The Political Attitude of the South
WE are now at the beginning of the fourth presidential canvass since the close of the rebellion. It is fifteen years since the surrender at Appomattox ; it is twelve vears since the country affirmed the validity and justice of the settlements of the war by the election of General Grant by an overwhelming majority in 1868. And yet the issue of the present campaign is practically one that connects itself directly with the war. It is whether the people who rebelled against the United States government shall obtain full possession of that government, and thus escape the political consequences of their rebellion. I am aware that this statement will have an extravagant sound to many, and will recall the bitter partisan conflicts of the past, from which they think we ought to have advanced by this time to higher levels of statesmanship ; but the facts warrant it. The South continues to be a separate political entity, and is not a mere geographical term, like the East or the West. The highest idea of patriotism entertained by Southern politicians is loyalty to their section. When they speak of the interests or wishes of “ our people,” they always mean the people of the South. They conceive of the nation as a sort of dual affair, like the monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and look at a national election as a contest to settle whether the North or the South shall rule. Holding such views, it is natural that their policy should be to keep their own section riveted together by the bolts of old war memories, state-rights theories, and local pride and prejudice, while seeking at the same time to divide the North. This idea has been the key to Southern politics ever since reconstruction. The weaker section can hope to triumph only by its own solidity and by the division of the stronger. Therefore it is that as we get further away from the reconstruction period the South grows more and more solid from year to year. Its leaders have blown the bellows of sectional feeling and hammered on the hot iron until at last they have got it welded into a compact mass. In 1868, the republicans elected a majority of the members of Congress from the Southern States ; in 1870, the democrats gained heavily upon them ; in 1872, their numbers were further reduced; in 1874, the democrats predominated in the ratio of nearly three to one; in 1876, the republican representation was again cut down; and in 1878, when the present Congress was chosen, but three republicans were returned from the States that went into the rebellion, and but four from all the old slave-holding States. With the exception of two greenbackers, one independent democrat, and two so-called greenback democrats, all the rest of the Southern members belong to the regular democratic party. The republicans have two members of the senate, Mr. Kellogg, of Louisiana, and Mr. Bruce, of Mississippi; but Mr. Bruce will be replaced by a democrat when his term expires next year, and Mr. Kellogg will probably be voted out before the end of this session. There is no prospect that the new house, to be chosen this year, and to begin its official life in 1881, will contain a single Southern republican, and the only chance for a republican vote in the senate from beyond Mason’s and Dixon’s line lies in the possibility that the democrats will refrain from laying violent hands upon Mr. Kellogg’s seat. All opposition to the party which represents the ideas of the rebellion has thus been steadily and surely extinguished in the South, until the States which seceded, and the border States which wanted to secede, but did not dare, are prepared to give a solid vote next November for the democratic nominee for president.
In a country having a strong centralized government the unity of a group of states or provinces in hostility to the laws and constitution of the country, or even to the settled policy of administration, would be regarded as a dangerous thing. It is doubly dangerous in a country like ours, possessing a federative form of government, and beset with many undetermined questions as to the extent and location of power. The attitude of the South is therefore one which demands serious thought. It is not accidental; it is not transitory ; it is not destitute of motive. Its causes lie deeply imbedded in Southern sentiment, prejudice, and ambition. To trace them out and endeavor to eradicate them is a work worthy of the highest order of statesmanship. From Southern men themselves it is not easy to get a plausible reason for their persistent adherence to a single party. They often say, “ We are solid in our section because you are trying to rule us by means of a solid North.” This is not true. Nobody wants a solid North in the sense that the South is solid. Nobody proposes to make it unpatriotic and immoral for a man to belong to an opposition party. The North never was solid. Even in the midst of the war, the party sympathizing with the South elected a large number of members of Congress in the Northern States. “ If you will break up, we will,” is a common South ern saying. But we are broken up ; in fact, we have never been united. In 1874 we went to pieces to such an extent that the democrats carried our old strongholds of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Did the South divide when those republican States sent a troop of democratic members up to Congress ? Not at all; on the contrary, the Southern leaders went to work with fresh zeal to exterminate what little was left of the republican party in their section. “ Take away your soldiers and give us home rule,” they told us in 1876, “ and we will give all parties a fair show.” President Grant had been taking away the soldiers during his second term, and President Hayes finished the work. What happened then ? At the next congressional election the republicans were permitted to elect one representative in Virginia, one in North Carolina, and one in the mountains of East Tennessee, and that was all. In districts like the Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown districts of South Carolina, the Mississippi coast districts of Louisiana, and the “ shoe-string ” district of Mississippi, where the republicans have a majority of over three to one, democrats were elected by terrorism and fraud. Thus it seems to be established that the division of the North only increases the solidity of the South. And now, when fifteen years have gone by since the war ended, matters have come to such a pass that the republican party is scarcely allowed to exist in the eleven States of this Union which went into the rebellion, and has no chance of success in the five other States which sympathized with the rebellion because of the institution of slavery. In all the sixteen States which once held slaves the republican candidate for president this year will not receive a solitary electoral vote. I know there are sanguine republicans who believe that Virginia and Tennessee can be taken away from the democrats on the debt question, and who are so very unsophisticated in Southern election laws and methods as to cherish hopes of carrying Florida and Louisiana ; but they will be undeceived long before November. When the campaign is fairly under way, the solidity of the South will be manifested.
The extraordinary fidelity of the white element in the South to the democratic party and its intolerance of opposition have secondary causes in the lingering fear of a restoration of the negro and carpet-bag rule, in the poverty of the South, its lack of educational facilities, and in jealousy of the wealth and prosperity of the republican States of the North ; but its chief cause is undoubtedly a feeling that to vote any other than a democratic ticket is in some sort to condemn the rebellion. The democratic party upheld slavery, apologized for or openly justified secession, opposed the coercion of the rebellious States, resisted the emancipation of the slaves and their elevation to citizenship, and fought all the reconstruction measures. To act with that party is therefore the most natural line of conduct for all who believe secession was justifiable, and hold that the destruction of slavery and the suppression of the rebellion was a triumph of brute force, and not of right. The political leaders at the South sedulously stimulate this feeling, and seek to prevent it from dying out as time advances. They have definite purposes in view which can be accomplished only by perpetuating it. Those purposes we may reasonably suppose to be: —
First. To obtain the vast power that attaches to the control of both the legislative and executive departments of the government. This is not an unreasonable ambition, aud we cannot complain of it per se.
Second. To justify the rebellion on the pages of history. Of this we in the North do complain, and against it we do most earnestly protest. The men who dragged the South into war cherish an absorbing and passionate desire to have their conduct vindicated. This can be done in one way only, and that is by the people putting the government into their hands. If they can obtain control of the executive, as they now have of Congress, by triumphing at a presidential election, they think that history will be rewritten, and that the whole world will say, “ The Americans were wrong in fighting down secession ; the same generation which waged the war against the South has taken a sober second thought, and sees its error, and now it makes amends by placing the Southern leaders in power.”
Third. To wipe out in the public mind every distinction between loyalty and disloyalty so far as the terms refer to the behavior of men during the war, and to make it recognized as just as great an honor to have fought on one side as on the other. This involves the pensioning of rebel soldiers, their admission to the national asylums, and the repeal of the laws which keep them out of the regular army. There is nothing inconsistent or unreasonable in this purpose from a Southern point of view. If an ex - Confederate general can sit in Congress and make laws, why should not his comrade command a regiment or draw a pension for his wounds ?
Fourth. To reëstablish the statesovereignty theory as the orthodox constitutional interpretation. To accomplish this object the supreme court must he reconstructed by a law retiring several of the old judges, and enlarging the tribunal through the appointment by a democratic president of new democratic judges enough to make a majority with the two already on the bench. This scheme will be perfectly practicable if the democrats Can hold Congress and secure the executive.
Fifth. To repeal all laws authorizing the government to supervise elections, in order that the negro vote may be handled by the whites of the South without interference. By poll-tax qualifications and ingenious restrictions of state law, this vote will be practically wiped out, as far as its power to carry elections is concerned.
Sixth. To offset the growth of the Northwest by making three States of Texas and annexing Cuba and a part of Mexico, so as to gain for the South a reinforcement of political power.
It may be said that these purposes are not avowed in the speeches of Southern statesmen, or the editorials of Southern newspapers, with the exception of a few frantic sheets of merely local importance. No one who has lived in the South, or traveled much there, with advantages for mingling in the social life of the people, will, however, deny that they are very generally entertained; and if any one who is wholly strange to that section will reflect for a moment, he will see that it is entirely natural that they should be entertained. Is it an unreasonable ambition — can we even call it an unworthy ambition — in the men who threw themselves with heart and hand into the rebellion to desire to justify a cause for which thousands of their brave comrades lost their lives ? Is it strange that they should want history rewritten, so as to sanction their theories and wash from their conduct the stain of treason ? Is it to be wondered at that they should strive to remove from the national statute-books the distinctions made between the men who fought for the South and those who fought for the Union ? Ought we to be surprised that, believing negro suffrage to be an evil, they should seek to remove the protecting hand of the nation, and place its control with themselves in their own States ? Can we as much as say they are visionary, and are reaching out after the impracticable, when we see how successful they have been in solidifying their own section, and realize that nothing is wanting to their full triumph but a democratic victory in the States of New York and Indiana next fall ?
Apart from political ambition, the passionate desire to justify the rebellion, and the determination to escape from the consequences of negro suffrage, there are some of the Causes for the solidity of the South mentioned above which are of importance, because they are likely to be lasting. One is the comparative poverty of that section of the country. A great deal of nonsense has been written about the sunny, fertile fields of the South. The Southern States are poor in agricultural resources. They have a great deal of good land, but it lies in streaks and patches, interspersed with tracts of pine barrens, swamps, and sterile ridges. Nowhere, save in Texas, are there great continuous stretches of good soil; and even in Texas the fertile belt adapted to staple crops is only about one hundred and fifty miles wide, extending from the Red River to the Gulf. The pine barrens on the east and the semi-arid pasture-lands on the west hem it in. In the older States the traveler everywhere observes that a large proportion of the surface is uncultivated, and is disposed to ascribe to the shiftlessness of the people what is owing to the natural defects of the soil. The South is producing more agricultural wealth, however, than before the war. The negroes are working almost as industriously as in the days of slavery, and large numbers of whites who used to live in idleness are tilling their own acres. Nevertheless the country seems poor, because the money for the crops no longer goes into few hands, but is distributed among the laborers, leaving the land-holder a much smaller share than he used to get. To understand how the new system works as compared with the old, take the case of a plantation employing thirty hands. In the old times the yearly cash outlay of the planter, on account of his labor, was perhaps one hundred dollars per hand, or three thousand dollars in all. Now, with rations to supply, as before, and wages to pay, it is at least two hundred dollars per hand, or six thousand dollars in all. He therefore has three thousand dollars less income than before, and instead of living freely, with money to invest in banks, or railroads, or buildings, he is closely pinched to meet his expenses. The whole section is thus without surplus capital to make improvements, and wears a shabby and forlorn look. But there is as much money coming into the country as before; where does it go? Mainly into the pockets of the Jew traders, who have established little stores at every cross-road to sell cheap goods and gaudy gimcracks to the negroes at exorbitant prices. The men of enterprise and character are without means to educate their children well, to keep their places in order, or to engage in movements for the development of the resources of their States, and from this condition arises a chronic discontent. The people who ought to be energetically engaged in the work of to-day, with thoughts fixed on the achievements of the present and the promises of the future, are too often listlessly brooding over the ruined splendors of the past; and they blame the North for their lack of prosperity, because the North overturned their labor system, desolated their fields with the scourge of war, and forced them to abandon their scheme of a great slave empire. Their hostility to the republican party is a natural outgrowth of their feeling towards the section where that party has its strength.
The want of a broad, liberal education for the young men of the influential classes in the South is another cause of the political attitude of that section. In the course of the fifteen years that have passed since the war closed, a great change has taken place in the voting population ; but the young men that have come into its ranks have had but scanty educational advantages. Their parents were too poor to send them to Northern schools, and the Southern colleges are, as a rule, mere academies, without libraries or scientific apparatus. These institutions have done more towards perpetuating the memories and prejudices of the rebellion than towards inculcating patriotism or disseminating valuable knowledge. Their pupils learn very little of the real condition of the country they live in, and are too often led to suppose that the South is the most civilized part of it, and that it is their duty to maintain as something sacred its traditions and ways of living and thinking. They are thus poorly qualified to deal in a liberal spirit with the political problems of the day, and to aid in the regeneration of their States. A little lower in the social scale than the young men who attend the schools at the country towns, or the larger institutions ambitiously styled universities, to be found here and there in the South, is another and larger class, getting almost no education at all, and full of ignorance and prejudice. Thus it comes that as years go by, and the old politicians die off and younger ones come to the front, whose memories hardly extend back to the times of slavery, no healthful change is produced in public sentiment and political action.
It would be hazardous to make any prediction as to the future political course of the South. It is a section peculiar and apart, and as long as it remains so its politics will not be governed by the laws of mind which divide the people of the North into two nearly evenly balanced parties. In two ways, however, a pretty formidable opposition to the democratic party may arise in the old slave States. The election of a president and the control of all departments of the national government by the democrats would soon produce so much disappointment among Southern politicians eager for office that, under some name or other, an opposition organization would get a foot-hold. The determination to hold the prize they had gained long enough at least to accomplish the purposes mentioned above would cause the present leaders of Southern opinion to use all the old weapons of intolerance and prejudice against such an organization, and they would doubtless succeed in keeping it in a minority in all the Southern States until after 1884. But the remedy of a period of Southern rule for the disease of Southern solidity is one that will scarcely commend itself to the Northern mind. The mischief that might be done in eight years would hardly be compensated for by the ultimate breaking up of Southern politics.
The other way is to continue the republican party in power until the South loses all hope of realizing its purposes, and falls apart at last from sheer despair of accomplishing anything by keeping together. One more republican victory at a presidential election may be sufficient to effect this, but it may require two. The new census will transfer to the strong republican States of the West much of the power in Congress and the electoral college now possessed by the South. Its effect will be shown first in the house of representatives chosen in 1882 and organized in December, 1883, and then in the presidential election of 1884. If the republicans succeed this year, and there ensues no immediate change in the attitude of the South, the congressional elections of 1882 can hardly fail to start a process of disintegration which will be accelerated by the results of the presidential contest two years later. In the mean time a tide of immigration will probably set in, which will exercise an influence in the direction of liberalizing Southern opinion. The intelligent classes in the South sincerely desire immigration, and fully appreciate its benefits. They have made efforts, through the medium of their state governments, to attract settlers from the North and from Europe; but thus far with very inadequate results. Two influences have operated against them: the superior natural advantages offered by the prairies of the West, and the bad reputation of the South for intolerance of differences of political opinion and for insecurity of life and property. The West will soon be settled clear out to the verge of the great central plateau, which from its elevation and lack of rain is not fitted for cultivation. Thousands of square miles will be filled up by the remarkable emigration from Europe which has begun this spring. When there begins to be a scarcity of government land for free homesteads beyond the Mississippi, the migratory current will set towards the South, where there is an immense quantity of worn-out and abandoned lands that can be brought up by skillful treatment to'a condition for profitable culture, and a still larger quantity of forest land, not good enough for Southern methods of tillage, but capable of supporting careful German and English farmers. The objectionable features in the political and social condition of the South are not serious enough of themselves to act as an absolute barrier to immigration, when that section becomes the only portion of the country where cheap land can be obtained.
The chief danger apprehended by thoughtful men outside of the whirlpool of politics from the present attitude of the South lies in a disputed result of the approaching presidential election, How close the country was brought to the abyss of civil war in the winter of 187677, few people who were not in Washington at the time fully realize. Then the Southern delegation in Congress was not nearly as strong in numbers or leadership as it is now; then it controlled but one house, — now it has both. The almost universal belief of the Southern leaders is that Mr. Tilden was elected in 1876, and was defrauded of his just rights; and they are strongly disposed to apply the lex talionis next winter, and count out the republican candidate. They often say to republicans, “ You cheated us out of the presidency before, and we mean to get even with you this time. Afterwards we will cry quits, and agree to fair elections and a fair count.” But if the republican nominee should be elected, and Congress should reject the returns from one or two republican States on some technicality or some groundless charge of fraud, and attempt to inaugurate his opponent, the peace of the country would be placed in the gravest peril. This danger once passed, we may look to the influences of time, softening the bitterness remaining from the rebellion, the removal by death of most of the prominent actors in that struggle, the spread of Northern enterprise and ideas, and the effects of immigration to bring about a more healthful condition of politics in the South.
If one regards the Southern situation without the green glasses of partisanship and sectional feeling, he will see nothing to occasion surprise, or to arouse animosity. No people of intelligence and spirit ever submitted to a crushing defeat after a long war without displaying as much discontent and bitterness as the Southern people have displayed. No people ever had such difficult problems to contend with. They came out of the rebellion broken and impoverished, with their labor system suddenly and arbitrarily changed, their slaves made their equals before the law by decree of the government against which they had vainly fought, and with the heavy load of the barbarizing influences of slavery to carry in their struggle for existence. An ignorant and brutal mass of blacks, and an equally ignorant and far more brutal mass of poor whites, constitute the bulk of the population in the Southern States. Me ought not to forget that the people who compose the intelligent classes are of our own blood and lineage, and that their faults grow naturally out of their experiences, their inherited ideas, and the many clogs the past has put upon them. It may take a long time for them to attain to that tolerance which is one of the finest fruits of a high civilization. Meanwhile, we must have patience and lend a helpful hand. We are not called upon, however, no matter how broad our charity and how deep our sympathy may be, to shut our eyes and fold our hands while our Southern brethren try to drag the nation down from the heights of liberty and law it has climbed to during the past twenty years, with so much travail of thought and conscience, and such an appalling expenditure of precious human blood.