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Reconstruction and After

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

The Politicos, 1865-1896. By Matthew Josephson, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.50. The Story of Reconstruction. By Robert Selph Henry. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $5.00. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. By C. Vann Woodward. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.75.

The period of plunder and partisan racketeering that has been miscalled “reconstruction” is developed anew by Robert Selph Henry in “The Story of Reconstruction,” which again runs the gamut from the crippled home-trudging Confederate soldier to the “battle of the statehouses” in 1877, by which Southern autonomy was regained. Despite several chapters on human relations and social diversions, the picture retains its gloomy and depressed outlines. It remains a picture of bushwhackers and refugees, of Confederates fleeing to Mexico, of migrant Negroes crowding Union camps, of politicians and carpetbaggers, of “synthetic states,” of fraudulent and corrupt governments. By pseudo-constitutional devices (from which the Supreme Court did not escape without a “clipping of its wings”) the radical Republicans dashed aside the Lincoln-Johnson program, for which the people had voted in 1864, and crushed the South beneath the weight of Jacobin intolerance and military occupation. But as Mr. Henry suggests, and as new interpreters of reconstruction are coming more and more to emphasize, politics was not all, and it is doubtful whether carpetbaggers’ sins were ever the chief concern of those actual human beings who constituted the majority of the Southern people. More vital than politics was the business of living, and the post-war years were not without their gains in agriculture, education, religion, and reform. Nor is the period to be interpreted in terms of the misleading jacket of Mr. Henry’s book, whereon it is suggested that post-war abuses arose because ignorant majorities looked to the government as the giver of gifts and demanded a “new dispensation for the dispossessed.” Intelligent readers will not be misled by this effort of a blurb writer to lift the opprobrium of post-war excess out of its setting and attach it to measures by which present-day liberals seek to cope with challenging maladjustments of a machine age. Those who in post-Civil-War years exploited the government as the giver of gifts were not the downtrodden but the perpetrators of the Credit Mobilier, the salary grab, and the Whiskey Ring. It is only fair to add that the book itself is no such Tory tract as the jacket would suggest.

With exquisite irony Mr. Henry remarks in his last sentence that in April, 1877, reconstruction in the South was “over, except for the consequences.” Some of these consequences, and much more, are found in the readable pages of Matthew Josephson’s “The Politicos.” Beginning where Mr. Henry begins, he runs rapidly through the reconstruction muddle, sketches the spoilsmen of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, notes the setback to the spoilsmen under Garfield, Arthur, and Cleveland, deals with the Populist revolt and the silver whirlwind, and closes on the theme of Boss Hanna and the Bryan campaign. Having formerly achieved the portrait of the robber baron, Mr. Josephson now offers us the visage and trappings of the “politico”—the brazen politician of the age of Big Business. The type is familiar and the portrait is a smirking likeness. Take the swagger of a Ben Butler, the mane and mustache of a Logan (or some tonsorial substitute), the unction of a Blaine, and the foppish bombast of a Conkling, and the outline is drawn. Add the intrigues and machinations of a patronage machine miscalled a political party and you have the “saturnalia of plunder” that characterized such a regime as that of the incompetent Grant. In all this there is something almost terrifying in the enormous power that rests with that sub-

lime Average Citizen who becomes Chief Magistrate. No wonder foreigners marvel at the risks of the American party system. In answer to this foreign wonderment Mr. Joseph-son gives the key to the period which he depicts: a President remains for four or eight years, but managers hold “for indeterminate periods, unchecked by laws or the people.” For a vocabulary to deal with post-Civil-War politics a

mere dictionary does not suffice. In “The Politicos” Mr. Josephson turns to the jargon of column-writers, and his story proceeds with such terms as “bear garden” (House of Representatives), “holy work” (vote catching), “Black Horse Cavalry,” “Bourbons,” “frying the fat,” and the like.

This is how politicians talk among themselves. Meanwhile, for public consumption there has always been the language

i of home and fireside, “bulwark of the republic,” “glorious heritage,” “sound government,” “rugged individualism.” This double vocabulary is not fortuitous; it is the vehicle of an essential duality. It is the duality of wire-pullers and false fronts, of bosses and candidates, of interests and ideologies, of platforms and “deals,” of manipulations behind a facade of party discipline, of a parading, constitution-invoking unctuousness which managers “turn on” at will and before which votes fall in plentiful sheaves. Americans of the cities have not only taxicabs; they have also racketeers extracting colossal tribute from taxi drivers. Similarly, as writers of the age of Grant, Tweed, Fisk, and Gould have | shown, Americans have not only government but party, not I only party but the machine, not only Congress but the lobby, j not only corporations but robber barons, J It was in this milieu of robber barons and politicos that t Tom Watson lived and stormed and had his being, and C. Vann Woodward has recorded his life against the background of his times in “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel.” Agrarian enthusiasts, Alliance men, and Populists thought that Southern Bourbons were betraying the people, that Henry Grady was but adding a halo to uninspired politics, and that General Gordon’s unctuous patriotism was a cloak for ambitious profiteering in imitation of, and even in alliance with, Northern capitalist adventurers. Disgusted with such leadership and with the ex-Confederate politicians’ continual harping on the war, Watson swept breezily through Georgia, stimulating new influences and launching new programs. With a style of oratory that has been compared to bombshells and again to the flight and swoop of a hawk, Watson fought hard and fiercely, championing the farmer, bombarding the trusts, organizing anti-monopoly boycotts, and sounding the trump for an agrarian revolution. As embattled laborers and farmers extended their indignant organizations, it soon appeared that West and South would join in a political struggle against the predatory forces that a capitalist government had not succeeded in curbing. Having labored manfully in Georgia, Watson was projected into the national scene by nomination as Bryan’s running mate; some thought that the roles should have been reversed and that the ticket should have been Watson and Bryan. Following the debacle of 1896 came years of disappointment and frustration, during which the agrarian champion wrote with a Populist pen of France, Napoleon, Jefferson, and Jackson. The heyday of his organ, Tom Watson’s Magazine, belonged significantly to the period of the muckrakers. The sensational pages in which the Georgian flayed, ridiculed, and denounced corporate fraud and plutocratic scandal were read by a generation familiar with Lincoln Steffens’s “Shame of the Cities” and with spirited exposes in other fields by Tom Lawson, Ida M. Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker.

Then came Woodrow Wilson (whom Watson opposed) and the World War; already such men as Hoke Smith and Ben Tillman were raking in Southern votes. The rest of Watson’s story, till death came in 1922, was anticlimax. These later details are too bitter and hateful to be recounted here. But whether in full career, in literary retirement, or in the later phase of stupid fanaticism, the story of Tom Watson has been told by Mr. Woodward with remarkable skill and vigor. He has indeed performed a most unusual feat, for he has raised a doctoral dissertation (presented to the University of North Carolina) to the stature and dignity of a successful popular book. In the final appraisal of Watson, the bigoted instrument of racial and religious intolerance is forgotten. What one remembers is the reformer, the foe of special privilege, the denouncer of militarism, the master of Hickory Hill, the spirited crusader whose name yet remains a symbol and an almost fabulous tradition among thousands of devotees.


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