Bring Back Butlerism

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?

20 thoughts on “Bring Back Butlerism”

  1. Good food for thought, as always, Josh. There's one problem with adopting Benjamin Butler, though. Before the war he was a doughface Democrat who supported Jefferson Davis for president in 1860.

    You're right about Chase — I was just trying to list the most important political abolitionists, not necessarily the best ones.

    And I don't really see those political abolitionists as "practical politicians" in any ordinary sense. The practical politicians were the Whigs who claimed they could do more to end slavery by working within the two-party system. The guys who split off and formed third parties were more idealists.

    As for the postwar turn of liberalism from abolition to Manchesterism: I think a major reason we have so few historical role models who were consistent on both sides of the war is due to the internal dynamics of the labor movement. And that has a lot to do with the effect of Irish immigration in the 1840s.

  2. I should have known better than to argue with a historian about this stuff. You know way more about all this than I do. Really, I just loved the mix of stuff Butler was for in the 1870s, and how mad he made the liberals.

    That's a very interesting point about the lack of overlap between the supporters of "free labor" who were consistently anti-slavery before the war, and the ones who were consistently pro-labor after it. Don't know enough to say anything intelligent about the role immigration and changes in the labor movement played in that divide, tho I'm sure you're right it was important. But, isn't the the internal logic of liberalism part of the story too?

    I don't really see those political abolitionists as "practical politicians" in any ordinary sense. The practical politicians were the Whigs

    OK. But the comparison in your piece wasn't with them, it was with Garrison. Which, compared with him they were, right?

  3. It's definitely part of the internal logic of liberalism. But I suspect if you did a comparative history using Britain as counterexample, you'd find more of a clearly articulated *split* within liberalism over there — a classical vs. New Liberalism split that would eventually make possible the kind of very ambitious pro-labor Liberal program that Keynes endorsed in the 20's. In the U.S. that split within liberalism never really happened at the national level until well into the 20th century. And I think the weakness of the labor movement is the key variable.

    You're definitely right about the political abolitionists being practical pols compared to Garrison: he was the original lifestyle anarchist. (Actually that's a little unfair, but only a little.) But he was even worse on the labor question! The first issue of The Liberator carried a Tea Party-style rant against unions and class envy.

  4. I should add that the one famous exception who was good on both sides of the war was Wendell Phillips, to whom Hofstadter devotes a chapter of The American Political Tradition. But he was such a maverick and gadfly that he sort of proves the rule.

  5. Butler was a crook. His brother grew rich while New Orleans was under martial law. If memory serves me, all the bread sold in the city had to pass through this fellow's hands. I'd have to find the book. Online sources tend to focus on the "woman order", which in the end is probably what set him apart from the general run of profiteers — the sort of men who are, if not the heart, then the head of any war effort.

    Reconstruction was similarly opportunistic. The spoils to the victor were, in this case, massive railroad-building programs forced upon the southern states by reconstituted state legislatures, and paid for by a combination of debt and taxes. Railroad concerns, northeastern industry, party machines and migrant land speculators made a good time of it until the panic of 1873 overturned the punchbowl. Reconstruction was abandoned because the business model failed.

    Undoubtedly the South deserved what it got; which in turn seems like the sort of justification to appeal to the run of historians occupying Zuccotti park. You'll have your work cut out for you, though, if you wish to turn Butler into a priest – or Reconstruction into a Marseillaise.

    1. You will not be surprised that my attitude to the ladies of New Orleans and the rest of their class is Fuck em. Which, come to think of it is also my attitude to anyone who thinks of Reconstruction was about corrupt railroad contracts, as opposed to a level democracy and the rule of law which the South wouldn't see again for another 100 years; or who writes "the business model failed" to describe duly elected governments being violently overthrown by some of the vilest characters this country has produced.

  6. If the anti-slavery politicians, who founded the Republican Party, could be consulted about our current political dynamics, they would probably advise our ambitious young leftists to find ways to co-opt and annex much of the populist anger supporting the Tea Party, and to not be any too scrupulous about overtones of "racism" in the process.

    The potato famine and the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe sent a massive wave of immigration to the U.S., and hostility to German and (especially) Irish immigrants was a huge factor in the politics of many states, including Butler's Massachusetts. For a time, the American (Know-Nothing) Party seemed likely to supplant the Whigs as the country's second Party and was the strongest force in Massachusetts. Hostility to the hard-drinking German and Irish immigrants blended with a growing temperance movement, which sought to severely limit alcohol.

    The founders of the Republican Party were neither sympathetic to the anti-immigrant rhetoric nor particularly temperate, but they systematically and deliberately sought to subvert both to the new Republican cause. One might think that the authoritarianism of an anti-immigrant movement might not be fertile grounds for antislavery, but they were not that scrupulous or unimaginative.

    The full spectrum of antislavery sentiment had always run from the principled and high-minded pacifist Garrison to the frankly racist and violent Cassius Clay, and the nascent Republicans excluded no one and no argument, in their attempt to assemble a coalition against the Democrats, in the wake of the slow collapse of the aging Whigs. In Massachusetts, where it was strongest and threatened to dominate the state, Henry Wilson joined the American Party, and quickly subverted its leadership, gaining a U.S. Senate seat from the legislature in 1855, which he retained for the Republicans in three subsequent elections.

    While some Republicans were consolidating the support of those hostile to immigrants, other Republicans were courting the support of large German communities, especially in Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois. Abraham Lincoln secretly owned a German-language newspaper, but also subtly built a reputation for temperance. (When the Republican delegation arrived at his house, to offer him his Party's nomination for President, he kept them waiting on the porch, while he had a noisy argument with his wife over whether they would be offered liquor or only ice water from her hospitality. It was an argument widely reported by the numerous newspaper reporters, also in waiting.)

    During the War, a key source of support for the Union and for antislavery policy, as well, centered on the Appalachian hill country of the South, which had few slaves and was also a seat of populist hostility to the aristocratic planters, in many southern States. Andrew Johnson, a populist Tennessee Democrat, and the only Southern Senator to remain in the U.S. Senate after secession, would become Vice-President in 1864 on the strength of that association. West Virginia would achieve statehood for similar reasons. (The racism of Appalachia made it the only region of the country where McCain gained support in 2008 compared to Bush in 2004; it was also a region deeply hostile to TARP and the bank bailouts, and a region deeply threatened by kleptocratic corruption of state and local politics.)

    The practical politics of getting to 51% is a fraught affair, and no business for principled philosophers. Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, barely got past 40% overall, but he got past the post in the right places, and then did a masterful job of holding his coalition together with a tactful (as well as soaringly elegant) expression of principles, which always took careful legal cognizance of what was asserted, and, also begged the assent of very broad coalitions.

  7. Butler was not the "first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters". Others were quicker and often far more aggressive, but the questionable legal basis of their claims, threatened to split the Unionist coalition of Republicans and not-particularly-antislavery Democrats. The Republican Presidential candidate of 1856, John C. Fremont, drew a strong public rebuke from Lincoln for his attempts to emancipate slaves in Missouri. Butler's "contraband" justification neatly threaded a needle, with humor as well as legal acument, which avoided questions about the still operative Fugitive Slave Act. Congress would act many times to extend Butler's wry suggestion into broad policy, leading the President in his more measured march toward the Emancipation Proclamation, which also invoked in less humorous terms, the necessity of war.

    As for the English liberals, Gladstone famously spoke up early in the War, for Jefferson Davis, as the leader of a movement of national self-determination — a favorite liberal cause after the war for Greek independence. Earl Russell, the Liberal Foreign Secretary of the day, disparaged the motives of Lincoln's administration, and openly tolerated the tissue of lies, which protected the building of warships for the Confederacy in violation of declarations of British neutrality, provoking the aristocratic Charles Francis Adams to the famous rebuke, "It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war." One of Russell's grandsons, and an heir to the title, would be the first peer to join the Labour Party, and would serve in Ramsay MacDonald's government. (Another grandson would succeed the childless first in the title, but be known to the world as Bertrand Russell.)

    In defense of William Lloyd Garrison, I think he knew who he was, and the part he was meant to play. He was known to sometimes counsel a silent appreciation among his followers for how the Lord worked His Will through the chaos of practical politics. I knew one of his great grandsons in the 1970s, whom the family made serve an internship with the United Negro College Fund; noblesse oblige lives on.

    As to whether Butler was corrupt — the Confederates called him "Spoons" Butler for his alleged affinity for captured silverware — honest graft has held together more political coalitions, and guided them toward more practical ends, than abstract philosophy. Besides the plutocrats will always claim that government for and by the People is wasteful and corrupt.

    1. Re: "honest graft"

      Yeah. One of the reasons Frances Perkins was so successful was that she, unlike more "pure" reformers, was willing to work with Tammany Hall.

  8. He could have ended the war in 1864 if he'd been a little more capable–Grant sent him to attack Petersburg and Richmond directly while Grant kept Lee occupied with the Overland Campaign. A much smaller Confederate army managed to trap him at Bermuda Hundred–"corked in a bottle" was the contemporary description–and there he sat uselessly until Grant fought his way south to join up with him.

  9. Loose money doesn't merely have a history of radical supporters. It's also got historical American patriotic support, as the colonial penchant for money-printing was one of the early causes of tension with England. I say, milk both angles.

  10. If the anti-slavery politicians, who founded the Republican Party, could be consulted about our current political dynamics, they would probably advise our ambitious young leftists to find ways to co-opt and annex much of the populist anger supporting the Tea Party, and to not be any too scrupulous about overtones of "racism" in the process.

    This is certainly Seth A.'s take. What did you think of his Jacobin piece, Bruce?

    As far as the hill country of West Virginia, North Carolina, etc., I don't know this history as well as you do, but isn't the story more complex than that? As you say, the hostility toward the old Southern elite in these areas made them strongholds of Republicanism in the Reconstruction period. There's a moving story in the Foner book about majority white Union Leagues in east Tennessee electing black officers and supporting black candidates. And as I recall from Lawrence Goodwyn, the Populists successfully brought small white and black farmers into the same organizations in the 1890s. I don't think we should treat the re-establishment of white supremacy across the South as a foregone conclusion.

  11. Sorry for the late hit but you neglected the single most interesting thing about Ben Butler, it seems in 1864 someone made him a proposition…
    "Lincoln's original choice as his vice-president was General Benjamin Butler. Butler, a war hero, had been a member of the Democratic Party, but his experiences during the American Civil War had made him increasingly radical. Simon Cameron was sent to talk to Butler at Fort Monroe about joining the campaign. However, Butler rejected the offer, jokingly saying that he would only accept if Lincoln promised "that within three months after his inauguration he would die"."

    Never turn down a gig.

Comments are closed.