The problem with public memory: Benjamin harrison confronts the "southern question"

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President Harrison is a fascinating example of an early rhetorical president. He firmly believed in the limits of his office, but he enacted a progressive strategy that used rhetoric to affirm public policy, shape the public's conscience, and reinforce national identity. Furthermore, given the active racism of his day and the comparative silence of Presidents Arthur, Cleveland, and McKinley, Harrison's support for black civil rights is remarkable. Unfortunately, his efforts were unsuccessful. The Federal Elections Bill passed the House, but it died in the Senate when Republicans were either unwilling or unable to overcome a Democratic filibuster. The Blair Bill also failed to exit the Senate in 1890 when, to Blair's apparent surprise, two senators changed their minds and voted against the measure.55 Since the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, one might conclude that Harrison's attempt at moral suasion did not convince even his own party. There are many reasons why President Harrison failed to secure greater protection for blacks during his administration. Perhaps the most compelling argument is to acknowledge that the institution of the presidency in 1889 was no match for the political strength of the states or the increasingly racist attitudes of white citizens. Still, I contend that Harrison's complicity in the constitution of public memory undermined his ability to effect change. Harrison refigured black rights within the general logics of law, capitalism, and republicanism; however, that rhetoric was no match for the countervailing discourse of place. Elsewhere I have argued that the post-Reconstruction period involved a political culture marked by the politics and rhetoric of place. Through rhetoric, legislation, and coercion, southern conservatives reestablished the caste system of the antebellum era, and although African Americans resisted that process, the politics of place invaded almost every aspect of life in the United States. It affected the constitutional interpretations of the Supreme Court. It influenced the political judgments of Congress. It even defined specific limits on the authority of the president.56 From 1875 to 1901, U.S. presidents engaged in the culture of place to various degrees, but by the turn of the century, their participation had constrained the presidency's authority to protect black rights. While Harrison was the only post-Reconstruction president who even tried to resist the era's racism, he nonetheless participated in the politics of place by supporting a public memory that excluded African Americans. In the second year of Harrison's administration, 1890, Mississippi rewrote its state constitution. The revised document stated that an election official could ask any citizen who wished to register to read and interpret the state constitution. This literacy test was intended to exclude black voters, but it did not name them specifically. Seven southern states would follow Mississippi's example, and President Harrison was powerless to stop them. Not only did he lack the constitutional authority to interfere in state politics, but he also lacked the moral authority to condemn the action, because the language of Mississippi's literacy test was consistent with Harrison's public rhetoric. Mississippi law did not distinguish on the basis of race; therefore, Harrison had little grounds for objection. He had chosen to advance black civil rights with arguments that put the common good and universal law above the particular history of southern racism or the region's specific practices of racial exclusion; therefore, he occupied a discursive space where equality and white supremacy could coexist. Mississippi's constitution exploited that space as did the Jim Crow legislation that followed. When Harrison left office in 1893, the class system of the slavery era was making a significant come back under the guise of "separate but equal," and the absence of African Americans in public memory was reflected in the growing absence of people of color from the political system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBefore the Rhetorical Presidency
PublisherTexas A&M University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781603440714
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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