William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction: 1869-1879.
List: 19th Century.
Subjects: Reconstruction, Gilded Age, Jim Crow, New South, Politics, Corruption, Grant.

Excerpted from "Reconstructing a President: Assessing President Ulysses S. Grant and his Role in the End of Reconstruction," a final paper written for "The Civil War and Reconstruction," Professor Eric Foner, Fall 2002.

William McFeely's contention, made in his 1981 Pulitzer-Prize winning Grant: A Biography, that President Grant should be held culpable for the failure of Reconstruction is shared to some extent by another historian of the revisionist school, William Gillette. In his 1979 work Retreat from Reconstruction 1869-1879, Gillette aims to build on the work of William Hesseltine's 1935 book Ulysses S. Grant, Politician in order "to analyze the nature of the reconstruction program and the reasons for its having ended." (ix-x. While he argues that Hesseltine "place[s] inordinate emphasis on motives of economic gain and give[s] no interpretation of the racial dimension of politics," Gillette deems the book "still valuable.") And, although he places the ultimate blame for Redemption on a number of factors, including dwindling popular support and the Supreme Court decisions of United States vs. Cruikshank and United States vs. Reese, Gillette nevertheless determines that "Grant's [policies] brought about a decisive retreat from reconstruction." (165)

Like McFeely, Gillette often seems puzzled and annoyed by the decisions of President Grant. In fact, he declares: "Grant's southern policy was a study in incongruity: a curious, confusing, changeable mix of boldness and timidity, decision and indecision, activity and passivity, as he shifted between reinforcement and retrenchment, coercion and conciliation. Its underlying intention was to promote the fortunes of both President Grant and the Republican party through the process of reconstruction and also to carry on the business of government by maintaining order and guaranteeing republican rule." (166-167)

Note that Gillette, like McFeely, does not place concern for the freedmen anywhere in this summation of President Grant's decision matrix. Instead, Gillette argues that Grant was more often than not urged on by such base motives as "Cronyism" and such "temperamental predilections" as mood swings and passivity - compassion for black citizens had little, if anything, to do with it (80, 168. Regarding the former charge, Gillette argues that Grant was more active in Louisiana than elsewhere in part to "advanc[e] the political career of his brother-in-law Casey in New Orleans.")

Gillette spends a good deal of time exploring in depth the failure of Reconstruction in several states, and in each case he argues that Grant constantly zigs when he really should have zagged. For example, Gillette declares the 1871 writ suspension in South Carolina to be a "spasmodic effort" that, due to the rise of the Red Shirts, "came to nought in the long run." As a result, "[e]rratic federal involvement…paralleled the president's intermittent intervention, and both were ineffective and inconclusive." (169) Regarding the case of Louisiana, which "most clearly delineates the intermittent character of [Grant's] performance," Gillette remarks that Grant's haphazard deployment of troops, along with his "serious [and partially Crony-based] miscalculation" of backing the inept and corrupt Kellogg government in the first place, succeeded only in fostering an "institutionalized instability" and "recklessness" in both the Kellogg and McEnery forces, since they came to rely on spates of federal intervention in lieu of "getting their house in order." As a result, the events in Louisiana both "had deleterious effects" on the public appetite for reconstruction and "quite simply dragged down" the national party. (106, 134-135)

In Arkansas, Grant's abrupt switches of loyalty in the Brooks-Baxter feud were "shrewd short-run tactics" that "were shown to be meaningless." In not acting decisively for one side or the other, Grant "had actually protracted [the Arkansas conflict]; instead of suppressing insurrection, he had in fact helped to maintain it; and instead of restoring order, he had allowed disorder to flourish." (143-144) And, in Mississippi, where McFeely also decries Grant's decision not to intervene militarily against the rising tide of violence, Gillette declares that "Grant played games with people's lives and liberties" by not sending troops. As in so many other cases, Grant "had been timid when he should have been bold, failing to suppress a statewide counterrevolution that became a bloody tragedy, evidenced by the black bodies that were strewn about the Mississippi countryside." (164-165) In each of these state-by-state cases, argues Gillette, Grant's haphazard, inconsistent, and maddening Reconstruction policies ended up encouraging instability and dulling the public goodwill for reform.

Unlike Matthew Josephson, William McFeely, and many other historians, Gillette never argues that Grant is stupid, or even (sub-)ordinary. To the contrary, he states that the eighteenth president was "in fact, more active, stronger, firmer, and far better at getting his own way when faced with problems…than has been realized." (175) Nevertheless, Gillette concludes that "the foibles and flaws in the administration's policy in the South [were] due to Grant himself," and that ultimately he was an abysmal failure in office. (173) "Had Grant provided an effective policy, clear direction, and strong leadership," Gillette concludes, "he might have achieved a great deal; but he could do little without them. It would have been in the greatest interest of the nation that the South be governed in compliance with the reconstruction amendments - self-governed if possible; well-governed, with luck; but it had, at the very least, to be governed." (185) Like McFeely and unlike the Dunning School, Gillette believes Grant's ultimate sin with regards to Reconstruction is one of omission, not of commission.

Yet, despite this disagreement on what exactly he did wrong, both the Dunning School and their revisionist heirs still agree that Ulysses S. Grant was a terrible President. Only in the past decade have a number of historians rose to challenge this central tenet of Grant historiography, from Brooks D. Simpson, who argues that "historians who judge Grant a failure have themselves failed to define what would have constituted success during his Presidency," to Jean Edward Smith, who has argued that "[n]o other President carried on such a determined struggle, against such hopeless odds, to protect the freedmen in the exercise of their constitutional rights."

Back to the 19th Century List.

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Writings/Weblog