"The Strong Arm of the Military Power of the United States": The Chicago Fire, the Constitution, and Reconstruction

By Slap, Andrew L. | Civil War History, June 2001 | Go to article overview

"The Strong Arm of the Military Power of the United States": The Chicago Fire, the Constitution, and Reconstruction


Slap, Andrew L., Civil War History


"There must be some limit to the authority of the Army or there will be no security to civil rights," proclaimed a letter to the governor in November 1871. The state legislature agreed, passing a resolution "that we declare unlawful, and an infraction of the constitution of this State and of the United States, the late military occupation." The letter and resolution, surprisingly, did not refer to President Ulysses S. Grant's use of nine companies of United States troops in South Carolina to quell the Ku Klux Klan in October 1871. This outrage against "military usurpation" actually did not occur in the South at all, but in Illinois. During the great Chicago fire of October 1871, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan dispatched troops to help, eventually declaring martial law to maintain order in the city. Sheridan, though, did not consult the state authorities and according to Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, the United States could protect a state against domestic violence only "on application of the Legislature, or of the Executive," of that state. The Republican governor of Illinois, John M. Palmer, petitioned the state legislature to condemn Sheridan, Maj. General William Tecumseh Sherman, and President Grant for establishing military rule. "Under the constitution," the governor insisted, "it is left to the State authorities to determine the necessity for Federal aid, and no officer of the army, under any circumstances, is at liberty without their consent, to interfere in their internal affairs." Palmer declared the Federal government's use of military force after the Chicago fire "subversive of the principles of free government."(1)

At first glance, the Chicago fire controversy, except for its location, appears similar to debate over martial law in South Carolina. Faced with the inability of state authorities to control the increasing Ku Klux Klan activity in the South, Republicans in Congress had used the Force Bill of April 1871 to empower the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and use the armed forces to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Six months later, Grant proclaimed a condition of lawlessness existed in nine South Carolina counties, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and sent federal troops to occupy the region. Many contemporaries compared the actions of the government in Chicago and South Carolina, but significant differences existed. The matter of geography was not trivial in 1871. United States soldiers marching into South Carolina conjured images of the recent Civil War for all concerned. The purpose of the troops in South Carolina--the protection of African Americans--complicated matters by injecting the issue of race. The absence of sectional and racial tensions in the Chicago controversy provides a unique perspective on the nation's attitudes toward Reconstruction and federal power. Perhaps even more importantly, while the Force Bill gave legal sanction to the United States soldiers in South Carolina, the actions of the federal government in Chicago clearly violated the law and the Constitution. The Chicago fire thus demonstrated the range of constitutional conservatism within the Republican party.(2)

Historians have neglected the constitutional and Reconstruction issues involved in the Chicago fire. Karen Sawislak and Carl Smith both recently examined the federal government's use of troops in Chicago but analyzed it only in the context of their studies of social and class relationships in Gilded Age cities. Works on Reconstruction omit the Chicago fire entirely. The unconstitutional nature of the federal government's actions in Chicago and the muted outrage of the North, though, challenge the standard interpretation that the Republican commitment to the Constitution and the old federal system limited the possibilities of Reconstruction. The inability to protect African Americans, Phillip S. Paludan argues, "was partly due to the limited view of Federal power that manifested itself throughout the Reconstruction experience. …

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