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A detailed, despairing letter on campaign politics after the reelection of Ulysses S. Grant. Lawrence observes the humiliating defeat of Democrats and “Liberal Republicans” – who united behind Horace Greeley because of corruption in the Grant administration – in the Election of 1872. Lawrence laments the elevation of personality over merit and virtue in elections, an observation which resonates today. He also expresses concern about how newly enfranchised African Americans tended to vote. “The negroes are naturally disposed to support those who are in power & whom they invest with superior dignity, on account of the possession of power. …the extraordinary denouement of the Cincinnati Convention has placed in bold relief the mode most unsatisfactory to an intelligent people, by which party conventions are constituted & which are readily made, the instruments of the vilest partisan combinations, carried on by men without character & without principle.” WILLIAM BEACH LAWRENCE.
Autograph Letter Signed, to Henry Anthony. Newport [R.I.], November 25, 1872. 4 pp.
Ochre Point, Newport
25 Nov. 1872
Dear Governor Anthony
Your kindness in supplying me in former years with the Congressional Globe induces me to solicit the favor of the sequel to my set. I have to the end of the 41st. Congress 2d. Session 1869-70. I have not the 1s. or 2d. Session of the 42d. Congress.- nor the annual reports, accompanying the last message.
I have not forgotten my promise to write a paper on the changes to be effected in the character of the Executive office, for which the existing arrangement in Subjects furnishes valuable suggestions, but the task which I somewhat hastily  assured, to enter on the, (to rue,) novel task of a lecturer, has occupied all the time that I could give to my library, while the events of the late elections and the matters, which preceeded it, induce me to think that the question of a constitutional amedmt does not stand precisely as it did some months since. The utter dissolution of the Democratic party, by the insane nomination of Greeley, gives to General Grant the power of retaining his position, by repeated election, as long as he may desire it. Not only is all outside opposition removed, but the plan of those, who attempted, in the party itself, to secede from the support of administration has been signally defeated, that the same cause is not likely to be repeated by any of those who remained steadfast to their chief. If the principle of the civil service bill is carried out, as was professed, the same panacea which attaches to subordinate places may readily be applied to the highest, especially, when it is considered that it is a remedy for those periodical agitations, which Presidential elections formerly occasioned. There is another element not hereafter to be overlooked & that is the negro vote – the negroes are naturally disposed to support those who are in power & whom they invest with superior dignity, on account of the possession of power. Moreover, the extraordinary denouement of the Cincinnati Convention has placed in bold relief the mode most unsatisfactory to an intelligent people, by which party conventions are constituted & which are readily made, the instruments of the vilest partisan combinations, carried on by men without character & without principle. I know not that Belmont’s cause, in deferring the Democratic Convention, till after the nondescript assemblage at Cincinnati, is to be ascribed to any cause other  incompetency to deal with such matters, but if his object had been, in furtherance of the interests of Rothschild’s financial scheme, to affect the reelection of General Grant, he could not have taken a more effectual course than he adopted, for the purpose. In giving it as my opinion, in these rambling remarks, that the election of General Grant for a third & fourth term is as certain as any event, which has not actually occurred, I wish to be understood not as suggesting what I should advocate, but as expressing what I have deduced from the facts before us.
If no unconditional responsibility could be adopted and the same influence, brought by the people through their representatives to bear on the Executive as in England and Canada, the question of the individual, who occupied the Presidency would be of comparative little importance & much might be yielded to prevent constant oscillations in the policy of the country.
My arrangements are to be at Washington for the winter on 15th. of next month. I have taken at Wourty’s the same rooms which we last occupied.
Carl Schurz led a group of prominent Republicans who walked out of the party in 1871-1872, in disgust at the increasing corruption in the Grant administration and in Reconstruction state governments in the South. Details of the Credit Mobiliér scandal emerged from the pages of the anti-administration New-York Sun that year, and the Republicans were forced to replace Vice President Schuyler Colfax on the ticket because of his involvement. Lyman Trumbull, George Julian, Charles Francis Adams, Charles Sumner, and newspaper editors like Whitelaw Reid and Horace Greeley joined the Liberal Republican movement, and conspired to hold a national convention in Cincinnati in May 1872. As is implied in this letter, wealthy New York financier and Democrat August Belmont worked behind the scenes with Schurz for a unified ticket of Democrats and Liberal Republicans.
The alliance was doomed to failure, not least because of how markedly different the two groups were: most Liberal Republicans were former abolitionist Radicals, and Democrats were strongest in the white South. Greeley himself, the eventual nominee, had publicly supported “peaceable secession” in 1864, during Lincoln’s reelection campaign. Belmont privately called the Greeley nomination “one of those stupendous mistakes which it is difficult even to comprehend,” but had committed to back him nonetheless. Grant won huge in November – his total of 55% of the popular vote was “the largest majority in any Presidential election between 1836 and 1892.”
Lawrence’s simplistic analysis of African American support for Grant has been supplanted by recent historians such as Eric Foner. Rather than supporting Grant because “the negroes are naturally disposed to support those who are in power,” African Americans correctly believed that the Republican Party was the surest guarantor of their voting rights. Grant and his Attorney General, Amos Akerman, prosecuted suspected KKK members in the South, and the Republican Party had a Civil Rights Bill before Congress that promised to desegregate inns, streetcars, and other public accommodations.
Lawrence was also incorrect in prophesying three or four terms in office for Grant, and the continued downfall of the Democratic Party. An economic panic hit in 1873. The Democrats profited from the hard times and criticism of Republican corruption, taking the House of Representatives for the first time since 1858. Grant decided to respect the two-term precedent. The 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was one of the closest in American history. Hayes would win, but Democrats achieved the end of Reconstruction and the “redemption” (Democratic rule) of the Southern states.
We do not know the nature of the proposed “constitutional amedmt” Lawrence mentions. The 15th amendment, the last of the “Reconstruction amendments,” was ratified in 1870. It could be a reference to women, who were explicitly denied the right to vote by the 15th amendment. The recipient of this letter, Henry B. Anthony, was a cousin of Susan B. Anthony and a supporter of an amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage.
William Beach Lawrence (1800-1881) was a wealthy politician and jurist, born in New York City, graduated from Columbia, and moved to Rhode Island. He served as chargé d’affaires in the State Department under Henry Clay, as lieutenant governor of Rhode Island (1851-1852), and as acting governor in 1852. Lawrence published essays and books on international law, and was vice president of the New-York Historical Society. He owned a large estate at Ochre Point, Newport, with a 10,000-volume library. Cornelius Vanderbilt would later purchased part of Ochre Point, on which he constructed the famous “Breakers” mansion.
Henry B. Anthony (1815–1884) was a Republican Senator from Rhode Island, known to his colleagues as the “Father of the Senate,” the longest-serving Senator to that point in U.S. history. He had served two terms as Governor of Rhode Island (1849-1851).
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
(New York, 1988), pp. 499-511.