by Jeffrey H. Boutwell, Ph.D.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Groton’s George Boutwell took an historic ride with Ulysses S Grant up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill and helped initiate the process by which Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others are today the targets of federal lawsuits connected to the storming of Congress on January 6, 2021.
On the morning of March 23, 1871, George was at his desk in the Secretary's office at the Treasury Department, next door to the White House, when he received a note from Orville Babcock, President Grant’s chief of staff, stating, “The President desires me to say that he will visit the Capitol today at twelve o’clock and will be pleased to have you call here and ride up with him in his carriage.”
Grant & Boutwell Discuss Measures to Protect Black Voting Rights
George hurried over to the White House to join Grant for the carriage ride, during which they discussed the President’s plans to seek additional enforcement measures from Congress to protect Black voting rights in the South. Congress already had passed two enforcement Acts to protect political and civil equality as called for by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (which Boutwell had helped frame as a Congressman), but a third was needed.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups were murdering and intimidating Blacks and their white supporters with impunity, from the Carolinas through the Deep South to Texas and Arkansas.
When Grant & Boutwell First Met
George Boutwell and Ulysses Grant had first met seven years earlier when Grant arrived in Washington to be promoted to Lieutenant General by President Abraham Lincoln and given command of the Union armies.
After arriving from the West on March 8, 1864 and with his uniform still dusty, Grant checked into the Willard Hotel and walked over to the White House reception. A former Governor of Massachusetts, Boutwell in 1864 was a Massachusetts Congressman from Groton, and was attending the reception with his daughter, Georgianna. They arrived a bit late, and Georgianna recalled entering a totally empty Blue Room save for the President and Mrs. Lincoln. The First Lady, despite a well-deserved reputation for mercurial mood swings, was “in the best of spirits,” Georgianna later wrote, “and at once remarked, "The ‘Lion’ is in the other room. You must go into the East Room to see Gen. Grant.”
Boutwell Led Fight to Protect Grant’s Reconstruction Policies
So began a 20-year friendship between George Boutwell and Ulysses Grant that developed during the tumultuous years of Andrew Johnson’s presidency and impeachment and then deepened during Boutwell’s tenure as Grant’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1869 to 1873. Later, as the junior Senator from Massachusetts from 1873 to 1877, Boutwell led the fight to protect the President’s Reconstruction policies of civil and political equality, which were under siege from all quarters.
Even after both men left office, their friendship continued, culminating in George Boutwell being one of 12 pallbearers, along with Generals Sherman, Sheridan and others, at the New York City funeral procession and burial of Ulysses Grant on August 8, 1885 that was witnessed by more than one and a half million Americans.
On that March 23, 1871, however, as the Presidential carriage made its way up Pennsylvania Avenue shortly after noon, Grant was expressing doubts to Boutwell about the wisdom of asking Congress for yet more enforcement power. Opposition was growing in both the South and the North to interventions by the federal government to protect voting and other rights mandated by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
Boutwell & Others Urged Grant to Stay the Course
Although the President remained committed to protecting those rights, he was being squeezed by his own Republican supporters in the North, where public sentiment for Reconstruction was weakening. George Boutwell recalls how Grant was concerned that “the public mind is already disturbed by the charge that I am exercising despotic powers in the South.” It was a sentiment that future presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy would share when they employed federal marshals and troops to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and Oxford, Mississippi in 1962.
When they reached Capitol Hill, Boutwell was joined by several members of Congress and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish in urging Grant to stay the course. Following an hour-long discussion, George remembers with relief how “the President returned to his original position” and issued his message to Congress, calling for legislation that “shall effectually secure life, liberty and property, and the enforcement of law, in all parts of the United States.”
The following day, the New York Times reported how work in both the House and the Senate was interrupted by the President’s message, which described a desperate “condition of affairs... rendering life and liberty insecure” throughout the South. Just weeks earlier, one of many such explosions of violence by rampaging whites had killed as many as 30 Blacks in Meridian, Mississippi. Violence and Klan activity were also widespread in South Carolina, enough so that Grant issued a Presidential proclamation on March 24, requested by the Governor of South Carolina, ordering “combinations of armed men” organized by the Klan and other paramilitary groups to disperse within 20 days.
Grant Signed the KKK Act A Month Later
Congress acted swiftly on Grant’s request, and less than a month later, on April 20, the President returned to Capitol Hill to sign the Ku Klux Klan Act. Also known as the Third Enforcement Act, the law prohibits interference with voting and other civil rights while also prohibiting the use of “force, intimidation, or threat” to prevent government officials and officeholders from performing the duties of their office.
In the short term, the KKK Act and resulting federal prosecutions were effective in disbanding and dispersing the Klan and other white supremacist groups in South Carolina and elsewhere. In the longer term, Northern fatigue with Reconstruction and the ascendancy of white supremacist, Southern "redemption" and political control in the South led to implementation of Jim Crow laws that lasted well into the 20th century.
On Feb 16, 2021, the KKK Act Became Basis of A Federal Lawsuit
On February 16, 2021, however, the KKK Act became the basis for a federal lawsuit filed by Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, charging Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the extremist groups the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, with conspiring to prevent Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty to certify the 2020 Presidential election. Specifically, the lawsuit contends that Trump and others “conspired to incite an assembled crowd to march upon and enter the Capitol of the United States for the common purpose of disrupting” the counting of Electoral College votes on January 6, 2021.
Being from Mississippi, Bennie Thompson knows as well as anyone that the violence and intimidation that overwhelmed the Capitol that day were little different from the white supremacist violence that ultimately blocked the Reconstruction policies of Ulysses Grant and supporters like George Boutwell in the 1870s.
Boutwell Chaired Committee That Produced Report Documenting Klan Violence
Indeed, as the junior Senator from Massachusetts following his stint at Treasury, George Boutwell chaired a Senate committee that produced a 2,000-page report documenting such violence carried out by the Klan and other white militias during the 1875 Mississippi state elections. Known as the Boutwell report, the document is available online at: Mississippi in 1875: Report of the Select committee to inquire into the Mississippi election of 1875.
Then, on March 5, 2021 a second lawsuit based on the KKK Act was filed by Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, likewise in his civilian capacity, naming Trump, Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., and Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Missouri.
Swalwell’s suit alleges as well that the defendants violated local Washington, D.C. laws, including an anti-terrorism act, by inciting the January 6 riot and, among other results, inflicted emotional distress on the members of Congress who were forced to flee for their lives.
This past December, Eric Swalwell was one of the House of Representatives impeachment managers against President Trump; in 1868, George Boutwell was one of seven House impeachment managers in the proceedings against Andrew Johnson.
It remains to be seen whether Trump and others so named in the lawsuit will be held accountable for their actions at undermining the legitimacy of America’s electoral process, including with falsehoods which the former President and current members of Congress continue to spread today.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Ulysses Grant and George Boutwell drove to Capitol Hill to seek ways of protecting our democracy. Less than three months ago, Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Congress seeking to overthrow it. It is sobering to think how little has changed in the intervening century and a half in terms of continued threats to our democracy.
[Jeffrey Boutwell’s great, great-grandfather was George Boutwell’s second cousin, and they share a common ancestor, James Boutwell, who emigrated from England as an indentured servant in 1632 to Salem, Massachusetts. With a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is the author of the forthcoming “Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Race, Money, and Politics, 1818-1905.” He is retired from a career on international science and security issues and lives in Columbia, Maryland.]