On July 26, 1876, President Ulysses Grant sent a letter to South Carolina, explaining why he was not sending federal troops in response to local violence. The previous Election Day, black women had organized into armed factions to guard voting stations against escalating attacks by white supremacists. After a fight on the 4th of July that killed five black men and left many people wounded in the city of Hamburg, the South Carolina governor asked Grant for assistance. “I will give every aid for which I can find law or constitutional power,” replied Grant, who believed that state resources should be used to suppress the race riots, with federal intervention in cases of direct rebellion against government authority. “Government that cannot give protection to the life, property, and all guaranteed civil rights (in this country the greatest is an untrammeled ballot) to the citizen is in so far a failure.” In October, Grant sent troops to South Carolina to stop continuing violence by protesters opposed to the U.S. Constitution’s 15th Amendment.1
With arguments still surfacing in American society more than a century later about judging human civilization by the color of a person’s skin, Grant’s letter from 1876 is a timeless example of how content of character can be exposed through rhetoric.2
1. J.F. Watts and Fred L. Israel, eds., Presidential Documents: The Speeches, Proclamations, and Policies That Have Shaped the Nation from Washington to Clinton (New York: Routledge, 2000), 154-156. Jean Edward Smith, Grant (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 597. Sharon Harley, The Timetables of African-American History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in African-American History (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 174. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Library of America, 1990), 1153.
2. Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse, “Tea Party Pick Causes Uproar On Civil Rights,” The New York Times, May 21, 2010, National. Bob Herbert, “In America: Racism 101,” The New York Times, December 11, 1994, Opinion. Stephen R. Hurst, Associated Press, “Analysis: 2nd Obama Adm. Stumble on Race,” Politics on MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38353054.