By Mark Mason.
Other dogs bite only their enemies, whereas I bite also my friends in order to save them. ~ Diogenes
US Presidential Election, November 5, 1872: incumbent Civil War general Republican Ulysses S. Grant vs. newspaper publisher Liberal Republican Horace Greeley. The Democratic Party, being insubstantial at this time, not putting up its own candidate, endorsed Greeley.
The incumbent Republican Grant was re-elected to a second term. although it is noteworthy that the Liberal Republican challenger Greeley died less than a month after the election and prior to Congress certifying the outcome.
Curiously, the 1872 election had the outer markings of a boring, narrow, internecine squabble within the Republican party, given that the two major candidates were splinters of the one Republican Party, yet the confusing party monikers cloaked significant ideological differences between the two candidates. “Go West, Young Man” Greeley was a radical having espoused, in addition to western expansion of the burgeoning empire, opposition to government loans and land grants for railroads. Bankers and builders of private-enterprise railroads convinced Congress to transfer lands stolen by US military conquest from Mexico and from Native Americans, to the railroads, amounting to a massive give-away of valuable public lands. Think, bank bailouts today as the grand scheme of raiding the public treasury. Think, giving away public lands as the grand scheme of raiding the public treasury of the nineteenth century.
One hundred and thirty-one million acres (half a million square kilometers), about one-tenth of the land area of the US, then in the public domain, disappeared into private ownership over a period of twenty-five years as Congress privatized fertile prairie, forested mountains, and great expanses of the western Great Basin. According to the words of Mary Beard (1927) “one hundred and fifty million acres of public land—an area equal to Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, with a large slice of Pennsylvania thrown in….A chart of the railway land grants in the West looms up like a map of the Roman Empire in the age of Augustus.” (1) Imagine a few dozen men given the land and resource equivalent of the modern African nation, Kenya.
In 1872, the brazenly corrupt Grant administration was running on a platform of touting the wonders of building the transcontinental railroads while silent about two decades of privatizing immensely valuable land. At this point, I will spare you the curious but instructive facts surrounding the archetypal occasion of the Dutch Flat Swindle of 1863-1865, the Central Pacific Railroad being the recipient of further public largesse, promoted by the new state of California then governed directly by the railroads with railroader-governor Leland Stanford. It is enough to note that public opposition to public-lands give-aways and low-interest government bond money pocketed by railroad magnates is well-documented. Apparent to many, the results of said affair accrued to private railroad and again to private wealth: the Big Four. Said rich persons: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. Striding briskly past the Crédit Mobilier scandal wherein the Union Pacific Railroad was railroaded into bankruptcy only three years after the completion of the transcontinental rail project in 1869 by fraudulent construction sub-contractor billing originating with Crédit Mobilier. Suffice it to note that the private sector stole land from the government, land the government stole in 1848 from Mexico, then the private sector stole money from each other during construction largely funded by government subsidies handed out by Congress. The latter august body picking the pockets of the people-as-taxpayers to acquire the necessary monies to fill the public treasury. Sound familiar? 2008 bank collapse and public bailouts? The Panic of 1873; international banking collapse, in part caused by crazy-wild railroad investment speculations (think, credit-default swaps).
The railroads were known not only for their abuse of private power over Congress, but for exploiting more than 12,000 Chinese immigrant labor, who to this day are effectively wiped out of American history, there not being known so much as one extant document created by any workers during the four-year construction of the publicly-funded, privately held transcontinental railroad. The difference between Chinese worker exploitation today, and in 1865 is trivial. Chinese labor exploited today remains in China, the modern American workplace having been sanitized, and thus without the uncomfortable racist annoyance of immigration.
Yes, this essay is going somewhere, and at this juncture, quickly. Hang on. Here we go. I now introduce you to one Susan B. Anthony, a woman annoying the powerful while clamoring for electoral power for women, in search of legal access to the voting booth for women. Susan B. Anthony was knocked to the ground and struck by police two weeks after she and seven or eight other women cast votes during the election of 1872. She was then arrested, then fined later by the courts in 1873–fined for willfully voting for a member of Congress when it was illegal for women to vote.
Let us move to consider for whom she voted in 1872, that matter being of great importance or else why would Anthony desire it? Anthony’s vote went to the incumbent President U.S. Grant and other Republicans. Her sentiments were captured by the magnanimous promises of the Republican Party to give the demands of women careful consideration.
Anthony, writing to Elizabeth Cady Stanton shortly after the election states, “Well I have been & gone & done it!!–positively voted the Republican ticket…” The Democrats were staunchly opposed to women’s suffrage and thus the two-party system (three-party system) implored Anthony to vote for the lesser of two evils. Sound familiar?
The suffrage struggle assumes the primacy of voting, the legitimacy of voting, assuming the legitimacy of two hundred and thirty years of those men who arrived at the White House. Anthony, and the seven or eight other women who voted with her on that election day in 1872, defended the American system of power by demanding inclusion. Legitimacy of American private power and accumulation of wealth, legitimacy of private ownership of the means of production subsidized by the public was defended by demands from “me-too Anthony.”
The presidential opposition in the form of Mr. Greeley, the socialist, the utopian, the opposer of government subsidies for private-enterprise railroad barons, was politically positioned in alliance with the pesky Democrats, Though the Liberal Republicans opposed slavery, and pushed for agrarian reform, Anthony astutely observed that the festering Obama—- correction, Grant administration was the pragmatic feminist choice–maybe Grant would be more friendly to women’s causes during his second administration one might have imagined Anthony thinking. Sound familiar? The radical presidential candidate, the dangerous socialist Greeley died less than a month after the election. Grant, elected to a second term, fell silent on women’s suffrage.
The Republicans, rather than openly opposing suffrage, gave verbal assurances of reasonableness and compromise. Not forty-eight days, but forty-eight years, after Anthony observed kindly sentiments expressed by the party of President Grant, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution recognized women as persons for the purpose of voting, a solid thirty years after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that corporations are persons. As late as 1917, women’s suffrage marchers were physically assaulted while police refused to protect them. Alice Paul was arrested for blocking street traffic while holding a sign, then put in an insane asylum because, surely, any woman who would block traffic in the interest of wishing to vote must be insane (sound familiar?), but Susan B. Anthony would know nothing of the fate of Paul because Anthony had died four years earlier–died while waiting for the Republican Party to give careful consideration to the rights of women, died eleven years before Alice Paul’s insanity, and fourteen years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
No mention of voter suppression can neglect the hundred years after the US Civil War, that the African-American vote was violently suppressed in the South, and continuing to be suppressed today as “Voting While Black.”
The great irony is that after 200 years of arduous struggles towards suffrage for women and blacks, voting no longer matters, or perhaps, it never did matter. The human rights achievements then, as now, are fought and won outside the confines of mainstream political institutions. Lesson learned? Voting matters less and less, whereas the public policy matters before the populace matters more and more. We have entered a phase of political decline at a time when the consequences of the corporate-state capitalist system veers dangerously close to a final global economic collapse, and dangerously close to human-extinction ecological collapse, and apocalyptically closer to World War III. We no longer have the luxury of waiting, as Susan B. Anthony did, for the political system to function in the public economic interest, in the interest of preserving ourselves through preserving the planetary ecosystem, and in preserving the possibility of human kindness overcoming the economic system pushing for short-term profits pushing for what could only be a short-term nuclear World War III.
The painful irony is that voting is the last thing expected to fix the self-destructive American Empire. What matters is what the people will do; the outcome of the fraudulent elections recedes. Again, what matters is something inconceivable in the US–what the people will do outside the domain of mainstream media and outside the mainstream political system in a murky arena of nebulous popular motion. We Americans, including Susan B. Anthony, do not know what democracy is. Voting is a tool employed in a strategy intended to achieve a democratic outcome, a culture of democracy: mutual respect, community, and power sharing. Democracy is a state of mind, a set of attitudes and a condition of cultural practices, relations, interrelations, interactions, transactions, transferral of information; democracy is the personal characterized by communication and shared consideration. We live not by word alone, but by the quality of our connections with others.
The Personal Is Political. ~ Carol Hanisch 1969
Mark Mason PhD: lecturer in human evolution, anthropology, and human ecology