Historical Ignorance Is Dangerous: This Isn’t The Low Point In American Political History

I’ve been meaning to mention this for a while now.

I’ve been reviewing some Presidential history as I prepare to continue the Ethics Alarms search for the Worst President Ever, as more evidence of Joe Biden’s proper ranking accumulates. what has stood out is now much worse things have been in the past than they are now by any objective measure. The pundits and other hysterics currently opining daily that the nation is on the verge of unraveling either don’t know our turbulent history, or are deliberately trying to stir up fear and unrest.

They are underestimating the United States of America, and the intrinsic strength of its mission and values.

Take the 15 year period immediately after the Civil War—“Please,” as Henny Youngman would say:

  • Following a catastrophic conflict that left 2% of the population dead, the nation shattered, a whole region’s economy and society destroyed and the nation faced with somehow dealing with more than four million newly freed black slaves, President Lincoln, the one individual who had the brilliance and political skill to—maybe—navigate this confluence of crises was assassinated in a conspiracy that may have included powerful members of the government itself, or so it seemed.
  • The Vice-President who took over as President, Andrew Johnson, was a Southern Democrat who was distrusted and disrespected by the overwhelmingly Republican Congress. Worse, he was stubborn and averse to compromise. The nation’s work, at a critical time, with the nation divided and struggling,  quickly deteriorated into all-out political war between the Executive and the Legislative Branches, with Congress passing laws, some of which were unconstitutional, Johnson vetoing them, and Congress over-riding the vetoes. Members of Johnson’s own Cabinet, actually Lincoln’s Cabinet, were working with Johnson’s enemies in Congress and against him—talk about the “Deep State” !  Congress finally contrived reasons to impeach the President, who had no defenders in the press either, basing the action mostly on one of those unconstitutional laws. Johnson refused to follow it or obey it (the law prevented a President from firing a Cabinet member without Congressional approval, a clear breach of the Separation of Powers), and there it was: “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”! The Senate failed to convict Johnson by a single vote, with many believing that the pro-Johnson votes had been bought (and they might have been!).

  • Electing war hero Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to set everything back on course, but Grant arguably had less experience relevant to political leadership than Donald Trump in 2016. The campaign that ultimately elected him was as divisive as the last two, with Republicans demanding. “Vote as You Shot!” as a slogan. The post-war economic boom that Grant got to oversee managed to hide an astounding amount of corruption in the government and out of it, and Grant quickly fell under the sway of the crooked financiers, political bosses and robber barons ob “The Guilded Age.” If you think Trump made terrible appointments to high offices, you should review Grant’s appointees. If they were friends, had fought under him in the war or were loyal allies, that was good enough for the General. Henry Adams wrote that “a great general might be a baby politician.” A typical Presidential appointment: Grant’s minister to Belgium had been his livery stable manager. Grant also appointed people who had given him expensive gifts, and allowed corrupt tycoons to entertain him lavishly, seeing nothing amiss in this. The public was disillusioned, but Grant was still a hero, and Democrats had no credible competition, so he was elected to a second term. Then the wheels really fell off, with major financial scandals striking  right before his re-election and getting worse as time went on. Members of Congress, Grant’s Vice-President, the Secretary of War, key members of the Treasury Department, the head of the Internal Revenue Department, many prominent friends and associates of the President and even Grant’s personal secretary, the equivalent of today’s White House Chief of Staff, were exposed as having taken kick-backs and bribes.
  • Believe it or not, worse chaos was to come. Much worse. Understandably disgusted with the corruption in the Grant Administration and its consequences, like the the 1873 Financial Panic, the public was ready to elect the first Democrat President since 1856. That party nominated a genuine reformer, Gov. Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Republicans searched mightily to find a candidate who hadn’t been touched by Grant’s scandals, and found the bland, uninspiring but squeaky clean Governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, described by iconoclast critic Henry Adams as a “third rate nonentity” whose only asset was that he was “obnoxious to no one.” (Huh. Why does that sound familiar?) Tilden appeared to have won outright, with the majority of both the popular and Electoral votes, but the managing editor of the New York Times studied the returns and figured out a way that Hayes could win anyway. He telegraphed Republican leaders (Twitter having not been invented yet) , claiming wide-spread election fraud: blacks had been prevented from voting in many Southern states, though nobody knew how many and it was impossible to prove. Stacey Abrams would have felt right at home! the GOP still controlled the state canvassing boards, so  they refused to count returns from districts where vote suppression seemed likely. Lawyers and political operatives from both parties rushed into Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, where the Tilden majorities were being  challenged, buying votes and testimony about suppression, real or not. Republican electors in all three states cast their votes for the loser—you know, just as Hillary tried to persuade Democratic electors to do in 2016. Democratic Party electors cast their votes for Tilden in the same states. Just to make matters more confusing, Oregon’s Democrats decided to play the Republican’s game. They found a techniacl reason to replace a Republican elector with a Democrat, flipping one electoral vote from Hayes to Tilden.

This unholy mess landed in Congress’s lap, and now the Senate was fighting with the House. Who would count the votes? Which votes would they count? A compromise was worked out in which—how’s this for “democracy”?—an special appointed commission would decide who won the election. The commission had an equal number of members from each party (unlike Nancy Pelosi’s January 6 kangaroo court, it was composed of a balanced number of partisans) and one non-partisan Supreme Court Justice, David Davis, a fair man. Historians believe he would have called the election for Tilden, but before the commission completed their findings, the Democrats in the Illinois State Legislature elected him a U.S. Senator. Davis resigned from SCOTUS and had to leave the commission as well, since he was now officially a Democrat. The only remaining Supreme Court justices who could replace Davis were all Republicans. And that, as we say, was that: Hayes would win the commission vote 8-7. Democracy! The electoral votes in all the disputed states went to Hayes, whose Presidency was widely regarded as stolen and illegitimate, dooming his administration to impotence.

  • A promising dark horse Republican candidate, James Garfield of Ohio, was elected President in 1880, even though he had accepted stock from one of the players in a Grant era scandal—think John McCain’s involvement in the “Keating Five”— and he was a genuine reformer with the integrity and skills to begin building repairing the shattered public trust in its institutions. He looked like he could do it, too, but was shot by a madman and lingered for months, as the public faced the prospect of a truly corrupt political hack from New York’s political machine taking over the White House.

For the rest of that story, go here; finally, against all odds, the United States got lucky. However, from Lincoln to Garfield, 1865 to 1880, the corruption, incompetence and division in the nation, its institutions and society were extraordinary, with the underlying structure and traditions of the U.S. much weaker than they are today. I point this out not to trivialize our current problems, which are serious. However, those who try to promote fear and panic by claiming that such turmoil is unprecedented in our history are exploiting ignorance and dealing in lies.

The U.S. has come through worse times—I just described only one of them—and emerged stronger, and often better for the experience. I am confident that it can do it again.

12 thoughts on “Historical Ignorance Is Dangerous: This Isn’t The Low Point In American Political History

  1. Thanks for this great post, Jack. One of your best and just what we need to hear in these times.
    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Looking forward to Chester A and the continuing worst president analyses.

  2. Somewhat related to all the doomsday hype, it annoys me that, every election cycle, pundits on both side of the aisle proclaim the upcoming election to be the most important election in a generation (or history).

    As for the substance of your article, your point is very well made. However, an important distinction nowadays would seem to be that there is a significant portion of the population who hold American ideals and history in contempt.

    The disputes outlined in your article are largely political. The parties, while opposed, both respected the underlying principles of the government.

    These days, even certain government officials consider the country to be irredeemably flawed.

    That could be a huge problem.


  3. Jut,

    I concur that the rise of America-hate is, to put it mildly, a troubling factor in the calculus of America’s future.
    There is also the 500-pound gorilla that few people acknowledge: our unsustainable level of accumulated debt and continuing deficit spending plus the reality that there is no politically achievable plan (of which I am aware) being advanced by either party to avoid an inevitable economic collapse. The politicians seem content to just whistle past the graveyard until the only uncertainties are (1) when the piper will be paid, and (2) how high the bill will be.
    I am generally an optimist, preferring to live by faith rather than fear, but the past few years have made me much more of a political realist. I am hopeful for a solution to our financial woes, but not confident that the political will exits to discomfit the dependent masses of their benefits or lift government’s excessive regulatory thumb off of businesses and industries whose tax payments could help balance the scales. I have little to no faith in the federal government -in fact, quite the opposite: I never underestimate the ability of the government to make any problem worse.
    It isn’t just me. In my county, most people I know are worried about our national economy. More and more people in my community have been working for the past couple of years to become less dependent on the national supply chain for food; for most of us this means growing a lot of our own and buying as much of the rest as we can from local farms and dairies. I recently figured out that about 80% of what my family now eats is grown within an hour’s drive from here, the main exceptions being grain products and fruit other than apples. I plan to double my own vegetable garden next year and have planted a small orchard (apples, peaches, pears). My neighbors who garden have started a community seed bank. Several people around here raise chickens, rabbits and goats, and there are numerous beef cattle farms in the area.
    I really wonder what the America that comes out of an economic collapse would look like.
    I seriously hope that Jack is right and that my concerns are overblown. Only time will tell.

    • There is also the 500-pound gorilla that few people acknowledge: our unsustainable level of accumulated debt and continuing deficit spending plus the reality that there is no politically achievable plan (of which I am aware) being advanced by either party to avoid an inevitable economic collapse.

      The big problem is that there is no constituency that wants to cut spending.

    • If you want a cautionary tale, I can refer you to a series by David Weber, affectionately dubbed the Honorverse (after the lead protagonist, Honor Harrington). the HH initials are not an accident, for those who have also read Horatio Hornblower.

      But the big opponent during the first ten or so books is the People’s Republic of Haven — a star nation founded on republican ideals, much the same as the United States. It went down a road of government giveaways, guaranteed living allowance, universal healthcare — you can fill in the blanks. Ultimately it was unable to finance its economy and was effectively broke.

      So what did it do at that point? Having already established a dictatorship, it turned to a bandit model, conquering nearby systems and looting their economies to fund its ever increasing needs. It was much like the Nazi model of looting the other nations of Europe it had conquered.

      Not that I’m predicting that here, but there certainly are troubling signs.

  4. “You know the high road to freedom was a hard road to travel,
    many of times, we wound up in a fix.
    But what kept us goin’?
    What kept us growin’?
    The Spirit of Seventy-Six!”

    So Oscar Brand used to sing while strumming his guitar to open and close the educational half-hour show named in the last line of that song. If ever this country was in real danger, it was in this time, when it was struggling to relaunch the ideas of freedom that had come to be in the wake of the 30 years war in Europe. The darkest time of that difficult time was probably right before the Battle of Trenton, when the colonial cause seemed to get nothing but bad news and enough enlistments to cripple the cause were about to expire. Still the spirit of ’76 wouldn’t fade, and Washington pulled out the victories at Trenton and Princeton that kept the cause from collapsing, and made the subsequent string of events which led to Yorktown and freedom possible.

    This nation went through some very dark days in the days leading up to the Civil War, never mind during the Civil War itself. You know them, or you should know them: the nullification crisis, the Missouri Compromise, Bleeding Kansas, Nat Turner and John Brown’s attempts at rebellion that just turned into mass murder. THEN we can talk about the war itself and the messy aftermath, which Jack already did.

    What he didn’t touch on was the Great Depression that hit not just here but around the world, led to endless crime and the glamorization of crime, made too many wonder if the Western system was a failure and the fascists and communists had the right idea. We all know how that ended too.

    Twenty years later, we hit the turbulent Vietnam years, which also made it look like this country was falling apart and maybe deserved to.

    Now we find ourselves back in the same place we were then. But this nation got tired of self-hatred then, the economy picked up then, and someone emerged to lead us out of that. This nation is already getting tired of hating itself, and the Democratic party’s shenanigans that they know are destroying the economy are being exposed. Hopefully the spirit of ’76 is due for a revival soon.

    • “This nation is already getting tired of hating itself, and the Democratic Party’s shenanigans that they know are destroying the economy are being exposed. Hopefully the spirit of ’76 is due for a revival soon.”
      This exactly describes the attitude of the 2016 Make America Great Again campaign. It succeeded in electing an extremely apolitical candidate despite his many flaws who shockingly stood behind the bold promises made during the campaign.
      We succeeded in stemming the flood of ILLEGAL immigration by closing the southern border and upholding existing immigration laws. We stood up to our economic enemies by establishing policies that allowed American companies to compete of a level field. We reduced the stranglehold of the entrenched bureaucracy by requiring significant reductions in regulatory restrictions that stymied economic growth. We made Love of Country (i.e., Spirit of ’76) acceptable again. The successes and benefits to the American people seemingly were undeniable.
      Unfortunately, a new unabashedly aggressive coalition joined the Progressive Left: Main Stream Media (traditional and social) and the career bureaucracy (DOJ, Homeland Security, FBI, DOE, etc.), to successfully deny, or taint as racist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic, everything the Spirit of ‘76er’s (AKA, Make America Great Again) were able to achieve.
      The Trump administration, for good and for bad (politically,) was by far the most transparent in American history. The Administration’s every thought, option, and concern was disseminated to the country on an almost daily basis. As tiring as that became, it was effective, until the pandemic hit.
      The limitations imposed provided the unlimited opportunity to second-guess Trump’s policies (people were still dying), and the ability to disguise the policies of the MSM and the bureaucracy as For the Public Good (i.e., our policies will stop people from dying). We’ll restore your individual rights later, became too much to overcome.
      Trump’s Make America Great Again legacy (and perhaps the future of the Spirit of ’76) hinges on the acceptance, or at least the valid debate, of two statements made by Trump:
      • The press [has become] the enemy of the people.
      • In reality, they are not after me they are after you. I’m just in their way.
      The “I’m” in the second statement is not limited to Trump, but rather whomever stands in the way of the Progressive Left’s desire to transform America from its founding ideals, its Spirit of ’76, to some undefined other.

  5. It seems the adage, “everything old is new again” aptly applies here. What goes unnoticed is the cyclical nature of history (may I add, as well as the cyclical nature of the climate). What is constant is the persistent gullibility of human nature.

    • Yes, there’s that gullibility thing. But there’s a bit more to it, IMO.

      We humans have a weak perception of time, which gets complicated by logical fallacies. We know it only insofar as our own experience. Thus, if I’m now more prosperous than ever before, then these are are the best times ever. Conversely, if the economy sucks, or we’re dealing with a global pandemic, these are the worst times ever. Both statements may be true, but only within the context of “in my lifetime.” Otherwise, we’re into cum hoc ergo propter hoc territory.

      I grew up at a time when my mother would lock us in the car while she went shopping, because polio was afoot and there was no vaccine yet. Not long after that, she contracted the so-called “Asian Flu” which left my youngest sister with congenital problems and likely spontaneously aborted her twin. Yes, the Wuhan Flu was a catastrophic event worldwide, but viewed within the context of previous pandemics, its impacts were less severe than many think – simply because they’d never experienced anything like it before.

      The same can be said of 2008’s “Great Recession,” the bursting of the dotcom bubble and other events that led to significant financial and/or social upheaval.

      Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that we simply don’t place the emphasis on teaching history that we should. It’s easy to suspect that, given the revisionist approaches to the practice seen over the past generation, this failure is deliberate. There are practical aspects to it as well, however – not least of which is that to many kids (and I was one of them) history is an extraordinarily dull subject, and it takes a truly gifted teacher to make it come alive and become relevant for someone in their teens.

      The other significant part of the problem, IMO, is that the news media – consisting largely of the now-adult so-called “journalists” that our culture relies upon to provide us with context, either by omission or commission ignores comparisons to the past. And let’s be realistic here: headlines that blare “THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END!” sell a lot more lifestyle-enhancing drugs than ones that say “Hey, Things Really Aren’t So Bad.”

  6. The wildcard to all this is the presence of the Internet and social media. Taken together, these two innovations negate many of the circumstances which allowed the events you discuss to happen the way they did. What I can’t say is whether or not the existence of both social media and Internet in those bygone days would’ve made the favorable resolution come sooner, later, or not at all. Neither can I say with any confidence at all in the modern case.

    I have some fear that we cannot overcome what our communications revolution has wrought, and the vertical cloisters of political factions resulting from how they have evolved. Throw in an education system clearly hostile to the Constitution (and growing more so on a daily basis), and it’s easy to understand how people might be… concerned.

    The one thing that gives me hope is the circumstances of the past, on their face, were manifestly more severe than my read of the current case. So, hope!

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