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Gullible Reporters, Fake News and Servants

Embedded reporters with Northern armies often influenced elections as in the case of the 1863 gubernatorial campaign in Ohio. They fed stories to the Cincinnati Commercial in opposition to the Democratic candidate, writing that soldiers “detested the “nasty little traitorous imposter and gambler of sedition.”

Thus inspired, and with the help of General Rosecrans, the men cast over nine thousand absentee votes for the Republican candidate versus two-hundred fifty votes for the Democrat.

Gullible Reporters, Fake News and Servants

“Making heroes was in some respects a natural preoccupation for the correspondents. The country fidgeted over the morning papers impatiently, looking for the one man with the ready answer or short cut which would bring a quick return out of the national investment in man power, energy and cash.

In an age of open frontier, Americans were used to fast results, to things that got done. They could not accept then – in fact, they never did learn to accept – the notion of a war to be won by long and bloody campaigns of strangulation. The faith in the coming of a “genius” who would carry matters through with one master stroke died hard.

The reporters who became barkers for these “geniuses” were no more gullible than most, but their position made their errors more damaging. Besides, in flattering officers for personal or political motives, they were depressing their newborn profession to the hurdy-gurdy-playing levels of army “public relations.”

Always ready with a sneering word, the Chicago Tribune, in 1862, wrote that much of the laudatory writing of the war was emitted by “army correspondents, with bellies full from the mess tables of Major Generals . . . the dissonant few being swallowed up like Pharaoh’s lean kine by the well-kept bullocks who form the majority.”

Most of the correspondents were apparently as willing to state political opinions as a party guest with a comic monologue to perform. They could not avoid the emancipation question if they tried . . . the Democratic journals acridly pointed out, the Negro was “chin capital” for the Republican press. In that press, the Negroes were painted as a band of brothers, knit by a universal desire for legalized freedom.

[But a] good many conservative orators were frightening laboring audiences with the warning that the Negroes were all too willing to work. If set free, the argument ran, they would drift northward and crowd white men out of jobs. An army correspondent of the Chicago Tribune stepped into the breach with the answer to that.

[He assured readers that] the Negroes did “not wish to remove to the cold and frigid North. This [Southern] climate is more genial, and here is their home. Only give them a fair remuneration for their labor, and strike off their shackles, and the good people of Illinois need not trouble themselves at the prospect of Negro immigration.”

As a matter of fact, many officers and men were genuinely opposed to releasing “contrabands” from camp on practical as well as political or sentimental grounds. Three war correspondents, sweating through the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in mid-1862, had domestic arrangements typical of many members of the expedition. They shared the services of Bob and Johnny, two Negro youths who blacked their boots, pressed clothes, cooked, ran errands and more or less gentled their employers’ condition for monthly wages totaling six and twelve dollars.”

(Reporters for the Union, Bernard A. Weisberger, Little, Brown and Company, 1953, excerpts pp. 240-243)

Exercising All the War Powers of Congress

The Founders were wary of a standing army and gave only to Congress the power to raise troops and declare war. Should a sitting president venture to call for troops at his whim, as did Lincoln, the republic of those Founders was at an end.

Lincoln and the governors of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York who supplied him with troops for the purpose of waging war against other States and adhering to their enemies, were all were guilty of treason according to Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution.

There was a peaceful alternative which was not pursued by Lincoln and his party, and Southern Unionists pleas for peaceful diplomacy and compromise were ignored in favor of intentional duplicity at Charleston.

Exercising All the War Powers of Congress

“The day after Fort Sumter surrendered President Lincoln called on the several States for seventy-five thousand militia for ninety days service. The troops were to suppress “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law, a curiously legalistic phraseology probably adopted in an attempt to bring the proclamation under the Acts of 1795 and 1807 governing the calling out of the posse comitatus.

Amid immense enthusiasm, the established militia regiments in the eastern cities moved at once. Pennsylvania troops, a few companies, reached Washington the next day; Massachusetts troops came within four days, in spite of the violent resistance to the transfer of the regiment across Baltimore between the railroad stations; New York’s first regiment was but a day behind Massachusetts.

The Governors of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri sharply declined to honor the President’s requisition for troops to be used against the seven States of the Confederacy. The Governor of Delaware reported that he had no authority for raising troops.

Neither, for that matter, had President Lincoln, under strict construction of the laws. In his first proclamation he called Congress into special session, but not to meet until the Fourth of July, more than two and a half months later.

In the meanwhile, free from interference, he drove ahead to organize his war, making laws or breaking them as he had need to, creating armies, enlarging the Navy, declaring blockades, exercising all the war powers of Congress.

Before the guns spoke at Sumter and the President answered with his call for troops, there was everywhere, in the North, in the Border States unhappily torn between loyalties, and even in those States which had seceded, a strong party for peace. The fire of Sumter swept away all that in the North; the call of Lincoln for troops, in the South.

The New Orleans True Delta, which had opposed secession and sought peace, “spurned the compact with them who would enforce its free conditions with blood” — an attitude that was general among those who were not original secessionists.”

(The Story of the Confederacy, Robert Selph Henry, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931, excerpts pp. 34-35)

Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

Alexander Hamilton was no friend of the Articles of Confederation and the decentralized republic it represented, but he did know the limits of newly-created federal power within the new constitution. His view was that States retained any authority not specifically delegated, and that State troops, as in 1861-1865, would constitutionally resist any invasion to preserve their independence and sovereignty.

James Madison wrote of this as well, stating that more than one State might band together, as in the later Confederate States of America, to resist any and all encroachments on State sovereignty by the federal agent created by the States.

Alexis de Toqueville, the French traveler in the America of 1831-32, saw firsthand the powers of “this strange new democratic monster” that would within thirty years gain control of the federal government and consolidate all, by force, into one common mass.

Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

“In Toqueville’s opinion, the many levels of responsibility acted as buffers against the tyranny of the majority that ordinarily characterized democracy. Then United States possessed a centralized government but not a centralized administration.

To what extent American self-government was an outgrowth of the federal constitution, or merely a by-product of their habits and experiences, remains to be seen. This much, however, is clear: no subject so agitated the founding fathers as the possible loss of local responsibility under a federal government. The new constitution had to be designed in a way that maximized State autonomy.

As Hamilton put it in Federalist 62, “The equal vote allowed to each State [i.e. in the Senate] is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residual sovereignty.”

Although Hamilton favored a centralized economic authority, he argued that the federal government could not legitimately use the taxing power as an excuse to interfere in the internal government of the States. In Federalist 28, he argued that State militias would be called out to resist invasions of sovereignty.

[James] Madison concurred, and in Federalist 46 suggested that the States would band together to prevent such encroachments. Even the arch-federalist John Marshall declared (in McCulloch v. Maryland) that “no political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.”

Interference in the life of local communities had been one of the complaints against the royal government. The anti-Federalists were afraid that, by adopting the Federal Constitution, they were saddling themselves with another absolutist regime. Mass democracy, as Toqueville realized, was dangerous.”

(The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming, Transaction Publishers, 1988, excerpts pg. 200)

“Force of a Most Formidable Character”

In early March 1861, the new Confederate States government adopted a virtual free tariff, which quickly brought Northern merchants to their economic senses. Moses Kelly of the US Department of the Interior overheard many Southerners state that Southern ports planning direct trade with Europe “promised to deprive northern merchants of their position as middlemen and to eject northern manufacturers from the southern market in favor of European competitors.”

Further, the Philadelphia Press asked rhetorically: “If South Carolina is permitted to establish a free port with impunity, and to invite to her harbor all the ships of foreign nations, would not disaster in that event fall upon all our great northern interests?” It accurately predicted “an early reawakening of the Union sentiment in New York.” Thus true reason for total war against the South and destruction of her economic base was clearly revealed.

“Force of a Most Formidable Character”

“[By March 1861] it was evident that northern businessmen had carefully measured the consequences of disunion and the collapse of central authority and decided that they were intolerable. They had called for appeasement, but when that failed they were soon reconciled to the use of force.

Many of them concluded that property had received about as much damage from the crisis as it could, that “no new phase which the [secession] movement may take can have any further effect.”

Stocks had reached their lowest average quotations in December when the government seemed weakest, and even the approach of war failed to depress them that much again. As one commercial writer saw it, business was already suffering “all it could from a state of actual war.” And when war finally came the northern men of property united behind Lincoln to save the Union and restore the prestige of the national government.

When Yankee capitalists finally endorsed the use of military force against secessionists, they accepted the final remedy for a solemn threat to their property and future profits. Inevitably the holders of government securities looked upon disunion as a menace to their investments.

One conservative nervously declared: “So long as the right of secession is acknowledged, United States bonds must still be denounced as entirely unsafe property to hold . . .” To permit States to leave the Union at will, he warned, would mean that the “United States stocks are really worth no more than old Continental money.” With this in mind, when another government loan was offered in January, an observer shrewdly predicted: “Every dollar [New] York takes binds her capitalists to the Union, and the North.”

A basic tenet of the northern middle classes was that the value of property depended upon political stability. In effect, secessionists had made an indirect attack upon the possessions of every property holder. They had invited property-less Northerners, the revolutionary “sans culottes,” “the unwashed and unterrified,” to precipitate the country into “rough and tumble anarchy.” This “social and moral deterioration” might easily infect the lower classes with the radical idea “that a raid upon property can be justified by the plea of necessity.”

Conservatives looked apprehensively at the “immense foreign element” in northern cities and feared that revolution was “nearer our doors than we imagine.” From these recent immigrants could come the mobs to set aside all law and order and, with “revolver and stiletto,” sink the nation “into confusion and riotous chaos.” The only alternative, it was repeatedly argued, was to enforce respect for the Federal government everywhere.

[Northern] businessmen gradually became convinced that Southern independence would be almost fatal to northern commerce. American maritime power in the Caribbean and Gulf . . . would vanish . . . exclude the North from their trade . . . Even trade with the Pacific would be at the mercy of the South.

The northern monopoly in the coasting trade was a further casualty of the disunion movement. Vowing that he had “an interest and proprietorship in the Union of all these States,” [a] New Yorker concluded that secession would have to be checkmated by “force of a most formidable character.”

(And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 Kenneth M. Stampp, LSU Press, 1950, excerpts pp. 223-230)

The American Right of Revolution

The northeastern United States of the late 1820s were sufficiently prosperous to have a large group of “substantial citizens” . . . manufacturers and journalists interested in the cause of domestic industry, and their purpose was to influence the passage of a new tariff act.” For the most part these men were industrialists and focused on increased profits, not national stability.

The South was in economic distress at the time and the new, higher tariff “seemed to end once and for all any prospect of relief, and many [Southerners] were ready for outright rebellion, even as New England had been in 1814.”

For South Carolina to nullify a federal law it viewed as obnoxious and injurious to its citizens, was a full expression of the Tenth Amendment — inserted into the Constitution for an obvious purpose. The next logical step of an injured State would be peacefully withdrawing from a political union which no longer fulfilled the purposes for which it was formed. And if withdrawal was met with violence, revolution was next.

The American Right of Revolution

“Controversial as Nullification was in the absence of original records before 1828-1833, Americans still continued to believe in federalism and States’ rights. In the words of Alexander Johnston, “Almost every State in the Union in turn declared its own sovereignty and denounced as almost treasonable similar declarations by other States.”

Herman V. Ames in fact compiled a “collection of documents on the relation of the States to the Federal Government” in 1911. They were “selected especially,” he observed, “with a view to illustrate the development of the “compact theory” of the Constitution and the doctrine of “State Rights,’ State opposition to the Federal Judiciary, and the different phases of the slavery controversy, culminating in the secession movement.”

That we believe otherwise today, in Nullification’s unconstitutionality and [John C.] Calhoun’s and the South’s apostasy from the beliefs of the founders and framers, is explained by another and longer era of historical amnesia by which original intentions as described herein in length were not so much forgotten as between 1789 and 1819, but purposely misinterpreted both to nullify the Nullifiers of South Carolina and to establish a mythical history for a new nation in the making that was the central development of the years after the War of 1812 and until the Civil War.

While this more liberal-democratic-egalitarian-nationalist America was yet inchoate as the confused politics of the 1820s and 1830s inform us, it was there nonetheless in Jacksonian Democracy and nationalism and radical abolitionism which were, it is forgotten, minority movements. The union of the States persisted with the 18th century Whig-republican ideology still extant as the core set of beliefs within the misnamed Democratic party that was really republican with a small “r.”

The liberal-in-a-neo-Hamiltonian sense-Whigs of the 19th century co-existed long enough to make party politics interesting and popular and the preserve the old union of the States. If not republicans, most Americans before the Civil War remained at least federalists. Nullification may have come and gone, but the “right of revolution” continued to be accepted as an original intention and the ultimate means to preserve liberty.”

(Nullification, A Constitutional History, 1776-1833, Volume II: James Madison and the Constitutionality of Nullification, 1787-1828, W. Kirk Wood, University Press of America, 2009, excerpts pg. 105)

“Wolves Snapping at the Throat of Democracy”

After a long career as the Commonwealth’s Attorney of Lynchburg, Robert “Cap’n Bob” Yancey’s wife suggested that thirty-four years in that position was long enough and he should retire. But Yancey had been the State’s attorney “for so long that he considered the office his own prerogative.”

In his 1925 re-election bid the regeneration of the Ku Klux Klan became an important issue: that regeneration since 1915 was the result of New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt’s “100% Americanism,” increased foreign immigration since the 1880s, and Woodrow Wilson’s war and its intense anti-German propaganda.

The original late -1860s Ku Klux Klan was a defensive reaction to the Republican party’s Union League intimidation and voter-suppression activities in the immediate postwar. It had no official flag and disbanded in 1869 after Union League activities diminished. Later incarnations of the Klan bore little if any resemblance to the original.

“Wolves Snapping at the Throat of Democracy”

“Nobody thought Father could be elected in 1925 because, in that year, the candidate who opposed him had the support of the Ku Klux Klan. And Father scorned the Ku Klux Klan with the most outspoken contempt.

“Anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti Negro!” said my father scathingly. “Why don’t they reduce it to a summary and conclusion and call it anti-Christ!” My father could not fight the Ku Klux Klan hard enough to suit himself. It was an insult to the South that the name Ku Klux Klan had been revived.

Historically, it had been necessary. The only purpose of its existence had been the protection of a defenseless people during a period of national madness. It had been disbanded by its own members as soon as the necessity for it was at an end. It was an insult to the memory of those first, desperate Klansmen that the name should now be made to stand for boycotting the rights of our best American citizens.

Whenever my mother would hear of the things that Father was broadcasting against the Ku Klux Klan, she would shake her head. “If you father really wants to win this election,” she would say, “he had better stop his bitter attacks upon the Ku Klux Klan. The temper of the working people has gradually been changing since the World War. The working classes are tired of paternalism in politics: the people of this new generation want things in their own hands. A good many of them take the Klan seriously. Your father shouldn’t antagonize them in this way.”

My father had a very devoted friend named Mr. Thomas Welch . . . [who was] disturbed about Father’s lack of restraint in his criticism of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Cap’n Bob,” he said, with genuine concern written all over his broad honest face, “Cap’n Bob, sir, I know just exactly how you feel – but you can’t keep this up and be elected. “Taint like it was during Prohibition. The people is different now. The gossip is that a man can’t git nowhere in politics without the Ku Klux backs him. I don’t ask you not to dislike them. I just ask you not to dislike ‘em so loud. If you keep a little quieter I think we can git you elected.”

“Ku Klux!” snorted my father unsubmissively. “Ku Klux! Wolves in sheet clothing! Wolves snapping at the throat of democracy,” said my father in a voice that made my backbone tingle . . . “Well, I won’t keep quiet. The damned thing is too wrong in principle. I won’t be hushed up – elected or not elected: I’ll just be damned if I will.”

And father did continue to give the Ku Klux a fit. And much to everybody’s surprise, he was elected in 1925.”

(The Vanishing Virginian, Rebecca Yancey Williams, E.P. Dutton & Company, 1940, excerpts pp. 265-269)

Florida’s Postwar Politics

During Reconstruction-era Florida, political boss Leonard G. Dennis became one of that State’s wealthiest men by selling political endorsements to the highest bidders and then taking a part of the monthly salary of each. To secure the cooperation of his appointees, he kept signed letters of resignation from each political applicant before being granted the office.

Dennis was a Massachusetts-born soldier who settled postwar in Alachua County, Florida where he became politically active, largely through his control over the freedmen, and known as the “Little Giant.” In 1876, he helped throw the presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, known afterward as “His Fraudulency.”

Florida’s Postwar Politics

“The last Statewide Republican victory of the Reconstruction era occurred in 1873 when the legislature elected [New Jersey-native] Dr. Simon B. Conover, a Tallahassee carpetbagger, to the United States Senate. In 1875 the legislature elected the first Democrat to the Senate since the Republicans had come to power. Mainly self-educated, Charles W. Jones was an Irish-born ex-carpenter from Pensacola . . . [and] elected by only one vote, Republican control of the legislature was broken.

While internal corruption and the hatred of white Southerners played important roles in its downfall, the Republican party throughout Reconstruction lacked strength because it lacked leadership. With the exception of scalawag Ossian Hart and blacks Jonathan Gibbs and Josiah T. Walls, it depended on Northern carpetbaggers with only a superficial knowledge of the State and the needs of the freedmen.

Political rewards for Negroes other than minor offices were rare despite the fact that almost the entire party voting strength was Negro. Walls came to Florida from Virginia shortly after the war and engaged in cabbage growing in Alachua County. Prospering while most of his white neighbors were poverty-stricken, Walls reached the economic status of planter.

Entering politics Walls soon became joint leader of the Alachua County Republican machine, sharing this position with Leonard G. Dennis . . . a corrupt, self-seeking demagogue, forever willing to sacrifice the Negro on the altar of opportunism.”

(Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893, Edward C. Williamson, University of Florida, 1976, excerpts pp. 9-10)

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

Washington’s warning regarding foreign entanglements, as well as John Quincy Adam’s belief that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, were forgotten by Woodrow Wilson’s reign. In the latter’s time there were those in Congress who saw that Britain was a preferred creditor of American business interests and thus had to be bailed out with American lives and fortune.

The question must be asked: Had Britain been left on its own to seek an armistice with Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm remaining on the throne, would a German nationalist rising out of American intervention and German defeat have occurred?

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

“[In] the period of neutrality of the First World War more Southerners opposed intervention and Wilson’s foreign policies than they did intervention and [FDR’s] foreign policies in the period of neutrality of the Second World War.

In an editorial of March 11, 1917, the Greensboro Daily News said the rich and the heads of corporate industry wanted war, not the great, silent masses. It was persuaded by its readers’ letters, it said, “that the masses of people of this section have little desire to take a hand in Europe’s slaughter and confusion.”

Several Southerners in Congress, such as Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, majority leader in the House of Representatives, and Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, opposed Wilson’s foreign policy and upheld traditional isolationist views. Vardaman belonged to that “little band of willful men” who in February 1917 successfully filibustered against Wilson’s Armed Neutrality bill and was one of the six senators who voted against war with Germany.

In his opposition speech of April 8, 1917, to Wilson’s request for war, Kitchin insisted that the President’s foreign policy had been pro-British from the outbreak of hostilities. “We are to make their quarrel, right or wrong, our quarrel,” Kitchin said. “We are to fight out, with all the resources in men, money and credit of the Government and its people a difference between the belligerents of Europe to which we were and are utter strangers.” This was a view many isolationists, North and South, could accept.

Kitchin and the South resented, among other things, Britain’s blockade because of its adverse effect on cotton and tobacco growers . . . [as] in the first two years of the war, the South suffered more from the blockade than any other section. The possibility that the Southerners in Congress might join with the German-American and Irish-American elements to force a retaliatory arms embargo against the British for suppression of the cotton trade with Central Europe appeared in 1915 as a grave threat to Anglo-American relations.

“The cotton producers of North Carolina and the entire South are aroused over the action of Great Britain in declaring cotton contraband,” Claude Kitchin announced, according the Greensboro Daily News of August 27, 1915, “and they want the Administration to be as emphatic in dealing with England on this score as it has been dealing with Germany over others.”

Throughout the South there was a widespread campaign for retaliation against the British government.

The British, to pacify the South, finally made a secret agreement with the American government to buy enough cotton to stabilize the price at ten cents a pound. British buying . . . soon drove up cotton prices and the crisis passed.”

(The South and Isolationism, Alexander Deconde; The South and the Sectional Image, The Sectional Theme Since Reconstruction, Dewey W. Grantham, editor, Harper & Row, 1967, excerpts pp. 120-121)

Religious Bigotry, Ethnic Hatred, and Lynch Mobs

Though the war had a chilling effect upon Cincinnatians trading southward, by 1863 it was a boomtown supplying the Northern military and “filling large orders for iron and steel products, uniforms and wagons. In a few years, the profits amassed into great fortunes.”

Lincoln’s administration maintained the patriotism of the West with lucrative military supply contracts. Cincinnati’s political system became corrupt, and its leaders notorious for controlling elections and manipulating judges and juries.

The Courthouse Riot of 1884 occurred after German worker Wilhelm Berner and mulatto accomplice Joe Palmer murdered their employer, William Kirk. Though the judge, after the trial and confessions, sentenced both to 20 years in prison, the bribed jury returned a verdict of simple manslaughter.

The “Boss” Cox mentioned below was George B. Cox, a saloonkeeper who ran Cincinnati’s Republican political machine, which Ohioan William Howard Taft called a “local despotism” for the benefit of big corporations.

Religious Bigotry, Ethnic Hatred and Lynch Mobs

“Between 1830 and 1840 the population grew by 85 percent, reaching 46,338 residents, and made Cincinnati the fastest-growing city in America, sixth in population and third in manufacturing. In the 1830s and 1840s, Cincinnati’s population was composed mainly of native-born Americans from the Eastern Middle Atlantic and Upper Southern States.

Travel writers described it as a Yankee city with a pleasant blend of Southern ease and charm. But a new ethnic element appeared in the Thirties, when people from the fragmented states of Germany discovered Cincinnati.

Many of them clustered north of the canal in an area that they called Over-the-Rhine, where they built churches, houses, tenements (street-level shops with residence above), and small commercial buildings.

The new Whig party, intellectual successors to the Federalists, advocated government funding of “internal improvements,” primarily canals, highways and railroads . . . (Southern and eastern-based Jacksonians opposed federal funding for sectional projects that would chiefly benefit Kentucky, Ohio and the “West.” By the 1850s, entrepreneurial railroads radiated out from five depots in downtown Cincinnati like spokes on a half-broken wheel.

From 1835, German-speaking people were coming to Cincinnati in large numbers. The first were predominantly Protestants and Freethinkers, but Roman Catholics soon outnumbered them. By 1840, one-third of Cincinnati’s 75,000 citizens were German-speaking, of which an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths were Roman Catholic. The Irish . . . were also arriving in considerable numbers after 1840 . . .

As their numbers grew, so did hostility from the native-born majority. The Nativist riots of the 1840s and the political activities of the Know-Nothing party in the 1850s were indicative of the continuing bigotry toward Catholics and immigrants. In the 1870s and 1880s . . . Native-born Americans often blamed poor pay and labor conditions on the surplus of recent immigrants and freedmen. Social and political tensions grew over issues of class, race, ethnicity and criminal justice.

The city had a record of street violence, but there was no precedent for the Cincinnati Courthouse Riot of 1884, one of the bloodiest riots in American history. What began as a meeting in Music Hall . . . to discuss corruption in the justice system (a bribed jury had found a confessed murderer guilty of manslaughter only) ended with a lynch mob engaging law enforcement officials in a three-day street battle.”

After the riot, Cincinnati turned to George “Boss” Cox to stabilize city government.”

(Architecture in Cincinnati: An Illustrated History of Designing and Building an American City, Sue Ann Painter, Ohio University Press, 2006, excerpts pp. 30; 35-36; 45; 94-97)

TR’s American Exceptionalism and Eugenics

“Roosevelt the First,” as Mencken referred to Theodore, accidentally became president upon the assassination of William McKinley. Though his mother was Georgia-born and he proclaimed a Confederate pedigree, this “New York politico proved himself fairly inept a navigating the rocks and shoals of Southern politics.”

Roosevelt was an early believer in eugenics and praised the famous eugenicist, Charles Davenport, a Connecticut-born descendant of abolitionist Puritans. Davenport was a Harvard-trained biologist, and established what would become the Eugenics Record Office at Long Island’s Spring Harbor in 1904.

Further, Davenport was an influential member of the eugenics section of the American Breeders Association, and his second in command, Harry Laughlin of Iowa, advanced forced human sterilization and shaped the 1924 Immigration Act. Davenport “described the best female breeders as women with wide hips, using the same thinking that animal breeders had employed for centuries to describe cows.”

TR’s American Exceptionalism and Eugenics

“Roosevelt, a patrician, had little choice but to joist with his redneck foes. In 1905, during his Southern tour . . . One newspaper joked that the president’s entourage was wise to travel through Mississippi at night, so that [Mississippi Governor James K.] Vardaman wouldn’t have to shoot him.

Roosevelt also ruffled the feathers of the proud white women of the South when he had dared to class Jefferson Davis with Benedict Arnold. When he did that, one incensed Georgia woman declared that the president had dishonored his mother’s blood.

Blood was thicker than water for Roosevelt, but not in the way the testy Georgia woman would have viewed the matter. His understanding of race and class remained rooted in evolutionary thinking, and he believed that blacks were naturally subordinate to the Anglo-Saxon . . . and never abandoned the premise that racial traits were carried in the blood, conditioned by the experiences of one’s ancestors.

As an ardent exponent of “American Exceptionalism,” Roosevelt argued that the nineteenth-century frontier experience had transformed white Americans into superior stock. Roosevelt’s motto can be summed up in three words: “work-fight-breed.” There is clear evidence that he was influenced by the mountaineers’ myth, by which good Saxon stock was separated from the debased Southern poor white. History was written in blood, sweat and “germ protoplasm” – the turn-of-the-century term for what we now refer to as genes.

The ills attending modernity could be corrected . . . A man could return to the wilderness – as Roosevelt did when he hunted big game in Africa . . ; War – the raw fight for survival – was a second means of bringing forth ancestral Saxon traits. Washington, Lincoln and Grant were his heroes, men who lived active, virtuous lives, rejecting comfort and complacency. In the final analysis, the president opined, the Confederate generation and their heirs had contributed “very, very little toward anything of which Americans are now proud.”

He could be confident in the future because Roosevelt was an unabashed eugenicist. He used the bully pulpit of his office to insist that women had a critical civic duty to breed a generation of healthy and disciplined children. He first endorsed eugenics in 1903, and two years later he laid out his beliefs in a speech before the Congress of Mothers. Worried about “race suicide,” as he put it, he recommended that women of Anglo-American stock have four to six children.

In 1913, Roosevelt wrote supportively to the leading eugenicist Charles Davenport that it was the patriotic duty of every good citizen of superior stock to leave his or her “blood behind.” Degenerates, he warned, must not be permitted to reproduce their kind.”

(White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, Viking Press, 2016, excerpts pp. 190-193)

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