“The Negro and the Nation”: Fortune’s Black and White, Part Three
“Practically, there is no [American] law which [protects] the black man and his rights. He is, like the Irishman in Ireland, an alien in his native land.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our third selection from T. Thomas Fortune’s most important book, he continues elaborating the argument that American government has always been arrayed against people of color, a tool for maintaining white supremacy. Fortune echoes a point which hearkens back to the colonial era, when Tories maintained that the king served as the ultimate arbiter, the highest and last resort for all subjects of the empire to appeal their case. Wherever British citizens enjoyed their ancient rights and liberties, they could call upon the authority of the king to demand individual protection. This was, in its way, the grandest expression of imperialism and the most significant role played by monarchs in mixed governments. The Revolution supposedly upended this argument by substituting local representatives bodies and elected governors for faraway parliaments and monarchs. By severing their connections to the Empire, white Americans empowered themselves to more fully exploit minorities in their midst without having to worry about any sort of intervention from abroad.
Perhaps most interestingly, Fortune is emphatically not a Tory–he relishes in the legacy of the American Revolution and indeed as we will see in later numbers, positively claims much of that legacy for African Americans. He embraces the idea that individuals are sovereign and capable of constituting their own governments. Once they have done so, however, they are responsible for the actions of the body. Fortune spends the bulk of the section, therefore, excoriating the newly‐centralized and -nationalized government for forcibly freeing the slave and then casting him off into the legal wilds, with no protection offered for the maintenance of freedmen’s rights. The government begrudgingly adopted emancipation as a war measure, abolished slavery as a means to destroy the planter class, and quickly abandoned Reconstruction to pacify southern whites. “The Negro” thus remained cast out of the national community and with no ultimate arbiter to whom they could plead their case. Betrayed by a mercilessly pragmatic state, African Americans lived under constant threat of white supremacist terrorism and “The Triumph of the Vanquished.”
By T. Thomas Fortune. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. 1884. 27–51.
Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South
Chapter III. The Negro and the Nation.
The war of the Rebellion settled only one question: It forever settled the question of chattel slavery in this country. It forever choked the life out of the infamy of the Constitutional right of one man to rob another, by purchase of his person, or of his honest share of the produce of his own labor. But this was the only question permanently and irrevocably settled. Nor was this the all‐absorbing question involved. The right of a State to secede from the so‐called Union remains where it was when the treasonable shot upon Fort Sumter aroused the people to all the horrors of internecine war. And the measure of protection which the National Government owes the individual members of States, a right imposed upon it by the adoption of the XVth Amendment to the Constitution remains still to be affirmed.
It was not sufficient that the Federal government should expend its blood and treasure to unfetter the limbs of four millions of people. There can be a slavery more odious, more galling, than mere chattel slavery. It has been declared to be an act of charity to enforce ignorance upon the slave, since to inform his intelligence would simply be to make his unnatural lot all the more unbearable. Instance the miserable existence of Aesop, the great black moralist. But this is just what the manumission of the black people of this country has accomplished. They are more absolutely under the control of the Southern whites; they are more systematically robbed of their labor; they are more poorly housed, clothed and fed, than under the salve regime; and they enjoy, practically, less of the protection of the laws of the State or of the Federal government. When they appeal to the Federal government they are told by the Supreme Court to go to the State authorities–as if they would have appealed to the one had the other given them that protection to which their sovereign citizenship entitles them!
Practically, there is no law in the United States which extends its protecting arm over the black man and his rights. He is, like the Irishman in Ireland, an alien in his native land. There is no central or auxiliary authority to which he can appeal for protection. Wherever he turns he finds the strong arm of constituted authority powerless to protect him. The farmer and the merchant rob him with absolute immunity, and irresponsible ruffians murder him without fear of punishment, undeterred by the law, or by public opinion–which connives at, if it does not inspire, the deeds of lawless violence. Legislatures of States have framed a code of laws which is more cruel and unjust than any enforced by a former slave State.
The right of franchise has been practically annulled in every one of the former slave States, in not one of which, to‐day, can a man vote, think or act as he pleases. He must conform his views to the views of the men who have usurped every function of government–who, at the point of the dagger, and with shotgun, have made themselves masters in defiance of every law or precedent in our history as a government. They have usurped government with the weapons of the coward and assassin, and they maintain themselves in power by the most approved practices of the most odious of tyrants. These men have shed as much innocent blood as the bloody triumvirate of Rome. To‐day, red‐handed murderers and assassins sit in the high places of power, and bask in the smiles of innocence and beauty.
The newspapers of the country, voicing the sentiments of the people, literally hiss into silence any man who has the courage to protest against the prevailing tendency to lawlessness and bare‐faced usurpation; while parties have ceased to deal with the question for other than purposes of political capital. Even this fruitful mine is well‐nigh exhausted. A few more years, and the usurper and the man of violence will be left in undisputed possession of his blood‐stained inheritance. No man will attempt to deter him from sowing broadcast the seeds of revolution and death. Brave men are powerless to combat this organized brigandage, complaint of which, in derision, has been termed “waving the bloody shirt.”
Men organize themselves into society for mutual protection. Government justly derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. But what shall we say of that society which is incapable of extending the protection which is inherent in it? What shall we say of that government which has not power or inclination to insure the exercise of those solemn rights and immunities which it guarantees? To declare a man to be free, and equal with his fellow, and then to refrain from enacting laws powerful to insure him in such freedom and equality, is to trifle with the most sacred of all the functions of sovereignty. Have not the United States done this very thing? Have they not conferred freedom and the ballot, which are necessary the one to the other? And have they not signally failed to make omnipotent the one and practicable the other? The questions hardly require an answer. The measure of freedom the black man enjoys can be gauged by the power he has to vote. He has, practically, no voice in the government under which he lives. His property is taxed and his life is jeopardized, by states on the one hand and inefficient police regulations on the other, and no question is asked or expected of him. When he protests, when he cries out against this flagrant nullification of the very first principles of a republican form of government, the insolent question is asked: “What are you going to do about it?” And here lies the danger.
You may rob and maltreat a slave and ask him what he is going to do about it, and he can make no reply. He is bound hand and foot; he is effectually gagged. Despair is his only refuge. He knows it is useless to appeal from tyranny unto the designers and apologists of tyranny. Ignominious death alone can bring him relief. This was the case of thousands of men doomed by the institution of slavery. But such is not the case with free men. You cannot oppress and murder freemen as you would slaves: you cannot so insult them with the question, “What are you going to do about it?” When you ask free men that question you appeal to men who, though sunk to the verge of despair, yet are capable of uprising and ripping hip and thigh those who deemed them incapable of so rising above their condition. The history of mankind is fruitful of such uprisings of races and classes reduced to a condition of absolute despair. The American negro is no better and no worse than the Haytian revolutionists headed by Toussaint l’Overture, Christophe and the bloody Dessalines.
I do not indulge in the luxury of prophecy when I declare that the American people are fostering in their bosoms a spirit of rebellion which will yet shake the pillars of popular government as they have never before been shaken, unless a wiser policy in inaugurated and honestly enforced. All the indications point to the fulfilment of such declaration.
The Czar of Russia squirms upon his throne, not because he is necessarily a bad man, but because he is the head and center of a condition of things which squeezes the life out of the people. His subjects hurl infernal machines at the tyrant because he represents the system which oppresses them. But the evil is far deeper than the throne, and cannot be remedied by striking the occupant of it–the throne itself must be rooted out and demolished. So the Irish question has a more powerful motive to foment agitation and murder than the landlord and landlordism. The landlord simply stands out as the representative of the real grievance. To remove him would not remove the evil; agitation would not cease; murder would still stalk abroad at noonday. The real grievance is the false system which makes the landlord possible. The appropriation of the fertile acres of the soil of Ireland, which created and maintains a privileged class, a class that while performing no labor, wrings from the toiler, in the shape of rents, so much of the produce of his labor that he cannot on the residue support himself and those dependent upon him aggravates the situation. It is this system which constitutes the real grievance and makes the landlord an odious loafer with abundant cash and the laborer a constant toiler always upon the verge of statevation. Evidently, therefore, to remove the landlord and leave the system of land monopoly would not remove the evil. Destroy the latter and the former would be compelled to go.
Herein lies the great social wrong which has turned the beautiful roses of freedom into thorns to prick the hands of the black men of the South; which made slavery a blessing, paradoxical as it may appear, and freedom a curse. It is this great wrong which has crowded the cities of the South with an ignorant pauper population, making desolate fields that once bloomed “as fair as a garden of the Lord,” where now the towering oak and pine‐tree flourish, instead of the corn and cotton which gladdened the heart and filled the purse. It was this gigantic iniquity which created that arrogant class who have exhausted the catalogue of violence to obtain power and the lexicon of sophistry for arguments to extenuate the exceeding heinousness of crime. How could it be otherwise? To tell a man he is free when he has neither money nor the opportunity to make it, is simply to mock him. To tell him he has no master when he cannot live except by permission of the man who, under favorable conditions, monopolizes all the land, is to deal in the most tantalizing contradiction of terms. But this is just what the United States did for the black man. And yet because he has not grown learned and wealthy in twenty years, because he does not own broad acres and a large bank account, people are not wanting who declare he has no capacity, that he is improvident by nature and mendacious from inclination.
Chapter IV. The Triumph of the Vanquished.
There are those throughout the length and breadth of our great country who make a fair living by traducing better men than themselves; by continually crying out that the black man is incapable of being civilized; that he is born with the elements of barbarity, improvidence and untruthfulness so woven into his very nature that no amount of opportunity, labor, love, or sacrifice can ever lift him out of the condition, the “sphere God designed him to occupy”–as if the great Common Parent took any more pains in the making of one man than another. But those who utter such blasphemy, who call in the assistance of the Almighty to fight the battles of the devil, are the very persons who do most by precept and example to make possible the verification of their blasphemy. They carry their lamentations into the pulpit, grave convocations, newspapers, and even into halls of legislation, State and Federal. They are the false prophets who blind the eye of reason and blunt the sympathies of honest, well‐meaning men. They are the Jonases on board the ship of progress. They belong to that class of men who would pick flaws in the finest work of art. They find fault with the great mass of ignorance around them, contending that the poor victims have only themselves to blame for their destitute and painful condition, and, therefore, are not entitled to the sympathy or charity of their more fortunate brethren–unmindful that the great Master, judging by the false laws of men, declared that “the poor ye have always with you;” while the very rich are held up as monsters of selfishness, rapacity and the most loathsome of social vices. It is, therefore, hardly to be expected that this class of persons would find anything good in the nature of the lately enslaved black man, or any improvement in his condition since a generous Government had made him an ignorant voter and a confirmed pauper–the victim of his former master, to be robbed outright by designing and unscrupulous harpies of trade, and to be defrauded of his franchise by blatant demagogues or by outlaws, to whom I will not apply the term “assassins” for fear of using bad English.
When the American Government conferred upon the black man the boon of freedom and the burden of the franchise, it added four million men to the already vast army of men who appear to be specially created to labor for the enrichment of vast corporations, which have no souls, and for individuals, whom our government have made a privileged class, by permitting them to usurp or monopolize, through the accepted channel or barter and trade, the soil, from which the masses, the laboring masses, must obtain a subsistence, and without the privilege of cultivating which they must faint and die. It also added four millions of souls to what have been termed, in the refinement of sarcasm, “the dangerous classes”–meaning by which the vast army of men and women who, while willing and anxious to make an honest living by the labor of their hands, and who–when speculators cry “over‐production,” “glutted market,” and other claptrap–threaten to take by force from society that which society prevents them from making honestly.
When a society fosters as much crime and destitution as ours, with ample resources to meet the actual necessities of every one, there must be something radically wrong, not in the society but in the foundation upon which society is reared. Where is this ulcer located? Is it to be found in the dead‐weight of illiteracy which we carry? The masses of few countries are more intelligent than ours. Is it to be found in burdensome taxation or ill‐adjusted tariff regulations? Few countries are burdened with less debt, and many have far worse tariff laws than curse our country. Is it to be found in an unjust pension list? We hardly miss the small compensation which we grant to the men (or their heirs) who, in the hour of National peril, gave their lives freely to perpetuate the Union of our States. Where, then, is secreted the parasite which is eating away the energies of the people, making paupers and criminals in the midst of plenty and the grandest of civilizations? Is it not to be found in the powerful monopolies we have created? Monopoly in land, in railroads, telegraphs, fostered manufactures, etc.,–the gigantic forces in our civilization which are, in their very nature, agents of public convenience, comfort and absolute necessity? Society, in the modern sense, could not exist without these forces; they are part and parcel of our civilization. Naturally, therefore, society should control them, or submit to the humiliation of being ruled by them. And this latter is largely the case at the present time. Having evolved those forces out of its necessities, made them strong and permanent, society failed to impose such conditions as wise policy should have dictated, and now suffers the calamitous consequences. The tail wags the dog, instead of the dog wagging the tail.
No government can afford, with any degree of safety, to make four million of citizens out of so many slaves. And when it is remembered that our slaves were turned loose upon their former masters–lifted by one stroke of the pen, as it were, from the most degraded condition to the very pinnacle of sovereign manhood–the equals in unrestricted manhood, with the privileges and immunities of citizens who had been born to rule, apparently, instead of being ruled–it will be seen readily how critical was the situation.
But the condition having once been created by the strong arm of the Federal Government, based upon a bloody and costly war and in open defiance of the Constitution as designed by the compromising Fathers of the Republic; the slave once made a free man the same as his former master, and given a ballot, the highest privilege of government a man can exercise;–the Government having once gone so far, there was absolutely nothing for it to do but to interpose its omnipotent authority between the haughty and arrogant free man on the one hand and the crouching and fearful freed man on the other–the lion and the lamb. To do less would be more than cruel, it would be murderous;–the agency which created the condition was bound by all law and precedent to see that those conditions were maintained in their entirety. It could not evade the issue except at the expense of dignity, consistency and humanity. There was but one honorable course to pursue. Any other would be a horrible abandonment of principle. If it were powerful to create, to make free men and citizens, it must, manifestly, be powerful to insure the enjoyment of the freedom conferred, and protect the inviolability of the franchise granted. Any other conclusion would make government a by‐word and a scoffing to the nations; any other conclusion would make its conferring of freedom and citizenship absurd in the extreme, a mere trick of the demagogue to ease the popular conscience. To do such a thing would sink a decent government lower in the estimation of the world than the miserable apology of government represented by the Khedive of Egypt…
But, when the bloody rebellion was over, the country, in its sovereign capacity, and by individual States, was called upon to deal with grave questions growing out of the conflict. Mr. Lincoln, by a stroke of the pen, transferred the battle from the field to the halls of legislation. In view of the “Emancipation proclamation” as issued by Mr. Lincoln, and the invaluable service rendered by black troops in the rebellion, legislation upon the status of the former slave could not be avoided. The issue could not be evaded; like Banquo’s ghost, it would not down. There were not wanting men, even when the war had ended and the question of chattel slavery had been forever relegated to the limbo of “things that were,” who were willing still to toy with half‐way measures, to cater to the caprices of that threacherous yet brave power–the South. They had not yet learned that Southern sentiment was fundamentally revolutionary, dynamitic in the extreme, and could not be toyed with as with a doll‐baby. So the statesmen proceeded to manufacture the “Reconstruction policy”–a policy more fatuous, more replete with fatal concessions and far more fatal omissions than any ever before adopted for the acceptance and governance of a rebellious people on the one hand and a newly‐made, supremely helpless people on the other. It is not easy to regard with equanimity the blunders of the “Reconstruction policy” and the manifold infamies which have followed fast upon its adoption.
The South scornfully rejected and successfully nullified the legislative will of the victors.
Judge Albion W. Tourgee says of this policy in his book called “A Fool’s Errand:” “It was a magnificent sentiment that underlay it all,–an unfaltering determination, an invincible defiance to all that had the seeming of compulsion or tyranny. One cannot but regard with pride and sympathy the indomitable men, who, being conquered in war, yet resisted every effort of the conqueror to change their laws, their customs, or even the personnel of their ruling class; and this, too, not only with unyielding stubbornness, but with success. One cannot but admire the arrogant boldness with which they charged the nation which had overpowered them–even in the teeth of her legislators–with perfidy, malice, and a spirit of unworthy and contemptible revenge. How they laughed to scorn the Reconstruction Acts of which the wise men boasted! How boldly they declared the conflict to be irrepressible, and that white and black could not and should not live together as co‐ordinate ruling elements! How lightly they told the tales of blood–of the Masked Night‐Riders, of the Invisible Empire of Rifle Clubs and Saber clubs (all organized for peaceful purposes), of warnings and whippings and slaughter! Ah, it is wonderful! * * * Bloody as the reign of Mary, barbarous as the chronicles of the Comanche!”