The Great Betrayal

In his formal acceptance of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant concluded with four words that struck a deep chord with voters: “Let us have peace.”1 For more than twenty years the country had been racked by conflict over slavery and its aftermath: fistfights in Congress, the clubbing to insensibility of an antislavery Massachusetts senator by a proslavery South Carolina congressman on the floor of the Senate, a small civil war between proslavery and antislavery settlers in Kansas Territory in which hundreds were killed, and John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, a failed effort to foment a slave uprising, had all foreshadowed the huge Civil War in which more than 620,000 Americans were killed. In the three years since that war ceased, a new political battle between president and Congress had culminated in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and his escape from conviction by a single vote. General Grant had hoped that his generous surrender terms at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, would bring the bloodletting to an end. But the nation soon learned that the cessation of active war did not necessarily mean the inauguration of peace.

The American Civil War illustrated the famous aphorism of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of politics by other means. In 1865 Americans would discover, as they did again in Iraq 138 years later, what we might describe as a corollary to Clausewitz: postwar reconstruction policy is a continuation of war by other (but distressingly similar) means. Violent resistance by ex-Confederates to the efforts of Congress to reconstruct the South on the basis of equal civil and political rights for freed slaves produced a level of “peacetime” violence unparalleled in American history until the Iraq adventure. In Louisiana alone, shadowy groups including one known as the Knights of the White Camellia killed more than two thousand people, most of them black, during the three years between Appomattox and Grant’s nomination for president. In several other states, terrorist guerrilla forces composed mainly of former Confederate soldiers and calling themselves by such names as the Ku Klux Klan killed hundreds more.2 Little wonder that people longed for surcease from constant strife and crisis. “Let us have peace,” echoed many newspapers when they published Grant’s acceptance letter. If anyone could win the peace, they hoped, it was the man who had won the war.

In 1870 and 1871 Congress enacted three laws to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments granting equal civil and political rights to freed people. Grant proceeded to enforce these laws with federal marshals and United States courts backed by federal troops if necessary. One of these laws (popularly called the Ku Klux Klan Act) gave the president authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in order to jail terrorists without trial in Southern states if he deemed it necessary. Mindful of opposition charges of military dictatorship and “Caesarism,” Grant used this power sparingly. But his…

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