Skip to main content

Clemenceau and American Reconstruction

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

American Reconstruction. By Georges Clemenceau. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh: The Dial Press. $5.00.

In September, 1865, Dr. Georges Clemenceau, known to our generation as the Tiger, fled from the wrath of Napoleon III and took up his abode in New York. During the next five years the young man amused himself writing anonymous letters on American politics to the Paris Temps, and now a Sorbonne Professor has dug up those forgotten epistles and given them to the public.

“American Reconstruction” is thoughtful and readable, and from the Tiger’s cosmopolitan point of view above criticism. But such a point of view! Disregarding the fact that the negro race had been slaves for six thousand years and the Anglo-Saxon free men Clemenceau endorsed Reconstruction laws which disfranchised the whites, enfranchised the blacks and practically turned the Southern white man out of house and home. His avowed idols were Thad Stevens and Charles Sumner—Stevens, the pariah, the Ishmaelite (Mr. Stevens was presented by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury for administering Communion to a dog), Charles Sumner, the pernicious philanthropist. Ben Butler, better known as “Beast” or “Spoons” Butler, who stole a hundred and fifty thousand dollars from a New York banker, he praises, as he does the coarse, vulgar, discredited partisan, Ben Wade, and the hypocritical Schuyler Colfax, who was caught with ten thousand dollars of Credit Mobilier stock in his pocket, a bribe as a committee of Congress charged. In short, Clemenceau agreed with Sumner that the negro is God’s image in ebony and Christ concealed in a dusky race. In the Civil War he discovers the thirty years culmination of a fight for freedom obstructed by the wicked Andrew Johnson, declaring Congress must curb this Man in the White House to save the country. He scolds the South, though he had never been further south than Richmond, because she will not quietly submit to the overthrow of her civilization, and scoffs at the idea in 1868-1870 that southern whites were overrun by negro Governments, reviling Andrew Johnson for saying such was the case.

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity so blinded the eyes of this young French doctrinaire that he witnessed the overthrow of a Southern white civilization without a tear and calls the prostrate South, brilliant but corrupt—the South of which Senator Hoar declared that the fruit of this vine hath a flavor not to be found in other vineyards. The Constitution of the United States he seems never to have read as he fails to mention the fact that slavery was protected in that instrument. To sum up, the thorough-going old Tiger is an ideologue, what Dr. Dunning, Dr. Hamilton and other modern historians call a negrophile, measuring everything in that quart-pot. And yet, if Clemenceau’s premises be correct and the negro is the equal of the white man and the Civil War was fought for freedom, his conclusions are also correct.

My own views—totally at variance with M. Clemenceau —are set forth in a recent biography of Andrew Johnson, and of this biography the editor of “American Reconstruction” declares, “It is useless to observe that Clemenceau’s acceptance of Republican Reconstruction differs from the views expressed by Robert W. Winston, the recent biographer of Andrew Johnson.”

The Civil War, as Mr. Lincoln often declared, was fought not to free the slaves but to save the Union, the emancipation proclamation of 1863 being but a means to that end. In that Brothers’ War both sides were right— the South because it fought under the laws and the Constitution and the North because it fought to save the Union, regardless of the Constitution. In this state of affairs crimination and recrimination are not in order. Now though the South was well within its Constitutional rights, Constitutions must yield to an advancing public opinion, to destiny, that vis major before which kings tremble and thrones totter, and Southern leaders must be held accountable and derelict in not having abolished slavery long before 1860.

Better, far better for the South if her all-sufficient slavery leaders, Calhoun and Jefferson Davis in particular, had never been born! Unteachable men they were, obsessed with the one idea that slavery was a blessing, a tenet of Christianity, binding the South to the body of that death and making her a byword to Premier Clemenceau, to Charles Dickens, to de Tocqueville, and to statesmen, philanthropists, and historians the world over.

The attitude of the South at all times—when Reconstruction was forced on her and since—has been praiseworthy and not, as Clemenceau asserts, a manifestation of pettishness and sullenness. Defeated in battle the South nevertheless took her place in the sisterhood of states without the loss of self-respect, and today not a scar of the bloody conflict remains.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading