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The Second American Revolution

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

The Critical Year, By Howard K. Beale. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.75. The Age of Hate. By George Fort Milton. New York: Coward-McCann. $5.00.


When an American reads the history of his country from the founding of Jamestown to the firing on Fort Sumter, he is moving in a world that is frequently foreign to him. The accidents of place, or even the more intimate ones of heredity, which he hails with a certain relief, cannot wholly eradicate that strangeness and give a satisfactory sense of orientation and kinship. But after Appomattox it is different, for then the modern America, recognizable in form and lineament by the modern American, is being born. Both Howard K. Beale and George Fort Milton treat the first part of that period when America, as it is now known, was emerging; “The Critical Year” deals with the period from Lincoln’s assassination to the disastrous elections of November, 1866; and “The Age of Hate,” though a complete biography of Andrew Johnson, necessarily lays its emphasis on the struggle as President.

Professor Beale’s book is a special study in the appearance of those aspects of our society which we regard as modern and characteristic. Politically stated, the problem which he defines in his Preface is this: “The choice of reconstruction policy made by the North at the end of the American Civil War has long puzzled me. Why should a Northern people, not normally vindictive, have adopted toward the defeated South a policy which their grandchildren generally condemn as both harsh and unwise? War hatred was explicable; but the post-war vindictiveness, following so closely, the early magnanimity which the North, eager for the return of normal peace relations, apparently, shared with its great generals and martyred president, was difficult to understand.” The answer, which the book analyzes and documents, lies in the struggle between the old economy and the new. “During the long years when ‘reconstruction’ monopolized Northern politics, unperceived changes took place, the nation-wide significance of which overshadows temporary experiments in remaking an unwilling South; a new social and economic order under Radical favors grew to maturity; the Age of Big Business dawned; and the factors underlying modern agrarian unrest gained strength.”

This general situation, as Professor Beale analyzes it, was the product of several intimately related factors. In the first place, Northern magnanimity was somewhat qualified by the perfectly normal desire to make the South pay for the error of losing the war by paying Northern capital for the considerable trouble of winning it. As early as November, 1865, General Sheridan indicated the way in a letter to the President: “. . . bitterness is all that is left for these people, there is no power of resistance left, the country is impoverished and the probability is that in two or three years there will be almost a total transfer of landed property, the North will own every Railroad, every steamboat, every large mercantile establishment and everything which requires capital to carry it on; in fact, Mr. President, I consider the South now Northernized.” To “Northernize” the South, to consolidate with the dollar what had been won with the less subtle bayonet, was the aim, and so Yankees and Yankee capital moved into the conquered provinces to provide another demand for rebel disenfranchisement until “there will be sufficient Northern men to control the whole country, and we shall be forever safe.” That process, which is still under way, turned out to be more difficult than was anticipated by a certain Stearns, who made the foregoing remark, by Sheridan, Phillips, Ames, Reid, Winslow, or Henry Lee Higginson, who, with his wife, moved to Georgia on a mixed venture of missionary work and carpetbagging only to lose his money and his illusions about Negro gratitude. “A bery elegant entertainment” was the only thanks for a fine Christmas party.

But the ambition of Eastern business could not be content with the prospect of Southern land and railroads, and so it undertook the reconstruction, not only of the South, but of the nation. The program was a contraction of the inflated wartime currency, raising of the already high wartime tariff, and a transformation of the Federal Government into a parliamentary and centralized system. The success of the program demanded that the South be kept out of Congress unless it sent up “loyal” or, in other words, Republican members, for a renewal of the old South-West agrarian coalition would reduce New England financial and business interests to a hopeless minority. The Radicals, who were in reality the agents of a capitalistic conservatism, required Negro suffrage as the guarantee of Republican rule; in their way stood Andrew Johnson and the Constitution.

As the heir of Lincoln’s policy, Johnson wished to waive the subtleties of the question and restore the Southern States to the “practical” relation to the Union as soon as possible. As a believer in a brand of states’ rights which would have puzzled the more logical Jefferson Davis, Johnson held that Negro suffrage was a problem to be settled by, each state and not by Congress. He realized that the Radical movement was an attack on the integrity of the Executive and, if necessary, on the Judiciary, but he read his Constitution in another way. And finally, as a Democrat, he saw no profit in exchanging the old aristocracy of the plantation, which he had spent his life fighting, for the new aristocracy of the factory or counting-house.

Professor Beale believes that on many of these questions Johnson could have commanded more support than the Radicals. But he was deficient in strategy; he backed himself against the Constitution, that poor document which the Civil War had just torn to tatters, and fought out his Thermopylae. In the Swing around the Circle he merely repeated his principles of states’ rights and decentralization of the Government. But a change had come over the old frontier individualism, and the Westerner was deaf to a plea which ten years earlier might have moved him to enthusiasm. A clear statement of the economic issue, rather than a defense of reconstruction policy, would probably “have stirred the Northwest to its depth.” In fact, “in an alignment on the new industrial questions, the Radicals would have been outnumbered even in the North.” Perhaps Professor Beale exaggerates Johnson’s chances of success in such a campaign, but it is certain that the West, with its naive conception of finance, originally opposed the contraction of the currency and the tariff.

But the new era was not to be denied; the shade of Jefferson descended, and that of Hamilton took its place. New England Federalism, New England Big Business was remaking America in its own image, and its tools were war hatreds, the Bloody Shirt, religion, espionage, the wool tariff, persecution, humanitarianism, and bribery. By playing off the West against the South, the bankers and manufacturers of the East, with astute generalship, gained time to entrench themselves, permanently as its seems, at Washington. The voters of the West, in a fashion which has since become almost habitual, raked the chestnuts from the fire; Big Business, as Brooks Adams put it, got its Swiss guard in Congress and the courts; and all was safe for the new order, the Credit Mobilier, President Grant, the blustering of Fisk, the snivelling of Drew, and the Haymarket riots. Politics, in the words of Brooks Adams’ more famous brother, became a pursuit as mediaeval as poetry. But New England paid a price for the victory of State Street. Professor Morison sums the matter: “In a generation to come that region would no longer furnish the nation with teachers and men of letters, but with a mongrel breed of politicians, sired by abolition out of profiteering.” It was only the failure to realize complete success in the design to remake the very nature of the Government that kept New England from paying in another and nearer way, for, as Professor Beale says, “had New England’s leaders in Congress succeeded in the ‘Sixties in substituting a centralized national government for our federal system, New England would today have no defense against Western, Southern, and radical attack.” But the West, no more than New England, read the future; the elections of November, 1866, put the Radicals in power; and modern America, whether or not conceived in sin, was born in corruption.

Professor Beale’s speculation concerning the path not taken, as all such speculation, is more the affair of poetry, than of history, but the events since the financial disasters of the fall of 1929 color his half-articulate regrets with a particular poignancy. During the Civil War, business had its arm up to the elbow in the fleshpots, and when the War ended, was not willing to accept any readjustment. Tariff, instead of being lowered or even maintained at the war standard, had to be raised as a guarantee of the delirious policy of indefinite expansion; it did not matter that even in 1866 “current production was already gaining noticeably upon current consumption.” If the Radicals had been soundly beaten, manufacturers would have been forced back to “efficient methods and normal production” and the new industrial America would have been established “upon the non-protective basis operative in the days before the War.” In such case, of course, America would have had less in the show window; but vanity is a luxury which nature sometimes taxes to the hilt.

Mr. Milton’s method is precisely contrary to that of Professor Beale. In “The Age of Hate” the focus is always sharply fixed on Andrew Johnson and the small circle of friends and enemies immediately about him. It is not to be understood that Mr. Milton is in any sense unaware of the broader and more indeterminate issues, but he does sacrifice them, in some degree, to the more direct demands of his subject. The economic problem, which is the main concern of “The Critical Year,” is slighted, with consequences which are sometimes unhappy. But the intensity of the study compensates for whatever is lacking in breadth. The real situation seems to be this: Mr. Milton’s method is political, as is proper, perhaps, in the biography of the last great politician of the old type—the deductive politician. On any other grounds it would be difficult to understand Andrew Johnson as a man, and such understanding remains the chief business of a biographer.

It would be difficult to quarrel with Mr. Milton on this matter of essential explanation. Certainly, this is a more impressive performance than that of either Mr. Winston or Mr. Stryker, which it bids fair to supplant for those who seek a comprehensive and unbiased picture of the most maligned President. In the matter of interpretation Mr. Milton fundamentally agrees with Professor Beale: “Johnson failed to carry the day—yet he failed but by a little and under great odds, and on reconstruction and constitutional interpretation the future has vindicated him. Had the balance of events turned slightly the other way—had he succeeded— this very uncompromising sense of duty which brought obloquy upon his name would have been accredited the highest virtue of a great man. Johnson possessed those characteristics that make men blessed or damned, famous or infamous, because chance leads them to success or failure.” But Henry Adams, reflecting on his one meeting with the President, gave a summary, which embraces much of the matter: “Slavery was only a part of the Southern system, and the life of it all—the vigor—the poetry—was its moral certainty of self. The Southerner could not doubt; and this self-assurance not only gave Andrew Johnson the look of a true President, but actually made him one. When Adams came to look back on it afterwards, he was surprised to realize how strong the Executive was in 1868—perhaps the strongest he was ever to see.”


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