From Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction:
Even more outrageous than Tweed … was Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who flamboyantly supported causes that appalled reformers such as the eight-hour day, inflation, and payment of the national debt in greenbacks. He further horrified respectable opinion by embracing women’s suffrage, Irish nationalism, and the Paris Commune.
Or, as a horrified Nation put it, Butlerism was
the embodiment in political organization of a desire for the transfer of power to the ignorant and poor, and the use of government to carry out the poor and ignorant man’s view of the nature of society.
Labor law, inflation, women’s rights, anti-imperialism, and small-c communism, not to mention government by the poor? We could use a little more of that 1870s spirit today. People on the left who want to central banks to do more, in particular, could talk more about loose money’s radical pedigree.
So who was this guy? The internet is mainly interested in his Civil War career. Made a general on the basis of his pro-union, anti-slavery politics, he was, not surprisingly, pretty crap at it; but it does appear that he was the first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and the first to successfully enlist black troops in the South. That was enough for Jefferson Davis to order that if he were captured, he should be executed on the spot. So he didn’t know how to lead a cavalry charge; sounds like a war hero to me.
In the current Jacobin (which everyone should be reading), Seth Ackerman offers emancipation and Reconstruction as a usable past for the Occupy left, unfavorably contrasting “the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison” with the pragmatic abolitionists who
saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals. At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites.
Today’s left, he suggests, could learn from this marriage of radical commitments and practical politics. Absolutely right.
There is, though, a problem: Reconstruction wasn’t just defeated in the South, it was abandoned by the North, largely by these same practical politicians, whose liberalism was transposed in just a few years from the key of anti-slavery to the key of “free trade, the law of supply and demand, the gold standard and limited government” (that’s Foner again), and who turned out to be less frightened by the restoration of white supremacy in the South than by “schemes for interference with property.”
If we must, as we must, “conjure up the spirits of the past …, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language,” then certainly, we could do worse than the Civil-War era Republicans who successfully yoked liberalism to the cause of emancipation (though I’m not sure why Seth name-checks Salmon P. Chase, an early opponent of Reconstruction). But personally, I’d prefer to dress up as a populist who continued to support the rights of working people even after liberalism had decisively gone its own way, and who ended up representing “all that the liberals considered unwholesome in American politics.” Anybody for a revival of Butlerism?