As a distant cousin of George Boutwell, I knew little about him growing up, but came to be fascinated by his more than 60 years in public life while reading Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. In his compelling but profoundly depressing account of the dying days of Reconstruction, Lemann tells the story of how George chaired a Senate select committee in 1876 that traveled to Mississippi to investigate white supremacist violence against Blacks and their white supporters.
In learning more about George, I discovered what a key figure he was, from 1839 to 1905, in seeking to "redeem America’s promise" of racial equality, economic equity, and a humane foreign policy, issues that today reverberate in strident debates over Black Lives Matter, wealth inequality, and the uses and abuses of American power abroad. During that momentous time in America's growth, George Boutwell was at the center of efforts to abolish slavery, assist President Lincoln in funding the Union war effort, frame and enact the Fourteenth and Fifteenth civil rights amendments, impeach President Andrew Johnson, lay the foundations of the modern American economy with President Grant, investigate white terrorism in Mississippi in the 1870s, update the U.S. legal code, and join forces with Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, William James, Jane Addams and others to oppose American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba after the Spanish-American War.
Though his story has been long neglected, George in recent years has been emerging from the shadows, thanks to biographies and histories by Eric Foner on Reconstruction, Ron Chernow and Ronald C. White on Ulysses S. Grant, Allen C. Guelzo on Abraham Lincoln, Brenda Wineapple and David O. Stewart on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Charles Lane on the U.S. Secret Service, Stephen Kinzer on the Spanish-American War, and Richard White on the Gilded Age.
George's story is also wonderfully entertaining, as this self-educated son of a Massachusetts farming family would do battle with American political royalty, including Henry Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Teddy Roosevelt, and even John F. Kennedy, given that Boutwell's 2,000-page Senate report in 1876 on white supremacist violence in Mississippi would directly contradict Kennedy’s perpetuation of the myth of the "Lost Cause" of Southern white redemption as found in Profiles in Courage in 1956.
Portrait of George S. Boutwell displayed
at the U.S. Treasury Department
From thwarting the Wall Street gold conspiracy of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk on Black Friday in 1869 to denying the outrageous restitution claims of Antonio Pelletier, the “Last of the Ocean Slave Traders,” George's story was too good to pass up. As I continue to learn more about George, including the deep friendship he developed with Ulysses S. Grant, I've become increasingly impressed by his significant contributions to our ongoing process of "redeeming America's promise."