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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

January 5, 2022: 2022 Anniversaries: 1872 and Henry Wilson

[A few years back I started January by highlighting some of the historic anniversaries we’d be commemorating in the year to come. It was a fun series, so I thought I’d do the same this year with some 2022 anniversaries. Leading up to a special post on predictions for 2022!]

How a vice presidential publication helps us rethink an administration.

In that prior historic anniversaries series, I dedicated a post to the thorny question of how we remember Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, and more exactly how we acknowledge his administration’s significant failures while still highlighting some of its genuinely impressive and inspiring elements. Rather than repeat myself here, I’ll ask you to check out that post and then come on back here.

Welcome back! Grant’s first Vice President, former Indiana Congressman and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, declined to seek the office for a second time (at least in part due to significant conflicts between him and Grant related to those ongoing scandals), and so Grant selected a new running mate for his 1872 reelection campaign (and thus a new Vice President once Grant defeated Democratic nominee Horace Greeley and earned that second term): Henry Wilson, a longtime Massachusetts Senator and leading member of the abolitionist Radical Republicans since before the Civil War. Wilson had actively sought the Vice Presidential nomination in 1868, and so was poised to make a real contribution to Grant’s second term and the period’s ongoing battles over Reconstruction, among other issues. Unfortunately he suffered a serious stroke in May 1873, just a few months after Grant’s second inauguration, and although he stayed in office his health declined thereafter until he passed away after a second stroke in 1875.

While those health issues likely led Wilson to be a less active contributor to Grant’s second term than he would have liked, another 1872 moment both exemplifies his impressive voice and illustrates the stakes for that administration’s ongoing efforts. In the same year he won the Vice Presidency, Wilson published (with the prominent Boston publisher J.R. Osgood and Company) volumes 1 and 2 of his magisterial The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, an important early scholarly effort to trace the lead up to and events of the Civil War (volume 3 would be published after his death, in 1877). In an era when the propagandistic efforts to reframe the Civil War (and related histories of slavery and race) around white supremacist narratives were well underway, Wilson’s book offered instead an abolitionist account of slavery’s centrality to the war, the Confederacy, and (at least implicitly) Reconstruction’s ongoing debates and conflicts. That the soon-to-be Vice President of the U.S. wrote and published such a book reminds us that whatever its faults, Grant’s administration was fighting for that abolitionist vision on a number of levels that we can and must remember (and be inspired by) today.

Next anniversary tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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