Excerpted from The Southern Tradition at Bay by Richard Weaver
Nothing appalled the white people of the South more than the prospect of four million emancipated blacks endowed with the privileges and powers of freemen in a republic. Happy experience with plantation slaves in wartime had convinced most of them that the fear of a general insurrection was groundless, but this was at best a negative comfort. The true problem lay in what the Negro, who had been through none of the white man’s long discipline in self-restraint, would do with political authority. It mattered little to say that the Negro was kind and docile by nature, that he seldom cherished hatred against his “old marster.” The urgent question was whether or not the Negroes as a group had a moral aspiration which could be united with, or substituted for, that with which the white people had maintained a civilization. For civilization is nothing more than a set of moral ambitions carried out by organization and self-discipline. The Northern theory was that the Negro was another “naturally good” man, whose aspiring impulses had been thwarted by the chains of slavery. But the Southern people had before them the lessons of Haiti and Jamaica, where the Negro—under somewhat differing conditions, obviously—had shown that his tendency, when he was released from all constraining forces, was downward rather than upward.
Now, with the old breed of statesmen gone, with the gentry fallen in battle, and with little sympathetic assistance to be expected from the victorious section, the South felt itself confronted with an impossible situation. Innumerable were the speeches, pamphlets, and articles prepared to impress upon the North the necessity of proceeding cautiously in the matter of extending full rights and privileges to the Negro. A feature of this writing was the continued clash over whether the degraded condition of the blacks was owing to enslavement or to racial inheritance. Virtually without an exception, Southerners maintained that the Negro was a primitive whom slavery had assisted forward by enforcing habits of discipline and industry. This naturally outraged Northern opinion, which began with the assumption that the Negro was an equal, and which wished to pin on the Southern slaveholder the guilt for his unlettered, shiftless, and backward condition. The Northern public has generally displayed a strange credulity with respect to stories of abuses emanating from the South, and when these are multiplied tenfold, as they were in Reconstruction days, it is little wonder that many Northerners of good will, whom a visit to the South would have undeceived, went on believing that slaveholders had subjected their Negroes to deliberate and systematic brutalizing. Somewhere between two opinions distorted by passion lay a truth: on the one hand, Southerners had done less than they might have toward civilizing the blacks; and on the other hand, Northerners, accepting the dogma that the Negro had the white man’s nature and capacities, had conceived an imperfect notion of the problem. “The hopes and expectations of the emancipationists,” The Land We Love asserted mildly, “are not in unison with the judgment and predictions of those who have a right to know, and better understand the negro character.”
Meanwhile the problem was there, and more than any other journal of the time De Bow’s Review took cognizance of the fact that the South’s future depended closely upon how the Negro conducted himself under the new incentives. A study of its pages is a good lesson in Southern opinion on the whole race question, which was discussed more or less on its merits. It might be said that among Southerners there were no progressives and no conservatives; there were only those who hoped for much and those who hoped for little; but it would be inaccurate to imagine that a feeling of vindictiveness conditioned the general attitude toward the Negro. That the presence of the African had been the chief source of Southern misfortunes was a common admission; yet his very childlikeness, his extraordinary exhibitions of loyalty, and his pathetic attempts to find his place in the complicated white man’s civilization rather had the effect of endearing him to his former owners. The prevailing feeling was one of benevolence; but the white man could not forget that the Negro had always been dependent on him for instruction and care, and that he could not become a new man in a day, even if the most sanguine prophecies of the Yankees should be realized.
There were varied surmises regarding his behavior in freedom. A writer in De Bow’s Review in the first issue after the war gave a frankly pessimistic forecast.
We avow openly that we feel the deepest commiseration for the enfranchised slaves of the South; and we earnestly hope that everything practicable will be done to alleviate their condition and advance their interests. But we confess we are not sanguine as to their capability of advancement. The black race is proverbially indolent and improvident, and we cannot shut our eyes to the facts of history.
He proceeded further to add, “Accounts from all parts of the South represent the freedmen as idle and indisposed to labor persistently.” He could not, therefore, overcome his “melancholy foreboding as to the capabilities of this class in a state of freedom.”
Two years later a writer on “Negro Agrarianism” was developing the same thought. “We shall soon have in the South,” he said,
not negro rule (for they cannot rule anything—not even their own household), but negro anarchy and agrarianism.
We do not see how this state of things can be prevented by peaceable means, and we have had far too much war. We must submit to negro misrule, cruelty and proscription until the Democratic party of the North gets into power.
The Southern Bivouac found in the Negro “an absence of self-respect, an unconscious servility,” which left him incapable of a white man’s moral perceptions. But it added, “The charge is not to be laid at his door, for the negro is still a slave by inheritance, and the tendencies of many generations cannot be counteracted in one.”
“The Abolitionists have been telling us for half a century,” said The Land We Love,
of the degradation and bestiality of the negro through the baneful influence of the oppression of slavery. But no sooner had slavery been abolished than these same philanthropists contend that the degraded bestialized subject of it is fit to serve upon juries, to exercise the elective franchise, to take his seat in the State or National Legislature, and to discharge all the high and responsible duties of manhood. Now there is an inconsistency somewhere.
Discussions of the Negro frequently took the form of excursions into anthropology and sociology, a fair example of which is the pamphlet The Public School in its Relation to the Negro. This work, which is a complete examination of the Negro’s role in society, was issued in Richmond after being serialized in the Southern Farmer and Planter. Writing to prove that the Negro was doomed by his nature to a subordinate position, the author gave as the first reason his “extreme docility, a most desirable quality in a menial: a most dangerous, a fatal one in a sovereign.” The second was his “improvidence,” and the third the fact that the Negro is “eminently a sweating animal.” This qualifies him for outdoor work in low latitudes, but renders him objectionable “in the cars, in the jury box, in the halls of legislation, in the crowds that assemble on the court green.” By his actions the Negro, “true to nature and true to truth, stoutly denies the heresy of equality.” These assertions and many like them were offered in opposition to equal education for Negroes.
This represents, of course, the adverse extreme; a more balanced study of the Negro’s character, coming at the end of the Reconstruction era, was Philip A. Bruce’s The Plantation Negro as a Freedman. Yet Bruce, though more rational in his approach to the topic and more charitable in allowing the Negro a special set of virtues, leaves him exactly where the others do, in the position of servant and menial. “To bring him to the greatest usefulness,” the author declared, “it is necessary that he should be required to conform to certain fixed standards of conduct to which he will not rise of his own voluntary motion, or if he should do so, he will not adhere to them long.” He observed in the Negro an “inability to be watchful, prudent, and self-controlled for any length of time without alteration,” a trait which he “seems to be incapable of either eradicating or repressing.” And although under constant supervision the Negro might attain a fairly high standard of neatness and efficiency, “he does not always show in the character of his own cabin that he has taken to heart the spirit of those admonitions to which he may listen attentively at the moment.”
It was generally granted that the Negro was “a lineal descendant of Adam,” and not a few saw in him potentiality for development, but none conceded him a future in politics. It was often pointed out that political activity was the one arena in which his lack of a civilized tradition would tell most heavily against him. Thus in 1868 Senator James B. Campbell, of South Carolina, issued a pamphlet which warned that carpetbagger rule could not last and expressed the view that “…he is the best friend of the colored man…who entices him least into the field of politics, than which there is nothing more corrupting to persons like him, just emerging from a condition of pupilage.” Over thirty years later the same thesis was being maintained by Frank G. Ruffin in “The Cost and Outcome of Negro Education in Virginia.” A survey led him to the assertion that “an experience of nineteen years has shown all observant Virginians that so far from having been fitted by education for the discharge of civil or social duties, that [sic] they have absolutely deteriorated, and have given no promise of amendment in any direction.” Their condition marked a lapse from “a high degree of efficiency as agricultural laborers, in slavery, to a state of utter worthlessness in freedom.” The Negroes were “political idiots,” and the North by trying to put them into political authority had “sinned against all knowledge.”
On the topic of the Negro’s natural endowment one finds the beginning of a division of opinion; for though some held that he could never compete with the white man in the arts and sciences, others believed that he had the potential ability to succeed in all of them save that of political management. It is a further commentary on the traditional Southern view of the arts that no embarrassment was felt over conceding the Negro even superiority in music, poetry, and oratory so long as politics remained the white man’s preserve. The Southern Bivouac declared that it would not be surprised to see Negroes “in another generation” producing artists, poets, and orators surpassing those of the white race. But it regarded talent for self-government as the peculiar gift of the Aryan. The Negro betrayed his unfitness for rule through “absolute, unqualified veneration for power in its every form and symbol.” He could understand only external control. “Nature formed him for obedience, and even when he is riotous and apparently insubordinate it is most generally his expression of contempt for what he deems weakness, and indirect tribute to that which he esteems the real representative of superior controlling force.”
More than one writer took the view that it was impossible for the two races to dwell together unless the blacks remained in a condition approximating slavery, and sometimes traditional religion was invoked to sanction such an arrangement. Thus The Land We Love could say of the Negro that “From his history we infer that God has given him a tendency to thrive and multiply in a condition of servitude,” and that therefore “the servile condition of the negroes in the South was not contrary to the will of God.” If they lived free of white supervision and control, they would assert their natural bent, revert to a primitive status, and so create a county in which no white man would care to remain. De Bow’s Review suggested that within the foreseeable future the Negro would drive the white man from his domain and so achieve an all-Negro South. This was accompanied by the realistic observation that no inferior race is ever practically and actually free when in contact with a superior, for the latter is certain to find means of exploiting the labor of the former. China, Japan, and Liberia had met this problem simply by excluding white competition. If the Negro had shown any capacity for management, it was said, there would long since have been in the South a Negro feudal tenantry, which would have displaced the white overseer. “But not a single negro in the whole South was ever found capable of managing a farm.”
A reading of these speeches, editorials, and pamphlets indicates that the Southern people of the postbellum era, frightened and confused, were seeking a rational ground for their feeling. They failed to discover a consistent argument for racial discrimination, but the salient fact emerging from every discussion was that they had no more intention of crediting the Negro with equality than had the generation of the 1830′s. Even a courageous reformer like George W. Cable, who battled for the Negro’s civic rights, drew the line at social equality. By the standard of humanity which the South visualized—and this must be understood in terms of its heritage—the Negro was an inferior. God had willed it; experience proved it; and except in trifling particulars the great majority felt no impulse to redress the balance.
One of the best summaries of the prevailing opinion is to be found in a speech delivered in Congress in 1874 by Senator Thomas M. Norwood, of Georgia, and later circulated as a pamphlet. Twitting the sponsors of the Fourteenth Amendment, he said that he looked forward to the time
when the white man and the black, the mulatto and the quadroon, the coolie and the Digger Indian, shall be gathered together, a united family, in one unbroken circle, around one common soup bowl and using the same spoon, while shielded by the Stars and Stripes and regaled by the martial measure and inspiring strain of—John Brown’s soul is marching on.
All differences and distinctions are now recognized as mistakes, he continued, and thus we must vote them out of existence, although not without a show of “decent respect for the opinion of the author of these errors.” Despite the fact that “the flowers of the field might vary in splendor; the lion might be made monarch of the beasts; one star might differ from another in glory, but absolute equality, moral, mental, physical, political, social, in churches, theatres, graveyards, everywhere in the world and out of it, must be ordained among men, women, and children.”
It has been argued that although Americans are by temperament empiricists, in their political thinking they have been rationalists, preferring to deduce truths from axioms and first principles. There is perhaps no better illustration of this conflict of procedures than the handling of the vexed race problem. Northerners, remote from the scene of strife and bearing little if any of the responsibility involved, found the rational approach easy; from the Declaration of Independence and other canons of American liberty they could draw conclusions which Southerners found irrefutable. But the South, finding that the concrete situation made a mockery of the abstract statement, as is often the case, regarded itself forced to the empirical approach and continued to treat the Negro as a special case. Then the unwillingness of the Americans to compromise an issue, frequently remarked by Europeans, led each side to reduce its views to a more or less rigid credo, in which form they stand today. The inability of Southerners to arrive at first principles which would support this position explains much awkward silence in the years that followed.
The Southern apologia was a minority protest delivered over a period of thirty years. If one judges by practical results, it was almost wholly vain. The legal case was at best a hollow victory. The attack upon secular democracy was so much wasted breath, later to be answered by the more terrible radicalisms emerging from Europe. The particularism of peoples, though it may have heightened the self-consciousness of Southerners and made them suspect when abroad, was soon in futile competition with an enthusiastic internationalism. Only the poorly clarified theory of white supremacy was destined to have immediate efficacy. Near the end of the century it came to overt expression in a widespread campaign to deprive the black man of the franchise, which was done by means sometimes more effective than honest.