Review To Rescue the Republic: Grant, the Crisis of 1876… and a Fox News anchor reluctant to challenge Trump | Books
For a bunch of TV presenters and reporters, the Fox News team are passionate about doodling. Often with co-writers, former host Bill O’Reilly writes about assassinations and Brian Kilmeade authors stories. Bret Baier is the political antenna chief but also wrote many books as a “reporter of history”. Now comes a biography of Ulysses S Grant which focuses on the serious constitutional crisis that followed the contested elections of 1876.
Magnanimous in the victory of the Civil War, Grant was elected in 1868 on the theme “Let us have peace”. By the nation’s centennial eight years later, Americans had grown weary of scandals, economic turmoil, and federal troops in the south, seeking to enforce some new respect for black Americans’ new civil rights, including voting. In 1874, the Democrats took the house. Now they wanted the presidency.
They appoint the governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, a moderate yet supported in the south. Republicans chose Rutherford Hayes of Ohio. It was a bitter campaign, filled with threats of violence, with each side playing on its base.
Tilden performed surprisingly well in the north, winning his home country and four more. Hayes single-handedly winning Indiana and Connecticut would have prevented the controversy that ensued. He didn’t, but he won the southern states of Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida with Republican governors.
Hayes needed all three states to win. “Self-appointed Democratic outlets”, however, submitted results for Tilden. As Grant put it, “It all depends on a fair count now. “
Tensions were high, with rumors of militias from the south marching on Washington and US troops on standby. Baier writes that Grant “had influence, and he decided to use it to accelerate a fair outcome – even if that outcome required sacrificing his own accomplishments.”
Grant knew that to be considered fair, the outcome must “appeal to [the people’s] Sense of justice. “For this the two sides had to come to an agreement – and the South had to support Hayes. At Grant’s insistence, an election commission was formed, with the deciding vote given to the judge of the court. Supreme Joseph Bradley Bradley chose to support official state electoral certifications Hayes won Tilden did not pursue extraordinary means to secure victory, stopping a corrupt effort in his favor.
But the battle was not over. Grant believed the Louisiana certificate was likely fraudulent, and there had been a heckling in Congress. Grant favored compromise, and Edward Burke of Louisiana did offer an exchange: Hayes for the presidency, the Democrats for the contested governors of Louisiana and South Carolina.
A separate group of Republicans – acting without Grant – then promised the Hayes Democrats to withdraw their troops from the south. In return, Democrats would agree that Hayes was duly elected, with vague and worthless promises to respect black rights. At this point, writes Baier, “the nation heaved a sigh of relief.”
Baier clearly admires Grant – and there’s a lot to admire. Although betrayed by false friends, as President Grant served with firmness where needed and with a passionate desire to inspire Americans toward greater unity. Political inexperience has cost him dearly.
But what about the big deal? Did Grant really end Reconstruction and relegate black Americans to nearly a century under Jim Crow?
Hayes had shown his willingness to end Reconstruction. Tilden certainly would have. Grant strongly supported black suffrage and maintained troops in the south to secure the rights of those increasingly threatened by gun violence. He sent troops to an area of South Carolina particularly marked by Klan violence and vigorously promoted and enforced an anti-Klan act. He sent troops to Louisiana to enforce the right to vote and secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court reduced Black rights, and as Baier writes, “the country no longer supported the use of federal troops.” Grant had his army but had lost his people.
He promoted a compromise in 1877 not out of a desire to abandon the black community, but out of the painful realization that America was tired of the journey. Whether Hayes or Tilden were elected, Reconstruction was over and a more painful era in the south was about to begin.
The problem was not Grant, but that America was not ready to keep its promises.
Baier begins and ends his book with the events of January 6, 2021.
“What happens,” he asks, “when the fairness of an election is in doubt, when the freedom of the people is limited, and when public divisions strangle the process?
“What can we learn from our 18th President’s healing mission that might show us a path to union? “
Baier only answers the second question implicitly. It echoes the historical consensus that the “sad and inescapable truth is that there was no way to know the correct verdict.”
True in 1877. Clearly not in 2021.
After Appomattox, Confederate General James Longstreet, a friend of Grant, asked “Why do they fight men born to be brothers?” “
The answer frequently involves political leadership failures. Baier writes that Grant “knew that in times of great national conflict there were only two choices: to defend division or to defend peace.”
Grant used his power for good, to promote national unity. Donald Trump did not say the words or take the action Grant did in an equally if not more serious challenge to democracy. Baier is missing a Grant-style opportunity by not asking why Trump has not called on his supporters to accept the outcome. Rather than just talking about America’s strength and resilience, why not directly point out the contrast with a president who defended division?
In 2021, the national sigh of relief did not come until after noon on inauguration day, when President Biden was sworn in.
The danger persists, and not all presidents are General Grant.