1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897- President Grover Cleveland (Democratic Party)
”No Force bill! No Negro Domination in the South!”: President Grover Cleveland and the Return to Power of the Democratic Party
. . . but I say to all oppressors, “Have a care for how you goad and imbrute the colored man of the South!” He is weak, but not powerless. He is submissive to wrongs, but not insensible to his rights. He is hopeful, but not incapable of despair. He can endure, but even to him may come a time when he shall think endurance has ceased to be a virtue"--Fredrick Douglass
The right of franchise has been practically annulled in every one of the former slave States, in not one of which, to day, can a man vote, think or act as he pleases. He must conform his views to the views of the men who have usurped every function of government who, at the point of the dagger, and with shotgun, have made themselves masters in defiance of every law or precedent in our history as a government. . . . . To day, red handed murderers and assassins sit in the high places of power, and bask in the smiles of innocence and beauty.-–T. Thomas Fortune, 1884
Increasing racial violence accompanied by a rise in pseudo-scientific and intellectual theory-building in white supremacist circles marked the decade of the 1880s. Hysterical cries of the threat of “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” clenched the sympathies of a good part of the white electorate in the South. Democratic candidates for president rode with this sentiment, endorsing it implicitly or explicitly. Republicans candidates bent to this sentiment allowing the wholesale disfranchisement of their own constituency while attempting to demonstrate to the southern white voters they desired as supporters that they held no regard for black rights. In the North, support for black civil rights sunk to a new post-Civil War low. The 1883 Supreme Court decisions negating much of the 14th amendment and supporting the increasingly segregated state of public accommodations helped tamp down the aspirations of yet another generation of African Americans. These events accompanied a marked decrease in northern white anger at the deeds of the Confederacy. Indeed, there was an increasing tendency to laud the courage and bravery of the Confederate soldiers and ignore the secessionists’ goal of eternal black enslavement not to mention the war which cost over 600,000 lives. So dire was the situation for African Americans that the young writer T. Thomas Fortune lamented that there “are no ‘Liberators’ to-day, and the William Lloyd Garrisons have nearly all of them gone the way of all the world."
The 1884 GOP candidate, James G. Blaine used the strategy of ignoring blacks and tried to lure southern protectionists favoring a high tariff into the party. This was all for naught, however, after he unwisely failed to denounce a remark by a clergyman supporter who termed the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” alienating Irish Catholics especially, as well as, southern whites. This ended the long twenty-four year reign of Republican presidents since the Civil War. Not since James Buchanan won the presidency in 1856 had there been a Democrat in office but a bitter campaign marked by personal attacks and turning on questions of honesty and morality in government yielded victory for the New Yorker Cleveland. African Americans overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party’s nominee James G. Blaine, whose rhetoric, at least, promised blacks “freedom and equality” and condemned violations of voting rights in the South. New York editor T. Thomas Fortune, who later founded the Afro-American League in 1890, forecast disaster in the event of Cleveland’s election. His editorial entitled, “Colored Men Keep Cool,” written in the aftermath of the Cleveland victory reflected the unease blacks felt with the Democratic return to the White House.
Following Cleveland’s electoral victory, he named two stridently anti-African American southerners to his cabinet, Lucius Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi as the Secretary of the Interior, and Augustus H. Garland of Arkansas as the Attorney General. In part, this was a reward for helping restore white political, social, and economic supremacy during Reconstruction while simultaneous advocating industrial development in the South. Later, Cleveland nominated the Mississippian Lamar for the Supreme Court prompting outrage among many of those who remembered Lamar’s role in the “Mississippi Plan” that violently drove blacks out of the mainstream of political life. In 1879 Lamar opposed a measure that affirmed the legality of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. New Hampshire’s Senator William E. Chandler stressed that the issue was not that Lamar was a former Confederate it was that “he still advocates the doctrine of secession as right; and is a bull dozer. . . .” Despite these criticisms Lamar was confirmed.
An 1885 speech by Frederick Douglass analyzed the meaning of the Democratic return to power for blacks. Douglass saw the quandary African Americans faced, as neither party made any effort to sincerely represent their interests and a kind of “silence” prevailed that was reminiscent of the Madisonian-imposed “silence” of the antebellum era. Douglass saw in this “silence” both parties’ convergence:
While it was painfully evident that the Republican party, during the late canvass, had little or nothing to say against the outrages committed upon the newly enfranchised people of the South, it was equally plain that the Democratic party had nothing to say in defense of these outrages.
Nevertheless, Douglass commented that it was “strange,” that blacks were still alarmed by the Republican defeat. Clearly, Douglass was not optimistic that Cleveland would enforce the laws guaranteeing black civil rights. Douglass stated that while he was not making “threats,” and he respected only peaceful methods the frightful specter of class and racial violence was invoked if justice was not forthcoming:
. . . but I say to all oppressors, “Have a care for how you goad and imbrute the colored man of the South!” He is weak, but not powerless. He is submissive to wrongs, but not insensible to his rights. He is hopeful, but not incapable of despair. He can endure, but even to him may come a time when he shall think endurance has ceased to be a virtue. . . .
If the black man continued to be ”driven from the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the schoolhouse, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators. . . .“ fearsome consequences could result, Douglass warned.
Cleveland had but four possible courses of action on civil rights, according to Douglass. First, he could follow Hayes in adopting of a policy of studied indifference, ignoring violations of black civil rights and the Chief Executive’s obligations to enforce the law. Second, he could “pursue a temporizing policy” of “half-hearted” moderation. Third, he could put into effect the “Mississippi plan” facilitating anti-black violence and terrorism, pushing African Americans out of the political arena. Fourth, perhaps the least likely, Cleveland could be faithful to the requirements of the Constitution.
What Cleveland did was to pursue a course between the second and third courses, between the moderation of a violent and repressive anti-black status quo and an even more extreme policy of repression. Cleveland basically endorsed, by his actions and inaction, the policy that had been practiced throughout the 1870s. These actions included driving blacks from the polls in numerous cases, assassinations of southern black political leaders and mass terror and intimidation. President Cleveland’s policy ensured that the federal government would not interfere in these events and processes. The November 1885 massacre of twenty-eight Chinese miners by members of the Knights of Labor in Wyoming forced Cleveland to indict the suspected murderers under the Ku Klux Force Act of 1871. No one was convicted, however, and the trend under Cleveland was that only a handful of convictions each year were from the South and the bulk of prosecutions were for alleged northern violations.
Cleveland continued what had become the tradition of appointing prominent blacks to a few token mid-level federal posts, such as Minister to Liberia, Minister to Haiti, and the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Unsurprisingly, President Cleveland also asked for the resignation of Republican Frederick Douglass as the D. C. Recorder of Deeds in 1886. During the Cleveland administration, however, a controversy erupted over its lack of intervention in the case of John L. Waller, a Kansas black Republican appointed as the American consul to Madagascar by President Harrison in 1891. Following his tenure at his diplomatic post, Waller remained to conduct business in the country. When the French established their heavy-handed colonial rule, Waller was sentenced to twenty years in prison being convicted by a military tribunal for the crime of undermining the French authority in the colonial nation. Black Americans were outraged that the Cleveland administration allowed the former diplomat to languish in prison. Led by one George L. Knox, an Indiana editor and businessman, black protests were successful in persuading President Cleveland to help secure his release within a year.
There was little in the background of President Stephen Grover Cleveland that would lead one to expect that he would play a progressive role in American politics on black interests. Cleveland grew up in areas only sparsely populated by African Americans, and his parents shared the hostility many had toward abolitionists who sought to emancipate enslaved blacks. The future president was born on June 18, 1837 in Caldwell, New Jersey amid modest circumstances. Later the family moved to Fayetteville, New York, where in 1853, the Reverend Richard Cleveland, Grover’s father, died of peritonitis. This forced Cleveland to enter the labor force at the young age of sixteen. Following his move to Buffalo to work for an uncle, he entered politics on the strength of his law and business connections, and won election as District Attorney partially due to the success of the tactic of branding his Republican opponent an abolitionist. In his mid-twenties at the beginning of the Civil War, Cleveland prospered during the war years when the vast majority of able-bodied men his age were in the army. He was a man on the move during the war and advanced his career politically during the period.
As a prosperous lawyer he had the means to escape the war not only could he claim to financially support his family members who had gone to war, he could afford to buy a substitute for $150 to replace him. He had no motivation to join the army, he was raised in a pro-slavery family atmosphere and he demonstrated a distinct lack of concern with slavery or blacks.