Thursday, September 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt four)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

It hit the South especially hard. The region’s industrial base remained brittler than the North’s, and the Panic ensured this would remain the case for the foreseeable future. The Texas and Pacific Railway buckled before almost any track had been laid. Frederick Douglass’s Freedman’s Bank failed, causing millions of dollars in savings deposited by Black Americans to disappear. Nor was agriculture spared: cotton’s price folded in half, causing land values throughout the South to drop precipitously. Such a depression would have been difficult for any ruling party to survive. This was doubly true for the remaining Republican governments of the South; amid the prior year’s great scandals, Reconstruction had once again begun to sputter.

This was most evident in Louisiana. In April 1873 (as Garfield was writing his Salary Grab letter), the Supreme Court ruled against a coalition of New Orleans butchers who were suing the state for violating their Fourteenth Amendment privileges. In disagreeing, the court’s majority gelded the amendment—deciding its privileges and immunities clause only applied to a citizen’s federal rights (like access to waterways), not the more important ones vested by states. Such phrasing effectively ruined the amendment’s ability to provide full citizenship for Black Americans in the south, as the Radicals had drafted it to do.

Almost concurrently, Klansmen killed an assembly of more than one hundred Black and white Republicans, who claimed to represent the lawful government of the settlement of Colfax, Louisiana. The atrocity’s very site had a bleak significance: Colfax was the namesake of Vice President Schuyler Colfax, and it had been built in Grant Parish, named for the president. He reacted furiously. “The so-called conservative papers of the State not only justified the massacre,” Grant seethed in a Senate message, “but denounced as federal tyranny and despotism the attempt of the United States officers to bring them [the perpetrators] to justice.”

Marshals rounded up the killers for prosecution under a precursor to the old Ku Klux Klan Act, but the Supreme Court would again disappoint—ruling that only states, not individuals, could be prosecuted for violating Fourteenth Amendment rights. The murderers walked free, another disastrous legal precedent having been set, and another nail having been put in Reconstruction’s coffin.

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