A Massacre of History

On May 1, 1866, a mob of whites in Memphis, Tennessee, attacked blacks in the city. The violence continued through May 2 and ended only after federal forces intervened on May 3. By that time some forty-six blacks were dead, while only two whites died; five women had been raped, and a significant number of people were injured. You can read a summary of the event here. Blogger Patrick Young has written on both the riot and the events leading up to it.

So has Phil Leigh in a post that reminds us of his skills as a historian. As Mr. Leigh reports in his analysis of the affair:

After the riot some Memphis leaders concluded that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton persisted in using black soldiers as a deliberate tactic to provoke race riots. As an enemy of President Andrew Johnson, Stanton wanted to discredit the President’s Reconstruction plan so that it could be replaced by one taking shape in Congress where Republicans were in control.

Based upon later incidents, there is good reason to believe such suspicions. Two months after the Memphis riots, the New Orleans military commander tried to pre-empt a race riot there when he wired Stanton for instructions. Stanton never replied, nor did he inform President Johnson of the telegram. When asked why he did not tell Johnson, Stanton’s lame excuse was that he did not think the telegram was important. Consequently, Republicans used the New Orleans riot as another presumed example of Johnson’s failures.

It is notable that William Marvel’s recent biography of Stanton, one which looks into the dark areas of the secretary of war’s public life, makes no such accusation when it comes to the Memphis riots. Nor does Mr. Leigh point out that Johnson was well aware of the impending confrontation in New Orleans (both the lieutenant governor and the state attorney general had telegraphed him that there was what they believed to be an illegal attempt to revive that state’s 1864 constitutional convention on behalf of black interests. The president (who was, indeed, not aware of the telegram from Absalom Baird to Stanton), said that the military would be used to support a local court’s decision declaring the attempt to reconvene the convention to be illegal. You’ll note that this means that Johnson was on the side of the people who supported the rioters. We could go on, and discuss how Johnson edited Phil Sheridan’s dispatch on the riot, but the main point to be made here is that there’s no sign that Stanton did anything to withhold information on events in Memphis, and Mr. Leigh’s discussion of what happened concerning New Orleans is rather incomplete.

Mr. Leigh also wants to remind us that the real perpetrators of the Memphis outbreak were Irish immigrants, not white southerners:

Second, Irish immigrants controlled the Memphis civil administration and held most of the government jobs including those of policemen and firemen. They gained control for two reasons. One was that blacks couldn’t vote. The other was that former Confederates couldn’t hold public office or vote. Ironically, despite the fact that congressional Republicans felt President Johnson was too lenient on Southerners, the disfranchisement of Tennessee’s former Confederates originated with a loyalty oath required by Johnson when he was the state’s military governor during the Civil War. His Presidential policy, however, was consistent with his action in Tennessee since he believed (along with nearly everybody) that voting requirements were a state’s right.

Third, half of Memphis’s population was black. The remaining half was split about evenly between the Irish and Southern whites. Since former Confederates could not vote, the Irishmen realized they would likely lose their government control if blacks were given the right to vote. The Irish would be outnumbered at Memphis polls by almost two-to-one.

That’s interesting, largely because there was not much support for black suffrage at that time. All Congress had done was to pass (over Johnson’s veto) the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which allowed for federal intervention in cases where state courts failed to protect equality before the law. The new legislation said nothing about suffrage.

But let’s not have evidence stand in the way of a good story.

Moreover, in May 1866 there was considerable evidence that Southern blacks would indeed soon be given the vote. Such movements were afoot in both the state capital in Nashville and in Washington. Nashville mandated universal black suffrage in Tennessee in February 1867. The movement in Washington took shape in the form of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was released from Congress in June 1867 and ratified by three-fourths of the states in July 1868.

Finally, the primary Radical Republican objection to President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan was that it did not require mandatory black suffrage in the South. But there is good reason to believe that the objection was primarily politically, instead of morally, motivated.

First, note the phrase “good reason.” It also appears above in the discussion about the Memphis riots. In Mr. Leigh’s lexicon, it seems to mean “I have no evidence, but I’ll try my best.”

The fact is that there is no evidence that there was widespread support for enfranchising blacks among Republicans in 1866. The Civil Right Act had been challenging enough to pass over a presidential veto (the initial effort to pass new legislation concerning the Freedmen’s Bureau due to a Johnson veto should remind us that the president was in a good position to block Republican initiatives that seemed too radical). That some people believed in black suffrage (including, of course, African Americans) did not mean that such a measure was close to realization. Far from it. Indeed, what may have helped build support for black suffrage was the belief that blacks needed the ballot to protect themselves from the violence exemplified by events at Memphis and New Orleans.

Mr. Leigh might take the time to read the Fourteenth Amendment, which passed through Congress in June 1866 (not 1867). It did not enfranchise blacks. It did provide that a state’s representation in Congress (and thus a state’s electoral vote) “shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.”

As for Tennessee’s decision to enfranchise black adult males in February 1867, one would think that Mr. Leigh would approve of this, since he’s already stated that Andrew Johnson and “nearly everybody” agreed that it was a state’s right to determine who voted. So what’s the objection?

Is it that the people who were enfranchised were black?

Mr. Leigh sees this all as a dastardly Republican trick dictated by electoral math:

When the Civil War ended the Republican Party was barely a dozen years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in its cradle if the re-admittance of Southern states failed to be managed in a manner that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government. If all former Confederate states were admitted to the 39th Congress in December 1865 and each added member was a Democrat, the Republican majority in the Senate would have dropped from 40-to-10 to 40-to-32. Even more significantly, the Democrats would have seized a 143-to-111 majority in the House of Representatives versus an extant Republican majority of 111-to-72.

This is one of those statements that’s both true and incomplete, because the only way that the Democrats could have secured a majority in the House of Representatives resting upon a solid South of Democratic votes was if the South’s black population was counted for purposes of representation without allowing blacks to vote. That doesn’t seem exactly fair, and that’s why there was a Fourteenth Amendment. Of course, in later years the triumph of white supremacist violence and intimidation achieved what Mr. Leigh believes should have been the result in the first place, but I digress.

The infant GOP reasoned it must insure that most of the new Southern senators and congressmen be re-admitted as Republicans. One way would be to establish vassal governments in the Southern states. Since there were few white Republicans in the region the Party concluded it needed to create a new constituency. It rejected opportunities to join forces with Southerners who were formerly Whigs—as Lincoln hoped to do—although it would lust for such an alliance after 1876.

Not necessarily. Another way would have been to have adhered to the Fourteenth Amendment, which would have denied Democrats sufficient votes from the South to control both houses of Congress. Indeed, had all eleven of the former Confederate states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in late 1866 or early 1867 (only Tennessee did, just after the ratification process commenced in June), many people believed that the South would have seen its congressional delegations seated, bringing Congressional Reconstruction to an end. The rejection of the amendment by ten former Confederate states went a long way to securing passage of the Reconstruction Acts, which did enfranchise southern black adult males.

As for alliances with southern whites, apparently Mr. Leigh’s never heard of the scalawags. Indeed, for Republicans to gain control in most of the southern states, they would have to appeal to at least some white voters, because only in three states was a majority of the potential electorate African American in 1867 (Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina).

Finally, of course, Republicans had other choices. Electoral College mathematics made it quite possible (with the Fourteenth Amendment in place) to retain control of the presidency, as the party did (with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two terms) from the election of 1860 through the election of 1912. For example, had African Americans not voted on the election of 1868, Horatio Seymour would have won the popular (white) vote, but Ulysses S. Grant would have secured the presidency via a majority of the Electoral College vote.

One does wonder why Mr. Leigh does not talk about how Johnson and the Democrats sought political advantage through the suppression of the black vote. Apparently only Republicans are to be chided for thinking about the political situation: perhaps Mr. Leigh wants to tell us that it was vile racism pure and simple, that motivated Johnson and the Democrats, and I guess he thinks it’s unfair not to let that vile racism have free sway. You tell me.

But Mr. Leigh’s far from done:

Nonetheless, 1866 Republicans settled on two objectives. First was mandatory African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. They expected that such an inexperienced electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Republican interests out of gratitude for emancipation and voter suffrage. Second was to disfranchise the Southern white classes most likely to oppose the Republicans, to wit former Confederates.

We’ve already seen that the first statement is incorrect, at least until the end of the year when southern states failed to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (which would have been the smartest way to avoid black suffrage). In addition, it’s curious to argue that blacks would vote for representatives of a party out to kill, intimidate, and suppress them: One would think that blacks had a very good idea of which party served their best interests, and that experience reinforced that impression. Is Mr. Leigh arguing that an “unmanipulated” black population would have supported the Democrats? My, my, doesn’t that make the Democrats look stupid for supporting the effort of the party’s paramilitary arm to suppress that vote? Perhaps they should have competed for it, fair and square (maybe by nominating a black Confederate veteran for office). As for how many former Confederates were in fact disfranchised, I’d venture to say that Mr. Leigh has no idea, but to imply (as he does) that they were all to be disfranchised shows a marvelous intuition innocent of actual research.

But Mr. Leigh saves the best for last:

Ultimately, a central question of the entire Reconstruction Era is whether black suffrage was politically, or morally, motivated. If Republican motivation was primarily political it was a reprehensible excuse for promoting racial violence.

So Republicans promoted violence against blacks in order to secure suffrage for blacks? Remarkable. No more need be said.


5 thoughts on “A Massacre of History

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 14, 2016 / 12:54 pm

      I guess that’s the best you can do. Note that you write about a lot of things, but you fail to say much about the Memphis Riot. Thwarted there, you go off on tangents. Why that is I’ll let the interested reader decide … but clearly you have not read my work, given your ignorance of my positions … and that’s a kind interpretation.

  1. Derek May 14, 2016 / 9:20 pm

    Even in 1912, the only reason the Democrats gained the White House was because of TR’s Bull Moose party. In 1916, Wilson retained the White House in a very close vote. It would not be until 1932 that the Democrats could demonstrate that they were once again a truly national party.

  2. Patrick Young May 17, 2016 / 1:58 pm

    Thank you for linking to my two articles on the Memphis Massacre. Mr. Leigh did indeed take his article on the killings in Memphis in an odd direction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s