essays

This is part of a series

1884

“I Have No Faith in Parties”: Fortune’s Black and White, Part Six

“The white men and women of the South should get down from the delectable mountain of delusive superiority which they have climbed.”

Editor’s Note

Timothy Thomas Fortune held no delusions about the loyalty of white Republicans to their nominal political allies in the African American bloc. “I have no faith in parties,” our current selection begins, and Fortune compares the operations of political parties with the flocks of aristocrats that corrupt monarchical and imperial courts across the Atlantic. Parties operated ham-fistedly through local bosses and state lieutenants all reporting to national whips and party elites. All the while, power flowed from the bottom up, as the people giddily deluded themselves into thinking their votes actually affected change. In its most extreme forms, this kind of class relationship depressed progress and growth.

Fortune’s case-in-point is the antebellum South, in which a few hundred super-elite planters exercised dominion over millions of slaves and influence over millions of poor whites. The slaves saved planters and their sons from lives of labor and enabled them to specialize in governance. Governance was, after all, the most significant problem facing a slave society. Generation after generation of planters educated their sons at elite universities and groomed future classes of great statesmen and civil leaders. Upstarts like Andrew Jackson were the rare exceptions, and stately figures like Jefferson Davis far more the rule. Nevertheless, as Fortune rigorously and unapologetically notes, southern “civilization” can be credited with exceedingly few other contributions to world history. The antebellum South’s great works in literature, science, philosophy, and the arts could fit on a few figurative shelves, while the North boasted an explosive and dynamic ability to produce library after library, each more magnificent than the last.

True progress for poor and suffering southerners of all colors depended upon whites’ willingness to dismantle the white supremacist regime that so crippled their black brethren. The color line functioned as the outer wall of the class line—itself the major bulwark preventing a democratic-republican political culture in the South.  As Fortune writes, “The black and white citizens of the South must alter the lines which have divided them since the close of the war. They are, essentially, one people, and should be mutual aids instead of mutual hindrances to each other.” Fortune concludes by assuring his audience that should white southerners embrace the equal dignity and liberty of black southerners—should they once and for all welcome people of color into the common American community of citizens—they would find the union a “panacea” for solving the social, political, and economic problems facing all southerners.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South

By T. Thomas Fortune. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. 1884. 131-138.

Chapter X. Solution of the Political Problem

I have no faith in parties. In monarchical and imperial governments they are always manipulated by royal boobies, who are in turn manipulated by their empty-pated favorites and their women of soporific virtue; while in republics they are always manipulated by demagogues, tricksters, and corruptionists who figure in the newspapers as “bosses,” “heelers” and “sluggers,” and in history as statesmen, senators, and representatives. These gentlemen, who rule our government and ruin our people, comprise what Mr. Matthew Arnold recently termed the “remnant” which should be permitted to run things to suit themselves, the people, the great mass, being incapable of taking care of themselves and the complex machinery of government. Of course, Mr. Arnold, who is necessarily very British in his ideas of government, intended that the “remnant” he had in his “mind’s eye,” should comprise men of the most exalted character and intelligence, the very things which keep them out of the gutters of politics. Men of exalted character are expected in our country to attend to their own concerns, not the concerns of the people, and to give the “boys” a chance; while the men of exalted intelligence are, by reason of the great industry and seclusiveness necessary to their work, too much wedded to their books and their quiet modes of life to rush into ward meetings and contend for political preferment with the “Mikes” and “Jakes” who make their bread and butter out of the spoils and peculations of office. A Clay or Webster, a Seward or Sumner, sometimes gets into politics, but it is by accident. There is not enough money in our politics to cause honest men to make it an object, while the corruption frequently necessary to maintain a political position, is so disgusting as to deter honest men from making it a business.

A love of power easily degenerates from patriotism into treason or tyranny, or both. As it is easier to fall from virtue to vice than it is to rise from vice to virtue, so it is easier to fall from patriotism than to rise to it.

Before the war the men of the South engaged, at first, in politics as an elegant pastime. They had plenty of leisure and plenty of money. They did not take to literature and science, because these pursuits require severe work and more or less of a strong bias, for a thorough exposition of their profound penetralia. It may be, too, that their assumed patrician sensitiveness shrank from entering into competition with the plebeian fellows who had to study hard and write voluminously for a few pennies to keep soul and body together. And your Southern grandees, before the war, were not compelled to drudge for a subsistence; they had to take little thought for the morrow. Their vast landed estates and black slaves were things that did not fluctuate; under the effective supervision of the viperous slave-driver the black Samson rose before the coming of the sun, and the land, nature’s own flower garden and man’s inalienable heritage, brought forth golden corn and snowy cotton in their season. Southern intelligence expended its odors in the avenues where brilliance, not profundity, was the passport to popularity. Hence, Southern hospitality (giving to others that which had been deliberately stolen) became almost as proverbial in the polite circles of America and Europe as the long established suavity and condescension of the French. And even unto the present time the hospitality of the South, shorn of its profuseness and grandiloquence, is frequently the theme of newspaper hacks and magazine penny-a-liners. But the shadow alone remains; the substance has departed—“There are no birds in last year’s nest.”

If the literary reputation of the United States had been rated, up to the close of the Rebellion, on the contributions of Southern men—fiction, prose and poetry, science, art, and invention—the polite nations of the world would have regarded us as a nation of semi-barbarians. But, happily, the rugged genius of New England made up then and makes up now for the poverty of literary effort on the part of the South. True, a few men since the war have placed the South in a better light; but even their work, as an index of Southern genius, is regarded as highly precocious and tentative.

The South has yet to demonstrate that she has capacity for high literary effort. In the process of that demonstration, I am fully persuaded that the Anglo-African—with his brilliant wit and humor, his highly imaginative disposition and his innate fondness for literary pursuits—will contribute largely to give the South an enviable and honorable position.

What the South lacked in literary effort before the war she made up in a magnificent galaxy of meteoric statesmen, who rushed into politics with the instinct of ducks taking to the water, and who were forgotten, in the majority of cases, before they had run out their ephemeral career. A few names have survived the earthquake, and are remembered for their cleverness rather than their depth. A few more decades, and they will be remembered only by the curious student who plods his weary way through the labyrinth of Congressional records and the musty archives of States, seeking for data of times which long ago passed into the hazy vista of history and romance. Before the war the Southern man of leisure took to politics more as a pastime than as a serious business. But as the pastime was agreeable, and as it gave additional weight and distinction, all those who could, strived to make it appear that they were men of importance in the Nation. They were largely a nation of politicians,—always brilliant, shallow, bellicose and dogmatic, as ready to decide an argument with the shot-gun or saber as with reason and logic.

This was the temper of the people who rushed into the war with the confidence of a school-boy and who limped out like a man overtaken in his gymnastic exercise by a paralytic stroke. The war taught the South a very useful lesson, but did not sufficiently convince it that it was preeminently a superstitious, arrogant people, who did not and do not possess all the virtue, intelligence, and courage of the country; that its stock of these prime elements is woefully small considering the long years it had passed as America’s own patrician class.

But when the war was over, and the Southern nobility turned its thoughts once more to social arrogance and political dominion, it found that Othello’s occupation was entirely gone. A revolution had swept over the country more iconoclastic and merciless than that which followed in the wake of the French revolution nearly a hundred years before. The bottom rail had been violently placed upon the top; industrial adjustments had been so completely metamorphosed as to defy detection; while the basis and the method of political representation and administration had been so altered as to confound both the old and the new forces.

Aside from the ignorance of the black citizens and the insatiate greed and unscrupulousness of their carpet-bag leaders—a band of vultures more voracious and depraved than any which ever before imposed upon and abused the confidence of a credulous people—the white men of the South had been educated to regard themselves as, naturally, the factors of power and the colored people as, naturally, the subject class, no factor at all. It was these two things which produced that exhibition of barbarity on the part of the South and impotence on the part of the government which make us go to Roumania and the Byzantine court for fit parallel.

But, as I have said, a love of power easily degenerates into treason. If we may not call the violence, the assassinations, which have disgraced the South, treason, by what fitter name, pray, shall we call it? If the nullification of the letter and spirit of the amendments of the Federal Constitution by the conquered South was not renewed treason, what was it? What is it?

The white men of the South, to the “manor born,” having shown their superiority in the superlative excellencies of murder, usurpation and robbery (and I maintain they have gone further in the execution of these infamies than was true of the Negro-Carpet-bag bacchanalia); having made majorities dwindle into iotas and vaulted themselves into power at the point of the shot gun and dagger (regular bandit style); having made laws which discriminate odiously against one class while giving the utmost immunity to the other; having, after doing these things, modeled the government they rule upon the pro-slavery doctrine that it is a “white man’s government”—having had time to become sobered, the white men of the South should be open to reason, if not to conviction.

The black men of the South know full well that they were disfranchised by illegal and violent methods; they know that laws are purposely framed to defraud and to oppress them. This is dangerous knowledge, dangerous to the black and the white man. It will be decided by one of two courses—wise and judicious statesmanship or bloody and disastrous insurrection. When men are wronged they appeal either to the arbitrament of reason or of violence. No man who loves his country would sanction violence in the adjudication of rights save as a last resort. Reason is the safest tribunal before which to arraign injustice and wrong; but it is not always possible to reach this tribunal.

The black and white citizens of the South must alter the lines which have divided them since the close of the war. They are, essentially, one people, and should be mutual aids instead of mutual hindrances to each other. By “one people” I don’t wish to be understood as implying that the white and black man are one in an ethnological, but a generic sense, having a common origin. Living in the same communities, pursuing identical avocations, and subject to the same fundamental laws, however these may differ in construction and application in the several States, it is as much, if not even more, the interest of the white man that the black should be given every possible opportunity to better his mental, material and civil condition. Society is not corrupted from the apex but from the base. It is not the pure rain that falls from the heavens, but the stagnant waters of the pool, that breed disease and death. The corruption of the ballot by white men of the South is more pernicious than the misuse of it by black men; the perversion of the law in the apprehension and punishment of criminals, by being shielded almost exclusively against colored men but encourages crime among white men. Thus the entire society is corrupted. Mob law is the most forcible expression of an abnormal public opinion; it shows that society is rotten to the core. When men find that laws are purposely framed to oppress and defraud them they become desperate and reckless; and mob law, by usurping the rightful functions of the judiciary, makes criminals of honest men…

The South has nothing to gain and everything to lose in attempting to repress the energies and ambition of the colored man. It is to the safety as well as to the highest efficiency of society that all its members should be allowed the same opportunities for moral, intellectual and material development. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” There is no escape from the law of God. You either deal justly or suffer the evil effects of wrong-doing. The disorders which have made the South a seething cauldron for fifteen years have produced the most widespread contempt of lawful authority not only on the part of the lawless whites but the law-abiding blacks, who have suffered patiently the infliction of all manner of wrong because they were a generation of slaves, suddenly made freemen. They permitted themselves to be shot because they had been educated to bare their backs at the command of the white oligarch. But that sort of pusillanimous cowardice cannot be expected to last always. Men in a state of freedom instinctively question the right of others to impose unequal burdens upon them, or to deny to them equal and exact protection of the laws. When oppressed people begin to murmur, grow restless and discontented, the opposer had better change his tactics, or lock himself up, as does the cowardly tyrant of Russia.

A new generation of men has come upon the stage of action in the South. They know little or nothing of the regulations or the horrors of the slave regime. They know they are freemen; they know they are cruelly and unjustly defrauded; and they question the right of their equals to oppose and defraud them. A large number of these people have enjoyed the advantage of common school education, and not a few of academic and collegiate education, and a large number have “put money in their purse.” The entire race has so changed that they are almost a different people from what they were when the exigencies of war made their manumission imperative. Yet there has been but little change in the attitude of the white men towards this people. They still strenuously deny their right to participate in the administration of justice or to share equally in the blessings of that justice.

There must be a change of policy. The progress of the black man demands it; the interest of the white man compels it. The South cannot hope to share in the industrious emigration constantly flowing into our ports as long as it is scattered over the world that mob law and race distractions constantly interrupt the industry of the people, and put life and property in jeopardy of eminent disturbance; and she cannot hope to encourage the investment of large capital in the development of her industries or the extension of her national system. Capital is timid. It will only seek investment where it is sure of being let alone. Again, while the present state continues, no Southern statesman, however capable he may be, can hope to enjoy the confidence of the country or attain to high official position. Thoughtful, sober people will not entrust power to men who sanction mob law, and who rise to high honor by conniving at or participating in assassination and murder. They have too much self-respect to do it.

Only a few weeks since, a narrow-minded senator from the State of Alabama, speaking upon the question of “National Aid to Education,” said he would rather vote for an appropriation to place the Southern States in direct communication with the Congo than to vote money to educate the blacks. There is no ingrate more execrable than the one who lifts up his hand or his voice to wrong the man he has betrayed. This senator from Alabama does not represent the majority of the people of his state. Take away the shot gun and mob law and he would be compelled to crawl back into the obscurity out of which he was dragged by his accomplices in roguery.

The colored man is in the South to stay there. He will not leave it voluntarily and he cannot be driven out. He had no voice in being carried into the South, but he will have a very loud voice in any attempt to put him out. The expatriation of 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people to an alien country needs only to be suggested to create mirth and ridicule. The white men of the South had better make up their minds that the black men will remain in the South just as long as corn will tassel and cotton will bloom into whiteness. The talk about the black people being brought to this country to prepare themselves to evangelize Africa is so much religious nonsense boiled down to a sycophantic platitude. The Lord, who is eminently just, had no hand in their forcible coming here; it was preeminently the work of the devil. Africa will have to be evangelized from within, not from without. The Colonization society has spent mints of money and tons of human blood in the selfish attempt to plant an Anglo-African colony on the West Coast of Africa. The money has been thrown away and the human lives have been sacrificed in vain. The black people of this country are Americans, not Africas; and any wholesale expatriation of them is altogether out of the question.

The white men of the South should not deceive themselves: the blacks are with them to remain. Whether they like it or not, it is a fact that will not be rubbed out.

If this be true, what should be the policy of the whites towards the blacks? The question should need no answer at my hands. If it were not for the unexampled obtuseness of the editors, preachers and politicians of that section, I should close this chapter here.

The white men and women of the South should get down from the delectable mountain of delusive superiority which they have climbed; and, recognizing that “of one blood God made all the children of men,” take hold of the missionary work God has placed under their nose.

Instead of railing at the black man, let them take hold of him in a Christian spirit and assist him in correcting those moral abscesses and that mental enervation which they did so awfully much to infuse into him; they should first take the elephant out of their own eyes before digging at the gnat in their neighbor’s eyes. They should encourage him in his efforts at moral and religious improvement, not by standing off and clapping their hands, but by going into his churches and into his pulpits, showing him the “light and the way” not only by precept but example as well. Can’t do it, do you say? Then take your religion and cast it to the dogs, for it is a living lie; it comes not from God but from Beelzebub the Prince of Darkness. A religion that divides Christians is unadulterated pagainism; a minister that will not preach the Gospel to sinners, be they black or white, is a hypocite, who “steals the livery of Heaven to serve the Devil in.” They should make liberal provision for the schools set apart for the colored people, and they should visit these schools, not only to mark the progress made, and to encourage teacher and pupil, but to show to the young minds blossoming into maturity and usefulness that they are friends and deeply interested in the progress made. In public, they should seek first to inspire the confidence of colored men by just laws and friendly overtures and by encouraging the capable, honest and ambitious few by placing them in positions of honor and trust. They should show to colored men that they accept the Constitution as amended, and are earnestly solicitous that they should prosper in the world, and become useful and respected citizens. You can’t make a friend and partisan of a man by shooting him; you can’t make a sober, industrious, honest man by robbing and outraging him. These tactics will not work to the uplifting of a people. “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Even a dog caresses the hand that pats him on the head.

The South must spend less money on penitentiaries and more money on schools; she must use less powder and buckshot and more law and equity; she must pay less attention to politics and more attention to the development of her magnificent resources; she must get off the “race line” hobby and pay more attention to the common man; she must wake up to the fact that—“Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow” and that it is to her best interest to place all men upon the same footing before the law; mete out the same punishment to the white scamp that is inexorably meted out to the black scamp, for a scamp is a scamp any way you twist it; a social pest that should be put where he will be unable to harm any one. In an honest acceptance of the new conditions and responsibilities God has placed upon them, and in mutual forebearance, toleration and assistance, the South will find that panacea for which she has sought in vain down to this time.

This is part of a series