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Nothing New Under the Sun: Domestic Riots and Agitation

Updated: May 27, 2023

"There will be no Executive who will not do all he can to protect the people, . . . The opposition . . .comes from various causes. There is a class of thriftless, discontented adventurers, agitators and communists, who do not work themselves and go about sowing discontent among honest workingmen. This class is always ready for trouble, and of course, as soon as there is trouble the criminal class asserts itself.

This class always has a grievance over which to fight and disturb society . . . in all large nations, the turbulent class can give trouble. What they want is trouble. The pretext is nothing.

Then we have demagogues in politics - men who know better, but who always seek advancement by pandering to this class. I attribute the worst features of the ... agitation . . . to this class, the agitators and the communists, men who believe that nothing is right that is orderly and legal, and the criminal classes." Ulysses S. Grant Conversation with Li Hung-chang. Tientsin, June 12-14, 1879.(1) Recently the line from Princess Bride comes to mind when I read and hear commentators use the term "unprecedented" to describe much of what is going on in the world today: "You keep using this word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

To those that say these times are unique and "unprecedented", I say, nothing could be further from the truth. The disappointing aspect is many people that present themselves as educated on history are utilizing this term as well. How could anyone have a basic knowledge of history and not know this has happened before, and sadly will happen again. There was no period in US history as violent domestically as the 1860s-1880s (Sorry 1960s). Four years of Civil War followed by the largest deployment of Federal assets to crush riots, agitation, and nascent rebellions were commonplace. The Ku Klux Klan rose up in massive waves of violence and terror and was only brought to a heel by the leadership of President Ulysses S Grant and his attorney General Amos Akerman, who faced fierce political opposition in their efforts to break the back of the Klan.

This political pressure to stop President Grant from sending Federal Troops and using the Attorney General to prosecute KKK members and others who were lynching black and white Republicans in the former Confederacy echoes the same lines we hear today in opposition to the Federal enforcement of the law and Constitution. Just like today, the 1870s saw massive resistance to upholding Federal Law ensconced in the 14th and 15th Amendments was threatening to divide the country. Cities such as Memphis and New Orleans became free-fire zones as mobs took to the streets, killing and injuring scores of black and white Republicans.

Grant spent tremendous political energy and capital in maintaining a Federal presence that was necessary to end the bloodshed. In South Carolina, to combat the Klan, Grant had to resort to mass arrests and suspension of Habeus Corpus. A move far more severe than the besiegers of Federal property in Portland, Oregon, has received, yet eliciting an almost mirror-image response of outcry over "Federal Intervention" and heavy-handedness.

Even though the Civil War had officially ended, the "street battles" which tried to overturn the results of Appomatox, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th and 15th Amendments, and any Federal led program to provide black Americans equality guaranteed by the law continued.

Grant received little respite from conflict, and the same acumen that guided him to victory in the Civil War allowed him to eventually send the KKK into hiding until it was resurrected during the Woodrow Wilson administration in the early 20th Century. But the KKK transformed into many different organizations, a "movement" rather than a single entity with a command structure. Through this decentralization, it continued to clandestinely carry out opposition to the Constitution and disenfranchise the black Republican vote in the Southern states. Sadly, it eventually succeeded, and the black Republican majority was silenced, intimidated, and coopted so that the "Solid South" arose with a whites-only Democratic base for almost 100 more years.

The Quote at the opening of this entry was from the written record of his conversation with a Chinese governor in the Manchurian Empire Li Hung-chang (Li Hongzhang). Li was involved with quelling the various rebellions in the Manchurian Empire, and Grant's observations of the nature of rebellions and agitation are as inciteful then as it is now. Grant met Li on his two-year world tour after his 8 years as President had ended. Grant traveled throughout Europe, Egypt, India, Siam, the Manchurian Empire, and Japan. He brought his insights to world leaders, and reading some of the material from the time, one is hard-pressed not to imagine it could be written about the situation today. The late John Y. Simon spent decades collecting and publishing the source documents pertaining to Ulysses S Grant in 31 Volumes (30 he edited himself). In reading the Grant papers, one is struck by how contemporary were the challenges he faced. What is impressive is his clear-sighted understanding of the nature and underlying causes of the issues of the day. As Solomon is attributed as saying: "There is nothing new under the sun." The question is; are we wise enough to study history and know this? ED NOTE: Thanks to astute reader Reid Isburg for the recommendations in correcting typos in the above post.

1. Simon, John Y. ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Volume 29: October 1, 1878-September 30, 1880. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), p. 158-159.

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