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A TALE OF RECONSTRUCTION Of the turbulent career of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, adventurer, operator, and first black governor of Louisiana. He reminds one powerfully, says the author, of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
There seemed something almost natural in the collaboration, despite the differences in race. Each man was a newcomer to Louisiana from the midwestern heartland. Each had an instinct for profitable business arrangements. Each was to survive the end of Reconstruction by an opportune change of allegiance. Each would retire from politics rich, claiming that his source of prosperity was honest investment. Each was hot-tempered, and each was full of ambition. A New Orleans paper once described Warmoth as “one of that dangerous class that think it ‘better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’” A Washington observer spoke of Pinchback as having “a kind of guerrilla disposition” with “some of the true soldier in it,” but likewise “a desperation and fearlessness which in an emergency would know no restraints.”
Both, in short, were gamblers, always in search of the right move at the right moment—willing to take risks for high rewards, but not without prior calculation, not on impulse. As it worked out, January of 1872 was the high point of their collaboration. Thereafter the two computed the odds differently, and their paths diverged. Pinchback’s led him to his political high point (at Warmoth’s expense) and his greatest disappointment. It all happened in the fifteen months after the ex-steward had become the presiding officer of Louisiana’s senate.
The full story is labyrinthine in its complexity. But in outline it is this: Warmoth’s enemies were not all Democrats. A substantial faction of Louisiana Republicans disliked and distrusted him and yearned for a greater share of the profits of “reconstructing” the commonwealth. The leader of this group, in 1871, was a man named William Pitt Kellogg—also a northern newcomer—who, at that time, was collector of the Port of New Orleans. As a result his associates were known as the Custom House Republicans.
During the spring and summer of 1872 Grant himself was in trouble. A rebellion in his own party resulted in the creation of a Liberal Republican movement, which denounced corruption both in the administration in Washington and in the southern Republican machines.
Warmoth judged that the mood of the country was changing and that northern support for Radical Reconstruction would not last much longer. So he moved toward the Liberal Republicans. He began to retreat from his staunch advocacy of black rights and in other ways to prepare for a change of base. When a Liberal Republican state ticket was fielded in Louisiana for the fall election of 1872, Warmoth came out in support of it, even when its supporters fused with a large faction of Democrats. Meanwhile, the Custom House Republicans —still loyal to Grant—named Kellogg for governor. They wooed Pinchback, who had gubernatorial ambitions himself. After some deliberation he decided that Kellogg’s forces offered him the best prospects, and he joined them. As immediate compensation they nominated him for congressman-atlarge. But he was interested in bigger game than that if he could not be governor. There was an understanding that if the Kellogg slate won, the new state legislature convening in January of 1873 would elect him to the United States Senate.
So, as Warmoth wrote, “the Warmoth-Pinchback faction … was broken up.” Writing of it a half century later he denounced Pinchback’s alleged ingratitude. “P.B.S. Pinchback I practically appointed to be Lieutenant-Governor of the State and came nearly to wrecking myself with my friends in doing so” was his complaint. He should never have trusted Pinchback, his old man’s memory said. “He was a restless, ambitious man and had more than once arrayed himself against me and my policies. He was a free lance and dangerous, and had to be reckoned with at all times.”
Warmoth had committed his part of the machine to the anti-Grant side; Pinchback was now in Grant’s camp. And this led to the bizarre episode of the “great train race,” which adds a comic footnote to the story.
One autumn Saturday in 1872 saw Pinchback in New York, returning from a tour of New England, where he had been spurring “colored Republicans” to efforts for Grant. Warmoth was in the city, too. The two met—governor and lieutenant governor, both far from home—exchanged personal greetings like old friends, and then Warmoth invited Pinchback to dinner at his hotel that evening and was accepted.
Pinchback now dropped in on Senators William E. Chandler and Henry Wilson, Grant’s campaign managers, and was confronted with a startling piece of information. Due to his changeover to Liberal Republicanism, Warmoth had lost control of the Louisiana legislature. He was, in fact, a lame-duck governor, due to step down in mid-January. The lawmakers had passed new election laws, nullifying the power of Warmoth’s machine to manage the tabulation of the votes in November. Warmoth, of course, had no intention of signing them into law.
But, said Chandler and Wilson, suppose Pinchback were to get back to Louisiana while Warmoth was still out of the state. Then, according to Louisiana law, he would be the acting governor—and could sign those bills. Warmoth would be unable to push through his hand-picked successor. Would Pinchback undertake to try? “If the success of the Republican party is at stake,” Pinchback reports himself as having said, “I dare do anything that will save it.”