“Still Sympathizing with Slavery”: Fortune’s Black and White, Part Two
“It was not because the people of the nation hated slavery and oppression that they rushed upon the field of battle.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the second chapter of Black and White, our author reasserts his primary thesis: American governments have always treated Afro‐Americans (Fortune’s favored phrasing) as culturally alien. Though it twisted and contorted free society in innumerable ways, white Americans desperately clung to cultural and political supremacy over black and–importantly–Native and Chinese Americans. As his prime case study to illustrate the argument, Fortune offers the pre‐history of emancipation. The record is quite clear, for example, that most Americans were not abolitionists at the outbreak of war. The South seceded because they refused to brook further abolitionist criticism of and interference with the institution of slavery, including the new Republican president’s explicit policy of ignoring the Supreme Court. Northerners, for their part, marched to war that they might stamp out “treason” against the Constitution and crush the rebellion. The Union government was merely and purely reluctant to embrace abolition, and Fortune crowns the point by quoting Lincoln’s infamous letter to Horace Greeley. The president plainly declares that his war goal is to “save” the Union, and if that goal would be best served by full emancipation, retaining slavery where it existed, or some sort of partial arrangement, Lincoln would favor what was necessary to accomplish his task. As it happened, abolition was never affected as a genuine expression of antislavery sentiment on the part of the American people. It was implemented as a war measure, and then forced on white southerners under military occupation. As such, the first problem dividing white and non‐white Americans–the problem of white supremacy–remained unresolved.
By T. Thomas Fortune. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. 1884. 17–26.
Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South
Chapter II. White.
It is my purpose in writing this work to show that the American Government has always construed people of African parentage to be aliens, not only when the Constitution was tortured by narrow‐minded men to shield the cruel, murderous slave‐holder in the possession of his human property, but even now, when the panoply of citizenship is, presumably, all‐sufficient to insure to the late slave the enjoyment of full manhood rights as a sovereign citizen.
The conflict of law and the moral sentiment of the country has been long and bloody, and the end is not yet. Political parties in this country do not lead, but follow, public opinion. They hang upon the applause of the rabble, and succeed or fail in their efforts to administer the affairs of Government in proportion as they interpret the wishes of the rabble. Not alone do parties defer to the wishes of the illiterate, the “great unwashed” majority, but individuals as well, who prefer to ride upon the wave of success as the champions of great wrongs rather than to go into retirement as the champions of just principles. The voice of the Charmer is all too powerful to be successfully resisted.
Republics have always been fruitful of demagogues. Such vermin find the soil of democratic government the most fertile and congenial for their operations, because the audiences to which they speak, the passions to which they appeal, are not always of the most reflective, humane or enlightened. Demagogues are the parasites of republics; and that our country is afflicted with an abnormal number of them is to be expected from the tentative nature of our institutions, the extent of our territory and the heterogeneity of our vast population.
Under our government all the peoples of the world find shelter and protection–save the African (who was formerly used as a beast of burden and now as a football, to be kicked by one faction and kicked back by the other) and the industrious Chinaman, who was barred out by the over‐obsequiousness of the Congress of the nation, in deference to the Sand‐Lot demagogues of the Pacific coast, headed by Denis Kearney, because it was desirable to conciliate their votes, even at the expense of consistency and the unity of the Constitution. That great document, while constantly affirmed to be the most broad and liberal compact ever devised for the governance of man, has always been found to be narrow enough to serve the purposes of the slave oligarch and the make‐shifts of the party in power; and has always afforded ample shelter and protection to the lazzaroni of Italy, the paupers of Ireland, and the incendiary, spirit of other countries, but yet cannot shield a black man, a citizen and to the manor born, in any common, civil or political right which usually attaches to citizenship.
A putative citizen of the United States commits murder in the jurisdiction of a friendly power, and the Chief Executive of fifty millions of people deems it incumbent upon him as the head of the faction to which he belongs to “call the attention of Congress” to the fact, ostensibly in the interest of justice and fair‐play, but obviously to court the good will of the American sympathizers of the assassin. While on the contrary, within a few hundred miles of the National capital, an armed mob of citizens shoot down in cold blood a dozen of their fellow‐citizens, but the Chief of the Nation did not deem it at all pertinent or necessary to “call the attention of Congress” to the matter. And why? Because, forsooth, the newspapers, voicing the wishes of the rabble and the cormorants of trade, cry down the “Bloody Shirt,” proclaiming, with brazen effrontery, that each State is “sovereign,” and that its citizens have a perfect right to terrorize and murder one another, if they so desire. The Bible declares that “Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” God save the Union!
But such argument is indicative, not only of American politics but of Caucasian human nature as well–that human nature which seldom rises above self‐interest in business or politics. If you have abundance of money, the merchant is all accommodation, the lawyer all smiles; if you have votes that count, politicians cannot be too obsequious, too affable, too anxious to serve you. But if you simply have common humanity, clothed in the awful majesty of a just cause, you appeal in vain to the cormorants of trade, the harpies of law, or the demagogues of power. Unless you are of the salt salty, unless you are clothed in broadcloth and fine linen, you cannot obtain even a respectful hearing.
It took the Abolitionists full thirty years to convince the American people, the ministry of Christ included, that slavery was, pure and simple, a “Covenant with death and an agreement with hell;” and then, sad to say, they were convinced against their wills. Their sense of justice had become so obtuse as to wholly blunt the sense of reason, the brotherly sympathy of a common race‐feeling, and the broad, liberal and just inculcations of Jesus Christ. The nation was sunk to the moral turpitude of Constantinople; and not even a John crying in the wilderness could arouse it to a sense of the exceeding foulness in the midst of which it groveled, or of the storm gathering on the distant horizon.
Although the abolition of slavery had been agitated for more than thirty years, the nation, which was ruled by politicians of the usual mental caliber, was startled at the defiant shot upon Fort Sumter–the shot that echoed the downfall of the foulest institution which has sapped the vitality of any modern government, and that aroused the people to a sorrowful realization that the power which defied them was strong enough and desperate enough to stop at nothing short of the disintegration of the American Union. So the nation, still sympathizing with slavery, still playing with a coal of fire, grappled with the monster, feeling itself powerful to crush it in a few short months.
It was not because the people of the nation hated slavery and oppression that they rushed upon the field of battle; no such righteousness moved them: it was because the slave‐power, which had for so long dictated legislation and the interpretation of the laws, would tolerate no adverse criticism or legislation upon the foul institution it championed, and appealed from the forum of reason to the forum of treasonable rebellion to enforce the right so long and (I blush to say it!) constitutionally conceded to it.
I do not believe that, in 1860, a majority (or even a respectable minority) of the American people desired the manumission of the slave; it is evident, from the temper of the political discussion of that time, that the combination of parties out of which, in 1856, the Republication party was formed, desired to do more than to confine the institution of slavery within the territory then occupied. There was certainly very little comfort for the black man in this position of the “party of great moral ideas.”
The overtures made by President Lincoln to the slave‐power during the first year of the war were all made in the interest of the perpetuation of the Union, and not in the interest of the slave.
His reply to Mr. Horace Greeley, who urged upon him the importance of issuing an emancipation proclamation is conclusive that he was more concerned about the Union than about the slave:–
Executive Mansion, Washington,
August 22, 1862.
Hon. HORACE GREELEY:–Dear Sir: I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through the “New York Tribune.” If there be in it any statements or assumptions of facts which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not, now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptible in it an imperious and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I seem to be pursuing, as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be the Union it was.
***If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it be freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purposes according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft‐expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, should be free.
Everything–humanity, justice, posterity was placed upon the sacrificial altar of the Union, and the slave‐power was repeatedly and earnestly invited to lay down its traitorous arms, be forgiven, and keep its slaves. With Mr. Lincoln, as President, it was the Union first, last, and all the time. And he but echoed the prevailing opinions of his time. I do not question or criticize his personal attitude; but what he himself called his “view of official duty” was to execute the will of the people, and that was not to abolish slavery, at that time.
As the politicians only took hold of the great question when they thought it would advance their selfish interests, they were prepared to abandon it or immolate it upon the altar of “expediency,” when the great clouds of treason burst upon them in the form of gigantic rebellion. The politicians of that time, like the politicians of all times, were incapable of appreciating the magnitude of the questions involved in the conflict.
But the slave‐power had been aroused. It was not to be appeased by overtures; it wanted no compromise. It would brook no interference inimical to its “peculiar institution.” In the Congress of the nation, in the high places of power, it had so long been permitted to dictate the policy to be pursued towards slavery, it had so inoculated the institutions of the government with the virus of its vicious opinions, that, to be interfered with, to be dictated to, was out of the question. It was Ephraim and his idol repeated.
The South forced the issue upon the people of the country. The Southerners marched off under the banner of “States Rights”–a doctrine they have always championed.–They cared nothing for the Union then; they care less for the Union now. The State to them is sovereign; the nation a magnificent combination of nothingness. The State has in its keeping all option over life, individual rights, and property. The spirit of Hayne and Calhoun is still the star that lights the pathway of the Southern man in his duty to the government. He recognizes no sovereignty more potential than that of his State.
Long years of agitation and bloody war have failed to decide the rights of States, or the measure of protection which the National government owes to the individual members of States. We still grope in the sinuous by‐ways of uncertainty. The State still defies the National authority; and the individual citizens of the Nation still appeal in vain for protection from oppressive laws of States or the violent methods of their citizens. The question, “Which is the greater, the State or the Sisterhood of States?” is still undecided, and may have to be adjudicated in some future stage of our history by another appeal to arms.