What’s a prez to do? Grant and the Klan (H. W. BRANDS, JAN 27, 2024, A User’s Guide to History)

South Carolina was the test case. South Carolina had long been the most troublesome of states; it was the loudest agitator for states’ rights and the first state to vote for secession. In 1871, South Carolina allowed the Klan to rampage out of control, threatening and committing violence, including murder, against black men who were trying to exercise their right to vote. Judges and juries in South Carolina, even if they had been inclined to deliver justice to black victims, were themselves intimidated.

Grant had to decide what to do. If he did nothing, much of the victory his army had won during the war might be lost during the peace. Federal authority would be nullified even without secession. South Carolina’s bad example would surely spread.

He pondering deploying the army, but he wasn’t sure of his authority to do so. Under the Constitution he was commander in chief, but that didn’t mean he could dispatch the army whenever and wherever he wished. Moreover, once he sent in the army, how would he extricate it? The army might impose good behavior on South Carolinians, but what would prevent them from bad behavior once the army left? The army couldn’t stay in South Carolina forever.

Grand decided he couldn’t do nothing. To bolster his authority, he had his allies in Congress present a bill to authorize the use of force against the Klan. His model was a force act Congress had approved in the 1830s giving Jackson authority to suppress a potential rebellion in South Carolina when that state was complaining about a tariff it didn’t like. The Ku Klux Klan Act, as it was called when passed, aligned the legislative branch with the executive on the matter of enforcing federal law in the South. Whether the judicial branch would object remain to be seen.

Grant was willing to take that chance. He ordered the army into South Carolina for the purpose of enforcing federal law and breaking up the Klan. Martial law allowed the arrest of many hundreds of Klansmen and fellow travelers without the requirement of habeas corpus. Others got the message and fled ahead of the troops.

Southerners and Democrats howled that Grant was making himself a military dictator. Having been called worse things during the war— butcher and drunkard, most often—he was unfazed.

The action was more successful than he had hoped. Although the detainees couldn’t be charged under federal law with anything worse than conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights— murder, assault and most other crimes remained under the exclusive jurisdiction of states in those days— several hundred were prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned or fined.

The political effect was the most important consequence. The Klansmen and their abettors realized they weren’t beyond the reach of the law. Grant’s action ended the reign of the Klan in the South, until it was resurrected and expanded to other sections of the country in the 20th century.

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