At long last I have acted on my intention to investigate the Gilded Age, in order to find exactly how similar politics 140 years ago were to our own. My text has been a remarkable book, Twenty Years in Congress, 1861-1881, written by a distinguished participant, James G. Blaine of Maine, who came within an ace of becoming President himself in 1884 but lost by the votes of a few thousand New Yorkers and retired to write this most interesting history. There is no substitute, I have found, for investigating an era through the eyes of a participant, and Blaine combined an eye for character with a respect for primary sources, quoting the Congressional Globe and presidential addresses at great length. My read has tended to confirm that the similarities in the two eras are rather striking, largely because both are dominated by a mixture of partisanship and corruption.
I have skipped volume I for the moment and began in the wake of the Civil War, during the Presidency of Andrew Johnson, one which bears an uncomfortable similarity in some respects to the time we are passing through now. Johnson, a poor white from East Tennessee, was one of the greatest accidents in American history. A loyal union man and a "War Democrat," as they were known, he joined Abraham Lincoln on the "Unionist" (not Republican) ticket in 1864 to appeal to loyal Democrats and the border states. Like many upcountry southerners, he hated the planter class, but it turned out that he hated the newly freed slaves more. The large Republican majority in Congress was determined to preserve the results of the war by either reducing the representation of the Southern states, or by enfranchising the freedmen. The 14th amendment was written to do the first: it did not require Negro suffrage, as it was then called, but specifically promised to reduce the Congressional representation of states so as to reflect the number of voters they enfranchised. When the southern states, supported by President Johnson, refused to ratify the amendment, the Republican Congressional majority--which grew even larger in the 1866 elections--passed its own Reconstruction plan, putting the South under military rule and insisting that the southern states enfranchise Negroes in new Constitutions before they could send representatives to Congress again. Negro suffrage, sadly, was a measure well in advance of even northern opinion, and the radicals realized by 1867 that it had to be put into the Constitution in order to impose it upon the South. This the 15th Amendment did.
Johnson's dogged resistance to these measures was fully shared by the Democratic Party, northern as well as southern. In an odd echo of what we have been through for the last three years, not a single Democrat in Congress voted for either the 14th or 15th Amendments, nor did any Democratic-controlled legislatures ratify them. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress, with good reason, did not trust Johnson to use the executive branch's powers to carry out their policies, and in 1867 they passed the Tenure of Office Act, taking advantage of a Constitutional ambiguity to make the approval of the Senate mandatory to remove, as well as to appoint, federal officers. Utterly contrary to tradition and precedent, this measure was clearly unconstitutional, but the Republicans forced it through nonetheless, and it became the basis for Johnson's impeachment when he removed Secretary of War Stanton from office. The Republicans would have done much better to have impeached him for clearly attempting to subvert the laws that they had passed, but they preferred to rest their case on a technicality instead. Blaine by the time he wrote his book clearly recognized that the impeachment was a mistake, although he had voted for it as a member of the House at the time. In the end, thanks to some courageous Republicans, Johnson was acquitted by the Senate by the narrowest of margins. The Tenure of Office act controversy now parallels the battle over President Obama's recess appointments, which the Senate used parliamentary subterfuge to try to prevent.
Partisanship dominated nearly every major issue in this period. The Democrats, many of whom had never believed in the Civil War, wanted to pay off the enormous war debt in depreciated paper currency; this the Republicans refused to do, and they made impressive progress in paying it off even under Johnson. Even the admission of new western states was now pushed or rejected on partisan grounds, because they were thought to be likely to send more Republicans to the Senate and the House. Republicans often referred to "the Democracy," as it was then called, as the party of treason (another call they have taken up again), while Democrats referred to Republicans as the party of dictatorship and racial equality. It was probably fortunate that the nation had General Grant to turn to, since he could command some bipartisan support at least in the North. We have no such figure on the horizon today.
Yet I could not help noticing that despite the equally partisan divide, the Congress functioned infinitely more efficiently than it does now. The House routinely suspended its rules to rush through legislation (this required a 2/3 vote, which the Republicans could usually, but not always, get), and the filibuster seems to have been unknown even in the Senate. Committees worked quickly and efficiently--without any staff at all. The level of oratory was incomparably higher than it is today. And one senses, in speeches on all side, an acute sense that the United States was still a relatively young democratic experiment--many of the legislators, after all, would have known in their youth men and women old enough to remember the adoption of the Constitution--and an instinctive, continual resort to the first principles of Republican government. The average legislator today would find himself intellectually overmatched, should a time machine take him back 150 years.
The real issue in this period, as in the war itself, was the question of federal authority. Having strengthened it beyond imagination to win the war, the Republicans, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate, one of the few real heroes of the era, knew they must keep it strong to complete the work of the war. Only the continued occupation of the South by federal troops, even after states were re-admitted to the Union, gave the black citizenry and white Republicans (of which there were some!) any chance of exercising their franchise and securing their lives and property. The Ku Klux Klan was, very simply, a terrorist organization dedicated to re-imposing white rule by force, something it gradually managed to do. Meanwhile, Democrats North and South, and even some dissenting Republicans, argued that the Republican majority, and, after 1869, the Grant Administration, was maintaining a wartime despotism long after the time had come to restore peace. Grant won a big electoral victory in 1868, but Blaine points out that his margin was somewhat deceptive. Both New York and New Jersey voted for Horatio Seymour, the Democratic candidate, and Grant's margins in several other Democratic states were quite small. Although Grant remained personally committed to reconstruction, he was a much weaker President than he had been a general, and his Administration's corruption so undermined the confidence of many concerned citizens that he faced a liberal Republican revolt in 1872. The liberals nominated a titan of the Republican Party, the editor Horace Greeley, and the Democrats decided they had best support him. Greeley could not win their loyalty, however, and he went down to a much worse defeat than Seymour.
Turning back for a moment to the present day, the Republicans in the last four years have treated Barack Obama in the same way their ancestors treated Andrew Johnson--and, I would suggest, for the same two reasons. First, they see him as attempting to maintain an old order which they detest--the remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society. They prefer, of course, to argue that he is trying to impose a new order, socialism, but I suspect that in their hearts they know the truth. There is some truth in this, just as Andrew Johnson and the defeated white Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies meant to restore the supremacy both of the white race and the Democratic Party. But secondly, neither set of Republicans viewed, or views, the President as legitimate. Johnson they regarded as an apostate; Obama they regard as unfit, for various reasons, to sit in the White House. Having opposed everything he did for two years, and having been rewarded with control of the House of Representatives, they are now obstructing him at every turn, and doing their best, too, to deny the Presidential appointing power by refusing to confirm his nominees, regardless of their impact upon the ability of the federal government even to function. George Will, who evidently realizes that Obama has a good chance of being re-elected, calls for four more years of total obstructionism in his last column of the year.
It has now become clear to me that the United States has enjoyed only two eras of genuine political consensus in its history: from 1800 to 1824 (although in some respects that consensus persisted into the 1830s), and from about 1941 until about 1968 (although in some respects that consensus lasted at least until the 1980s.) The earlier consensus was built around white manhood suffrage, expansion into the Northwest, and attempts to keep slavery where it was. The second was based upon the New Deal and the United States' new world role. The Civil War and Reconstruction proved that the nation could pass through one of its periodic crises without creating a real consensus or even strengthening the federal government. The executive branch did not recover from the Presidency of Johnson until Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson. There is every reason to think that those of us in our sixties will not live to see a genuine consensus established again, and that the executive will continue to grow weaker for at least the next decade.
The issue of corruption at all levels of government, combined with serious economic inequality, eventually brought about the Progressive era, more than thirty years after the end of the Civil War. We too may have to wait for decades before we set about fixing government and, perhaps, restoring some of the role it played in the economy in the middle of the twentieth century. In any case, the trends of that era were clearly not fated to continue indefinitely. We have moved into a new era, one sadly reminiscent of the Gilded Age, few of whose politicians have gone down as heroic figures.