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Staying the Course

June 20, 2019

Before ratification of the 20th Amendment, the prescribed date for the beginning of Congress’s annual session was the first Monday of December.  The U.S. Constitution does afford some leeway.  Article I, Section 4, Paragraph 2, although setting a fixed day, then reneges by stating “unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.”

Appointing a different day is exactly what President Grant asked Congress to do in 1871.  He wanted them to meet the day after the previous Congress adjourned.  After giving them five days to get organized, he wrote to the Speaker of the House on March 9: “There is a deplorable state of affairs existing in some portion of the South demanding the immediate attention of Congress.”

What was this “deplorable state of affairs?”  The Ku Klux Klan was suppressing the vote of the former slaves by unleashing an epidemic of violence and murder on them and on any whites who came to their defense.

The previous Congress had passed two Enforcement Acts which pertained to voters’ rights, but they failed to give Grant the authority necessary to defeat the Klan.  Men of principle, who had opposed slavery in Congress and on the battlefield and who had supported the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, had become rather lackadaisical in protecting the civil rights of former slaves.  Senator Sumner, who before the Civil War suffered a beating from a proslavery Democrat, and Senator Schurz, who had been one of the Northern generals at Gettysburg, were trying to move the political discussion away from Reconstruction issues.  Schurz was even planning to work against Grant’s re-election in 1872.

But Grant continued to press the issue.

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