Reading American history about the period following the Civil War provides numerous insights into changes that have transpired over the past century and a half. Books such as “Packing the Court” by James MacGregor Burns, “The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky, “Deliver the Vote” by Tracy Campbell and “Savage Peace” by Ann Hagedorn each provide a glimpse of different circumstances contributing to the growth and transition which shape this country today.
“Packing the Court” illustrates how the Supreme Court has — during its entire lifetime — been subject to the whims of the president, each chief executive wanting to shape the court to meet his own political philosophy. Presidents have sought to change the number of justices in order to promote their own agenda. Even into the middle of the 20th Century, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to have the number of justices changed so that he could shape policy to hasten the escape from the depression that was gripping the country. His proposed social programs were constantly hindered by decisions of a Republican-oriented court.
“Deliver the Vote” delves into the long-standing practice of vote fraud, including attempts to dis-enfranchise blocs of individuals based on their ethnicity, sex and, especially, race when, following the Civil War, it was common practice for southern Democrats to work assiduously to keep blacks from voting because they consistently voted for Republicans. Since the author, Tracy Campbell, is a professor at University of Kentucky, many instances she cites of voter fraud and election shenanigans take place in Kentucky, although Mississippi keeps coming up as the state which used illegal tactics most often.
In “Savage Peace,” the most despicable and heinous crimes committed against blacks are illuminated, and the difficult part to fathom is that these crimes took place following World War I. It was not uncommon for lynchings of blacks to take place during this period, including blacks who had served in uniform during the Great War. In fact, the last recorded lynching in Kentucky took place in 1934. Some blacks — in uniform — were attacked and unmercifully beaten in the years following the war.
But it is “The Bloody Shirt” that most clearly illuminates a profound change that has occurred since the end of the Civil War, a change which is reflected piecemeal in the other three books.
Beginning with Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party became a staunch advocate for the emancipation of blacks, and worked tirelessly after the war to try to assure that these emancipated blacks were given their rights to property, holding public office and voting. As mentioned earlier, it was southern Democrats who manipulated laws to forestall this emancipation. With the exception of Andrew Johnson’s one term following the death of Lincoln and two terms of Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), every person elected to the office of president until 1913 was a Republican, and these Republicans provided many appointments to the Supreme Court.
But something changed not long into the 20th Century. As Democrats began to elect more members to the office of president, and as those presidents began to make more appointments to the Supreme Court, the court’s decisions began to shift to social liberalism, which apparently spurred the Republican Party to abandon its earlier idealism regarding the rights of blacks and retrench to protecting the interests of corporations. The most recent examples of the abandonment of the Republican Party for individual rights include the court’s decision allowing corporations to expend limitless amounts of money to support political candidates and the ongoing efforts of Republican state legislatures and governors to curtail the rights for collective bargaining.
This reversal of constituencies is what proves so interesting considering the positions typically espoused by the Republican and Democratic parties today and how they have changed over a period of about 150 years.