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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

House Bill # 1

You might remember that last week, I wrote about things that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could do that would cost very little money and yet be a tremendous boon for our nation. Thus I was very pleased to see that she and other Democrats are working on House Bill # 1, which will be the first proposed law filed next January. Because of the complicated legalese required, HB #1 still is a work in progress – but its chief aims are clear:

• End the dark money that has dominated elections since the Supreme Court overruled Congress’s last attempt to limit campaign spending with its Citizens United decision, which made a false equivalency of money with free speech. In accordance with that, Super PACs will have to release the names of those who fund them, and we ordinary folks will know much more about who is trying to buy our government. This will bring Washington more in line with the standards of Government-in-the-Sunshine rules that Florida has had for a generation.

• Remove temptation from federal elected officials by reforming ethics laws. Members of Congress will be banned from serving on for-profit boards, which will end many conflicts of interest, especially in writing tax law. The Office of Government Ethics will be given more enforcement tools to ensure that members of Congress do not use their positions for personal enrichment.

• Federal employees will not be allowed to accept money from their former employers in exchange for taking lower-paid government jobs. This abuse has been going on particularly with financial agencies: Wall Street brokers who make millions are given fat bonuses to get themselves inside places such as the Security Exchange Commission. Top pay in federal agencies is a fraction of what these guys make on the Street, so bonuses encourage them to move to Washington and do their best to allow the rich to get richer.

• Finally, the thing I emphasized last week: creating greater equality in voting access. HB #1 would promote a national voter registration system, which not only will make it easier to vote, but also will help prevent fraudsters from voting in more than one state. It will provide funds for new and more secure voting machines; bolster cybersecurity against foreign interference; and end partisan gerrymandering by adopting national guidelines on how we draw congressional districts.

I’m all for HB #1, and if you are, too, please let our local representatives know. I’m sure Kathy Castor in Hillsborough and Charlie Crist in Pinellas will support the bill, but if you live in eastern Hillsborough or Polk, where Ross Spano recently won, you might contact him. Ditto with Gus Bilirakis of northern Hillsborough and parts of Pasco and Pinellas.

You can see right there the need for reform on gerrymandered district-drawing: Hillsborough should be entitled to two seats, all within our own boundaries. And I didn’t even mention how Manatee comes into this. If HB #1 passes in 2019, we can do fair reapportioning after the 2020 census and have a congressional delegation that truly represents us. As it is, voters are not choosing their elected officials as much as the politicians are choosing their voters.

Another Place, Another Time:
Julia Dent Grant

I recently did some work for Southern Illinois University Press. SIU is an excellent academic publisher, but like most things in higher ed these days, it lacks money – so in lieu of a check, they paid me in books. That doesn’t exactly work at Publix, but I now know much more than I did about three important women of the Civil War. The first that I wanted to read was The Personal Memories of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses Grant). Along with many other historians, I have written of her frequent presence at General Grant’s battle headquarters: his staff allegedly wanted her there to keep him from drinking.

Of course she didn’t acknowledge that – nor any other failure on the part of her husband. Anything that went wrong in both his military career and his presidency was someone else’s fault – if she even acknowledged that anything had gone wrong. Many things did, especially in the White House, when his administration was the most corrupt of a very corrupt nineteenth century. I’m willing to believe, however, that he did not intend this and instead was merely the puppet of wealthy men who flattered his ego to become even more wealthy.

Even though his southern Illinois family managed to send him to West Point, Ulysses Grant was neither wealthy nor a particularly good soldier. He resigned his commission after nine years, and during the next decade worked without distinction in southern Illinois farming and business jobs that his father and father-in-law created for him. Julia Dent adored him, though, and they married in 1848, while he still was in the Army. Ironically, two of Grant’s groomsmen were West Pointers who sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and they would surrender to him in 1865.

Several members of Julia’s Missouri-based family also sided with the South, including a brother who became a prisoner of war; famous Confederate General James Longstreet was her cousin. The Dent family owned slaves, and the Grants themselves took four slaves with them when they moved from Kentucky to Missouri. After the war began, Julia Grant was careful to keep these “servants” in Missouri, where slavery remained legal throughout the war.

Her husband’s crucial role on the Union side was not motivated by anti-slavery sentiment; instead it was career advancement. He became a Republican, the party of Lincoln, largely because he foresaw that if he was credited with winning the war, the party would reward him with the presidency. That happened in 1868, the first election after Lincoln’s death. While there was some consistency in Ulysses’ support for the Union, Julia’s politics were a confused set of contradictory ideas. She initially called herself a Democrat – although, of course, this was long before women could vote. She never even considered siding with the Union on the issue of slavery, but neither did she use the handy excuse of secession that had great appeal for people who didn’t want to talk about slavery.

Writing of an argument with Confederate women in Mississippi, when her husband was fighting there, she said: “Then they talked of the Constitution, telling me the action of the [federal] government was unconstitutional. Well, I did not know a thing about this dreadful Constitution and told them so. They seemed much astonished and asked: ‘Why, surely you have studied it?’ ‘No, I have not; I would not know where to look for it even if I wished to read it.’”

Similarly, she sympathized with her husband when he banned Jews from crossing Union lines – and then, probably concerned about book sales, conceded that Congress was correct to reprimand him for this innocent mistake. Her difficulty in seeing anyone who was not of her Southern-belle class showed again when the war ended and she returned to Missouri. She wrote: “Our colored people had all left, but their places were readily filled by German and French men and women.” In the next breath, however, she acknowledged, “We had a great deal of company, and then it was that we missed the old family servants.”

Julia’s Memoirs, Part 2

The Grants moved to New Jersey soon after the Civil War, a huge change from their Kentucky-Missouri-southern Illinois culture, and they would remain on the East Coast for the rest of their lives. Often their homes were provided by Ulysses’ political supporters, as he continued to show a real talent for bankruptcies. That information is supplied in the footnotes, of course, as Julia said little. The big move from the Midwest to New Jersey also goes largely unexplained, except to imply better educational opportunities for her three sons.

Putting them in school was an excellent idea, especially given that this was only a few years after her children accompanied her to the fierce battle of Vicksburg in 1863, when her youngest was under six. She not only routinely put her children at risk, but also felt free to commandeer military escorts on trains and boats – always politely, merely asking her husband’s subordinates if they would be so kind as to protect her as she went hither and yon.

The White House years pass quickly through the memoir with little discussion beyond the details of dress, flowers, and food, along with occasional snide remarks about someone’s appearance or manners. Similar detail of style, not substance, characterizes the last chapters – fully a third of the book – when the couple toured the world from Europe through Asia and points in between, again at the expense of others. Not surprisingly, Julia Grant greatly admired the aristocracy of the Victorian Age and was clueless about its politics and approaching end. As you doubtless can tell, I liked her better before I knew her better. Next week I’ll tell you about two other women of her place and time.

doris@ dweatherford.com

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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