The “Invisible Empire”: Fortune’s Black and White, Part Four
“The fate of the lamb has been left to the mercy of the lion and the tiger.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Chapter Eight from Black and White is a vicious, well‐informed, and first‐hand assault on Reconstruction policy and the Republican abandonment of African Americans to the terroristic proclivities of unrepentant rebels. Fortune’s vision of the post‐war South was an “Invisible Empire” of Ku Kluxers, White Camelias, and voters far more committed to white supremacy than they were to southern prosperity. Through it all, the Republican Party deliberately scrapped Reconstruction by 1877 in exchange for the presidency of “Rutherfraud” Hayes. White southern liberties came in tandem with greater and greater exploitation of freedmen and freedwomen. As we will see in later items, Fortune believed that white supremacy ultimately strengthened the position of landowners and capitalists relative to the rest of society, both white and black. Rather than allow southerners of all colors to enjoy in maximum productivity and prosperity, white southerners joined across class lines to exploit people of color. The psychic and political benefits of white supremacy apparently mattered more to southern voters than did overall wealth or growth, however, and Fortune feared the region was destined for stagnation. Until poor southerners of all colors could overcome race prejudices–dash the color line to pieces–they could not hope to overcome their joint oppressors in the elite echelons of southern life. Fortune concludes the chapter with a call for African Americans to exercise their political power such that they might compel greater attentions from white would‐be allies.
By T. Thomas Fortune. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. 1884. 104–111.
Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South
Chapter VIII. The Nation Surrenders.
The mind sickens in contemplating the mistakes of the “Reconstruction policy;” and the revolting peculation and crime–which went hand in hand from 1867–8 to 1876, bankrupting and terrorizing those unfortunate States–plunging them into all but anarchy, pure and simple.
A parallel to the terror which walked abroad in the South from 1866, down to 1876, and which is largely dominant in that section even unto the present hour, must be sought for in other lands than our own, where the iron band of the tyrant, seated upon a throne, cemented with a thousand years of usurpation and the blood of millions of innocent victims, presses hard upon the necks of the high and the backs of the low; we must turn to the dynastic villanies of the house of Orleans or of Stuart, or that prototype of all that is tyrannical, sordid and inhuman, the Czar of all the Russias. The “Invisible Empire,” with its “Knights of the White Camelia,” was as terrible as the “Empire” which Marat, Danton and Robespierre made for themselves, with this difference: the “Knights of the White Camelia” were assassins and marauders who murdered and terrorized in defiance of all laws, human or divine, though claiming allegiance to both; while the Frenchmen regarded themselves as the lawful authority of the land and rejected utterly the Divine or “higher law.” The one murdered men as highwaymen do, while the other murdered them under the cover of law and in the name of Liberty, in whose name, as Madame Roland exclaimed on the scaffold of revolutionary vengeance, so many crimes are perpetrated! The one murdered kings and aristocrats to unshackle the limbs of the proletariat of France; the other murdered the proletariat of the South to re‐rivet their chains upon the wretched survivors. And each class of murderers proclaimed that it was actuated by the motive of justice and humanity. Liberty was the grand inspiration that steeled the arm and hardened the heart of each of the avengers!
And thus it has been in all the history of murder and plunder. Liberty! The People! These are the sacred objects with which tyrants cloak their usurpations, and which assassins plead in extenuation of their brazen disregard of life, of virtue, of all that is dear and sacred to the race. The dagger of Brutus and the sword of Cromwell, were they not drawn in the name of Liberty–the People? The guillotine of the French Commune and the derringer of J. Wilkes Booth, were they not inspired by Liberty–the People?
The innocent blood which has been spilt in the name of liberty and the people, which has served the purposes of tyranny and riveted upon the people most galling chains, “would float a navy.”
By the side of the robbery, the embezzlement, the depletion of the treasury of South Carolina, and the imposition of ruinous and unnecessary taxation upon the people of that state by the Carpet‐Bag harpies, aided and abetted by the ignorant negroes whom our government had not given time to shake the dust of the cornfield from their feet before it invited them to seats in the chambers of legislature, we must place the heartless butcheries of Hamburgh and Ellenton.
By the side of the misgovernment, the honeycomb of corruption in which the Carpet‐Bag government of Louisiana reveled, we must place the universal lawlessness which that state witnessed from 1867 to 1876.
The whole gamut of states could be run with the same deplorable, the same sickening conclusion.
The Federal authority had created the wildest confusion and retired to watch the fire‐brand. The “wise men” of the nation had made possible a system of government in which robbery and murder were to contend for the mastery, in which organized ignorance and organized brigandage were to contend for the right to rule and to ruin.
It is not complimentary to the white men of the South that their organized brigandage proved to be more stubborn, more farsighted than was unorganized ignorance. In a warfare of this disreputable nature very little honor can be accorded to the victorious party, be he brigand or ignoramus. The warfare is absolutely devoid of principle, and, therefore, victory, any way it is twisted, is supremely dishonorable.
The South, therefore, although she rooted out the incubus of carpet‐baggism (one of the most noxious plants that ever blossomed in the garden of any nascent society), and stifled the liberties and immunities of a whole people, turning their new‐found joy into sadness and mourning–although the South succeeded in accomplishing these results, she lies prostrate to‐day, feared by her fellow‐citizens, who will not trust her with power, and shunned by the industrious aliens who seek our shores, because they will not become members of a society in which individualism and absolutism are the supreme law–for was it not to escape these parasites that they expatriated themselves from the shores of the Volga, the Danube and the Rhine? Men will not make their homes among people who, spurning the accepted canon of justice and the courts of law, make themselves a community of banditti. Thus, the South lies prostrate, staggering beneath load of illiteracy sufficient to paralyze the energies of any people; dwelling in the midst of usurpation, where law is suspended and individual license is the standard authority; where criminals and suspected criminals are turned over to the rude mercy of mobs, masked and irresponsible; where caste corrupts every rivulet that issues from the fountain of aspiration or of chastity; where no man is allowed to think or act for himself who does not conform his thoughts and shape his actions to suit the censorious and haughty dictum of the dominant class.
“You must think as we think and act as we act, or you must go!” This is the law of the South.
In each of the late rebellious states the ballot‐box has been closed against the black man. To reach it he is compelled to brave the muzzles of a thousand rifles in the hands of silent sentinels who esteem a human life as no more sacred than the serpent that drags his tortuous length among the grasses of the field, and whose head mankind is enjoined to crush.
The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Federal constitution which grew out of the public sentiment created by thirty long years of agitation of the abolitionists and of the “emancipation proclamation”–issued as a war measure by President Lincoln–are no longer regarded as fundamental by the South. The beneficiaries of those amendments have failed in every instance to enjoy the benefits that were, presumably, intended to be conferred.
These laws–having passed both branches of the Federal legislature, having received the approval and signature of the Chief Executive of the nation, and having been ratified by a majority of the states composing the sisterhood of states–these laws are no longer binding upon the people of the South, who fought long and desperately to prevent the possibility of their enactment; and they no longer benefit, if they ever did, the people in whose interest they were incorporated in the Magna Charta of American liberty; while the Central authority which originated them, has, through the Supreme Court, declared nugatory, null and void all supplementary legislation based upon those laws, as far as the government of the United States is concerned! The whole question has been remanded to the legislatures of the several states! The Federal Union has left to the usurped governments of the South the adjudication of rights which the South fought four years in honorable warfare to make impossible, and which it has since the war exhausted the catalogue of infamy and lawlessness to make of no force or effect. The fate of the lamb has been left to the mercy of the lion and the tiger.
The “party of great moral ideas,” having emancipated the slave, and enfranchised disorganized ignorance and poverty, finally finished its mission, relinquished its right to the respect and confidence of mankind when, in 1876, it abandoned all effort to enforce the provisions of the war amendments. That party stands to‐day for organized corruption, while its opponent stands for organized brigandage. The black man, who was betrayed by his party and murdered by the opponents of his party, is absolved from all allegiance which gratitude may have dictated, and its to‐day free to make conditions the best possible with any faction which will insure him in his right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The black men of the United States are, to‐day, free to form whatever alliances wisdom dictates, to make sure their position in the social and civil system of which, in the wise providence of a just God, they are a factor, for better or for worse.