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[Charles Lane, guest-blogging, April 6, 2008 at 10:34pm] Trackbacks
More on Reconstruction Judges

I've received an unexpected but gratifying outpouring of interest in my notion of a proper memorial for James Roswell Beckwith, the prosecutor-hero of my new book, The Day Freedom Died. I'll be trying to organize something appropriate in the months ahead.

It got me thinking: Beckwith is hardly the only Reconstruction-era figure whose efforts on behalf of racial justice have gone uncredited by history. This is not an accident, of course: the historiography of Reconstruction was dominated until the 1950s by apologists for the white supremacist South. The distortions were not limited to Birth of a Nation; nor were they produced only by southerners. William Archibald Dunning, a New Jerseyite who taught at Columbia, founded the "Dunning School" of anti-Reconstruction analysis.

It has taken decades to scrub American history clean of this wretched stuff. And as the obscurity of men like Beckwith demonstrates, there is still plenty of work to be done. One area that is especially ripe for revisionism is the reputation of Republican federal jurists of the era, including a triumvirate involved in the Colfax Massacre and other Klan-related cases.

My favorite is Hugh Lennox Bond, the first-ever United States judge for the 4th Circuit. A Marylander who opposed slavery before the Civil War in that most pro-slavery of Union states, Bond presided over the Ku Klux Klan trials in South Carolina in 1871 and 1872, shrewdly deflecting the defense's efforts to have the prosecution declared unconstitutional, even as he assured a fair trial for the accused. His reward for this is utter obscurity even in his home state. When I inquired with members of the state's current high court and a former dean of the state's principal law school, no one had even heard of him — whereas Roger Brooke Taney has a statue on the grounds of the state capitol in Annapolis.

Then there is Judge Edward H. Durell, a transplanted New Hampshireite who came to New Orleans decades before the war. A prolific writer, brilliant lawyer and progressive politician, he helped develop New Orleans' pathetic public infrastructure during the 1850s. As US district judge for Louisiana after the war, he was widely known as a fair and talented decider of cases — until the disputed 1872 state election, in which he ordered the rightfully elected Republican ticket seated. His action triggered a torrent of white supremacist calumny, including false accusations that he was an alcoholic or worse. Once the Democrats retook the US House in 1874, they moved to impeach Durell out of pure revenge; he was forced to resign and flee to New York. Alas, many of the falsehoods uttered about Durell became incorporated into the histories of those years, including (unintentionally, I'm sure) those written by revisionist historians.

Finally, a tip of the hat to William B. Woods, who presided over the Colfax Massacre trial as US judge for the 5th Circuit. The circuit courts were in their infancy in those days. They were not appellate courts as today, but rather an extra layer of trial courts designed by Congress in 1869 both to reduce Supreme Court circuit-riding and to create an alternative to Andrew Johnson's conservative District Court appointees in the South. Woods was a Democrat before the war, and served as speaker of the Ohio House, in which position he initially opposed Lincoln's war policies. But soon he switched to the Union side, and served with distinction as a general in the US Army.

After the war, Woods stayed in the South, settling in Mobile, Alabama. He was an honest and determined judge, who kept the Colfax trials fair, despite the pressure of the mobs swirling in New Orleans. Woods was privately convinced of the defendants' guilt, of course, and upheld Beckwith's indictments from legal challenge — until Justice Joseph Bradley popped down from Washington to undo the verdicts, and, with them, Woods' hard, dangerous work.

Woods became a member of the Supreme Court in early 1881 — Rutherford B. Hayes' last appointee. Alas, in this role he wrote the court's execrable opinion in US v. Harris. But, in his defense, it should probably be said that his hands were pretty much tied by this time — both legally and politically — by the court's previous decisions interpreting the Civil War amendments.

Cornellian (mail):
Roger Taney has a monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Annapolis??

Hard to imagine any federal judge less deserving, excluding the few who have been booted from the bench.
4.6.2008 11:50pm
Curt Fischer:
In response to your post on Mr. Beckwith, "European Visitor" suggested formulating a Wikipedia entry for Mr. Beckwith. I second that idea! Your post was brief and (presumably) based on more than three independent sources--perfect for Wikipedia. With your permission, it could easily serve as the basis for a Wikipedia entry.

Composing succinct Wikipedia articles on unappreciated heroes of the Reconstruction like Mr. Beckwith seems an excellent way to introduce their stories to millions of readers.
4.7.2008 12:01am
Vermando (mail) (www):
As a southerner who, indeed, learned horrible things about the carpet-baggers growing-up (from both my schools and family lore), I agree that it would be very, very worthwhile to correct these inaccuracies. No people profits by holding a false vision of its past.
4.7.2008 12:12am
Dennis Nolan (mail):
I hate to say it, but the Lost Cause mythology still hasn't been scrubbed from our history. Too many of my students come to law school bearing it. Then again, this is South Carolina.

I'll add one nominee to your list, Daniel Henry Chamberlain, Harvard Law graduate and governor of SC from 1874-76 (and would have been from 1876-78 if Hampton's Redshirts and Hayes's agreement to end Reconstruction hadn't combined to drive him out of the state. He fought the good fight with all the limited means available to him.
4.7.2008 12:44am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
This is not an accident, of course: the historiography of Reconstruction was dominated until the 1950s by apologists for the white supremacist South.

Next you will be telling us that 600,000 men WEREN"T willing to die to settle the appropriate level of tariffs.

I spent all these years thinking these must have been two tough bunches of ______s. Today, 99% of us could care less what tariffs are like, and here were people willing to go through hell for four years to determine what they oughta be.

The alternate explanation that the war might have had something to do with slavery and whether it should expand ... nah, couldn't have been over something like that.
4.7.2008 1:18am
Harry Eagar (mail):
It went on beyond the end of Reconstruction.

My grandfather was involved, as a witness for the prosecution, in a federal Klan trial in 1893. I don't know who the prosecutor or judge were, but they must have been lonely men in north Georgia. I know my grandfather was. (He slept with a loaded, cocked pistol in his hand for the 13 months between the handing up of the indictments and the trial.)
4.7.2008 1:49am
Frater Plotter:
Okay, here's something possibly Reconstruction-related I'll bet someone around here knows about: "conspiracy against rights". It's my understanding that the Federal law on this subject (18 USC 241) was passed to bring specific Klan activity under Federal jurisdiction -- very specifically, to Federalize acts of terrorism intended to intimidate blacks from bearing arms.
4.7.2008 4:05am
Helen:
Taney not only has a statue on the grounds of the capitol in Annapolis, but it is just about the most prominent of all the sculpture on the grounds.

Several years back, there was a controversy in Maryland about whether or not to include Spiro Agnew's portrait among the gallery of prior Maryland governors. Some voiced the opinion that including it would "embarrass" the state. With Taney on the grounds, I don't see how the state could embarrass itself any further with its capitol artwork.
4.7.2008 9:10am
Paul from Jefferson (mail):
There is finally some appreciation of the Republican federal judges in the South during both the first and second reconstruction periods in American history. By the second, I mean, the Eisenhower administration (post-Brown) ones in contrast to those appointed under JFK. Recent books by David A. Nichols (A MATTER OF JUSTICE) and James Piereson (CAMELOT AND THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION) are long overdue corrections to the Schlesinger mythology about these years.
4.7.2008 11:31am
wm13:
This reminds me that when my grandfather went to college in about 1912, the first in his family to do so, his grandmother warned him: "You be careful, Leroy, the universities are full of copperheads." And how right she was. Said grandmother's brother had been at Shiloh, and she didn't take kindly to copperheads, but, of course, farmwives like her didn't control the universities.
4.7.2008 11:59am
Struthius:
Frater,
Perhaps this is what you were asking about?

Congress in 1870 and 1871 passed legislation to combat the Klan. "Force bills," or enforcement acts, as they were also called, whereby the radical Republicans controlling Congress strengthened their Reconstruction program for the South by imposing severe penalties on those Southerners who tried to obstruct it. The act of May 31, 1870, designed to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, provided heavy penalties of fines and imprisonment for anyone preventing qualified citizens (in this case African Americans) from voting. Such cases were to come under the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Congressional elections were placed exclusively under federal control, and the President was authorized to use the armed forces. Even more drastic was the act of Apr. 20, 1871. It declared the acts of armed combinations (ie, the KKK) tantamount to rebellion and empowered the President to suspend the privilege of habeas corpus in lawless areas. Grant did this in certain counties of South Carolina. Hundreds were indicted, fined, and imprisoned, and the act was partially responsible for the subsequent decline of the Klan.
4.7.2008 12:09pm
Californio (mail):
Great post. Did anyone see the PBS program on Reconstruction? It included interviews with a Louisiana decendant of a Conferate veteran who was believed to have assasinated a Republican prominent local citizen/administrator. Said descendant looked eerily like his ancestor. My blood ran a little cooler when he said "We have a saying in my family: the North won the War, we won Recontruction! Ha ha ha." Such an environment would be an impediment to the administration of justice.
4.7.2008 1:10pm
TerrencePhilip:
Did anyone see the PBS program on Reconstruction? It included interviews with a Louisiana decendant of a Conferate veteran who was believed to have assasinated a Republican prominent local citizen/administrator. Said descendant looked eerily like his ancestor. My blood ran a little cooler when he said "We have a saying in my family: the North won the War, we won Recontruction! Ha ha ha." Such an environment would be an impediment to the administration of justice.

yes, I saw it, he bragged about his ancestor's (possible) cowardly attack on a Union officer (he shot the officer while he was on a canoe with no weapon); the officer lost both arms as I recall, but survived and moved to D.C. The guy was saying his ancestor was the kind of man who would've done this "if it had to be done." (WTF?)
4.7.2008 1:58pm
TDPerkins (mail):
I frequently find myself convinced that every Confederate officer above some given rank--sometimes I think sergeants, other times the general officers, sometimes between--should have been hung from the rafters of the courthouses of the counties in which they lived before the war.

It would have been better than losing the peace, and I am not certain they would have fought harder; and if they had fought to the death of their armies, how would that have been worse for humanity and the nation than what did result?

They didn't know they were beaten. They did not acknowledge they were in the wrong. It was a mistake to leave them their illusions.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
4.7.2008 10:25pm