The quote itself is by Ron Chernow, the historian who authored the recent well-reviewed biography of out 18th President, “Grant,” “Hamilton,” the biography that inspired, we are told, the mega-hit musical. and “Washington” (won’t somebody send a copy to the fools at Christ Church?) was given to an interviewer as his description of another book, the Philip Roth’s historical novel “The Plot Against America”:
[A] democracy can be corrupted, not by big, blaring events, but by a slow, insidious, almost imperceptible process, like carbon monoxide seeping in under the door.
Some random thoughts on this statement, which I believe is exactly right, and a lot more interesting than the more frequently used analogy about boiling a frog slowly:
- Grant, as Chernow’s book (among others of recent vintage) documents, was present at one of those points when democracy seemed to be in the process of being poisoned, and acted forcefully.
By 1868, when Grant was elected to succeed Andrew Johnson, who had done everything he could to allow the South to resist extending civil rights to the newly freed slaves, the KKK had evolved into a powerful terrorist organization that referred to itself as “The Invisible Empire of the South.” Under the Klan’s first “Grand Wizard,” the brilliant former Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, whites from all classes of Southern society joined the Klan’s ranks. They attacked and punished newly freed blacks for crimes like behaving in an “impudent manner” toward whites, brutalized the teachers of schools for black children, and burned schoolhouses. It also terrorized and often murdered Republican party leaders those who voted for Reconstruction policies. In Kansas over 2,000 murders were committed as the 1868 election approached; in Louisiana, a thousand blacks were killed in the same period.
Grant entered office knowing that the Civil War victory could come apart. He made some bad appointments–Grant was naive about politics and trusted too easily—but his choice as Attorney General, Amos T. Akerman, was masterful. With Grant’s support, and the with the help of the newly created Justice Department under Grant, he vigorously worked to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave the vote to black men in every state, and the First Reconstruction Act of 1867, which placed tough restrictions on the South and closely regulated the formation of their new state governments. Between 1870 and 1871, the Republican Congress passed and Grant signed into law the Enforcement Acts, which made it a crime to interfere with registration, voting, officeholding, or jury service by blacks. Congress also passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which allowed the government to act against terrorist organizations.
- When I was growing up and becoming interested in the Presidents, a life-long passion that led me to both law and ethics, Grant was routinely listed as one of the worst in the line. All one heard from historians was about the financial scandals that rocked his administration. Grant’s great success in subduing the Klan was literally never mentioned. The main Presidential historian then was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a member of Jack Kennedy’s inner circle. His job as he saw it was to minimize the contributions of any Republican President, like Teddy Roosevelt (“near great” in his rankings), Eisenhower (“below average”) and Grant (“failure’). Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson, who dragged the U.S, into the first World War, botched the Versailles Treaty and who actively revived the Klan, being a stone-cold racist, was “great.” Naturally, I believed all of his distortions, which were largely those of the historians at the time, then, as now, often partisans and propagandists. It took me a while to realize that this had been my first encounter with the Left attempting to alter present perception by controlling the past.
That is one of the major sources of Chernow’s carbon monoxide today, except that the disinformation now emanates from the schools, colleges, and the news media. Continue reading