What Ulysses Grant Can Teach Joe Biden About Putting Down Violent Insurrections

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The deadly siege of the Capitol in Washington, which sought to overturn a legitimate election by targeting lawmakers with assassination, was not the first attempted insurrection in American history.

During Reconstruction, a raft of attempted insurrections flared up across the former Confederacy. Violent storms of white supremacists rocked swaths of the South, all aimed at undoing the Union’s victory during the Civil War, as well as the civil rights gains made thereafter. Racial equality, civil rights protections, basic recognition of democratic outcomes — all were targets of rampaging white terrorists, using violence to launch themselves to power once more. Numbers are hazy, but dozens perished as a direct result of insurrection, part of the thousands of victims of white supremacist political violence during the era.

“What occurred in the South in the late 1860s and the 1870s was at a scope and scale of violence and resistance that was not even remotely similar to what we saw [in Washington],” Mark Pitcavage, a historian and senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, told me. The scale of violence “was so big that there are some people who say it was a low-intensity conflict. I don’t know if I want to go all the way there, but parts of it weren’t too far off from that.”

However, the echoes of that Reconstruction-era violence — led by both white marauders (cloaked as the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups) and white supremacist Democratic officials bent on reclaiming power from Republicans — were impossible to escape in Washington in early January when the rioters paraded Confederate flags through the halls of the Capitol and chanted threats to hang the vice president. Though largely overlooked in mainstream American history, these insurrections — in Louisiana, in South Carolina, in Mississippi, in North Carolina — attempted to install terrorist-backed regimes in multiple post-Confederacy states. Their longevity was echoed as well in the warning last week from the Department of Homeland Security, which said for the first time publicly that the country faced a rising threat from “violent domestic extremists” who sympathized with the Capitol attack and the false narrative, stoked by former President Donald Trump, that the election was rigged.

“We have to realize that this is a powerful strand in the American experience. It’s always been here, the resistance to actual democracy,” Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University who specializes on Reconstruction, told me. “We pride ourselves on being a democracy, but there’s actually a long tradition of people who don’t think that, who are unwilling to accept the rights of African-Americans to be citizens, the right of elections to overturn governments in power. In other words, we should realize the fragility of democratic culture.”

While that fragility was on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War (as well as during the siege on the Capitol), those Reconstruction-era insurrectionists contended with a force they consistently underestimated: Ulysses S. Grant, who served as president from 1868-76. Rising to the presidency as the heroic general of the Civil War, Grant entered the White House amidst violent white extremists continuing to roil American politics — and following the failed presidency of a one-term impeached president, who had only added fuel to the post-war inferno.

Time and again, Grant battled back, sometimes almost single-handedly, against rising insurrections bursting across the South. Time and again, he appeared to succeed — only to eventually watch the entire edifice of Reconstruction crumble under Supreme Court decisions, wilting willingness among Northern whites to win the peace, and, most especially, a Compromise of 1877 that cemented the beginnings of the Jim Crow era to come.

Grant’s approach relied on a combination of brute military force and a drastic curtailment of civil liberties, yet it nevertheless has relevance for the current moment and contains lessons for lawmakers who fear that January 6 might have been only the first of widespread attacks on the government and elected officials at all levels, across large swaths of the nation. Officials in our current era have many more legal tools at their disposal to combat such terrorism. But as Grant’s experience shows, it’s not just the tools that count; rather, it’s the willingness to persist in the fight that will likely decide whether these counter-terrorism efforts actually succeed.

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By the time Grant ascended to the presidency, insurrection was already in the air across the post-Confederacy South.

“Originally, white supremacist terrorism was aimed at individuals, African-Americans, white allies, sometimes military occupying forces,” Brooks Simpson, an American historian at Arizona State University, told me. “By 1868 that had become more systematic in terms of not only going after voters, but also state legislators.”

Massacres targeting Black freedmen and their white allies occurred with regularity, led by newly formed terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Not all of it was technically insurrectionist, per se. For instance, Louisiana’s Colfax Massacre — the “bloodiest act of racial violence in all of Reconstruction,” Grant biographer Jean Smith wrote — came from white Louisianans’ refusal to accept the 1872 election, though wasn’t necessarily aimed directly at overthrowing the state government (at least immediately).

But it wasn’t far into Grant’s tenure when the marriage of white terror and disaffected Confederates proved lethal to the administration’s Reconstructionist efforts. And in North Carolina in 1870, they struck first political blood: Ku Klux Klan terror “helped the Democrats recapture the state, electing five of seven congressmen,” Smith wrote.

Amidst the white terror campaigns, Grant and his legislative allies spied a solution. That year, Congress passed the first of what eventually would become three Enforcement Acts. In effect, the statutes made it a federal offense to deprive individuals of civil or political rights, and provided greater federal oversight of elections and voter registration. That wasn’t all. A few weeks later Congress voted to create the Department of Justice, staffing up lawyers under the attorney general and giving the attorney general oversight of all U.S. attorneys and federal marshals. Grant took full advantage of the new tools, putting a “powerful team” together to head the Justice Department, wrote Smith. New Attorney General Amos Akerman understood the stakes, saying that the Klan was in effect leading a “war, and cannot be effectively crushed on any other theory.”

With white supremacist terror continuing to race across the region, led primarily by the Klan, Grant decided to make countering the terrorists his sole focus. In March 1871, he requested a special legislative session for the express purpose of suppressing the group, whose thousands of members across the South formed a so-called “Invisible Empire.” The president placed counter-insurgent efforts front and center of his administration, calling on legislators to make it a federal crime to conspire to “overthrow or destroy by force the government of the United States.” The resultant Ku Klux Klan Act provided Grant authority to use the army to crush further white terror, even allowing him the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in areas deemed insurrectionist. The bill’s passage was hardly assured—the opposition, as Smith wrote, encompassed everyone from “unabashed white supremacists, to civil libertarians, to Grant-haters of every variety”—but a visit from Grant to Capitol Hill rallied legislators to the cause. That April, nearly five years to the day after the Civil War officially ended at Appomattox, the anti-KKK bill passed.

And Grant and his team didn’t hesitate to employ their new powers.

In northern Mississippi, a region saturated in white terror, U.S. attorneys secured nearly 1,000 indictments, convicting over half of those arrested. But it was in South Carolina in 1871 where the administration clamped down on outright insurrectionists — and hard. That year, Klan and white terror violence rampaged across the state, aimed directly at overthrowing elected officials. Declaring “a condition of lawlessness” in nine different counties, Grant used the new powers within the anti-KKK bill to their fullest extent. Suspending the writ of habeas corpus, rushing reinforcements to the state, the presence of the American infantry was enough to see thousands of Klansmen tuck tail and flee the state. With the KKK unwilling to face down the American military, members of the Army joined Akerman’s marshals to make hundreds of arrests. Federal grand juries filed thousands of indictments, with hundreds of convictions resulting.

That combination of federal force and legal capacity appeared to work. The insurrectionists scattered, and the Klan stood whipped. “Grant’s willingness to bring the full legal and military authority of the government to bear had broken the Klan’s back and produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South,” Smith wrote. The relatively peaceful 1872 election, in which Grant was re-elected in a landslide, attested to as much.

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Yet the seeds of Washington’s ultimate failure—the eventual Compromise of 1877, the end of Reconstruction, and the rise of terror-backed white supremacist regimes once more—were contained even in those successful efforts in South Carolina.

Despite the arrests, the court system stood overburdened by the rush of indictments, and only managed to issue serious sentences for a few dozen perpetrators. And even then, the sentences — five years maximum in a federal penitentiary — hardly fit the crimes, which often entailed murder and lynching. The new judicial behemoth appeared to be less than the sum of its parts.

More importantly, creeping exhaustion began crawling across Northern white communities, fatigued as they were by a decade’s worth of combating white violence in the South. Tired of seeing their boys off to fight fellow Americans — and uneasy about the potential of living in a republic held together by bayonet — white Northerners began wilting in the face of resurgent violence across the South. A sort of moral stagnation began to take root, rotting support for the administration to continue its anti-insurrection efforts.

It was a wilting that Grant easily perceived – as did the white militants still looking for any signs of weakness among the federal crackdowns. In 1874, white terror resurged once more, seen most especially in Louisiana. In Coushatta, a town not far from Shreveport, members of the KKK-adjacent White League assassinated a number of Republican officials. Shortly thereafter, thousands of White Leaguers set their sights on their statehouse in New Orleans, then serving as the seat of Louisiana’s government. Facing off with thousands more police and Black militia-men, the white terrorists ultimately prevailed, installing a rival Democratic government in a successful insurrection—what Smith called a “coup d’etat.”

The atrocity prompted Grant to immediately ship new contingents of troops to New Orleans, which successfully restored order. A few months later, though, Louisiana teetered into potential civil war yet again. Terror-backed Democrats forcibly seized the Louisiana House, seating Democrats in contested seats. Yet again, the military ejected the claimants. Gen. Philip Sheridan wired the White House that the heads of the White League terrorists backing the putschists should, as the law called for, be arrested and face potential execution. The wire, though, leaked to the press. While some Republicans rallied to Sheridan’s call — “Crush them utterly, remorselessly,” one pro-administration outlet wrote — the leak backfired on Sheridan and Grant both.

“Sheridan wires Washington to tell Grant and the War Department that all these Democrats are banditti and have to be executed, and what unfolds unleashes a storm of criticism in the white North,” Caroline Janney, an American history professor at the University of Virginia, told me. “Grant is condemned, running what people call a ‘government by bayonet.’” Grant doesn’t initially cower, and a compromise in Louisiana ends in a bipartisan state government. Neither the “Ku Klux [Klan], White Leagues, nor any other associations using arms and violence can be permitted to govern any part of this country,” Grant once more says.

But the country — or white Northerners, at least — had had enough. After nearly 15 years of continued violence in the South, after a devastating economic implosion in 1873, after the Democrats had recaptured the House in Washington in 1874, the bottom had fallen out of Grant’s efforts.

“I think events in Louisiana in 1874-75 taught [Grant] that there would be a political price for intervention,” Simpson said. “The common criticism is that he was a poor politician, but he was a political realist [toward the end of his administration]. He realized that however welcome enforcement of Reconstruction would be in the short term, in the long term it was politically suicidal, and no longer enjoyed support of white Americans.” Along the way, the courts began gutting Grant’s Enforcement Acts, depriving him of another tool. “Grant understood that vigorous prosecution of white terrorists without the support of white Northerners would lead to a Democratic victory in that year’s presidential election, so he conducts a fighting withdrawal – but still withdraws,” Janney said.

And in that withdrawal, terror-backed overthrows take place not just in places like Louisiana, but across the South, in states like Mississippi and South Carolina, led by white insurrectionists like the Red Shirts. Soon thereafter, the Compromise of 1877 essentially codified a new arrangement: In return for the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the federal government would allow white supremacist regimes to reign once more in the South. The Union may have won the war, but the terrorists — and the insurrectionists — had won the peace.

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There is, of course, much that is different between the insurrectionists of Reconstruction and those of the Trump era.

The white supremacist insurrectionists of the 1870s focused on just one region — the South — while the Trumpian insurrectionists have no geographic restrictions. This explains why, in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, the FBI found it necessary to warn of potential attacks and insurrectionist activity on state capitols and federal buildings across the country. And the Trumpian insurrectionists, at least thus far, don’t yet come with the full-throated, unequivocal support of a major political party (though that may change if non-Trumpian Republicans continue to lose ground).

But if you squint, it’s not too difficult to see how the insurrections of the 1870s and of the 2020s share a clear lineage. In many ways, the “Lost Cause” has now metamorphosed into the “Trump Lost Cause.

“As I heard someone say, what we saw was that the Red Shirts of South Carolina have been replaced with the Red Hats of MAGA,” Janney said. Both are clearly aimed at upending the outcomes of democratic elections, willing to use violence to cow legislators — or worse. And both aim at thwarting multi-racial coalitions in the pursuit of ethnonationalist rule, a through-line of attempting to restore white rule that connects 1861 and 1876 to 2016 and 2020. As such, Grant’s experience in battling white insurrectionists presents a pair of primary lessons for the new Biden administration.

The first lesson, experts say, is relatively clear. As Trumpian insurrectionists continue popping up across the country — propelled by “the Big Lie” that Trump’s re-election was stolen—and as Republican legislators saber-rattle about potential violence if they don’t get their way, the administration has to use the full range of tools at its disposal. “There are so many more federal laws that can be used now,” Pitcavage said. “Conspiracy laws that didn’t exist [in the 1870s], laws about federal property that didn’t exist back then, laws about paramilitary training designed to foment civil disorder—there are any number of laws on the books now that theoretically could be used.”

Thus far, given the hundreds of arrests following this month’s Washington insurrection, there’s reason for optimism in terms of authorities cracking down on insurrectionists. “It’s very gratifying that people are taking it seriously and have devoted considerable resources to it and made it a huge priority,” Pitcavage added. But then, the Grant administration oversaw thousands of arrests — with an overworked legal system only issuing a few convictions.

Which leads to the second, and perhaps more important, lesson: follow-through.

The administration must make clear, say experts, there is no quarter for insurrectionists in the American body politic, or for those who would abet their anti-democratic violence. “The quicker you say, ‘There’s a line you can’t cross,’ the better,” Simpson said. “That’s armed resistance to the operations of government and its institutions. You can’t cross that line. ‘And if you do, we’ll come down on you like you won’t believe.’” And until that is understood — and enforced, to the fullest extent of the law — there can be no room for healing, or for unity. “That’s what I think Biden has to understand,” Simpson continued. “You need to demand accountability and justice before you reach out and say, ‘Now, let’s heal.’”

Biden, his administration, and his allies in Congress must be clear: Any threats of violence, of insurrection, of aiding and abetting democratic overthrow, will be met with unswerving dedication to their prevention and prosecution. That goes for an outgoing president claiming the election was stolen from him. That goes for the far-right militias whining about not recognizing election outcomes. That goes for the any insurrectionists who may look at the events in Washington as a success, and who may thirst for more. “Peace sometimes requires force to protect it,” Foner told me. “And what’s needed is persistence, having the will to continue, to maintain the peace.”

Biden seems determined to take a stand and hold it.

As he said in his inauguration, “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. Not ever.” And because of the range of options at his disposal, he thankfully won’t have to turn to things like martial law. Instead he can, as others have already begun laying out, direct the organs of the federal government — the FBI, the National Security Council and especially the DOJ, that outgrowth of Grant’s first term — to prioritize domestic terrorism, with an eye especially on insurrectionist leaders. He can further lean on legislative allies to keep up the pressure on social media companies to muzzle insurrectionist rhetoric (including any coming from a certain former president). He could also lead a push to finally create a statute aimed at specifically criminalizing domestic terrorism.

Despite the differences, Grant and Biden share more similarities than most might assume. One was a grizzled war hero, who’d crushed the most treasonous movement the country had ever seen. The other is a seasoned politician, known for moderation and political tact. There are plenty of echoes between the era of Grant and the coming era of Biden. After all, as Grant once said, “If we are to have another [civil war], I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.”

And Grant’s words seem especially prescient as a new administration takes root — and looks to the lessons of previous American insurrections in order to prevent their repeat. “The fundamental question remains: Do we have a legitimate peaceful process of electing and governing that we accept? Or do we not?” Simpson said. “The stakes are actually bigger this time than during Reconstruction. Because the legacy of this deplorable episode will be whether we question the very legitimacy of a process that depends upon the acceptance of its legitimacy in order for it to work.”

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