In prohibiting any discrimination . . . the [Civil Rights] bill may possibly be a means of protection to colored people in the Southern States, it can hardly be of any use in any Northern State.
St. Paul Press, May 3, 1875
In contrast to the provincial necessities that demanded the attention of the upper chamber—senatorial election, grasshopper infestation, women’s suffrage for school governance—a political and racial crisis boiled over in a region at the opposite end of the Mississippi. Since 1868 Louisiana elections had been marked by violence and fraud. During the gubernatorial election of 1872, the Democrats and Republicans escalated tensions that grew worse—even after the election had been called. When the Illinois carpetbagger William P. Kellogg defeated John McEnery, to appease the Democrats he appointed some to local offices, but those efforts to secure loyalty from the ex-rebels of Louisiana failed to reach his goal. Still claiming to be governor, McEnery formed a militia that in 1873 attempted to seize control of New Orleans police stations. During the following month, anarchy spread throughout much of the rural areas of the state. The vastly outnumbered federal troops were unable to establish order. In a growing number of parishes, whites refused to pay taxes or otherwise recognize the state government.
The situation worsened in 1874 with the formation of the White League, which dedicated itself to the restoration of white supremacy. It targeted local Republican officeholders for assassination, disrupted court proceedings, and drove black laborers from their homes. The state Democratic platform opened with the words, “We, the white people of Louisiana,” and one party newspaper pronounced the inevitability of “a war of races.” White League violence and extensive efforts to use economic intimidation against black voters dominated the campaign. Even white veterans of the New Orleans Unification movement, a coalition of free blacks and business leaders working to protect black civil rights and promote educational and economic opportunity, came over to the side of supremacy. “Last summer one hundred of us, representing fairly all grades of public and social status, humbled ourselves into the dust in an effort to secure the cooperation of the colored race in a last attempt to secure good government, and failed. . . . To this complexion, it has come at last. The niggers shall not rule over us.”
In Red River Parish, the campaign degenerated into a violent reign of terror, which culminated in August in the cold-blooded murder of six Republican officials. White Leaguers led a full-scale insurrection in New Orleans, hoping to install McEnery as governor. On September 14, some 3,500 Leaguers, mostly ex-Confederates, overwhelmed black militiamen and Metropolitan Police under the command of former Confederate general James Longstreet, and occupied city hall, the statehouse, and the arsenal. They withdrew only when federal troops arrived under orders from President Grant. This incident, which would go down in the annals of Louisiana politics as “The Battle of Liberty Place,” would be dredged up in future campaigns to rally Democratic voters and solidify party and racial unity.
The die was cast by the time the Forty-Third Congress returned in December 1874, for the Democrats, through political violence throughout the entire region, had amassed enough representatives to at last become the new majority in Congress. Anticipating the end to the advancement of civil rights lawmaking, Benjamin Butler and others devised a program to safeguard what remained of Reconstruction. Their program included a House counterpart to Sumner’s Civil Rights bill, a new Enforcement Act that proposed to expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts. For tactical benefits, however, Butler felt it wise to exclude any reference to the controversial school integration provision, much like what would happen with the Civil Rights bill just then working its way to a final vote. But, in a manner that convinced party critics of true Republican interests, the Republicans included a subsidy for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. As Eric Foner has noted, “Taken together, the package embodied a combination of idealism, partisanship, and crass economic advantage typical of Republican politics.”
The events in Louisiana and the president’s determination to protect the black vote only weakened the already tentative resolve of the Republican caucus, whose unity was already tenuous. Grant could see the returns, as well. The Republicans had already lost Congress. Butler would have to do what he needed to do. As for Grant, in suppressing armed insurrection in New Orleans, he had committed himself and his administration to not losing the soul of Reconstruction to terror or party disunity. He ordered General Philip Sheridan to sustain Kellogg’s administration and put down violence. On January 4, 1875, when Democrats attempted to seize control of the state assembly by forcibly installing party members in five disputed seats, a detachment of federal troops under the command of Colonel Philippe de Trobriand entered the legislative chambers and escorted the five Democratic claimants out.
The following day, Sheridan wired Secretary of War W. W. Belknap, requesting that he establish military tribunals to try White League leaders as “banditti.” He reported that since 1866 nearly 3,500 persons—a great majority of whom were colored men—had been killed or wounded in Louisiana. In 1868, the last time an official report was issued, 1,884 were killed and wounded. “There is ample evidence, however, to show more than 1,200 were killed and wounded during this time on account of their political sentiments.” The Leaguers had taken “frightful measures” against men on account of their political principles in seven parishes. “In Natchitoches parish the number of isolated cases reported is 33; in the parish of Bienville, the number of men killed is 30; in Red River parish, isolated cases, number of killed, 34; in Winn parish, the number of isolated cases where men were killed is 15; in Jackson parish, 20; in Catahoula, the number of isolated cases is 53; and most of the country parishes throughout the State will show a corresponding state of affairs.”
On August 3, 1874, five officials were murdered in Red River Parish along with four black men. “On the 28th of August, 1874, three negro men were shot and killed in Bienville. Just before the arrival of the United States troops in the parish, two White Leaguers rode up to a negro cabin and called for a drink of water. When the old colored man turned to draw it they shot him in the back and killed him. The courts were all broken up in the district and the judge driven off.” Detailing more atrocities, Sheridan wrote, “Human life in this State is held so cheaply that when men are killed on account of political opinion, the murderers are regarded rather as heroes than as criminals, in the localities where they reside and by the White League and their supporters.” Over the signature of “P. H. Sheridan, Lt. General,” he promised a more current and detailed report later.
The fact that Sheridan’s telegram—derisively referred to as his “banditti” report—was published in the St. Paul Dispatch, Pioneer, and other newspapers throughout the North, suggested that the administration understood the sensitivity of military intervention to its political base. To the extent that this was true, however, it did not change the thinking of a growing number of Northerners—and Republicans, in particular. Though many, in fact, applauded the military action, the number of critics grew, observing Louisiana as an example of the danger of excessive federal interference in local affairs. Foner notes, “The spectacle of soldiers ‘marching into the Hall . . . and expelling members at the point of the bayonet’ aroused more Northern opposition than any previous federal action in the South.” Some voices directed the rage at the commander in chief. “[There is] violent opposition of the country to Presidential usurpation and bayonet rule to the South.” In the ten years since Appomattox, Grant the general for union and liberation against Southerners who oppressed blacks, had become Grant the tyrant over Southern oppressors who were now sympathetic victims. The world had shifted underfoot.
In Minnesota, on Wednesday, February 10, outrage was likewise voiced in the Minnesota Senate when Amos Coggswell offered a resolution condemning the military action. Rising to speak in support of the resolution was Morton Wilkinson. Making sure first and foremost to tie the military action to the moral decay of Grantism and to all of those who subscribed to and benefited from it, he began by arguing, remarkably, that such actions existed when people grew fat from excessiveness and complacency. “The greatest danger, which at the present beset[s] our institutions was the indifference of the people to assaults upon constitutional law. . . . The Executive of the nation was also the Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy. When he trounces onto the legislative department, it is an attack upon the liberties of the people. [Neither] he [n]or anyone else [including any State Republican official] had just as much right as Col. De Trobriand to step in and break up the legislature.”
Then Wilkinson turned his attention to the general who carried out the order. “Why should we distrust the brave and gallant Phil Sheridan? Because it was men like Sheridan, popular heroes, who menaced the liberties of the people. It was so with Napoleon. It was always so. The tendency of the Executive power in this country was to usurp the functions of the legislative.” After paying his tribute to General Sheridan as a soldier, Wilkinson denounced the general’s “banditti” dispatch; then reading the dispatches from merchants and others in New Orleans critical of the military action, he bluntly declared that he chose to believe them. Incredibly, he said:
The only truthful and well-behaved people in that State are the White Leaguers. It is true there is a little very pardonable prejudice against negroes and white Republicans, and by the accidental discharge of pistols and rifles in the hands of careless White Leaguers, while playfully aimed at their political adversaries, some two or three thousand negroes have been accidentally shot and killed, and a goodly number of white Republicans have been disposed of in the same way. . . . The regrettable thing about it is that the Republicans of Louisiana, who have lived there, most of them, all their lives, don’t know anything at all about the real state of affairs down there.
Sheridan, he said, had demonized the people of that city by listening too closely “to the lying statements” of Kellogg and others. In summing up and closing his “powerful and logical argument,” the senator warned the chamber and the people against the threatened overthrow of constitutional liberty by the use of military violence. The Press, on the other hand, mocked this kind of fact-finding that took the word of Louisiana white supremacists. The Coggswell resolution was indefinitely tabled.
* * * * *
Their blood was already up when word from Congress of the “other” force law—the Civil Rights Act—settled in. Now with this news Wilkinson and his cohorts entered into a state of apoplexy. The new federal law was approved by Congress in February and signed into law by President Grant on March 1, and it guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation, and prohibited exclusion from jury service. Litigation brought under the new law would bypass the state judicial system, where the people elected the judges, who in turn were susceptible to local prejudice; now, the new law directed cases to go directly to federal courts, where judges served for life and presided outside of popular accountability. Indeed, state law could not be expected, in terms of racial bias, to be better than the local white citizenry. By force through the federal courts, as it was bluntly seen, whites would be compelled to receive blacks into privately owned businesses, restaurants, opera houses, and the like, where they were clearly not wanted. The owner would have no say in the matter. While political equality had been granted through the ballot, social equality, as mandated by the new form of federal intrusion, was a different matter; likewise, the voters at home, like the owners immediately affected, had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, the new law would apply, not just to the South, which to many Northerners seemed ill conceived because it would only worsen black–white relations, as if they were not already horrific, but also to all sections of the country—North, South, East, and West.
Suddenly, discrimination, as outlined in the new federal law, was not viewed as a Southern phenomenon. In essence, Northerners, as characterized by the new law, were presented as being no better than Southerners. To many Northerners, this was an insult from the very government that they had supported and fought to defend. Even those who generally understood the spirit of the law were nevertheless ambivalent about its application. The St. Paul Press pointed out, “It is a curious illustration of the tenacity of the social prejudices generated by slavery that it should be deemed necessary to pass any such act to secure decent treatment for colored people by the proprietor of public conveyances, inns, theatres, etc. . . . [But while] the bill may possibly be a means of protection to colored people in the Southern States, it can hardly be of any use in any Northern State.” To place the Northerner on the same plane with the Southerner was too hard to bear. But whether Northerners liked it or not, despite all the denial, Jim Crow lived among them.
While many blacks in Northern cities fared relatively well during the boom years of the Reconstruction era, ascending in many cases to the middle class, as Foner notes, “the bulk of the population remained trapped in urban poverty and confined in inferior housing and menial and unskilled jobs and even there their foothold, challenged by the continuing influx of European immigrants and discrimination by employers and unions alike, became increasingly precarious.” In St. Paul the story was the same, and the lines of demarcation among the groups, especially as they related to the African American community, were quite rigid and were reflected in the residential patterns of the city. A sign posted on a house in a German neighborhood in the Fourth Ward stated that “nigger tenants” were not wanted. David Taylor noted that the physical growth of the emerging black neighborhood was, to a great extent, limited by the ethnicity of the residential neighborhoods surrounding the commercial district, where most poor blacks lived. On all sides of the commercial district, ethnic groups zealously guarded neighborhoods almost as if they were sovereign territories.
Despite these residential cleavages between blacks and immigrant groups and the desperation of the underclass, it took, as mentioned previously, the effrontery of a St. Paul street crowd and a hotel clerk carrying out his employer’s long-term discrimination policy against America’s most famous “civilizable” black man to finally capture the attention of the state’s opinion makers. That the proprietor of the hotel with such a discriminatory policy was nevertheless a personal friend of Douglass suggests the policy was as much intended to defer to the prejudices of his high-paying clientele as it reflected the liberal proprietor’s bias against black people in general. In any event, the incident underscored the pervasive bias in the state’s psyche that no doubt instilled in Minnesota blacks the belief that survival depended on remaining deferential, or at least discreet, in relations with white people, not to mention staying out of trouble and among their own kind. Indeed, the episode is incomplete without reference to the fact that the audience to whom Douglass spoke on the progress of race relations was all white, and the opera house in which he spoke had a policy that banned black admission, a practice that was maintained for the Douglass lecture.
Indeed, there were incidents in which black couples were rudely denied service in restaurants, and in 1873, a black man named Henry Robinson sued a railroad for discriminating against him; he lost the case before an all-white jury. The response from the two leading papers of St. Paul was predictable. The more sanguine Press, at least in terms of the paper’s position on black equality, argued that St. Paul jurors could not resist the same discriminatory impulses as their white neighbors. The editor even conceded that segregation on certain conveyances in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago had been found to be unlawful. But the Daily Pioneer chose to focus only on Robinson, insisting that a black man who received such gratuities as a ticket to ride a train needed to be grateful. Robinson should have let the matter drop after the first trial. “There is all-together too much disposition on the part of some of our colored citizens to bring this class of action.” Then, as if to issue a thinly veiled threat, the editor added, “It is to be hoped that they will take warning by this verdict.” That the events of 1873 would be considered “trifling,” as the Daily Pioneer termed them, was notable enough; the Republicans, who had been their sworn enemies a decade earlier, now stood unmasked as openly sharing, not just the same reactions to the new law, but fundamentally the same prejudices toward black people whom the law was enacted to protect. The Mankato Union viewed the Civil Rights bill as yet another fiber of the bloody shirt: “The main purpose of the bill is to carry . . . Grant at the next Presidential election, in the same way that Louisiana has been carried by Republicans the last two years.”
To be clear, the liberal-minded Republican men were not questioning the right of black men to political equality. But in their estimation the Republican Congress had gone too far in establishing a right to social equality. Unmindful of the countless slights even to middle-class blacks, for they were the only blacks who could afford to enjoy the conveyances of the white middle class, and therefore sought to avoid such moments where their dignity would likely be impugned, whites concluded that blacks likewise did not desire social equality, let alone a law that mandated it. After all, many concluded disingenuously, there had been no demonstration that blacks, any more than whites, wanted to sit in racially mixed company.
The very essence of the law required that blacks first enter a place where they will be denied services and humiliated. “It was easier,” historian C. Vann Woodward has written, “to avoid painful rebuff or insult by refraining from the test of rights. Negroes rarely intruded upon hotels or restaurants where they were unwelcome.” In other instances, blacks would not invoke the Civil Rights Act “to make themselves obnoxious,” since they “had too much self-respect to go where they were not wanted. . . . Such actions would end only in disturbances” and “colored people wanted peace and as little agitation as possible.” “As a rule,” observed the New York Times, just days after the bill was signed into law, “the Negroes in this part of the country are quiet, inoffensive people who live for and to themselves, and have no desire to intrude where they are not welcome.” The paper, which vigorously opposed the law, predicted “there would be little trouble in the North largely because the blacks are in so great a minority.” Even black businessmen such as high-end barbers “in particular feared losing white clientele while others viewed the prospect of equal separate facilities as an improvement.” In Minnesota, blacks were also divided, though few who learned of Wilkinson’s remarks on Louisiana were likely willing to inflame their most prominent and temperamental champion by saying that his handiwork was insufficient to achieving full opportunity, that it perhaps was his fault that black advancement was not greater.
The efficacy of the law was undercut from the beginning. President Grant made no comment about it either at the time he signed it or in subsequent messages to Congress or the public. Members of Congress had little to say about the bill after it passed. Charles Sumner, who sponsored the bill, had died the previous March. At least one member attempted to soften the blow by minimizing its possible effects. Representative Benjamin Butler, who had a significant part in bringing about the bill’s passage as well as in deleting the provision that would have desegregated schools, sought to allay the fears of a friend. In a letter to Robert Harlan of Cincinnati, Butler said that the bill did not give Negroes the right to go into a drinking saloon and that he was very glad it did not. “I am willing to concede, as a friend to the colored man, that the white race may have at least this one superior privilege . . . and I never shall do anything to interfere with the exercise of that high and distinctive privilege.” “The Republicans of the United States Senate,” reported the Mankato Union, “did us right in letting the [school provision of the] Force Bill slip into the wastebasket of unfinished and never-to-be-finished business.” It was clearly a state’s right to determine education policy.
As controversial as the bill was in mandating the right of black Americans to sit next to whites in opera houses, restaurants, saloons, and other such conveyances, an added provision that was dear to Sumner was even more incendiary, and was therefore dropped—a federal ban against school segregation. In fact, his most vocal opponents were colleagues who came from states where school segregation had been banned. Ever willing to take a shot at Republican hypocrisy, the Weekly Pioneer editorialized years earlier, “[Sumner] expressed his doubts as to the probability of such a measure being successful, on account of the opposition that it will encounter from Republicans in Congress who are loud on ‘Cuffe’ as a man, but down on him as a picaninny. Sumner seems to have learned that the standard Republican politician holds the colored man in about the same estimation that the circus man does his performing dog; he gets his living out of him, and therefore bestows upon him certain necessary proprietary favors, but he takes them not to eat with him, nor to sleep with him, nor do his children enter with the dog in the same gymnasium of instruction.”
Sumner’s motivation to move forward began at an early age. As a student in Paris at the Sorbonne, he noticed black students performing every bit as successfully as their white counterparts, both academically and socially. In his journal he wrote, “It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.” Later as a young attorney, in 1849, he acted on that observation when he sued the city of Boston to permit his client, a black girl named Sarah Roberts, to attend a better-equipped white public school. Citing passages of the Massachusetts constitution that resembled the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Sumner declared that every form of discrimination in civil and political institutions was therefore unlawful. Segregation branded the whole race of black people with the stigma of inferiority and degradation and therefore sentenced the black child to perpetuate a stage of inferiority. Segregation injured white pupils as well: “Their hearts while yet tender with childhood, are necessarily hardened by this conduct, and their subsequent lives, perhaps, bear enduring testimony to this legalized uncharitableness.” He lost the suit but the defeat was short lived, for in five years, the state legislature enacted a law that prohibited racial segregation on the basis of race in all public schools in Massachusetts. Through the Civil Rights bill the black children of America would benefit just as those in Massachusetts had.
But the idea of the federal government intruding in the local affairs of public education offended most opinion makers. In 1870 the Weekly Pioneer predicted the outcome that would come to pass five years later. “There are certain generic antipathies as irreconcilable in social chemistry that refuse to make a mixture, and any attempt to overcome the natural law that decrees this, results in necessary failure. All legislative effort will fail in making men yield to that which is antagonistic to instincts that are so deeply planted as are any affinities or repulsions that are a part of this mysterious human nature. This being true, Sumner is wasting time in the experiment he is making.”
While there may have been some truth in these words of a Democratic writer, accusing Northern Republicans of resisting the schools provision because of hypocrisy, this impression belied the trend to school desegregation already sweeping across the North. In 1869, two months after the Convention of Colored Citizens, the Minnesota legislature, led by then-governor William Marshall, passed a bill that denied state funds to school districts that discriminated on the basis of race, and Wisconsin in 1871, and Iowa as early as 1857, had enacted an outright ban of school segregation. Donnelly had called for an end to school segregation in 1867. So not only was the idea of mixing black and white schoolchildren familiar, the practice also was found to be acceptable to a growing number of Northern voters.
The criticism of Northerners—even former abolitionists—that later resulted in the exclusion of this provision had more to do with easing the tense nature of North–South relations. In terms Wilkinson probably approved, the Mankato Union called for the federal government to let the South iron out its local problems. “Beyond repressing violence and insurrection, and protecting the colored brother in the rights of person and property, the Southern States should be left to work out their own destiny.” In apparent contrast, almost nine years earlier, a commentator for the Union who signed his article with the letter “W” strongly advocated the extension of civil rights to black Minnesotans, arguing that environment and not heredity was the cause of any degradation among black people. In his essay published on March 17, 1865, he added, “Blacks never have had the advantages of an education. They have for centuries been taught their inferiority and stupidity. But the day is dawning when they will show that there is stamped upon their race the image of the same all-wise God.” “W” was now silent on the matter. There were not enough black voters in Minnesota, and throughout the North, who could pressure their congressional representation to press the matter.
Indeed, many were relieved when the school provision had been removed. After fighting a war against the rebellion of Southern states and ratifying the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments against the will of ex-Confederate states, mandating school integration would only antagonize the South, and this, too, argued Liberal Democrats, was “the nature of things.” Lacking, remarkably, a full and plain understanding of the resilience of racism forged by centuries of social custom and law, or willfully ignoring it in favor of giving full weight to resentment of the intrusive federal government in the name of national harmony and the belief that Southern white supremacists could embrace their black neighbors as equals, the Union naively determined that what a state did was a state’s business. The paper equated the “force” law with the “daily food of perilous medicine which the Constitution provides for extreme cases of public danger.” In other words, in the twisted logic of the time, it was the law, and not Southern white supremacists, that was responsible for the murders. If left alone, the knot of racial tension would loosen to allow the South to be able to solve its problem through the inevitable emergence of due process. The Union continued, “[Congress must] try the experiment of leaving the turbulent mobocracy of the South to the restraints of law and [Southern] public opinion.” That both “restraints” had actually enabled “mobocracy” was immaterial to the men behind the Union.
The otherwise staid Minneapolis Tribune took a different tack, arguing that the bill, for all of its drama, was disappointingly halfhearted: “As originally presented by [Sumner], it was intended to fill the measure of national legislation in behalf of equal civil rights to all men, but in its emasculated form, as passed by Congress, it is little more than a mockery.” In that the new law had failed to include an educational component, “[it left] the doors of the public schools closed to the colored race in the future as effectually as they have been in the past.” As for provision on public accommodations, taking note of the tepid response of black Minnesotans—in St. Paul, only a small group assembled to recognize the bill’s enactment—the editor concluded that African Americans as a whole did not even want the law. “It very carefully, however, protects them in those rights which they do not want and which are no value to them. . . . As a rule, they prefer to enjoy themselves socially among people of their own color, tastes, and social standing. They are very much like white people in that respect.” On the unfortunate whole, the editor asserted, the Republicans had lost their way. “The great Republican party, which has done so much for the colored race—which gave them their freedom and conferred upon them their political rights belonging to freemen—took fright at this culminating act and proved recreant to its highest duty at the critical moment. . . . [In a cowardly manner] it lost the confidence of the people in a great degree, and paved the way for the triumph of the Democratic opponents. In an attempt to compromise with wrong and injustice, it lost its character, moral force and its strength.”
And yet, despite the flaws, critics argued, in that the law supposedly forced whites to be in the company of blacks, it would only foment public disorder. The Union took pains to report troubling stories of blacks trying to get service in businesses, characterizing them as perpetrators of misfortune. At Waverly, Missouri, for example, a “desperado” named Hall took a Negro into a saloon kept by a man named Beal, and attempted to place him on a level of equality with white men under the Civil Rights Act. The bartender protested but Hall insisted the Negro be served. The bartender then chased the Negro out of the saloon with a revolver. When another Negro interfered, the bartender shot him dead. In another story, “The civil rights agitation in Nashville increases. The negroes take advantage of the provision, and have forced the closing of several restaurants and other public places.”
This was the problem with the law, insisted the Liberal Republican-Democratic editor. It overreached the central function of federal governance—to create policy that advanced interests of the whole nation. The new law fomented disturbances, all in the name of “a dubious sense of justice.” To most Americans, it seemed that the new law was clearly unconstitutional. Resigned to its pitiable state, the Press editor continued, “The extension of the principle to hotel, theatres, and other places of amusement is of doubtful constitutionality and of still more doubtful utility.”
* * * * *
It was not until the last day of the legislative session that another resolution was brought forward to protest Grant’s action in Louisiana. This time, Republican E. F. Drake of Ramsey County and secretary of the Senate, introduced it, asserting that “the constitutional rights of the Legislature and people of the State of Louisiana have been invaded and disregarded by officers and soldiers of the army of the United States.”
Viewed by Minnesota Democrats, the resolution—“a distinct and emphatic condemnation” of the military action in Louisiana—passed by “a large majority.” The Pioneer offered its highest tribute to “one of the ablest and staunchest republicans in the State” and it was with Drake’s courage and independence that all could see that “the unconstitutional and destructive acts of the executive can no longer command the entire support of the party, that such support of the party cannot be made a test of republicanism nor even of party fealty.”
Across the North, Negro fatigue was setting in, as indicated in part by recent electoral victories by the Democratic Party, as well as the spread of organized protest against military policy in the South. Even in Boston, “the cradle of liberty” and the home of Charles Sumner, Benjamin Butler, and William Lloyd Garrison, one heard the impulse growing in strength as the audience at Faneuil Hall taunted abolitionist Wendell Phillips speaking against the anti-Grant resolution:
My anxiety is for the hunted, tormented, murdered population, white and black, of the Southern states, whom you are going to consign to the hands of their oppressors. If you pass these resolutions (cries of “We Will! We will!)—if you pass these resolutions (cries of “We will! We will!)—if you pass these resolutions (cries of “We will! We will!)—I say it in the presence of God Almighty (cries of “Sh!” and “Ah!”)—the blood of hundreds of blacks and hundreds of whites will be on your skirts before the first day of January next. (Loud laughter.)
The New York Times commented that Phillips and Garrison, who also spoke, were “not exactly extinct from American politics, but they represent ideas in regard to the South which the majority of the Republican Party have outgrown.”
Wilkinson, on the other hand, was very much a man of the times. Yet, fundamentally, it was not so much that he had become cavalier regarding the fates of black Americans as much as his vision had grown narrow by his rage against monopolies and corruption under Grant, as well as an uncomprehendingly rigid sense of civil liberties when they were obtained through coercion and murder. His contempt for the Republican Party–-its corruption, deceit, hypocrisy, and, now, heavy-handedness—tinted his perception of the nature of things. He simply did not understand the nature of racism; that in the ten years since Appomattox, white supremacists throughout the South, whose simple interest was to turn back the clock, did not need the provocation of federal bayonets to deny black and white citizens their constitutional rights.
In the end, Wilkinson did not differentiate between civil liberties that included all citizens and uncivil actions that excluded citizens because of race and speech. His lofty and ennobling words defended the actions of those whom he had once condemned in 1862, when he stood in the Senate chamber in Washington to defend a failed bill to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia: “I feel bound, by every vote which I am called upon to give, and by every word which I may utter upon this question, to do everything in my power towards its final extinction; and so far as my influence goes, to blot out the last remains of slavery on this continent.” He did not see that the “last remains of slavery” survived in racial prejudice that was fundamental to what it meant to be a white man and woman in America. Now, instead, Wilkinson found comfort in an interview with a “respectable colored man” of Louisiana who said that it was the Radicals who had cheated in the recent elections:
He also voted with the white man and used all his influence to get [other blacks] to do so. “The white people own this country and we must live here if we live anywhere. A cold country such as up North don’t suit us. This is our home, and we must be at peace with the white people. They will do the fair thing if the colored people do.”
Let the people who know each other the best—Southern blacks and Klansmen—discover their own means to achieving racial equality within the comforting embrace of the warm Southern climes. Times had indeed changed.
On March 12, everyone went home, braving the subzero temperatures of this Minnesota winter, one of the coldest on record. Yet, it was considered a successful term. “The 17th session of the Minnesota legislature closed this afternoon. It has been made memorable from the fact that it defeated the head-center of the Minnesota ring, and demoralized the dominant political party, which has so long ruled the State with a rod of iron.” The railroad law was considered “the wisest action of the entire session and will lift Minnesota from the ranks of communistic States.” Ramsey was gone and cooler heads had prevailed in creating a railroad law that veered away from following Illinois’s lead in becoming too radical. Nothing was said in either chamber about the Enforcement bill working its way through Congress, nor about the Civil Rights bill that would soon be enacted within the month. They had enacted a “sly” bit of legislation that, if approved by the voters that November, would allow the next legislature to expand suffrage to all women, if but only to elect and run for school boards.
The Louisiana Resolution standing alone was not an issue that would lead to a major piece of legislation compared to the railroad law, senatorial selection, farmer relief, or women’s suffrage. It did, however, represent the degree to which Minnesota senators felt enmeshed within the ever-intensifying national debate over the interconnecting roles of federal and state government, black freedom and equality, the future of Reconstruction. For the time being, the concern of corporate monopolies had abated, for when the issue of regulation came forward earlier in the session, senators chose instead to table it, hoping that the matter would simply blow over. But for some of the senators, the Louisiana Resolution was nothing less than a clarion call against the tyranny of Caesar, when during these times that were filled with burning and complicated issues, the “good” was good enough, and the “bad” was unconstitutional. This was not, as anticipated, a radical legislature. It had appropriated modest funds to help the farmers suffering from grasshopper infestation, returned the railroad law to its former state of impotency, and selected a concession candidate to succeed a man whom opinion makers referred to as “Bluff Aleck.” But the resolution was like a tidal wave when the political forces of nature, at a unique moment in time, engulfed all manner of man, drowning out any potential for deliberation and, in the end, reason. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 23 to 7. Wilkinson and Donnelly both voted “aye.” Conservative Republican and next governor John D. Pillsbury and Democrat Edmund Rice, brother of former senator Henry, were two who voted “nay.”
On the last day of the session, when members wanted to adjourn and leave for home, the matter was returned for a vote. The record does not reflect that there was a debate on the merits, and it would seem to be an awkward vote to combat. Minnesota’s pro-Union legacy—something still highly valued—was at stake. It was the first state in the Union to send volunteers into the federal army after South Carolinians had laid siege to Fort Sumter, an arrangement made possible by no less than Governor Ramsey and U.S. Senator Morton S. Wilkinson, whose long-term stance on civil liberties had quite circuitously given him a moral authority that few possessed. Fourteen years had indeed so completely changed night to day. A vote against the resolution had become a vote to prolong a military presence and, in turn, military hostilities in the faraway region of the South, ten years after Appomattox almost to the day. On the other hand, a vote for the resolution really meant that one believed that former slaves and Klansmen, if left alone, could work out their problems and come to see each other as equals; that Grant, Lincoln’s man to save the Union, however administratively incompetent, was also truly the enemy of the freedom-loving people of America; that heroic Phil Sheridan had lied. This had to be implausible especially to those men in the Senate who had served under them.
In the end, however, there was no stomach for taking on Wilkinson, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the greatest men of their party against the greatest crisis of the century, to debate a matter of such national purpose. Certainly no one had the stomach to defend a very unpopular Grant, who was being blamed for the bad economic times and the loss of Congress to Democrats, who were about to gain congressional power for the first time in eighteen years. No, Grant had to go. Republicans throughout the Northern and western states were already looking for another presidential candidate. Senators, not wanting to stand against the tide on the last day and wanting to go home, and figuring that it ultimately would have little significance (the black men of Minnesota did not have the votes to hold them accountable), took a deep breath and voted “aye.” In any event, without the House adoption, the resolution would be nothing more than gesture politics, and on the last day, that was all it became. Representatives in the House acted neither one way nor the other, choosing instead to use what remained of the session in a more time-honored manner. As the Dispatch reported, “An effort was made to pass the Senate Louisiana Resolution but they were lost owing to notice of debate. The usual closing fun was indulged in and at 3 pm the House adjourned, sine die.” Summing up the session, the editor concluded, “All important legislation was secured and no public interest will suffer in the failure of any measure.” Exhausted from legislative battles and creeping age, and ready to return to his new home in Wells, Wilkinson made no additional statement on the issue.
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In a Winona courtroom, on June 8, 1875, Judge R. R. Nelson of the United States District Court, a New York–born, lifelong Democrat, son to a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, and former neighbor of Wilkinson in the earliest days when Minnesota was a territory, handed down a decision resulting from what was “believed to be the first adjudication in this direction by a Federal Judge.” He declared the new civil rights law to be constitutional, and in doing so, “produced no little astonishment among politicians as well as lawyers.” The opinion was given in response to a request made by the grand jury, before which a case was brought by the district attorney under the Civil Rights Act. After reciting the provisions of the last three amendments to the Constitution, Judge Nelson said, “The power of Congress can be exerted directly to put down all outrage or discrimination on the part of individuals when the motive originates only in race or color. . . . The law, in my opinion, is constitutional.”