The Right to Alter or Abolish: An Alternate Postbellum United States

The Unpopular Election of James G. Blaine
The Unpopular Election of James G. Blaine
Excerpt from As The Flower of the Grass: The Post-Bellum
James G. Blaine was a talented politician and his nomination to the Presidency of the United States was a foregone conclusion when he arrived to the convention.[1] The Republican Party had dominated the post-war period without ambiguity, but the Long Depression of the seventies was a bitter pill for many. It had been going for nearly Grant’s entire second term and it showed no sign of abating. Into this field stepped the Democratic Party, eager for a chance to reassert itself on the national stage, and smart enough to nominate Samuel J. Tilden, a talented candidate with anti-slavery bonafides, for the position.

The election was an extremely high turnout affair and it was widely felt, rightly, that this was an election that could determine the course of the nation. Among those eligible to vote, over eighty percent turned out to vote. Democracy and two-party competition had returned to America, the days of once more settling political differences through the standard order on the happy occasion of equality.

That was the story the North told itself, any way. For the white South, it was a chance to redeem a sullied honor and restore white supremacy and end the rule of the “Black Republicans” in whatever states they dared hold any office. For the freedmen of the south, it was a time of racial terror – Paramilitaries like the Ku Klux Klan, White Army, and Red Shirts murdered across the South to establish White Supremacy. The fraud and intimidation were very widespread, so that we cannot say with any surety who would have won in a fair election.

When all the votes were counted, the people of the United States delivered their approval to Samuel J. Tilden in a narrow majority of 50.2% of the popular vote. The only problem for the Democrat was that the laws of the United States did not agree. Thanks to the archaic electoral college, the man with the most votes did not become President.

South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida delivered conflicting messages to the national election, igniting an uproar and infuriating Blaine, but it didn’t matter. By the thinnest of margins, Blaine had secured Indiana to the embarrassment of Hendricks, Tilden’s running mate and Indiana’s governor, and the state of Ohio.[2] By constitutional mandate, James G. Blaine was President of the United States.

The South erupted. The twelve years since the Secessionist War left the south looking to salve its wounded honor and to overthrow the Yankee yoke. The fury over the anti-democratic election of Blaine exacerbated the white terror even as the northern will for repression of reaction in the south was not high, especially as domestic troubles grew worse. The Long Depression was sapping northern will and the cause of the American Civil War was increasingly distant in the rearview mirror. The Bloody Shirt, Republican’s critics decried, could not be waved forever.

The will of northern whites may have been fading but Blaine believed he had been robbed of votes and there are few so dangerous as a politician who thinks people have stolen votes from him. The protections that Blaine’s fury afforded the southern Republican voters should not be exaggerated. Even at the time, Florida still had a Democratic governor – One who would institute the convict lease system, neatly restoring forced labor to the South.[3] But for a few years, the continued presence of the U.S. federal troops managed to protect South Carolina and Louisiana’s Republican governments, providing them with much needed support in their political conflicts, and two majority Black states continued to have democracy. Perhaps it was not good politics, but Blaine’s defense of these two governments stand out as some of the more honorable deeds of his administration.

If the explosion of southern resentments had been the only problem to beset Blaine in his first year, this would have been a nasty problem. Yet this was not the only problem within the Long Depression over which Blaine was forced to preside. Very shortly, he found he was facing unrest on two fronts. Contrary to some popular history, the Railroad Strike of 1877 was not caused by the anti-democratic election of James G. Blaine to the presidency without the popular vote – Even if it was, in part, exacerbated by it. Blaine and his administration were new and mostly tied up in attempting to rescue the southern patronage networks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana from the forces of racial reaction.

The rolling economic crisis that had delivered the popular vote, if not the Presidency, to the Democratic Party did not vanish with Blaine’s ascension to the Presidency. Wages had fallen by nearly half in a matter of years and the end of the Long Depression was still two years away. Workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia rose to fight the power of capital and soon found themselves joined by other workers across the Union.

This brief outpouring of labor spirit was not organized by any particular movement – National Labor had collapsed in the early eighteen seventies. Neither the Knights of Labor, still in an embryonic state, nor The Workingmen’s Party played a significant part in commencing the first battle in the class conflict. It was simply the will of people to be free and to possess a life worthy of their humanity that provoked the protests.

It is difficult to say if Blaine’s response was mainly motivated by his long and cozy relationship with the railroad companies or if his instincts were rendered severe by his southern troubles. Whatever the case, Blaine encouraged harsh repression on the part of the Republican governors and, newly triumphant in the face of an incredibly difficult political year, he got it. Many died in the initial wave of repression and many more were subject to ignominious and illegitimate prosecutions and even convictions.
The earliest cadres of the American socialist left were born from this repression. Albert Parsons declared in later life that, “there is no school for socialism that can match the jail house.”[4] It certainly worked out for him, as he won election for County Clerk after being found innocent.[5] Not everyone charged was cleared nor was everyone charged innocent - the St. Louis leadership would spend nearly a decade in prison. It was not only victims of the repression who found the experience enlightening as to the nature of capitalism. Perhaps most famously, Francis Willard would receive a pamphlet describing the trial of the St. Louis martyrs and the cause of socialism and find herself a convert.[6]

For those at the time though, these revolutionary seeds were invisible. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 went down in inglorious defeat. The St. Louis strike committee faced hangings and working men across the country languished in jail on charges of criminal conspiracy. Wages remained low, the railroads survived with some consolidation, and the government got to enjoy a brief boost in popularity for quelling disorder in the north.

In the South, Blaine’s troubles were still only just beginning. It may be difficult to imagine now, but the cause of White Supremacy was once as dear to the heart of Dixie as any holy cause. They had fought a war for it, their men had died for it, and they would not give it up willingly. South Carolina and Louisiana were awash in white supremacist violence. The Department of Justice was doing its best with what limited funds it had, but a reluctant Congress often failed to requisition adequate funds.

On top of all this, an election year was coming and the economy was still in a tailspin and the Greenbacks were about to burst on the scene.

[1] The point of divergence for this timeline is the absence of the Mulligan Letters and the ascension of James G. Blaine to the nomination.
[2] Hayes lost Connecticut and Indiana in OTL, whereas here Blaine did not. But to the author, the two states that put Blaine over the line are Indiana (where he overperformed Hayes in OTL) and Ohio (where he really did scrape by on a razor thin margin, losing nearly a point from Hayes’ home state advantage). This makes his lead in the electoral vote insurmountable on the basis of the contested four states, which only add up to twenty.
[3] Historically, all three states flipped and the governor of Florida really did this. But without the compromise of 1877, Blaine is able to endorse the Republican governments whole-heartedly with military backing.
[4] There are so many examples of this sort of phenomenon in real life history, where prison sentences or jail time radicalize those imprisoned. In American Socialism, there is Eugene V. Debs.
[5] Rumors that Parsons was arrested occurred in OTL, but it didn’t happen. Here, it did, and after the case wound its way through court, the city lost the case.
[6] Willard was a Fabian socialist in her later life, her conversion here is substantially earlier due to the harshness of the repression. She’s not yet as safely ensconced in her position in the WCTU, however, so she likely will not be vocally announcing it immediately.
 
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Innnteresting. I will be following this! I like some of the hints you've given about where the U.S. will be going in the future, and am quite curious to see how those play out...
 

dcharles

Banned
Very good! You actually managed to make a simple survey of events into an interesting post--not always easy to do. I'll be watching to see where it goes.
 
Blaine's Solution To The Nation's Troubles
Blaine’s Solutions To the Nation’s Troubles
Excerpt from American Dominion: The United States in the Western Hemisphere
Blaine was a convicted Republican, rightfully furious at the illegitimate coup attempts by southern redeemers and concerned with the welfare of freedmen in the South. But he was well aware of the economic problems of his period and that a solution to these problems was vital to holding office and fending off, “those rebel brigands who believe they may steal the peace.” Blaine’s solution to this problem, like much of his administration and career, focused on foreign policy.

Now more remembered for his domestic troubles, Blaine’s foreign policy was as serious as it was ingenious. It formed the basis for nearly all subsequent Republican administrations’ theory of international politics. Blaine’s vision of imperial success was serious, straightforward, and supremely ambitious. He wanted to elevate the United States over Great Britain by uniting the Western Hemisphere in a U.S.-led democratic alliance that provided America with a market for its goods.[1]

The Panic of 1873 was in some sense a product of capital shortfall in Europe and North America. On the merits, Blaine’s diagnosis does not seem to this author to be true. He believed that The Panic of 1873 was a crisis of overproduction – Americans had simply become too adept at producing materials, causing a shortfall when demand failed to meet supply. The solution, therefore, was finding a new export market for domestic farm and manufactured goods. Delving into heavy research, Blaine was determined that he must find a market for America’s domestic production. After considering a variety of options, Blaine introduced to Congress a plan was to underwrite the merchant marine of the United States with an eye towards Brazil’s market.[2] Brazil had escaped the Panic of 1873, the United States had an unfavorable trade balance with them, and most Brazil-U.S. trade was conducted by British merchant vessels. By raising a new merchant marine, Blaine hoped to provide employment, invigorate U.S. domestic industry and export market, and undercut British hegemony in one stroke.

A master of parliamentary procedure, Blaine used his experience as Speaker of the House to shepherd the bill through Congress. Subsidies were granted to several shipbuilders and ports. Although likely the product of illegitimate intimidation and directly at odds with federal occupation, Louisiana Democrats became a crucial piece in passing the bill – Convincing the deeply partisan southern Democrats to give Blaine’s plan a chance. A brief fracas over the bill’s overly close relationship with John Roach[3] was stamped down in the name of meeting the ongoing economic crisis and a few more pieces of pork for southern planters.

The merchant marine on a path to strong growth, Blaine turned his attention towards China and Chinese immigrants. Blaine’s harsh conduct with labor in the summer of 1877 leads many modern commentators to believe that Blaine’s stated concern for American workingmen being undercut was insincere and that the effort he made with China was sheer opportunism. There is no need to be so skeptical – Blaine, a lifelong capitalist in both the ideological and economic sense, truly believed he was acting in the best interests of labor in protecting industry during the strike. Likewise, while he was ahead of his times in his concern for the freedmen of the South, Blaine was still a deeply racist human being – An ardent partisan of Anglo-Saxonism, he believed that maintaining a majority Anglo-Saxon population was crucial to the United States’ future greatness. He privately wrote that if favorable results were not returned in the negotiations with China, he would breach the treaty (and by extension sully America’s word on the international stage) rather than “surrender our Pacific slopes” to the Chinese.[4]

Taking substantial losses in trade to achieve it, Blaine’s delegation to China returned with permission to bring an end to Chinese immigration for ten years. The objection of U.S. honor no longer salient, the Chinese Exclusion Act sailed through Congress and brought an end to migration from China for the next ten years. This was all viewed with some shock and horror among liberal supporters of the Republican Party. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union would condemn the decision, calling it “a scandal to Christian love” while alleging it sought “to protect the hand by cutting off the foot.”[5] But for all their frustration, the immigration liberals had no leverage over Blaine – Blaine was an expert in the prejudices and convictions of the WASP base of the Republican Party. But Blaine’s own racism had something of an upside from a modern perspective – He remained a staunch opponent of imperial expansion to the south of the Rio Grande, both for racial reasons and as reflex from his time antagonizing and opposing the expansion of the Slave Power.

A strong currency to enable international trade, a growing merchant marine to undercut British triangular trade, a trading partner relatively unmarred by the Panic, and an immigration policy that prioritized Anglo-Saxon immigrants.[6] This was Blaine’s prescription for the sickness of the Long Depression and to rescue his party, yes, but it was also intended as the basis on which America would rise to fulfill its destiny as a world power.

[1] Blaine passed these ideas on to his pupils IOTL and they were implemented much later. Here, they get an early start.

[2] This was something of bete noir of OTL Blaine. The U.S. did, historically, recover (at least in part) on the backs of its agricultural exports.

[3] This is what killed the early version of the bill IOTL, but here Blaine has no corruption scandal and is looking to shore up Louisiana’s Republican governor while Louisiana’s Democrats are looking to shore themselves up with their own constituency.

[4] This quote leaves out what Blaine almost certainly would have called them.

[5] The Prohibition Party, which Francis Willard was a member of, called for “a friendly and liberal policy to immigrants from all nations” in 1876. Her position here is unchanged.

[6] Also Protestants. Again, Blaine’s just a very normal WASP from this period on these questions.
 
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The Greenback Party's Moment in the Sun
The Greenback Party's Moment in the Sun
Monopoly Capital in A Yeoman Republic
The Long Depression, as it is customarily known, was nearly a fatal blow to the Republican Party. Even in the occupied states of the South, where Blaine and the Union army were expending substantial political capital maintaining democracy, the squeeze of a five year depression was beginning to threaten what should have been strongholds on democratic (if not pragmatic) terms. In the North, the repression of the Great Railroad Strike had not stoked warm feelings for the Republican Party among laborers. Blaine, himself a speculator and capitalist, had come down decisively on the side of capital and consolidation. Labor was furious and it had nowhere to turn.

The only real advantage that Republicans had, which should not be understated, is that their primary rival for national power at the time was the reactionary Democratic Party who had, in living memory, set the whole nation ablaze in war. Indeed, even as late as 1878, there was still recalcitrant, white supremacist violence in the South trying to bring an end to democracy.

From Kansas to Maine, the reforming forces of the Republican Party were in a foul mood. The repression of labor was at odds with the cause of the free soil movement and Blaine, for his part, was not well-positioned to moderate it. Though he would eventually win back much of labor through a restriction of labor supply, Blaine – constrained by his foreign policy[1] – was not able to do so immediately.

Whites in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida had done their best to finish the “redemption” of the south and the rebuke against them was constantly hampered by a Democratic congress eager to seat allies and bring an end to the occupation of the South. Even where democracy persisted in the south, Black sharecroppers, burdened by the developing lien system and deflationary monetary policy, were not seeing material gains that matched their political ones.

Ideological competition, once centered around the question of abolition, was in abatement. Primarily conciliatory to capital, the Democratic Party Platform called for the return of specie just as much as the Republican Party Platform.[2] Tight monetary policy, embraced by both parties,[3] inevitably favors those who possess wealth, especially in the context of potential depreciation of currency value, by contributing to the natural tendency of capital to accrue to itself. Opposition to tariff, popular in industrial centers that sold tools and unfavorable among farmers who bought them, did at least make the Democrats favorable to the interests of farmers and rural populations.

Where interests are not represented, politicians see opportunities. The Greenback Party stepped into this void and delivered defeats to both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Other independents ran, such as the Independent Democrats or Republicans of various states, and labor parties parties put up candidates – Including Clitus Barbour of the Workingmen’s Party in San Francisco.[4] But it was the Greenbacks who achieved the longest reach.

The factors that led to the brief, meteoric rise of the Greenback Party were too early for any permanent success. The Greenback Party came before the grange associations and Knights of Labor had come into their full strength, though most had been established by 1878. Without any kind of organized base, it was always going to be subject reabsorption by the parties from which it had come. But the movement would show the way forward for the left wing in two major ways. Firstly, it addressed itself to the unmet need of farm laborers and urban workers alike. Secondly, it would spark the beginning of the fusionist politics which would mark the last twenty years of the nineteenth century.

As consolidation had begun to rise in the American North and South, the small-holders of the country suffered the burden of land consolidation. Sharecropping was the norm in the American south, weighing down on individuals who’s great dream was the ownership of a small piece of land for themselves. These sharecroppers were often burdened with loans that were difficult to pay in a period of decreasing monetary supply, which reduced them to a form of de facto serfdom from which they could not escape.

The belief that a monetary policy in primacy could fix this, even in adjunction to other policies, was likely naive. Even extreme inflationary regimes do not end all interest with the wave of a hand.

Alienated urban labor also found its way to the Greenbacks in light of the strikes, including an embarrassing three seats from Blaine’s home state of Maine. But the Greenbacks were not all bad news for the Republicans – They picked up seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia, chipping away at the Democratic caucus as well as the Republican one.[5]

The most important aspect of the Greenback campaign, however, may be the fusionism it produced largely by accident in the south. This was most obvious in South Carolina. In the election of ‘76, Democrats had been divided over whether to form a fusionist government with Governor Chamberlain. In the election of ‘78, they actually did divide over it. Those Democrats who opposed the Straightouts[6] and their redshirt tactics were convinced that violence was not going to prove effective. Defecting to the Greenbacks, these Democrats were able to negotiate with Chamberlain to form a fusionist ticket.

It may seem strange for Republicans form an alliance with a party largely created by Northern repression by the Republican Party, but in defense of democracy and their own office, the Republicans went for it. Chamberlain, for his part, was terrified of the near open war that South Carolina had degenerated into two years prior and came to terms with forming a reformist government in alliance with the Greenbacks.

Bolstered by the win Baine delivered for them in Congress, the Louisiana Democrats had no such crisis of conscience. Governor Packard continued to try desperately to hold onto his party and some measure of patronage allowed him to keep one single Republican representative, but boxed him out from any reformist position that would allow him to co-opt the local reformist elements. Florida, for its part, gave both of its representatives to the Democrats. The era of reconstruction was closing, with or without federal removal of troops.


[1] The China mission returned with success in ‘79.
[2] Both parties embrace somewhat weasel-mouthed answers on the trade in public.
[3] The Democrats actually believed that the 1875 Specie act was an inflationary policy. Republicans were, generally speaking, aggressive goldbugs. It was a disaster for small-holders and farmers, all around.
[4] Clitus Barbour is a real candidate and, whatever his ideology, definitely won in this timeline. The Workingmen’s Party
[5] William H. Felton defects from being an Independent Democrat to the Greenbacks here. Missouri and Alabama unchanged. The Greenbacks pick up a seat with Milton L. Rice in Arkansas. They pick up a Greenback in Massachusetts.
[6] IOTL, the “Fusion slate with the Republican governor” faction lost 88-60 to the Straightouts, the “Open White Supremacy in a majority Black state” faction. Here, they’re pretty mad about the fact that they did all that and lost, but are hoping to avoid a hat in hand situation.
 
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