Author Interview--LeeAnna Keith (When It Was Grand) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with LeeAnna Keith to talk about her new book When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War, published by Hill and Wang.

Part 1

I certainly agree that Lincoln was quite a manipulator. And you mention a few African American who had contact with Lincoln, how do African Americans fit in with the Radical Republicans? Are they treated as equal partners?

LAK: There were Black Republicans from the earliest months and years of the party, though they were few because Black voters were few, voting rights having been extended sparingly and mostly in the states with small Black populations.  Two notables are John Mercer Langston, who held an elected town office in Oberlin, Ohio, and took part in a very integrated Radical political project centered on Oberlin College, and Lewis Hayden, a militant Boston abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator, who was not elected but who was employed by the Republican-dominated state legislature in an executive position.  

Frederick Douglass, John S. Rock, Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, Tunis Campbell, Thomas Downing and his son George T. Downing, and other prominent future Republicans mostly withheld their endorsement from Republicans until well into the Civil War.  In their Colored Conventions in 1860 and afterward, they expressed deep reservations about the depth of the party’s commitment to Black interests.  Rock, who worked pretty closely with Republicans even in the 1850s, once said in a speech that “whenever the colored man is elevated, it will be by his own exertions,” not the work of white allies.

As the Civil War progresses the number of Black Republicans increases exponentially.  For one thing, Black northerners who enlist or serve as recruiters become agents of the Lincoln administration, ultimately bringing Frederick Douglass, Henry McNeal Turner, and Martin Delany into the fold.  Some of the most important postwar Radicals became prominent in southern districts as adjuncts of military operations, especially a cadre of African Methodist Episcopal missionaries who traveled with the army and obtained military requisitions of facilities in which to found new Black church congregations.  Radicals in this category include James W. Lynch and Richard “Big Daddy” Cain, the founder of the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.

By war’s end a core of Black Republicans was thriving in the former Department of the South -- especially in Low Country Georgia and South Carolina, and another in Mississippi, centered on the confiscated plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother.  The newly-established Freedmen’s Bureau was already creating jobs and offering encouragement and some protection for aspiring southern Black Republican voters and officeholders.

White Radical Republicans were very passionate about their feelings of admiration and sympathy for African Americans generally and for their wartime military collaborators in particular.  They would be workhorses for racial justice during Reconstruction, acting as true believers and not just as a party that would benefit from Black votes.  Most of the ones I describe in When It Was Grand never betrayed that trust, even after they became politically ineffective in their cause.  They wrote letters of recommendation and pension affidavits for friends and USCT veterans for the rest of their lives -- such as those that helped Harriet Tubman obtain a Union Army pension in her old age.

But Republicans as a whole did not remain committed to full political participation by African Americans, a proposition they found too costly in an era of white riots and KKK electioneering.  Black voting did not end all at once, but the rapid diminishment of its electoral impact in the South allowed Republicans to step away easily in the late 19th century.  Democrats had become so openly aligned with racism that Republicans could still present themselves as the heirs to the Black-white alliance of the Civil War and Reconstruction -- even as they did less and less and later nothing and worse than nothing for Black constituents.

Let me change direction slightly to your section on the 1864 election, which because of my own work on Theodor Olshausen I was particularly interested in. The chance of a Lincoln-Fremont-McClellan election seems extremely dangerous, but why would Radicals risk electoral defeat for their agenda?

LAK: The 1864 presidential election is one of the most difficult to comprehend of all elections, since few people today can imagine why northerners would risk changing the executive during wartime, much less pushing aside one of the most admired U.S. presidents for a schemer like John C. Fremont.  The move to replace Lincoln as the head of the Republican ticket that year was one of the most dramatic Radical political initiatives and by my lights it was a key example of their not recognizing the big picture, a theme in their long underestimation of Abraham Lincoln.  Radical Republicans lobbying for and legislating equal pay for Black troops, Black officers’ commissions, and draconian consequences for assaults on USCT prisoners of war performed important service, but their labors formed part of a broader revolution in which the U.S. armed forces and the Treasury Department led the way, supported ably by the president’s nimble thinking.  As Henry Thoreau had said of the Republicans after the Harper’s Ferry disaster, “You don’t know your testament when you see it.”

Because the spring and summer of 1864 was even more dire than that of 2020, though, Radicals can be forgiven for being cranky, especially since they called off their insurgency in good time.

I love the story of the German Americans and their enthusiasm for Fremont.  As someone who lived in Germany for a while I like the cultural element, the way Fremont won the hearts of Germans in St. Louis with continental gestures like hiring a German chef and establishing a first-class German-style military band.  I enjoyed reading about the pro-Fremont conventions at German clubs and restaurants in NYC and thinking about what everyone was eating.  As you note in your book, the Germans were an influential Radical faction and they did not forget Fremont’s grand antislavery gesture in 1861.  Add in his Pathfinder and California identities and the guy practically embodied the German idea of the United States as the wide-open land of  “unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten.”

Cultural affinities aside, though, I think it was very bad politics.  Fremont was a big intellectual zero willing to sell out to northern conservatives to win and the only other serious candidate to replace Lincoln in 1864 was Benjamin Butler, who had impulse control problems.  As you say, there had never been a more dangerous moment.

You mention the parallel between 1864 and 2020 and I do want to probe that topic a little more. Obviously you mention that it took a while to write this book and you could not foresee what is happening currently. I noticed that you at one point used a very modern terminology with "white privilege"? At the same time, writing about Radical Republicans when the Republican Party has gone into unprecedented territory, how can your work give us some hope for the future?

LAK: Hmm, I don’t think I used the exact phrase white privilege in the book, though it’s a concept that is relevant to the story of the Republicans, particularly in the party establishment’s willingness to abandon Reconstruction.  I would say I saw a few examples of white awareness of the greater dangers faced by Black compatriots in the struggle, such as when Allan Pinkerton housed black fugitives at his house in Chicago near the close of John Brown’s historic raid and winter flight across the northwest, while assigning John Brown and his white paramilitaries to stay in the home of Black Underground Railroad associates, John and Mary Jones, after weighing the relative advantages and exposures of all participants.  Radical Republicans who sponsored John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry (and the captain, too) perceived white privilege in a way that anticipated the need for self-sacrifice in the Civil War generation.  To quote Thoreau again, Brown “advertises me there is such a fact as death” -- and not just for Black people.

I do make suggestions here and there in the book that frame events in modern terms.  Some elements of the story seemed to cry out for the observation that “Black is Beautiful” or that a proposition sought “to Make America Great,” and more than once I caught historical actors wishing out loud that there was something that functioned like the internet.  

I have been accused of presentism -- in fact, of a hit job against Trump Republicans -- in a review by a Prager University affiliate, but I think you will agree that my book is firmly about the past.  This particular reviewer seemed especially to take exception to the title When It Was Grand, which actually adhered to the book well before Donald Trump’s candidacy and disastrous presidency.  In less partisan times, I think it would be more clear that I am referencing a time that Republicans celebrate when they employ the nickname Grand Old Party.

That said, there is a lot of resonance between events of the 1850s and 1860s and today.  Some of the sense of moral absolutism of the old times lives in party divides today, some of the risk-taking by partisans.  We have not resolved core issues about race and citizenship and personal security that they wrestled in Civil War and Reconstruction.  Mostly I tried not to comment in a way that interrupted the narrative with references to the present, though some associations to current events are unavoidable for readers.  

In any event, I don’t think the Civil War Radicals were forerunners of only one set of today’s political actors.  You can read them as lefties in their humanitarianism, relative openness to feminism, vegetarianism and similar practices but you can’t deny that Radical Republicans stockpiled and used weapons like today’s right-wing militias, and that they hated Big Federal Government intervention on behalf of slaveholding as much as any anti-vaxer or Drain the Swamper.

The good news, if there is any, is that events of the 1850s were actually much worse than today’s trends, with more physical violence and more consequent apocalyptic talk about disunion and the collapse of democracy.

To close the interview, I am curious what you think your next project will be, are you going to stay with the Civil War era or make a jump into a different period?

LAK: I have been so happy not writing a book that I may never go back there!  My scholarly pleasure today has been reorganizing my thoughts from When It Was Grand for promotional events -- those that haven’t been sidelined by the coronavirus, that is.  I love the many local history angles on the story of the Radical Republicans, and I find myself retracing my research steps in the wee hours whenever I get a new assignment.

I also think about a list of “20 Essential Reconstruction Sites” I compiled in collaboration with the National Parks Service.  Can I write a history book that also features tips on local barbeque and plate-lunch restaurants?  My agent is not so sure.

My kids are still young, and after I have enjoyed their company some more, watched some TV for a change, and taken a dozen or so kayak rides I am going to give the idea of a new book some fuller consideration.  The dog votes yes to whatever keeps me at home.