As we celebrate the first Fourth of July after pulling back from the brink, we should be in a celebratory mood. The economy is good-going-on-great, the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror of those who have chosen to embrace science, and things are returning to a semblance of normalcy. However, bitter political winds are blowing as one party has embarked on a mission to cling to minority political power through whatever nefarious means necessary while the party that is actually in power fiddles while believing that there is no way that Rome could actually burn.
Sadly, America has seen it all before. In the incredibly depressing new book, The Age of Acrimony, author Jon Grinspan recounts a period in American history that even history buffs tend to skim past—the final third of the 19th century, that time between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the new “American Century.” While most historians (and school history classes), when glancing at that period, will focus on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the mass migration into the American West, the attempted genocide of the Native populations, the failure of Reconstruction and the attendant rise of Jim Crow, and the amassing of enormous wealth by a handful of robber barons, we ignore at our own peril the vile and violent politics of that era.
Three of America’s four presidential assassinations occurred in that time. Between the early 1870s and the mid-1890s, only one presidential contender actually won a majority of the popular votes cast, and that man—Samuel J. Tilden—was denied the presidency by a bogus commission set up by Congress to settle a fight over electoral votes. (Echoes of that commission reverberated through Washington just a few months ago.) Racist political leaders openly spoke of the need for a minority government, one that could be built and maintained through the systematic exclusion of votes by freed slaves and naturalized immigrants.
Meanwhile, there were unscrupulous political bosses who advocated for ever-more suffrage, the promise of the American dream being utilized to amass power (which, for some, is the true American dream). America after the Civil War (and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) was a giant open wound. It was a political tinderbox and there were far too many people out there with matches.
And while the specter of political violence hangs over America today like a dull ache that can’t be ignored, in that other ugly period, it was very real—in fact, an expected part of the political fabric.
There was perhaps the most-vulgar and deadly of all of the outrages of the time, the official savagery that has come to be known as Wilmington’s Lie. In 1898, the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, served as an example of what the South could become. Blacks and whites served together in what was called a fusion government. There were Black judges and alderman, and a healthy percentage of the police force consisted of African-American men. There was also a substantial Black middle-class and a vibrant economy based around the work done on Wilmington’s bustling docks.
That was too much for former Confederate officers to take. They conspired to “take their state back.” They first stole the statewide election of 1898 through ballot stuffing and widespread concerted voter intimidation. Blacks throughout the state were prevented from voting through threats of and then actual violence. Two days after the “election,” an army of 2,000 Red Shirts rode into Wilmington. They torched Black-owned businesses, terrorized women and children, and shot dead at least 60 Black men in the streets. Entire neighborhoods of Black people were chased out into the swamps surrounding Wilmington and told not to return. And Black elected officials were forced to resign at gunpoint.
North Carolina would later refer to what happened as a “race riot,” when, in fact, it was a coup, a violent overthrow of a duly elected government on American soil.
That wasn’t an isolated incident. Political violence was the norm, not the exception. Throughout the South, political control was seized through violence and election chicanery. After racists grabbed control in Louisiana and quickly rewrote the state’s constitution, the number of Blacks registered to vote went from 130,000 to 1,300 in less than a decade. Up North, political bosses with names like Pig Iron Kelley, Bathhouse John, Bill The Butcher and Boss Tweed wielded the power of brute-force majority rule. Things got very, very ugly.
Philadelphia newspapers reported deadly gunfire on every Election Day of the final 30 years of the 19th century. Riots at political rallies were so commonplace as to be completely expected. People in the emerging middle class claimed they were being victimized and marginalized by an unholy coalition of “the dangerously rich and the dangerously poor.” There was a well-known term called “awling,” in which (ahem) poll watchers would stab people with awls (an icepick-like tool used by leather workers to punch holes) if the voter asked for the “wrong,” color-coded ballot. Thousands and thousands of people died in political violence in those 30-plus years.
It’s all so familiar. We’re intelligent people; we should be doing all that we can to avoid repeating history. But instead, we’re rushing headlong toward that very thing. I’m generally very optimistic, but I’m dreading what July 4, 2025, is going to look like. ■