March 11, 2004

Article at The New York Sun

A Second Founding As Sordid As the First

There are many historic eras in the annals of New York that lend themselves to excessive romanticization; the 1860s and 1870s are not among them. Walt Whitman's "great place ... the heart, the brain, the focus ... the no more beyond of the western world" was in fact a city of immense human ugliness before it became the incomparable, tolerant New York we accept as a given today.

David Quigley begins his story in 1863, a year notorious for the July Draft Riots that remain the worst outbreak of mob violence in American urban history. He closes in 1880, the final year of federal Reconstruction, whose principles were bitterly, even violently, contested by thousands of New Yorkers.

Two years in a row, in 1870 and 1871, New York Protestants brutally assaulted New York Catholics. The state militia first stood by and then joined in the massacre (historian Michael Gordon called the second Orange Riots the defining moment in the nativist revival of the early 1870s). As President Ulysses Grant began his second term in 1874, the nation and its leading city was entering a half decade-long period of economic contraction, mass unemployment, and escalating class tensions.

Yet more than any other time in the nation's past, Mr. Quigley argues, these years determined just what kind of politics America would have. It was during Reconstruction that Americans fought over and determined the rules of the democratic game. It was a sort of second founding, a debate about the justice of the grand Federal project being undertaken, and New Yorkers were prominent on both of the debate.

This idea of a second founding is not new, having been described recently by Yale Professor of Law Akhil Amar Reed, in his 1997 book, "The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction." The nation's "first founding," in 1787, produced a Constitution that was profoundly skeptical of democracy and that left fundamental questions about slavery and freedom that were only resolved by Reconstruction.

But Mr. Reed's second founding was aspirational, a movement that sought to correct the nearly lethal flaws of the original compact; Mr. Quigley's vision is far baser. According to Mr. Reed, the Reconstruction generation took the crumbling edifice of the first founding and put it on new, higher ground, remaking it into "a temple of liberty and justice for all." To Mr. Quigley, the second founders seem mired in the muck of self-rewarding political aggression and the misguidedness of the original founding.

The new, federal temple of liberty and justice was embodied in Reconstruction's three amendments to the federal Constitution, which outlawed slavery and guaranteed black Americans the right to vote, among many other things. But these amendments had to be backed up with the federal Enforcement Acts, as universal manhood suffrage was far from popular.

For, even as the nation's leaders sought to right the wrongs of slavery and racial discrimination, many working Americans feared for their own economic well-being. The 1860s spawned a metropolitan labor movement increasingly committed to racial exclusion and to a politics of the "white workingman's democracy." The federally coerced remaking of racial and class relations thus gave way to the most violent period of class conflict in American history.

In the election of 1870, the first carried out under the 15th Amendment, federal marshals patrolled New York, protecting black men seeking to vote. As late as 1892, some 8,000 special deputy marshals oversaw election day in New York. Indeed, the "vast majority of all federal spending on the regulation of elections was spent in the North, with nearly half going to the cities of New York State." This is not our image of our broad-minded city or of our liberal heritage.

Wealthy New Yorkers did not behave any better. They saw opportunities, Mr. Quigley writes, to benefit from the chaos and class hostilities. A new generation of reformers, he writes, "replaced antebellum feminism and abolitionist antiracism with a conservative movement dedicated to the defense of class values and a politics of retrenchment."

Central to the new reform agenda was what Mr. Quigley calls "the privileging of the special rights of taxpayers." Reformers imposed property qualifications on both suffrage and jury service (New York retained grand juries of privilege well into the 1960s). They also introduced the idea of the unelected commission, made up of what were unabashedly called the Best Men, to devise regulations and policies that became as binding as laws.

In other words, all classes of New Yorkers were pretty much out for themselves, ruthlessly repressing the rights of others when possible. Mr. Quigley suggests, but doesn't quite say, that today's highly partisan, interest-group dominated American politics is a natural consequence of the politics established by the second founding.

Indeed, the one event from the second founding likely to be familiar to today's voters is the presidential election of 1876, when an unelected federal commission declared Rutherford Hayes the winner over New Yorker Samuel Tilden. The rage of American voters - especially New Yorkers - was not dissimilar from that felt by many in 2000. The American political system survived both events, but not without scars.

New York's own scars were being healed even at the time by Reconstruction's economic rewards: As the Southern ports reopened and the old flow of raw materials from the former Confederacy resumed, the increasingly wealthy city began building the infrastructure - subways, bridges, tunnels - that would make it even wealthier. And as New York became the dominant world city of the 20th century, its citizens created a cosmopolitan self-image, putting behind them the sordid story Mr. Quigley has resurrected in his unsettling book.