South Carolina Morals
WHILE at the Centennial, last summer, I fell into conversation with an old lady (a Northerner) on the street cars. I am, I console myself, eminently peaceable and Christian-like in appearance. “ Where are yon from ? ” said she. “ From South Carolina,” I replied. She started. “What?” she exclaimed; “why, you look just like other people! ”
In morals the Southern whites respect and profess to obey the same great fundamental laws as the Northerners and other whites. There are plenty of men among us who can hear the deealogue and feel no self-reproach, and there are also many earnest Christians of blameless, self sacrificing lives; but it is not to be denied that there are certain peculiarities of the Southern people, arising from their situation and circumstances, past and present, — though chiefly past, — which seriously affect their moral conduct. In all ordinary cases Southerners act morally quite like other people; but whenever the line of conduct to which they are urged by one of their peculiarities comes under the prohibition of a moral law, they are very apt to disregard that law altogether and go ahead, or put such a forced construction on it as will justify their actions. The peculiarities referred to are three in number: (1.) Dissipation and the doctrines of the code of honor largely prevail among Southerners. (2.) Southerners have slender regard for the rights of the negro. (3.) They are unusually intolerant of opposition or of difference of opinion, especially in regard to political matters.
(1.) The planters of the South used to exhibit in the strongest form the virtues and the vices of all aristocracies. The typical Southerner possessed a liberal and chivalrte cast of character which was founded mainly on family distinction, social culture, exemption from toil, and command over the lives and fortunes of his underlings. He would, for example, make large presents to waiters at hotels, or to the domestics at private houses, where he stopped. He was exceedingly fond of standing treat; he was frank and warm-hearted, strong in his attachments and dislikes, and would stick closer than a brother to a friend in trouble. By his generosity in lending money and going security he was often involved in embarrassment. He was noted for devotion to women, and for personal bravery even to rashness. He was fond of late suppers and choice wines, and delighted in hunting and in the sports of the turf and the pit. Truth was held in the highest estimation, and the least appearance of equivocation would condemn a man to utter disrepute; to give the he was the worst of insults. he was often engaged in affairs of honor, for to take an insult was an everlast ing disgrace ; and being quiek to resent insults or their appearance, he was equally hasty in offering them when excited or aggrieved; and although he might repent of having said unjust things and apologize a moment after to an honorable opponent, yet nothing could induce him to back out of a contest when he believed himself wrongedCareless of his own money, he was inclined to be careless in all pecuniary affairs, often running heavily into debt and showing habitual negligence in settling small accounts.
These characteristics, originating with the planters, were imitated by all orders. A reputation for gallantry and generosity became highly esteemed in the South. In consequence, many individuals in their efforts to attain it degenerated into bravocs and spendthrifts ; the character of the fire-eater became almost as much admired as that of the gentleman. The passing of high words and blows, canings, cowhidings, and so on, all terminated by the drawing of knives or pistols, together with hostile correspondences and duels, became every-day occurrences in the South, and especially in South Carolina and perhaps Mississippi.
Now in a community where men are quick to wipe out insults with blood, the first effect is naturally to make individuals highly respectful to one another in manner and speech. This effect was very apparent in the conduct of most Southerners on ordinary occasions. But it is soon perceived that this politeness springs from fear, and then many per sons of sensitive or hectoring depositions will make their conduct habitually aggressive to prove they are not cowards, or to gain admiration. Every Southerner knew that if he preserved his temper and forgave insult on trying occasions, people would say he did it because he feared the pistol of his adversary; hence it became fashionable for every gentleman to act aggressively now and then, and perhaps to fight a duel, and having “vindicated his courage ” to keep quiet on the strength of it. Many men, however, were so sensitive about the public condemning them should they make it a rule to he respectful towards opponents (say, in the legislature, at the bar, on the stump, or in the. sanctum), that they became professional bullies, always, acting and speaking insultingly to prove they were not afraid to fight. It was an almost indispensable qualification, certainly a desirable accomplishment, in a legislator, congressman, or editor, to have fought a duel. Consequently the fire-eating element came to preponderate among the statesmen who ruled us or whom we sent from home. The Southern gentleman was celebrated for Ins affable manners to all, rich and poor, black and white, while the fire-eater was sullen and dogged in his salutations; except when “showing off,” he would hardly speak to negroes or whites lower in station than himself at all, ami he was continually imagining insults and picking quarrels. A disregard for inflicting pain and shedding blood became lamentably common. All, even boys but just in their teens, were in the habit of wearing a pistol, as the slightest provocation would Ordinarily reveal. It became wellnigh impossible to get a jury to convict any one (especially an aristocrat) of the most evident murder, provided he had exhibited daring in committing it, or had given his victim a chance to defend himself.
It also became a sign of gentility to he wasteful of money, to wager on every occasion and about everything, to stake high amounts, to run into debt, etc.; and it was thought to the last degree degrading for a man to be niggardly in lending money or indorsing for others. But the practical exhibition of such traits has, since the war, been much limited by the want of funds and the necessity of working for a living. Southerners still make largesses to servants, stand treat, game, and run into debt; but they can ill afford to be lavish with their money. Fees and bets are small in amount, and the aristocrat who of old would not wait to receive change, or who would pocket it without looking at it, will now count it over when handed him. Treats are as often invited as proffered, and cheaper refreshments are selected than formerly. Nine men out of ten carry pistols, and personal difficulties, castigations, stabbings, and shootings are yet entirely too common. But there have been only eight or ten duels in South Carolina since the war, —hardly as many as used to occur every year. Men will rarely fight duels when death may mean starvation to their families; and I ought to add that from the same cause pistols are not drawn so quickly as of old, and the tendency is to brandish rather than to shoot, so little can our hot bloods now afford the expenses of a legal trial; though it is still true that juries, both white and black — where the slayer and slain are of the same race — exhibit a strong disposition to let men off who have shown courage in committing crime.
The financial downfall of the aristocracy caused much loss among their creditors; and so the plebeian merchants and others, who used to rival each other in seeking the patronage of influential families, are now cautious to excess in dealing with them. The struggle for existence is undoubtedly working its effects on Southern character. Our business men, who used to ape the free and easy manners of the aristocrats, are now more practical. There is more caviling in making bargains. And even in the quiet streets of Charleston, once so noted for the easy-going appearance of their walkers, there are plainly discernible changes denoting the oncoming of “ that hurried and high-pressure existence,” which Mr. Greg so earnestly deplores.
Adversity has produced, too, all its customary demoralization. Thousands upon thousands of Southerners were forced into bona fide bankruptcy after the war. But thousands who were better off made the prevalence of insolvency a cloak; and failures in business are well known to the lawyers to be yet too common. Women have been allowed to hold property independently of their husbands since 1868. Under the mask of this right, debtors are every day making over their property to their wives in order to cheat creditors. But worse than this, in every Southern State a few hundred or thousand individuals, who used to be as intolerant as their comrades, have at times since the war turned over to the republicans for the sake of office or plunder. These men have been dubbed “scalawags,” and few are genuinely converted. Hundreds of whites, too, who were ardent in their support of the Confederacy have put in their claims as loyal citizens for losses sustained during the war. Many others, knowing the legislature to be bribable, have used money to buy the passage of dishonest bonanza bills, by which they have made large amounts. Men, too, of high repute have lent their names to give respectability to rotten corporations, lotteries, and other enterprises designed to gull the people. And worst of all, the press has, in this State, been deplorably venal. Our corrupt rulers, fearing the papers might stir up the people to resistance —induce them, for instance, to refuse to pay taxes — did not scruple to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in silly official advertising. Twenty democratic journals were once thus subsidized, and of course silenced.
Many Southerners were driven to drink deeply by their misfortunes, and drunkenness (with all the. family misery it entails) is deplorably prevalent to this day. The taste for liquor is partly the effect of the warm climate, which requires stimulants.
(2.) It is a very common saying that the whites and negroes are at the bottom not unfriendly toward each other; that every white man loves his old “mauma,” or faithful old family driver or servingman, while the negro is attached to his old “ marsa ” or “ missis,” who reared him, and with whom, perhaps, he has always stayed. This seems plausible. But there is a fallacy lurking under it. The whites are each of them fond of particular individuals among the blacks, but despise the race as a whole. And the same can be said of the blacks.
The whites are undoubtedly sentimentally attached to old family servants and certain acquaintances among the blacks. But towards other negroes their conduct is sullen and reckless; and for the rights of the race at large they have no consideration whatever,save whatsprings from compulsion. The old relations have not been forgotten. Every one thinks, and every child is trained up in the belief, that the negro is meant for the use of white people, was brought here and should stay here for no other purpose; that he is a half-way sort of animal, an excellent rice or cotton worker, an incomparable driver, waiter, or bootblack, but utterly incapable of government or culture; that he should be ruled in all things political, social, and industrial by the white man, should be kept in his place, and decisively suppressed if he tries to put on airs. I have seen whites who, actuated by religion or cowardice, were more passive under insult from other whites than Southerners are wont to be. But let a colored person insult them, and their nature seemed wholly altered. To swallow an insult from a negro would be perpetual infamy. Accordingly, the whites do not think it wrong to shoot, stab, or knock down negroes on slight provocation. It is actually thought a great point, among certain classes, to he able to boast that one has killed or beaten a negro. It is quite impossible to convict a white of a crime against a colored man if there be a white man on the jury.
Difficulties between whites and blacks in this State had been, until the recent presidential campaign, decreasing infrequency. The negroes had learned to invoke the law. And so freely had they indicted the whites for assaults and batteries (first before the military tribunals, and then in the state courts), that a very wholesome cautiousness had been engendered in the latter. The military were, of course, disposed to put down fire-eating; and the state justices’ or circuit courts (with their colored magistrates and juries) are very unsafe places for a white man. This cautiousness, too, has been increased by the prevalence of arson. If a white incurs the enmity of a negro, he is a very bad business man if he does not keep his buildings insured. The negroes, though, are often abused and then paid not to prosecute the case. They will readily withdraw their affidavits for a small consideration.
It seems a rather strange fact that although the negroes are much stronger physically than the whites, the latter often get the better of them in fights where no weapons are used; while if weapons are used they stand no chance whatever. But on thinking, one sees it is not so strange after all. The negroes yet retain their inbred dread of their old masters, and their old inbred dread of striking whites, — which used to be, of course, a heinous crime, and brought down a terrible punishment; while the whites yet, as I have said, retain much of their native contempt for and readiness to dash on the blacks. The demeanor of the races in conflict, in fact, often makes me think there is a germ of truth in Herodotus’s pretty tale of the suppression of the slave rebellion by the Scythians. It is a well-known fact that the younger generation of negroes, who have grown up since the war, are much more bold in defying white people than those who were slaves.
Reverdy Johnson was startled and indignant at the atrocities of the Ku-Klux. But a moment’s reflection would have convinced him that their deeds were not so unnatural as, at first sight, he evidently regarded them. The Ku-Klux Klan with its night visits and whippings and murders was the legitimate offspring of the patrol. Every Southern gentleman used to serve on the night patrol, the chief duty of which was to whip severely any negro found away from home without a pass from his master.
There used to prevail in the South an inquisitorial, relentless determination to suppress the truth about the maltreatment of the slaves. Atrocities were frequently perpetrated, yet it was persistently asserted that the negroes were uniformly well treated, were contented and happy, and that all reports to the contrary were malicious lies invented by interested politicians or crazy fanatics. While there are few Southerners who could not have written an abler vindication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin than its authoress, on every hand she was denounced as a busybody, a mischief-maker, a fanatic, a lunatic, a liar of the first magnitude; and yet I have heard Southerners, who in formal argument would deny the possibility of any and every event in her matchless exposé, in moments of jovial conversation relate with great gusto anecdotes of how in the good old times they used to hunt down runaway negroes with hounds and guns, brand them, beat them till senseless, and while patrolling at night flog negroes who had passes, “just to hear them beg and hollo.” “But all that’s gone now,” they remark with a sigh, on concluding.
This same determination to keep back the truth is rampant to-day. The most horrible tales of negro murders which have ever appeared in radical sheets at the North would pale before the relation of incidents known to every white man in the South. The intimidation of the negroes is a stern and awful fact. Yet what do Southerners say about it? It is the bloody shirt, the lying inventions of unscrupulous politicians, the last gasp of carpet-baggery and radical deviltry. So bitterly do Southerners hate to have the truth come out that it is at the risk of his life that any man dares to speak it. When a political crime is committed, they palliate it, smooth over everything, charge the blame on the murdered victims, and indulge in loud generalities about their good feeling towards the negro, their desire for peace, their willingness to accept the situation. An ex - Confederate, a leader of the whites in this State, exclaimed when the news of the Hamburg massacre arrived, “ Hello, boys, glorious news! They ’ve come down on ’em at Hamburg, —seven niggers killed! Hurrah for Butler! ” A conservative white standing by suggested to him that it was a pity the men had been shot after surrendering. “ Oh, damn your prisoners, — they were nothing but niggers.” A few months afterwards this same gentleman tried to explain away the Hamburg affair to a garrison officer: “ You see, we all regret such occurrences, but the negroes provoked the difficulty and it was unavoidable. The killing of the prisoners we all deplored, but the negroes had exasperated the men so they could not be restrained.”
(3.) All aristocracies are intolerant. The planters of the South had their intolerance in political matters increased by the fear that opposition to their favorite opinions might rob them of their slave property, or cause the negroes to rise. The treatment of Garrison in Maryland is well known; after his removal to Boston the legislature of Georgia offered a reward for his apprehension, and he would surely have been lynched had it caused his extradition South. The Kansas troubles, the beating of Sumner, and the terrible feeling stirred up by Brown’s raid on Virginia need but a reference. Smart negroes were made away with like Helots, and the teaching negroes to read and especially to write was forbidden by law. Native whites non-conforming in opinion — anti-slavery or Union men — had no security but in keeping quiet. If they made themselves conspicuous, they were certain to be so grossly insulted by some fire-eater that unless they appealed to the duello their influence was forever destroyed. The most striking instance I recollect was that of ex-Governor Perry, an aristocrat, but a Union man in his sentiments. He was at one time before the war editor of a paper which began to work mischief to the state-rights cause. A fire-eater who had a pistol case for hire was imported from a distance to edit a rival paper. He began a series of brutal but “spicy ” personal attacks on Mr. Perry and his journal. Mr. Perry continued silent for a time, but at last, to avoid public scorn, he was compelled to resort to the duello. As it happened he killed his man and survived to be appointed provisional governor of the State by President Johnson. He evaded challenges afterwards on the ground that he “had vindicated his courage.” No antiCalliounist could speak out in the legislature or on the forum but some fire-eater would take him up so aggressively that a duel was the only escape from disgrace.
But not in politics alone was intolerance evinced. The aristocrats were also intensely clannish, and would endure no rivalry from plebeians. For instance, at the local colleges the secret fraternities fell into the hands of aristocratic students who excluded all others. Their organizations were then used to control elections in the literary and debating societies, to which all the students belonged, and in the classes. The high offices were given to aristocrats, and aristocrats were appointed to deliver the valedictories and salutatories. If a plebeian student of talent made himself prominent, cold water was thrown on all he did, and it was not unlikely, if he gave promise of winning the first honors or other high prizes, that such a cry would be raised against him as to cause his withdrawal from the race, if not from college. Duels were more common at Southern than at German colleges and universities; and a very ordinary way of putting down plebeians was by forcing them into affairs of honor through bitter personalities in debate or scurrilous remarks made to reach their ears. In practical life the same thing appeared. The aristocrats often ex gratia would elect a prominent or smart plebeian to office, if he were content to dance attendance. But if he essayed independence, he was promptly sent to Coventry orinsulted till forced to fight or subside. The aristocrats relentlessly crushed any “unworthy” member of their own circle who tried to violate their customs and traditions. Plebeians chancing to give offense to the planters had their negroes whipped and mutilated without cause by aristocratic patrolmen, —to incapacitate them for work, damage their market value, or out of pure spite and bravado, — or had a crowd of arrogant hunters tear down their fences at night and chase a fox through their fields, to the immense damage of the crops. This oppression was naturally imitated, as far as practicable, by the lower classes, each of which kept up a caste system among its own members, and rode over the classes below.
Since tlie war, authority has repressed political tyranny to a considerable extent. But it is yet rife, and a relaxation of authority is instantly followed by its aggressions. The ostracism of white republicans, native or Northern, is rigid, and it breaks out into deadly persecution when opportunity offers. The KuKlux beat and killed white republicans as vindictively as negroes; indeed more vindictively, as the remark was common, “ Put away their leaders, and we can soon bring the negroes to terms.” Especially were they violent against schoolteachers and “ propagandists ” of Northern birth; and during the canvasses on the Mississippi plan, the intimidation of white republicans is equally severe with that of colored. The editor of the first republican newspaper founded in this State after the war was twice horsewhipped, so unaccustomed were the people to the liberty of the press. I should here remark that a fighting editor is absolutely indispensable to a Southern paper. The slightest personality is apt to result in an attempt to chastise the editor; and yet the editors, knowing the public will attribute moderation to fear, are generally very acrimonious.
The desire of the aristocracy to keep down plebeians is as strong as ever, though poverty has much restricted its indulgence. Many impoverished aristocrats just after the war, in danger of being sold out by their creditors, excited such feeling on the subject that the creditors would compromise at great loss rather than subject themselves to peril by proceeding. Nevertheless, many old family homesteads were put under the hammer; but in not a few instances, by the free use of threats, bidders were frightened off, thus enabling the owners to bid in their own property at a nominal price. J am familiar with one case in which a wealthy plebeian merchant was brave enough to attend such an auction and participate in the bidding. The aristocrats present were furious, said the thing was an outrage, and told the owner to bid higher than he had intended or was able, as they would lend him the money; but the merchant had more than their united means, and secured the estate. A short time afterwards, while driving out with his sister, he was set, upon by a kinsman of the aggrieved aristocrat, pulled out, and cruelly beaten. In September last a merchant foreclosed a lien he had on the crop of a planter’s widow in —— county. He did it because she was pursuing the usual aristocratic course of evading payment and putting him off. The indignity threw the lady into convulsions which caused her death. She was hardly buried before her three grown sons, all under twenty-five, were mounted and on their way to the merchant’s. They found him in a lawyer’s office in town, put everybody out but him, and closed the door. His screams and cries for mercy alarmed all the village. A crowd collected, and tried to interfere. But one of the young men came out on the steps with a cocked pistol in each hand, and kept them off till the victim was insensible, beaten to a jelly, gashed all over, and had one ear cut off. They then came out and rode off. The merchant lay at the point of death for weeks, is yet (two months since the fray) in bed, and is maimed for life. The affair was mentioned in no paper, and the young men have never been indicted.
But the aristocracy have been compelled to unbend considerably. Plebeians advance money on their crops, own mortgages on their lands, employ their sons as clerks, etc. Furthermore, plebeians own most Southern property now, since the gentlemanly aristocrats have taken ill to money making, to which the plebeians are used. So the commercial classes are beginning to acquire something like their normal position, with all the respect due to it, though the aristocrats choke it down hard.
The negroes also believe in and profess to practice the usual moral code. But in obedience to moral laws they are far less advanced than the whites; and there are, in their case, certain peculiarities produced by past or present circumstances which often lead them to disobey or pervert their theories of right. For instance, the negro used to know that he was wrongfully held in slavery, and did not scruple to feign sickness in order to avoid work, or to lay hands on any article of his master’s which he could appropriate without being detected. These things continue, though their cause is removed. It is not considered wrong among negroes to steal from or in any manner cheat whites. They trespass for wood in forests, or take rails and planks off fences. Their nightly depredations are notorious. No work can be got from them unless they are superintended. Hired laborers take too many holidays, are sick half the time, and in every way shirk work. The stealing propensity is the bane of the negroes in politics. They know that their legislators and other officers steal the public deposits, but, knowing the whites pay the taxes, they applaud the theft, and every one is eager to be elected so that, he may have a share in the spoils. Prominent negroes (I know myself of a congressman and a state senator who have done it) have frequently made incendiary speeches, saying the taxes should be raised till tlie whites are ruined and property depreciated in value, when lands sold for delinquent taxes can be bid in at low rates by colored men, who will soon have all the country to themselves. These men, on being accused of advocating confiscation, openly acknowledge it, and justify themselves by saying that the whites used to steal their wages, and now the negro’s time has come.
Lying is at this day the negroes’ worst failing. They are tlie most bare-faced perjurers ever seen in courts of justice; and especially are they experts in giving false testimony to save fellow blacks prosecuted by whites.
It is perhaps well that the carpet-baggers assumed their leadership, as their passions, which might otherwise have sought gratification in blood, were thereby diverted almost exclusively to plunder. The readiness of white men, indeed, to use the pistol has kept them respectful to some extent, though, as I have said, they fearfully avenge any grievances from whites by applying the torch to out-buildings, gin-houses, and often dwellings. But to white children they have been extremely insolent and threatening. White ladies have to be very prudent with their tongues, for colored domestics give back word for word, and even follow up words with blows, if reprimanded too cuttingly. It has also since emancipation been notoriously unsafe for white ladies to venture from home without an escort.
The possession of weapons greatly added to negro insolence. They have delighted from the outset to carry weapons demonstratively, to trespass on forbidden premises for game, etc. If a negro is overcome in a fight by a white man, those of his race present will dash in to aid him. The white spectators will then interfere to help their comrade, and a free fight is often the result. The beating of a white by a black produces white interference, followed promptly by colored interference. And in collisions between whites and blacks the friends of the respective parties think themselves bound to interfere, not to stop the fight, but to help out their comrade. If a white man shoots a colored man, an excited mob of blacks will try to lynch him. His friends rally to the rescue, and there is often a riot. The conditions are reversed if a white man is shot by a negro. The existence of so vindictive a spirit between the races convinces me that the presence of United States troops is often essential to peace and good order in the South.
The negroes outdo Squire Western in the use of filthy language, and the women are as foul-mouthed as the men, and as profane. Chastity is the exception among them. Tens of thousands of negroes live together as man and wife without marrying. The married ones are every day quitting each other and taking up with illicit partners. I trust I shall be excused for referring to the above facts. Had I omitted to do so I should have left untouched one of the most momentous features in the sociology of the South.
The negro in ordinary relations with both his own and the white race is goodnatured to jollity; but arouse his passions and he is. terribly revengeful. They quarrel and fight savagely with each other. Murders are frequent, and they mutilate persons (white or black), whom they kill, in a shocking manner. The women in their rage are tigresses.
Most of the equity and civil business (though our chancery affairs are administered by the law judges) in our courts is supplied by the whites. But the bulk of the criminal business is supplied by the blacks. A white is rarely seen in a Southern court for any crime other than murder or assault and battery. Whenever larceny, burglary, arson, and similar crimes are committed in the South, no one is suspected of the crime save negroes. Out of three hundred and fiftyfive prisoners now in our state penitentiary, three hundred and twenty-five are colored! The negro is fanatical in his religion, but deplorably loose in his morals; and though his animal passions are largely repressed by the idea of a God of vengeance, and the terrors of hell set before him every Sunday, yet these theoretical restraints need to be supplemented by swift and terrible legal penalties for every transgression, — that is, as long as the negro continues as he is. But I sincerely trust some means will be found to elevate him to a higher moral plane by education.
My account would be incomplete were I to omit mentioning two considerations which account for the vices of the negro. The first is this: so often were the slaves whipped and humiliated before each other, often for no cause, that punishment came to be looked on as no disgrace. This sentiment, I am sorry to perceive, lias survived the fall of slavery. Imprisonment, even for degrading crimes, like stealing, is looked on as no disgrace, and the moment the convict leaves the jail or penitentiary he resumes the place in colored society that he left, finds himself for a week the object of general interest as he discourses on his adventures in the great “ pennytenshun ” in the far-off city they have so often heard mentioned, begins life anew, and is treated as if nothing had happened. Discharged convicts have often been elected to the legislature! The second consideration is the prevalence of drunkenness. I fear drink is destined to prove as much the bane of the negro as of the Indian. All his earnings with which he might make home comfortable or increase his property are spent for it. It intensifies his quarrelsomeness, disposition to mob whites, bad treatment of his family, etc. Every Saturday afternoon the negroes swarm into the towns from the country, and as far as their means will permit indulge in potations of poisonous whisky. On these occasions street fights and riots are the invariable results. The negro women, unluckily, are almost as much given to drinking as the men.
But the negroes are not without example. Intemperance, owing perhaps to the climate, has always been as notoriously a failing of the Carolinas as of Kentucky itself; and the war has increased it as mentioned before. In drunken brawls the whites rival the negroes.
A South Carolinian.