Continuing on with installment number 5 of this bicentennial series. We’ll pick up just after the Civil War. In some ways, it felt like the country and the state had been in a stall for a long time. In Indiana, the State had gone all-in with the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act. This was immediately followed by a grinding recession precipitated by the Panic of 1837. Then the nation seemed perpetually distracted by the slavery question throughout the 1850s. That tension was finally released in the all-consuming Civil War. Coming out the other side of that stretch combined the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Americans were ready to get busy. (In reality, a lot of the action was probably underway — but history tends to focus on top level stuff, and the landscape was dominated by recession, slavery, and war.)
First, as per usual, the National Scene:
Andrew Johnson became President in 1865 after John Wilkes Booth murdered President Lincoln. Johnson had been a Democratic Senator from Tennessee. He was firmly pro-Union and did not resign his seat when members of the Tennessee government declared secession. In fact, back in Tennessee, Johnson campaigned against secession in the face of threats of physical harm. Lincoln picked Johnson as a running mate to signify the continued viability of Union. However, as a Democrat succeeding Lincoln, Johnson did not have a friendly Congress — many of whom were Radical Republicans, not at all in the mood to be conciliatory after sacrificing American lives to suppress the rebellion.
Johnson, therefore, found himself at odds with Congress over the shape of Reconstruction with its questions about whether the newly free blacks would be entitled to vote, what would be required of Southern States before they were entitled to participate in the federal government, and whether and how to punish those who had taken up arms against the United States. Georgia attempted to send Confederate Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, to Congress in December 1865. Johnson appeared to accept such a move in the name of quick conciliation. But most Northerners wanted Southerners to acknowledge their defeat. Some Northerners saw southern whites as proud and insolent. Allowing an unrepentant Southern leader like Stephens to participate in federal government would be intolerable. Congress refused to seat Stephens and established a committee to recommend appropriate reconstruction legislation.
As a Democrat, Johnson appeared to be counting on Southern support for his election prospects and, therefore, wasn’t as quick to condemn the actions of the Southern elite which were designed to, as much as possible, maintain the status quo ante despite their defeat. This alienated the Radical Republicans. Johnson vetoed a bill that would have extended the existence of the Freedman’s Bureau and another that granted citizenship to the freedmen. The veto of the second bill was overridden and Johnson had alienated the moderate Republicans. The Freedman’s Bureau bill was passed again, vetoed again, and this time that veto was overridden as well. The Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act over Johnson’s veto. Among other things, it required ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment as a condition of the end of military occupation and the return of civil government in the rebel states (except for Tennessee which had already passed the Fourteenth Amendment and been readmitted.)
Eventually, the Congressional Republicans impeached Johnson mostly because they were spoiling for a fight with him. They had passed a dubious “Tenure of Office” Act which purported to limit a President’s authority to terminate executive cabinet members once appointed. When Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Stanton without Congressional approval, impeachment hearings were initiated. The House prosecutors fell just short of the tw0-thirds of the Senators needed to convict, with 35 guilty votes versus 19 not-guilty.
During this period, in 1867, Secretary of State Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska (a/k/a “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox”) from Russia for $7.2 million (about $122 million today). One of Johnson’s last acts in office was to grant a blanket amnesty that protected Confederates from prosecution for the treason they committed.
Grant was, of course, the Union General and war hero who defeated his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee, and won the Civil War. Given the significance of his victory and our love of generals, he was an unsurprising choice to run for President.
Notable for Indiana was his choice of Schuyler Colfax as a running mate. Colfax had been a deputy Auditor under his step-father in St. Joseph County, covered politics when he worked at and later owned newspapers in the Region and, in that capacity, became friendly with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune for which Colfax contributed articles. Colfax had been an active Whig then became a Republican when that party was created. He was also a delegate to the convention that wrote Indiana’s 1851 Constitution. Colfax became a United States Representative in 1855 and was Speaker of the House until 1869 when he became Vice-President under Grant. As Speaker, Colfax was aligned with the Radicals and made sure that, despite the Speaker traditionally not voting on legislation, his name was recorded as voting for the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Colfax got caught up in the Credit Mobilier scandal (involving, essentially, bribes related to the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad).
Reconstruction was a major issue during Grant’s Presidency – how the U.S. was going to treat the newly freed slaves and how much or how little it would do to punish the traitors. The Radicals wanted to punish the Confederates severely and/or give black people equal rights. The Democrats were more inclined to let bygones be bygones and go back to business as usual. During the Grant administration, the Department of Justice was created and used to prosecute the white Southern terrorists calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan. Congress also passed the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871 designed to allow federal enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment and protect the ability of black people to vote in the South in the face of lawless Klansmen. Grant signed into law the Amnesty Act of 1872 which allowed most former Confederates to assume public office again — despite having broken their oaths to uphold the Constitution.
The frontier was coming to a close during this period. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford drove the golden spike into the United States’ first transcontinental railroad, joining the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads. It was now possible to cross the country in six days. Railroads were bringing white people into more and more contact with the Native Americans in the west. Grant implemented what he called a “Peace Policy” which was essentially designed to assimilate the Indians and keep them on reservations until they were willing to be assimilated. Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn came in 1876, and Grant blamed Custer for the unnecessary loss of life. Rampant corruption in the Department of the Interior did not help anything. Expeditions to survey the upper Yellowstone led to the establishment of the Yellowstone area as the country’s first national park.
Grant’s administration was plagued by scandal. President Grant, himself, does not seem to have been personally involved, but he was unduly loyal to his friends who were not above using the government to enrich themselves. The Panic of 1873 came during his second term, caused by, among other things, speculation in the railroad industry and an overheated economy after eight years of growth following the Civil War.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877 – 1881)
Hayes won (or at least became President) after a hotly contested contest against Samuel Tilden. Having lost the popular vote, “Hayes won an intensely disputed electoral college vote after a Congressional commission awarded him twenty contested electoral votes. The result was the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrats acquiesced to Hayes’s election and Hayes ended all U.S. military involvement in Southern politics.”
My primary experience with Hayes is that my grandparents lived in a house built on property that Hayes and his wife (“Lemonade Lucy”) used to own in Fremont, Ohio. Spiegel Grove which is on the Hayes’ estate and houses the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center is one of my favorite places. Not because I particularly learned much about Hayes there but because that’s where I rode bikes with my Grandpa.
But I digress. Hayes had been a lawyer in Ohio before the Civil War. In the war he was wounded five times and attained the rank of major general. After the war, he served a term as Congressman then went on to be the governor of Ohio. Because of what we’ll kindly call irregularities in how he obtained the necessary electoral votes to become President, Democrats nicknamed him “His Fraudulency” and “Rutherfraud.”
Hayes ended Reconstruction in the South and returned the Confederacy to “home rule” (i.e. depriving black people of their civil rights). Congress was apparently not willing to fund military occupation of the South for much longer anyway, and Republicans were apparently losing their appetite for the task.
In July of 1877, disgruntled railroad workers were unhappy with some of the actions taken by railroad companies (e.g. cutting wages and sometimes simply refusing to pay wages) and began striking. This was in the wake of an economic collapse caused by an overheated economy and, in particular, railroad speculation. President Hayes sent federal troops to suppress the strike in a number of cities (Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago) and that was instrumental in ending the strike.
In 1873, Congress had passed the Coinage Act which resulted in an end to the U.S. minting coins in silver. This contracted the money supply and contributed to the economic troubles resulting from the Panic of 1873. During Hayes’ term, Congress tried to fix this and passed a bill that resumed the use of silver coins. Hayes felt this was dishonest and inflationary and vetoed the bill. However, Congress was able to override the veto.
In 1868, the U.S. had entered into a treaty with China that allowed unrestricted immigration of Chinese people. When the economy went south in 1873, workers — particularly in the west — blamed their hardship on the Chinese. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act abrogating the treaty. However, Hayes vetoed the act, almost leading to his impeachment. Republicans were able to prevent this by refusing to vote and breaking a quorum. During the Hayes’ administration, the last of the wars with Native Americans were taking place. For example, in 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce declared, “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Hayes had promised not to seek re-election, and he kept that promise. In his retirement, Hayes came more to recognize the troubles with the growing wealth disparity in the country. He wrote, “ Excessive wealth in the hands of the few means extreme poverty, ignorance, vice, and wretchedness as the lot of the many. . . . We may reach and remove the difficulty by changes in the laws regulating corporations, descents of property, wills, trusts, taxation, and a host of other important interests, not omitting lands and other property.” The country had entered the Gilded Age.