Prior to 1965, the only American president to have both promoted and presided over a multiracial democracy was Ulysses Grant, the former general in Lincoln’s army who became president when impeached Southern slaveowner Andrew Johnson’s term expired on March 4, 1869.
Grant (and Johnson, but grudgingly) saw freed African Americans not only voting but taking political office by the hundreds. It lasted until the day Grant left office, when the Tilden/Hayes election “compromise” of 1876 ended the period known as Radical Reconstruction the following year.
During this brief time, more than 600 African Americans were elected to state legislatures (the majority in South Carolina and Louisiana) and 16 served in the US House of Representatives.
The year before he left office President Grant was troubled by the schisms reemerging as racist White politicians fought to reverse the outcome of the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that not only ended slavery (except for punishment of crimes) but guaranteed to formerly enslaved people both equal protection under the law and the right to vote.
Against this backdrop, he visited a group of Civil War veterans, “The Army of the Tennessee,” in Des Moines, Iowa on September 29, 1875 and gave what was, for him, a long speech that he’d written out in longhand on his way to that state.
“It always affords me much gratification to meet my old comrades in arms of ten to fourteen years ago,” President Grant began his speech, “and to live over again the trials and hardships of those days, hardships imposed for the preservation and perpetuation of our free institutions. We believed then, and believe now that we had a government worth fighting for, and if need be dying for.”
Warming to his topic, Grant acknowledged the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought in that war, adding, “But we are not prepared to apologize for the part we took in the great struggle.” Nonetheless, he said, “It is to be hoped that like trials will never befall our country.”
In the face of growing threats from former Confederate dead-enders and White supremacist preachers, Grant said that Americans must “begin by guarding against every enemy threatening the perpetuity of free republican institutions.”
The “enemy” he specifically identified was the contamination of government and its institutions by ignorant racists and fundamentalist religious institutions.
“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence,” Grant solemnly told the assembled veterans and spectators, “I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
Grant explicitly saw in the rise of radical White-supremacist Christianity and ignorance-fueled racism a direct threat to the nation. We needed an educated populace, he said, but through a school system that was free of both bigotry and religion.
“Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church and the private school supported entirely by private contributions,” he said.
And in particular, he noted, we needed politicians who didn’t exploit religion to win elections or make laws based on religious dogma.
“Keep the church and state forever separate,” Grant said as he wrapped up his speech. “With these safe-guards I believe the battles which created us ‘The army of the Tennessee’ will not have been fought in vain.”
Grant saw, in his lifetime, the possibility of a multiracial American republic slip away with the end of Reconstruction. It wouldn’t resurface again until a century later with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964/65.
And now that “conservatives” on the US Supreme Court have gutted most of the Voting Rights Act, the White Supremacists who took over Grant’s Republican Party in 1968 with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” are again trying to reverse the “second Reconstruction” of LBJ’s Great Society of the 1960s. As a result, America again finds itself at a crisis point.
The old Confederacy, like Freddy Krueger, is trying to rise from the dead and slash our nation with its “superstition, ambition and ignorance.”
They have formed all-White armed militias across the nation and even stormed the US Capitol, complete with Confederate flags, in an attempt to finish the job they declared in 1861.
And like a reincarnation of old Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision that helped kick off the Civil War, Chief Justice John Roberts has declared that state laws whose effect is to suppress the votes of people of color are once again entirely acceptable.
Republican legislators in 17 states have taken Roberts up on his offer and have, just since January 6th, passed 28 new voter suppression laws. The multiracial democratic republic that Ulysses Grant was willing to lay down his life for is once again in danger of slipping away.
If America is to ever become a truly multiracial republic that fulfills the ideals of democracy, the Senate must end the filibuster now so they can reverse these egregious Supreme Court decisions and guarantee the right of all Americans to vote.
Library of Congress
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as The Multiracial Democracy Ulysses Grant Was Willing to Die For is in Danger
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