Matthew Josephson, The Politicos.
List: 19th Century.
Subjects: Gilded Age, Politics, Corruption, Grant, Reconstruction.

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.

Given the "Lost Cause" nostalgia and abhorrent racism pervading Claude Bowers' Tragic Era, one would think that his interpretation of Grant would find little purchase in more enlightened quarters. Yet, Matthew Josephson, a Northern intellectual, Parisian expatriate, and "bourgeois bohemian," paints a remarkably similar portrait of the eighteenth president in his 1938 tome The Politicos. In this book, Grant is once again depicted as a simpleton completely out of his depth in the Oval Office, a fact that meant payday for the corrupt "spoilsmen" who ran the country for two terms in his stead. Indeed, Josephson's Grant has even less agency than Bowers' General - he is "a little man presiding over great events, without genius, without plan," a man almost completely at the beck and call of the Radical Republican "Directory." (79. Perhaps due to his tenure in Paris, Josephson delights in drawing parallels between Reconstruction and the French Revolution. The Republicans are variously the Mountain or the Directory, Thaddeus Stephens is Robespierre, the 1868 inauguration of Grant is the Brumaire, 1871-72 witnesses "a prolonged Thermidor," and so on, so on. Indeed, Josephson almost seems wistful that Grant didn't turn out more like Napoleon.)

True to the emphasis of his earlier book, The Robber Barons, Josephson's axe to grind is the corruption pervading Northern politics and society during the Gilded Age. And if President Grant has one important part to play in Josephson's argument, it is by his "triumphant, confident stupidity." (127) In eloquent prose that would further cement Grant's reputation as an ignoramus par excellence, Josephson depicts Grant as "ever obstinate and ever indecisive; dignified and slothful; now indolent, now roused to fury; but always no more than half intelligent." (79-80) Sometimes Josephson seems amused by Grant, as when he argues that "essentially he was comic…a character out of nineteenth-century satire, out of Trollope or Mark Twain." (80) At others, he deems him "doubly dangerous; alternately, he cringed before the political chieftains who hemmed him in, and in a casual, unthinking way affronted the very spirit of our democratic laws." (144)

It is in this latter fashion, as the unwitting dupe of the corrupt spoilsmen, that Grant sustains the brunt of Josephson's attack. Josephson focuses particularly on three "Senator-bosses" (in fact, the same "three musketeers" as Bowers) - Oliver Morton, who ran the Indiana political machine "'as the country schoolmaster ran his school,'" the "very fat, very rich, and very bibulous" Zachariah Chandler, head of the "'political Leviathan'" in Michigan, and Roscoe Conkling, the "arrogant and autocratic" head of the New York political machine. These Senator-bosses, who maintain their power through the dispensing of patronage (hence, "spoilsmen"), are the major villains of Josephson's work, and it is "to the combined power of these men that Ulysses Grant in 1869 had given virtually his own unconditional surrender." (91-92, 98)

With this presidential capitulation in place, Josephson spends much of his work denouncing the various corrupt schemes afflicting Grant's two terms, including (but not limited to) the Crédit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, the Tweed ring, and the indictment of Orville Babcock, the President's personal secretary. For Grant's part, these "tragicomic blunders and Gargantuan follies of the Grant regime…have a form which could not possibly be achieved by a knowing rascal." (127. "What did the former tanner, the unsuccessful storekeeper of Galena, know of the niceties and proprieties which be observed in gigantic financial transactions…what scruples or nice compunctions had he ever acquired cynical leaders like Conkling or Morton or Ben Butler could not laugh away?") Nevertheless, Josephson concludes that the "spoliations of the General Grant era" were not "'accidental' phenomena" but rather a "systematic, rational [and] organized…plundering" of the nation's coffers, organized by such men as the Senator-Bosses and given a free pass by the ineptitude of Grant. (127)

But, for all the talk on Northern corruption, Josephson hardly ventures below the Mason-Dixon line at all, spending very little time in his work discussing the central issue of Reconstruction. (Indeed, this is perhaps why Josephson finds so little fault with Bowers' earlier interpretation.) He does mention in passing that "in the matter of Reconstruction Grant continued the policy of 'holding down' the former rebels by military rule, and forcing steadily the adoption of the new Fifteenth Amendment." But here as in all other matters Grant "rarely moved without consulting Oliver Morton." (88-89) Moreover, Josephson does venture into some detail about Grant's attempted annexation of Santo Domingo, an event that later historians have described as a failed Reconstruction policy. (143. He asks, "the whole hinterland of our own United States still formed a huge, untouched colonial empire…Why then Santo Domingo?" Later historians, such as Frank Scaturro, would argue that Grant was interested in Santo Domingo not only for imperialist purposes but to have a primarily black-run society within the United States, on which freedmen could leverage their political opportunities in the South. Scaturro, President Grant Reconsidered, 69-70) But here, it is used solely to discuss the break between President Grant and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

In effect, while Josephson's primary emphasis on delineating "the differences between that which men say and that which they mean in politics" may be immensely useful in examining corruption, it holds less interpretive value for a situation like Reconstruction, when revolutionary as well as remunerative goals were at stake. (3)

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