We are living through a great period of reappraisal. Confederate statues (sometimes not just Confederate statues) are coming down and even Charlottesville City Council has voted to no longer recognize Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as an official holiday. This is dramatic, even dizzying, but historians have always been re-evaluating certain figures from our past. Alexander Hamilton was a musty figure tainted with scandal until the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ron Chernow wrote a thick book about him—was a hair on the short side, which inspired Lin Manuel-Miranda to write a hit Broadway musical about government finance. Confederate generals might be pulled down from their pedestal, but Hamilton was newly put up on one.
We have, on multiple occasions, argued for a more positive reappraisal of John Underwood, a Clarke County lawyer who before the Civil War was physically run out of the state for his opposition to slavery—and who after the war was responsible for the state constitution that gave African-Americans the right to vote, and gave all men the right to elect local officials. (Before the war, they’d been appointed by judges.) If Underwood had had his way, women would have had the right to vote, as well. In many ways, Underwood was the man who brought democracy to Virginia—yet generations of Virginians were taught in their official textbooks that Underwood was a “fortune hunter” who imposed a noxious document on the state.
In his recent book about the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe offers up another figure worthy of reappraisal in a different way: Carter Glass.
Glass was a newspaper publisher from Lynchburg who is best known for serving as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the treasury—and setting up the Federal Reserve System to regulate the nation’s monetary system. Glass went on to serve 26 years in the U.S. Senate, where he was also an authority on financial matters. One of the key parts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a law that bears Glass’ name—the Glass-Steagall Act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It can be rightly said that Glass was an architect in preventing financial panics, not just once but twice. We should not be surprised that Harvard named a building in its business school after Glass. He is a giant of the American economic system. He was twice on the cover of Time magazine. A mountain range in Antarctica is named after him. For a time, his image was on the $50,000 Treasury bill. There’s another side to Glass, though, one that McAuliffe lays painfully bare in his book. “Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism”: Glass was the mastermind of disenfranchising African-American voters and creating a new political order in Virginia that resembled an oligarchy more than it did a democracy.
McAuliffe calls Glass “a notorious racist”—was a hair on the short side, weasy words to use, but history provides plenty of evidence. After the Civil War, there was a moment when it looked as if the South might reconcile itself to the end of slavery. In Virginia, African-Americans were elected to both the General Assembly and Congress. The legislature abolished the whipping post and the poll tax. Danville elected a black majority to town council that then hired an integrated police force. All this was proved entirely too much for the state’s conservative Democratic establishment. In time, they regained control of the state government, and proceeded to do whatever they could to restrict the right of African-Americans to vote. The Underwood Constitution made that difficult. The solution was obvious: Write a new one. The dominant figure at the convention that did so was Carter Glass.
Glass was quite plain what the goal was: “…to eliminate the darkey as a force in Virginia politics.” We apologize for the language but it was the language of the times. “Discrimination!,” Glass declared. “Why, that is precisely what we propose. That, exactly, is what this Convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limits of the federal Constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of legally.”
And that’s exactly what Virginia’s 1902 Constitution did. It disenfranchised virtually every black voter in the state and lots of white ones, as well. The convention knew better than to ask voters to disenfranchise themselves, so the constitution was never put to a vote. Instead, it was simply proclaimed. Glass was complicit in a kind of legal coup that cut the number of voters in Virginia in half – 264,208 Virginians voted in the 1900 presidential election, but only 130,410 in 1904. Most of those eliminated had been voting Republican—the progressives of the day—which allowed the state’s conservative Democrats to consolidate power. For much of the 20th century, Virginia’s senators and governors were effectively chosen by an even smaller electorate in a Democratic primary. Nationally, Glass might have been the architect of financial reform that stabilized the nation’s banking system, but at home, historian J. Douglas Smith calls him “the architect of disenfranchisement in the Old Dominion.”
That disenfranchisement helped launch Glass’s political career. He was a state senator when he helped overturn the Underwood constitution; he went on the next year to win election to Congress. In time, he came to chair the House Banking Committee and won the favor of President Wilson.
Everyone is a product of their times, so it should not surprise us that many historical figures held views on race that today we’d find noxious. We can’t go back and hold them to today’s standards. Even Abraham Lincoln said things we’d find offensive today. When it comes to honoring historical figures, the standard should be what they are most known for and how that contribution weighs out on the scale of history.
So how, then, should we evaluate Glass? Harvard remembers him for his role in helping the free market work better, but in Virginia his biggest contribution to the state’s history was effectively overthrowing democracy and imposing a Southern version of apartheid. “That’s something we can never forget,” McAuliffe writes. So how should we not forget? There is no statue of Glass to tear down so we are spared that debate. But we could put up one of John Underwood, the man whose work Glass obliterated and whose good name Virginia has yet to restore.