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Of all the reforms that sweep America in the nineteenth century, none is more disruptive than Reconstruction. During the decade following the Civil War the South has to be reconfigured for life after slavery. The former slaves—the freedmen—have to be accorded civil, political, economic and social rights, but questions regarding the nature and extent of their rights provoke fierce debate in Washington and physical violence in the South. The erstwhile ruling class in the South has to be reconciled to a new order in which their prerogatives are fewer, or at least different. The Southern states have to be reintegrated politically and legally into the Union, while the formerly semi-feudal economy of the South has to be integrated into the national capitalist economy. The Southern wing of the Democratic party, which seceded along with the Southern states, has to be reattached to the national Democratic party. The Republican party, which during the war grew used to running the federal government, has to learn to compete with the Democrats.
Reconstruction brings out the best in American democracy, and the worst. The passion for liberty and equal rights inspires the addition of amendments to the Constitution that proclaim an end to slavery, affirm citizenship and equal protection for the freedmen, and outlaw race-based restrictions on voting. But the amendments are forced upon the white South by means that wouldn’t stand scrutiny in a less fraught time, and partly on this account white Southerners plot to undermine the new guarantees. African Americans win political offices across the South and represent their states in Washington, making the Southern state governments and congressional delegations more reflective of the population of the South than at any time in previous history. But several of the Reconstruction governments are plagued by inexperience and corruption, giving white Southerners additional incentive to roll back the clock on equality. Reconstruction policy becomes a bone of bitter contention within the federal legislature and between the legislative and executive branches.
Of the figures who come to prominence amid the turmoil of Reconstruction, none is more polarizing than Benjamin Butler. This son of New England—born in New Hampshire, raised in Massachusetts, educated in Maine—has burned more bridges than anyone else in American politics. Some of the bridges were real: during the war Butler led a Union expeditionary force to the Gulf Coast and earned a reputation for harshness exceeded only by that of William Sherman. Butler hanged Confederates who insulted the Union flag, treated as prostitutes Southern women who refused to show respect for the occupying forces, and closed newspapers that criticized his policies. Louisianans still grow livid at the mention of his name. “We behold here the hideous front of hell’s blackest imp,” an editor from the bayou country remarks on seeing a photograph of Butler: “Apollyon’s twin brother; the Grand High Priest of Pandaemonium; the unclean, perjured, false-hearted product of Massachusetts civilization; the meanest thief; the dirtiest knave God ever gave breath to; total depravity personified; that baggy-faced fruit of perdition, Beast Butler!” Butler’s few friends are mildly more complimentary. “A burly, heavy man, who waddles as he walks, and carries his head slightly bent forward,” an associate on Capitol Hill describes him. “He is the best abused, best hated man in the House.” Yet his enemies underestimate him, this observer says. “The truth is that Butler’s big head contains a good share of the brains of the House.”
Butler’s brains vault him to the leadership of the Radical Republicans, the left wing of the federal governing party. He heads the House’s effort to impeach and convict Andrew Johnson—Abraham Lincoln’s heir but a Democrat—of unconstitutionally defying Congress. Though the president escapes removal from office, the impeachment effort paralyzes him and enables the Radicals to seize control of policy toward the freedmen and the Southern states. Butler champions the extension of citizenship and suffrage to the former slaves. Reminding his colleagues in Congress that black soldiers fought and died for the Union, thereby earning for their people all the guarantees of the Constitution, he declares: “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I ever fail to defend the rights of these men who have given their blood for me and my country.”
Benjamin Butler is attracted to Victoria Woodhull in the way most men are, but also for her radical political views and lightning-rod spirit. He visits her in New York and coaches her in constitutional law. He shares an unusual interpretation of the Constitution and its amendments, which she makes her own and reveals to the world in November 1870. “Startling Annunciation!” Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly proclaims in a heavy headline. “Woman’s Right of Suffrage Fully Recognized in the Constitution and Completely Established by Positive Law and Recent Events! The Sixteenth Amendment a Dead Letter!”
The accompanying article, signed by Victoria, lays out the logic of the argument. The second section of the Constitution’s fourth article declares that “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.” The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees citizenship to every natural-born American, women not excluded. Wyoming has granted its women citizens the vote; therefore women citizens in all the states are entitled to the vote.
Victoria is pleased with herself, and she claims credit in the way candidates for president often do. “As I have been the first to comprehend these Constitutional and legal facts, so am I the first to proclaim, as I now do proclaim to the women of the United States of America, that they are enfranchised.”