The Politics of Frustration
C ONGRESSIONAL Democrats, aglow with spectacular wins in the 1867 elections, chafed impatiently awaiting the next presidential election, confident that political racism had ignited a political revolution. What made the situation more intolerable was their inability to thwart Republicans from putting the finishing touches on Reconstruction.1
Wood was just as frustrated, and his patience finally snapped. On January 15, 1868, during debate over increasing discretionary powers of the "army of occupation," he lashed out that it was "a bill without a name, a child without a name and probably without a father, a monstrosity, a measure the most infamous of the many infamous acts of this infamous Congress." Before he finished, Speaker Colfax ruled him out of order for violating procedures under the Sixty-second Rule in expressing contempt for the House. Taking the cue, Republicans John A. Bingham of Ohio and Henry Dawes urged Wood's censure unless he apologized. "Mr. Speaker," Wood answered, "I have no explanation to make." Immediately, Republicans moved the censure by a strict party vote, 114 to 39.2
Far from harming Wood, the reprimand became a badge of honor among Democrats, a mark of stature as a Democratic congressman of the first rank. Despite the criticism heaped upon him, his outburst was a symptom of how little actual power the party had in Congress. Even the normally hostile New York World, while it admitted Wood's language was impolitic, praised his sentiments as true and just.3
All the same, Wood lusted for revenge and found a scapegoat in General Oliver O. Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau. White Southerners and Northern Democrats despised the bureau as a symbol of federal interference in state sovereignty leading toward black equality. Their fury peaked when Congress expanded the bureau's mandate and empowered it to run military tribunals until states were reconstructed. In March, Wood led party efforts to destroy not only the bureau, but Howard as well.