Thanksgiving, the Studebakers, & Schuyler Colfax

1833 must have been quite a year in what was then Michigan and today in Northern Indiana. The borders were finalized several contentious decades later. Today, I spent Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and brother at what was once the Studebaker mansion, built in the 1880s, an enormous structure made of blocks of granite, slate, slabs of pink, Italian marbles, and an awful lot of precious woods, a Victorian nightmare, but pleasant. Not more than a block over is the site of where Schuyler Colfax’s home once stood. He was one of those fortune seekers who came to the area after 1833–1836 in fact, and he began in nearby New Carlisle–and a fortune he did make, mainly through his first newspaper here in South Bend.

In time he became involved in politics, finding himself engaged with the Whig Party which collapsed and regrouped with other factions including the Know-nothings (ancestors of the Tea Party, also not a real party, more a bunch of flailing idiots) into the Republican Party. As anyone can guess, with all their race-baiting from the opposite side of history, today’s GOP isn’t the party of Lincoln by any stretch of the imagination. But there are some core aspects that have never changed, mainly an element of corruption.

What was Colfax really famous for? Maybe that’s asking the wrong question when we should be asking what was his most significant contribution to American history? During the Civil War, Colfax was a major leader in the GOP and served as the Speaker of the House. It was because of him that the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and granting blacks the right to vote got passed. Without his vote it never would have passed and it might have taken a generation or more before blacks would at least have that right enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, if not in practice. That would take another century, and the voting rights of black Americans and a variety of other vulnerable groups are under vicious attack from the right and the apparent indifference of the Democratic Party. Such are the death throes of white supremacy, but it’s still a dangerous situation for anyone who values living in a democracy.

And so, as we sat over our Thanksgiving meal, a good meal at that, I was given to these thoughts, and others, thinking of what we leave behind. Colfax, you see, is remembered more for a scandal that grew from corruption that began under the Lincoln administration (there were no regulations–eat it, Libertarians) involving the creation of the Union Pacific railroad. I won’t go into the details, but the backroom deals Colfax and many other members of Congress were involved in here was revealed in 1872 and called the “Crédit Mobilier” scandal because it involved a French bank. This business model allowed the winning bidders for the contract to build the western-half of the transcontinental railroad to pay themselves several times, from several different directions. It was a cunning business model that had never been tried in America, more Old World corruption infecting the body politic, and lining the pockets of scum. The congressmen involved all got stock in the company. Colfax was one of them. His problem in 1872 was that he was Vice President to former general and current president, Ulysses S. Grant. The scandal tainted both men’s reputations. This dark halo around them has continued into the present.

But Colfax has a street named after him here and many other fixtures in the community which are still associated with his legacy and name, and people still go to see Grant’s tomb, in recognition that nothing is pure, but that we should take what we can get. I have sat in the carriage that President Lincoln was ferried to Ford’s Theater, where he sat. You begin to realize as you grow older that these things took place yesterday and that these were people like ourselves. There are always things to be thankful for. Enjoy them. Happy Thanksgiving, now hit the vomitoriums!

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