Illinois During the Gilded Age
1866-1868: War’s Aftermath
Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University
Illinois, which had so long populated its state legislatures and congressional delegations largely with Democrats, became a Republican state after the Civil War. The Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln had guided the Union through a harrowing Civil War. Only in its resolution did Lincoln's reputation as a leader coalesce. Assassination elevated him to the status of mythic hero. Illinois Republicans enjoyed their strong identification with the nation's fallen leader.
But a more complex set of circumstances led to a fundamental realignment of Illinois politics as well. The Civil War gave rise to new organizations, such as the Union League Club, which had often acted as Republican auxiliaries in their bitter battles with pro-southern copperheads. In peacetime, many of these groups turned their energies to electing Republican candidates. The emergence of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union war veterans first organized at Decatur in 1866, bolstered the Republican Party's electoral cause as well. Economic changes also affected Illinois politics. During the war Illinois had become an increasingly industrial state receptive to Republicans' high tariffs and railroad promotion.
Together, these developments suggested the Republican Party's emerging stance as the party of American nationalism. Where Democrats continued to devote themselves to the preservation of individual rights and local prerogative, Republicans sought to use ideology, voluntary associations and the federal government's economic policies to secure a fragile nation. To many northerners who had once supported the Party of Jackson, the Democrats had come to represent a failed political vision at least partly responsible for the Civil War. The Republicans seemed to represent the future.
But the Republican Party was not without its own dilemmas, conflicts, and crises. The federal government faced the task of reconstruction, or returning the southern states to the Union and securing the rights of freedmen and women. With Lincoln's assassination, the task of leading this work fell to Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had replaced Hannibal Hamlin on Lincoln's 1864 ticket in an effort to appeal to southern unionists.
After a brief honeymoon, many party leaders came to reject Lincoln's southern successor. Although he was willing to accept the Thirteenth Amendment's emancipation and some civil rights for African-Americans, Johnson soon proved receptive to the entreaties of southern white supremacists eager to rejoin the Union on favorable terms and devise new ways to control the black population. Johnson's call for leniency toward the South outraged his party, and many feared that he would follow in the steps of John Tyler, another vice president added to balance a ticket, only to turn upon the party that elected him.
Southerners' course of action only made matters worse. As the southern states reorganized their governments, many elected prominent ex-Confederates to state offices and Congress. Many also refused to repudiate their ordinances of secession or Confederate war debts, and enacted "black codes" restricting blacks' civil rights. The overwhelmingly Republican Congress refused to seat
the newly arrived southern delegations. But divisions quickly emerged among the Republicans themselves. Radicals demanded that the federal government take up an active program to remake southern society in order to ensure freedmen their rights. Moderates advocated a program of legal rights without larger federal support.
While many Republicans advocated an immediate break with President Johnson, Illinois leaders, including Senator Lyman Trumbull, counseled patience. But when Johnson vetoed Trumbull's bills to secure blacks' civil rights and empower a Freedmen's Bureau to protect them, he lost the support of his party in Illinois and across the north.
The Republican Congress responded by overriding Johnson on both bills. It then crafted a Fourteenth Amendment making African-Americans citizens. The Amendment barred the individual states from infringing upon blacks' rights, and set up complex provisions to entice the states to provide African-Americans with the vote. If the southern states would ratify this Amendment, the Congress promised the southern officials a speedy return to their seats.
Johnson's native Tennessee ratified the Amendment and joined the Union, but the other southern states followed the president's advice and rejected it. Congress and the President now faced off in an icy impasse. In Illinois Democrats organized Johnson clubs in an attempt to win the favor of a sitting president and gain electoral advantage. Many noted that Johnson was simply taken up with the reconstruction program advocated by the fallen President Lincoln.
Johnson took his cause directly to the public in a notorious "swing around the circle." In this speaking tour Johnson asked voters to elect Congressional candidates receptive to his policies. But the president often met hostile audiences and embarrassed himself by repeated public arguments with hecklers. During his visit to Illinois, the city fathers of Springfield refused to hold a reception for the president. In the fall of 1866 voters across the north rejected Johnson and elected a Republican Congress charged with starting over in the work of Reconstruction.
The conflict with Johnson had brought moderate and radical Republicans together, and they agreed to form new state governments in the South on the basis of black suffrage and the exclusion of ex-rebels. Where southern states had once enjoyed the opportunity to rejoin the Union with only the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, they now faced an arduous process that obliged them to ratify the Amendment, write black voting rights into state constitutions, and apply to the Republican Congress for readmission.
Despite the voters’ rejection of his policies, Johnson continued to obstruct the Congress' Reconstruction project. In February of 1868 the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. Fearing that Johnson would remove Radical Republicans from appointive positions, the Congress had passed the Tenure in Office Act, which forbade the president to dismiss employees without the consent of the Senate. When Johnson sought to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Congressional Radicals leaped at the chance to charge him with official misconduct.
The House of Representatives' vote sent the president on to a trial before the Senate, which would determine his fate. Ultimately, seven Republicans broke with the Radicals and held the Senate one vote short of the required two-thirds necessary to remove Johnson from office.
While official Washington struggled over the course of Reconstruction, African-Americans faced meager prospects in the postwar South. The vast majority were landless, penniless and uneducated. While some Radical Republicans advocated the redistribution of southern slaveholders' lands to the freedmen, the Congress rejected the measure, and a system of sharecropping took hold in the South. Sharecroppers labored for landlords who, at harvest time, took between one-half and one-third of their crop's yield.
These arrangements provided individuals with the means to acquire their own lands with some independence. But they often came to resemble slavery in many ways. Sharecroppers received payment only once a year, at harvest time. For the rest of the year, shopkeepers provided them with supplies on credit, taking out a lien on their crops to secure the loan. Then, when the crop was sold, the merchant simply collected his debt from the sharecropper's portion of the harvest. This crop-lien system, when combined with sharecropping arrangements themselves and an epidemic of fraud, often left black farmers deeply indebted to whites.
Despite the emergence of economic arrangements resembling the old order in many respects, southern whites complained loudly about the reconstruction governments elected by blacks and whites willing to swear allegiance to the Union. Many complained that black legislators and northern "carpetbaggers," or new arrivals to the South, devastated their region with regimes characterized by epic incompetence and corruption. Despite whites' vivid portrayals of black rule, African Americans never enjoyed a majority in any southern legislature, and many states soon replaced Reconstruction governments with white supremacist regimes. Historians' studies have suggested that Reconstruction governments were no more, or less, corrupt or incompetent than their predecessors or successors.
Many concerned northerners organized to assist the freedmen in the South. In Illinois, the Congregationalist churches especially sent both money and volunteers. Often these volunteers established and staffed new schools, to which black students flocked. These schools often provided instruction both to children and adults, who had been barred from any education in the slave South.
While the new Republican order faced a recalcitrant South, it also encountered new political difficulties in its home states as well. The Republican Party's message of national unity and economic growth increasingly seemed like a bitter irony to a generation of American farmers. While Republicans' federally subsidized railroads and high protective tariffs built a national transportation system and promoted industry, farmers found themselves facing hard economic times. The Civil War's armies no longer demanded bread, and European harvests improved, cutting foreign demand as well. Railroads, which farmers had embraced only twenty years before as the key to virtually unlimited prosperity, now appeared as ravenous monopolies. As other enterprises grew they acquired additional power in the marketplace, and earned farmers' enmity as well.
In Chicago cattle merchants built an enormous complex of slaughterhouses and holding pens known as Packingtown. Meat processors like Gustavus Swift, Armour and Cudahy used railroads to gather in livestock from outlying farms, processed them in large factories and, after Swift's invention of an ice-refrigerated railroad car, distributed fresh beef to a national market.
Increasingly, many farmers identified railroads and merchants as the roots of the problem. The roads often charged more for hauling a load a short distance than a long trip. Grain merchants who operated storage elevators became middlemen in the eyes of farmers. Town merchants selling food, clothing and supplies often tacked on large profits to goods acquired from wholesalers, making them middlemen as well.
Outraged agriculturalists complained to their Republican legislators, who at first failed to comprehend the source of their bitterness. In response, farmers turned to private associations, such as the Patrons of Husbandry (or Grange). First organized in 1867, the Grange emerged in Illinois in the following year. Many Granges organized as cooperatives devoted to the buying of wholesale goods for their members. But they also became powerful political advocacy groups for a rural population that felt increasingly ignored by the ascendant Republican Party.
In the campaign of 1868 the Republican Party tapped Illinois' own Ulysses S. Grant as its candidate for the presidency. For the third consecutive time, the nation sent an Illinoisan to the White House. Grant took office as a popular hero, proven as a leader of men, yet a novice in the world of politics. His famous pronouncement "Let us have peace," seemed to indicate that Grant wished to put the Civil War and its controversies behind him. Yet his term in office witnessed the culmination of the nation's Reconstruction drama and the emergence of a new set of dilemmas in the nation's Gilded Age.