct the formerly seceded states grew more intense between the Republican Congress and the Democratic-leaning president, Andrew Johnson, and especially after Congress adopted military reconstruction in the South, Grant found himself inexorably drawn into the political vortex. He supported black suffrage as a key element in the remaking of the South, but his relative silence led some Radical Republicans to favor alternative presidential candidates more clearly identified with the cause. In 1867, however, when Republicans put the issue at the forefront of their campaigns in several northern state elections, they met a sharp rebuff from voters, an outcome that convinced most GOP leaders that Grant's nomination was indispensable to unite the party for the struggle in 1868. Moreover, Grant grew increasingly angry at Johnson's attempts to exploit him in his battles with Congress. Especially irksome was the president's dragging Grant into his attempt to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which in early 1868 led to Johnson's impeachment and near conviction. After three years of turmoil in Washington and mayhem in the South, Grant came to believe that the substantive consequences of the Union victory beyond the mere defeat of the Confederacy were in danger of being lost. "I could not back down," he wrote to his friend General William T. Sherman, without "leaving the contest for power for the next four years between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would lose to us, largely, the results of the costly war which we have gone through."
Meeting in Chicago in May on the heels of Johnson's Senate acquittal, the Republican National Convention nominated Grant for president and House Speaker Schuyler Colfax for vice president. The platform condemned Johnson for treachery and usurpation and congratulated the country on the adoption of Congress's plan of reconstruction. The party upheld the granting of suffrage to black males in the South but asserted that the loyal northern states should determine the suffrage question for themselves. According to Maine Republican James G. Blaine, the hypocrisy of this "evasive and discreditable" position made party leaders "heartily ashamed of it long before the political canvass had closed." At the next session of Congress, Republicans passed the Fifteenth Amendment, outlawing racial discrimination in suffrage throughout the nation.
The Republican platform also highlighted financial issues, especially the pressing question of the huge national debt left from the Civil War. During the conflict, the federal government had issued bonds totaling more than $2 billion, and by 1868 only a small portion had been repaid. The government had also issued more than $400 million in legal tender notes — the greenbacks — unbacked by specie. After the war, most Americans favored a resumption of specie payments — that is, the redemption of the greenbacks in coin. But because the greenbacks were a depreciated currency, not equivalent in value to gold and silver dollars, the question remained as to how to raise them up to parity with specie so that resumption could proceed without a drain on the government's gold supply.
In 1866 the Treasury Department had begun to withdraw greenbacks as a way to enhance the value of those remaining in circulation, but a severe business recession, caused largely by incidents and forces abroad, led Congress to halt the contraction in early 1868. As economic conditions worsened, many of the sufferers, especially in the agrarian West, drew comparisons between their own distress and the comfortable condition of well-to-do government bondholders, mostly in the East, who drew interest in gold on their tax-exempt bonds. In response, a movement associated most closely with Ohio Democrat George H. Pendleton called for the Treasury to pay the principal of a portion of the bonds in greenbacks in cases where the law did not specify repayment in gold. Although some Republicans flirted with this so-called Ohio Idea, the party's national platform in 1868 declared that "national honor" required that the government pay its creditors "not only according to the letter, but the spirit of the laws," that is, in gold. It denounced "all forms of repudiation as a national crime."
As a member of Congress, Pendleton had opposed most of the Lincoln administration's war measures, including the issuance of the greenbacks. Now out of office and hoping to revive his political career by appealing to agrarian unrest, he switched sides on the money question. He had received the Democratic vice presidential nomination four years earlier, and he hoped to ride his economic program to the top spot in 1868. But Pendleton found little favor in the party's eastern hard-money wing and faced a crowded field of men, including Andrew Johnson, who aspired to take on Grant. At the national convention in New York, the platform endorsed the Ohio Idea, but its opponents stood firmly against the nomination of Pendleton, and the Democrats' requirement of a two-thirds vote prolonged the contest through twenty-two ballots. The ordeal ended in the selection of a dark horse, former New York governor Horatio Seymour.
A hard-money man, Seymour won few friends in the West on the currency issue, but he had great appeal for both eastern and western Democrats who wished to make denunciation of Republican Reconstruction policy the centerpiece of their campaign. A critic of the Lincoln administration, Seymour had in 1863 addressed a New York City mob of murderous antidraft rioters as "my friends." He had supported Johnson in his battles with Congress and had attacked the Republicans for "cursing the people of the South with military despotism and negro domination." The Democrats' platform condemned the Reconstruction Acts as "unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void." Vice presidential nominee Frank Blair of Missouri, a former Union general who had recoiled at Radical Reconstruction, called for a Democratic administration to oust Republican officials in the South and "allow the white people to reorganize their own governments." Blair made a series of campaign speeches filled with raw racist invective, labeling blacks "a semi-barbarous race" determined to "subject the white women to their unbridled lust."
Republicans eagerly picked up the gauntlet the Democrats had thrown down. GOP speakers and editors arraigned the Democrats for clinging to the spirit of the southern rebellion and warned that Blair's extremist views could incite a new civil war or a war of extermination against Republicans in the South. Never a comfortable public speaker, Grant kept quiet and monitored the campaign from his home in Galena, Illinois. In his brief public letter accepting nomination, he took the high road, promising to work for "peace, quiet and protection every where," and closing with the compelling epigram, "Let us have peace." Seymour also stayed home, until heavy Democratic losses in state elections in September and October impelled him to take to the stump. In several speeches the Democratic nominee sought to divert attention to economic issues, alleging that Republican policies worked injury to average Americans and the nation at large. He denied any intention to undermine the results of the war.
Even so, violent outbreaks in the South tended to substantiate Republican charges. Especially in Georgia and Louisiana, the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups resorted to murder and other forms of intimidation to curb voting by blacks and their white Republican allies. These tactics proved effective. Seymour won those two states, and elsewhere in the South, Republican totals declined from previous levels.
In the nation at large, however, Grant carried the election with 214 electoral votes to 80 for Seymour. In the popular balloting, Grant's nationwide margin was much narrower. He won 52.7 percent of the vote, while Seymour garnered 47.3 percent. Although the Republicans retained lopsided control of Congress, the presidential popular vote showed that the two-party system had made a robust recovery from the war years. Even with a relatively weak candidate, the Democrats had managed a more than respectable showing against the savior of the Union.
Equally important was the apparent impact of the black vote. Grant won 300,000 more votes than Seymour, yet the African American vote was estimated at 500,000. With the help of black voters, Grant won six of the eight former Confederate states that participated in the election. In New York, where blacks had to meet a property qualification to vote, Seymour won by a margin of just 10,000 votes, less than 1.2 percent. Had that restriction not existed, Grant might well have won the state.
The precarious state of black voting in the South, as evinced in Georgia and Louisiana, coupled with its potential advantage to Republicans in the North, moved Republicans in the House and Senate to pass the Fifteenth Amendment even before Grant and the new Congress took office. They well knew that black suffrage rights nationwide would inure to their political benefit, but they also believed that, in the words of Ohio Radical Samuel Shellabarger, "The decisive argument for the amendment is that it is right." After considerable debate, the legislators settled on a fairly conservative wording, banning discrimination in voting on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This left the door open for other forms of discrimination (which southern states would adopt at the end of the century), but the majority of congressional Republicans concluded that, given the state of the public mind on the issue in 1868, this was the most that state legislatures would approve.
In March 1869 Grant entered upon his duties as president with a huge storehouse of goodwill. With the general's military achievements clear to all, his anticipated assets as a civilian leader had taken on towering proportions. Not the least of his virtues was that, like George Washington, he appeared to stand above petty partisan wrangling. Ohio senator John Sherman, the general's brother, assured Grant that the people regarded him as "so independent of party politics as to be a guarantee of Peace and quiet." Grant himself, initially at least, cultivated this image of Olympian detachment. Careful to differentiate himself from the overbearing Andrew Johnson, he promised that he would "on all subjects, have a policy to recommend, but none to enforce against the will of the people." "The office has come to me unsought," he told the nation in his inaugural address. "I commence its duties untrammeled." Deeply suspicious of politicians as a class, Grant did not yet fully appreciate that for a president to succeed as a tribune of the people, he must also be an effective leader of his party.
In preparing his address, Grant refrained from asking the advice of Republican chieftains, thereby forgoing a courtesy that could have helped grease the wheels for his entry into his new associations in Washington. Even so, few Republicans could object to the doctrines he set forth. He devoted more than half of the speech to financial questions, calling for a safe return to specie payments and the payment of the national debt in gold unless the contract stipulated otherwise. On Reconstruction issues, he pledged to uphold the "security of person, property, and free religious and political opinion in every part of our common country, without regard to local prejudice." He urged the speedy ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Grant's drive to strike an independent course showed again in his cabinet selections. Showered with recommendations and unsolicited advice, he kept his own counsel and delayed announcing his choices until the last minute. Fuller consultation with party leaders might have averted embarrassing missteps. Among those who aspired to be secretary of state was Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, a prominent abolitionist before the war and the foremost leader of Radical Republicans during and after the conflict. A man of great erudition and commensurate arrogance, Sumner believed that his long service to the Republican Party, his wide foreign acquaintance, and his eight years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entitled him to head the State Department. But Sumner had never shown much enthusiasm about Grant's becoming president, and Grant, like many other men, considered the senator's blinding self-regard insufferable. Grant never seriously thought of appointing Sumner, and despite the president's efforts to conciliate him, Sumner's wounded pride never recovered. Instead, Grant gave the State Department to his patron in Illinois politics, Congressman Elihu Washburne, although Washburne served as secretary for only a week before resigning to become minister to France. To replace Washburne, Grant turned to Hamilton Fish, a former New York governor of ability and impeccable reputation.
For Treasury secretary, the president-elect had early determined to appoint Alexander T. Stewart, a New York merchant whose business acumen, at least as attested by his immense wealth, Grant greatly admired. Although Stewart won unanimous confirmation in the Senate, some Republicans disliked his low-tariff views, and the objection soon arose that his connection with commerce posed a legal bar to his taking the Treasury position. Sumner led the charge against Stewart, and the president reluctantly backed down. Grant next appointed Massachusetts congressman George S. Boutwell, a Sumner ally. He gave the War Department to his longtime military aide John A. Rawlins, and for secretary of the navy he chose the wealthy Philadelphia banker Adolph E. Borie, who exhibited little taste for the job and less capacity. The three other seats at the cabinet table went to Jacob D. Cox (Interior), John A. J. Creswell (postmaster general), and Ebenezer R. Hoar (attorney general), all eminently capable administrators. The cabinet secretaries varied widely in ability, but none could boast a substantial base from which to add political strength to the administration. Grant's manner of selection, moreover, seemed to belie the reputation he had earned as a general for shrewdness in choosing subordinates.
As Grant turned to the task of filling subordinate offices, he sought to throw off the shackles of the Tenure of Office Act, which barred the president from removing an appointee without Senate approval of a successor. Grant had hoped that before he took office, Congress would rescind this law, passed to restrain Johnson, but the Senate, again led by Sumner, refused to accept repeal. Once in the White House, Grant let office-hungry Republicans know that he would not begin a wholesale removal of Johnson appointees until the law was repealed. Nonetheless, jealous of its new (and unconstitutional) prerogative, the Senate balked. In the end, although outright repeal failed, Grant's allies in Congress secured passage of a compromise that in essence freed the president's hands in the matter of appointments.
Excerpted from From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail by Charles W. Calhoun. Copyright © 2010 Charles W. Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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Meet the Author
Charles W. Calhoun is Thomas Harriot College Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University. A former National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, he is the author of, most recently, Minority Victory: Gilded Age Politics and the Front Porch Campaign of 1888 and Benjamin Harrison, in Holt's American Presidents series.
Charles W. Calhoun is a professor of history at East Carolina University. A former National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, Calhoun is the author or editor of four books, including The Gilded Age, and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He lives in Greenville, North Carolina.
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