The Ku Klux Movement

“We know enough of its extent, its composition, and the various forms it took, to feel sure that it was neither an accident nor a scheme. It was no man’s contrivance, but an historical development.”

Whoever can remember Mr. Edwin Booth in the character of Richelieu will doubtless recall his expression of the sudden change which comes over the melodramatic cardinal toward the end of the scene in which his house is invaded by the conspirators. While is ignorant of his danger, his helplessness in the grasp of his swarming enemies, Richelieu is all majesty, all tragedy. But when he learns that every avenue of escape is barred, that even Huguet is false, that no open force will avail him, his towering mood gives place, not indeed to any cringing fear, but to subtlety and swift contriving. His eyes no longer blaze, but twinkle; his finger is at his chin; there is a semblance of a grin about his lips.

“All? Then the lion’s skin’s too short to-night, —
Now for the fox’s.”

The simulated deathbed follows. The enemy, too powerful to be resisted, is outwitted and befooled.

Twenty-five years ago, when a negro inquired of his former master about “dem Ku Kluxes,” the response he got was awe-inspiring. If a child of the household made the same inquiry of his elders, his question was put away with an unsatisfying answer and a look like Mr. Booth’s in the play. Had the great cardinal lived south of Mason and Dixon’s line in the late sixties, I fancy he would have found the Ku Klux Klan an instrument altogether to his liking.

The Southern child who, not content with the grin and the evasive answer of his father or his elder brother, sought further enlightenment from his fast friends of the kitchen and the quarters, heard such stories of the mysterious, sheeted brotherhood as eclipsed in his young fancy even the entrancing rivalry of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, and made the journey back to the “big house” at bedtime a terrifying experience. Uncle Lewis would tell of a shrouded horseman who rode silently up to his door at midnight, begged a drink of water, and tossed off a whole bucketful at a draught. Uncle Lewis was sure he could hear it sizzling as it flowed down that monstrous gullet, and readily accepted the stranger’s explanation that it was the first drop he had tasted since he was killed at Shiloh. Aunt Lou, coming home from the house of a neighboring auntie who was ill, and crossing a lonesome stretch near the graveyard, had distinctly seen a group of horsemen, motionless by the roadside, each with his head in his hand. Alec, a young mulatto who had once shown much interest in politics, had been shopped in his way from a meeting of his “’ciety” by a masked horseman, at least eight feet tall, who insisted upon shaking hands; and when Alec grasped his hand, it was the hand of a skeleton. Darkies who, unlike Uncle Lewis and Aunt Lou and Alec, had turned against their own white people and taken up with the Yankees, had been more roughly handled.

Somehow, in one such Southern boy’s memories there is always a dim association of these Ku Klux stories with other stories of the older negroes about “patterrollers.” Through all of them all there jingles the refrain, —

Run, nigger, run!
De patterrolers ketch you.

When that boy went to college and joined a society that had initiations, the mystery and horror of the Ku Klux stories waned; but it was not until he read an account of the patrol system of slavery times that he saw the connection between Ku Klux and “patterrollers.”

An organization that could so mystify all but the grown-up white men of a Southern household certainly lost none of its mystery in the confused accounts that filled the newspapers of that day, and citizens of the Northern states, already tired of the everlasting Southern question, could not be expected to understand it. Congress, when it undertook to enlighten them, swelled its records with much impassioned oratory, and through its committees of investigation put into print first one and then thirteen bulky volumes, from which he who lives long enough to read it all may learn much that is true but not particularly important, much that is important if true, and somewhat that is both true and important. From the mass of it the Republican majority got matter sufficient to sustain one set of conclusions, leaving unused enough to sustain quite as strongly the entirely different conclusions at which the minority arrived. There remained much upon which American novelists, whether humorously or sensationally inclined, have drawn, and may continue to draw. Dr. Conan Doyle, seeking to “paint a horror skillfully,” found the Klan a good nerve-racker, though it is to be hoped he did not attempt to digest the reports. Voluminous as they are, they need to be supplemented with material of a different sort—with such memories as the child of reconstruction times can summon up, with such written memoranda and cautious talk as an be won from Southerners of an older generation, with such insight as one can get into Southern character and habits of thought and life—before one can begin to understand what the Klan was, or how it came into existence, or what its part was in that great confusion officially styled the Reconstruction of the Southern states.

Without attempting any elaborate argument, we may, I think, take it for granted that the Ku Klux movement was an outcome of the conditions that prevailed in the Southern states after the war. It was too widespread, too spontaneous, too clearly a popular movement, to be attributed to any one man or to any conspiracy of a few men. Had it existed only in one corner of the South, or drawn its membership from a small and sharply defined class, some such explanation might serve. But we know enough of its extent, its composition, and the various forms it took, to feel sure that it was neither an accident nor a scheme. It was no man’s contrivance, but an historical development. As such, it must be studied against its proper background of a disordered society and a bewildered people. Various elements of the disorder and causes of the bewilderment have been set forth in the previous papers of this series. It will be necessary here to emphasize only one feature of the general misgovernment; namely, that the evil was by no means confined to the state governments, where the bolder adventurers and the more stupendous blunderers were at work. The itching and galling of the yoke was worst in the lesser communities, where government touches the lives of individual men and women most intimately.

The mismanagement—to use the mildest word—of state finances can be shown in figures with reasonable clearness. The oppression of counties and towns and school districts is less easily exhibited, though it was in this way the heaviest burdens of taxation were imposed. The total increase in the indebtedness of the smaller political units under carpet-bag rule was, as a matter of fact, even greater than in the case of the state governments; and the wrong was done in plainer view of the taxpayer, by acts more openly and vulgarly tyrannical. So far as the taxpayer’s feelings were concerned, piling up state debts had the effect which the mismanagement of a bank has on the stockholders. The piling up of county and town and school taxes was like thrusting hands visibly and forcibly into his pockets. It is doubtful, however, if even the injury to his fortunes had so much to do with his state of mind as the countless humiliations and irritations which the rule of the freedman and the stranger brought upon the most imperious, proud, and sensitive branch of the English race.

If the white man of the lately dominant class in the South were permitted to vote at all, he might have literally to pass under bayonets to reach the polls. He saw freedmen organized in militia companies, expensively armed and gayly caparisoned. If he offered his own military services, they were sure to be rejected. He saw his former slaves repeating at elections, but he learned that he had no right of challenge, and that there was no penalty fixed by law for the crime. In the local courts of justice, he saw his friends brought, by an odious system of informers, before judges who were not merely incompetent or unfair, like many of those who sat in the higher courts, but often grotesquely ignorant as well, and who intrusted the execution of their instruments to officials who in many cases could not write an intelligible return. In the schools which he was so heavily taxed to support, he saw the children of his slaves getting the book-learning which he himself thought it unwise to give them from strangers who would be sure to train them into discontent with the only lot he thought them fit for, and the only sort of work which, in the world he knew, they ever had a chance to do. He saw the Freedmen’s Bureau deliberately trying to substitute its alien machinery for that patriarchal relation between white employers and black workmen which had seemed to him right and inevitable. He saw the Loyal League urging freedmen to take up those citizenly powers and duties which he had never understood emancipation to imply, when he gave up his sword. In every boisterous shout of a drunken negro before his gate, in every insolent glance from a group of idle negroes on the streets of the county seat, in the reports of fisticuffs with little darkies which his children brought home after school, in the noises of the night and the glare of occasional conflagrations, he saw the hand or heard the harshly accented voice of the stranger in the land. The biographer of the late Justice Lamar makes a picture which might convey to the reader some idea of the inevitable effect of these things on such men as the Southerners of those days were. It is a picture of the distinguished orator leaning over the ruinous fence in front of his home in a little Mississippi town, hatless, coatless, the great mass of his hair and beard neglected, returning with a surly nod the greetings of his acquaintance.

It seems astounding, nowadays, that the congressional leaders in reconstruction did not foresee that men of their own stock, so circumstanced, would resist, and would find some means to make their resistance effective. When they did make up their minds to resist, — not collectively or through any representative body, but singly and by neighborhoods, — they found an instrument ready to their hands.

When the Civil War ended, the little town of Pulaski, Tennessee, welcomed home a band of young men who, though they were veterans of hard-fought fields, were for the most part no older than the mass of college students. In the general poverty, the exhaustion, the lack of heart, naturally prevalent throughout the beaten South, young men had more leisure than was good for them. A Southern country town, even in the halcyon days before the war, was not a particularly lively place; and Pulaski in 1866 was doubtless rather tame to fellows who had seen Pickett charge at Gettysburg or galloped over the country with Morgan and Wheeler. A group of them, assembled in a law office one evening in May, 1866, were discussing ways and means of having a livelier time. Some one suggested a club or society. An organization with no very definite aims was effected; and at a second meeting, a week later, names were proposed and discussed. Some one pronounced the Greek word “Kuklos,” meaning a circle. From “Kuklos” to “Ku Klux” was an easy transition, — whoever consults a glossary of college boys’ slang will not find it strange, — and “Klan” followed “Ku Klux” as naturally as “dumpty” follows “humpty.” That the name meant nothing whatever was a recommendation; and one can fancy what sort of badinage would have greeted a suggestion that in six years a committee of Congress would devote thirteen volumes to the history of the movement that began in a Pulaski law office, and migrated later to a deserted and half-ruined house on the outskirts of the village.

In the beginning it was, in fact, no “movement” at all. It was a scheme for having fun, more like a college secret society than anything else. Its members were not “lewd fellows of the baser sort,” but young men of standing in the community, who a few years earlier would also have been men of wealth. The main source of amusement was at first the initiation of new members, but later the puzzling of outsiders. The only important clause in the oath of membership was a promise of absolute secrecy. The disguise was a white mask, a tall cardboard hat, a gown or robe that covered the whole person, and, when the Klan went mounted, a cover for the horses’ bodies and some sort of muffling for their feet. The chief officers were a Grand Cyclops, or president; a Grand Magi, or vice president; a Grand Turk, or marshal; a Grand Exchequer, or treasurer; and two Lictors. While the club adhered to its original aim and character, only men of known good morals were admitted. Born of the same instinct and conditions that gave birth to the “snipe hunt” and other hazing devices of Southern country towns, it was probably as harmless and as unimportant a piece of fooling as any to be found inside or outside of colleges.

The Klan was eminently successful. It got all the notoriety it wished, and very soon the youth of neighboring communities began to organize “dens” of their own. The mysterious features of the Klan were most impressive in rural neighborhoods. It spread rapidly in country districts. Probably it would have become a permanent secret society, not unlike the better known of the unserious secret societies now existing, but for the state of Southern politics and the progress of reconstruction. These things, however, soon gave a tremendous importance to the Klan’s inevitable discovery that mystery and fear have over the African mind twice the power they have over the mid of a white man. It was not the first time in history that what began in mere purposeless fooling ended in the most serious way. By the time Congress had thrown aside the gentle and kindly plan of reconstruction, which Lincoln conceived and Johnson could not carry out, the Ku Klux had taught the white men of Tennessee and neighboring states the power of secrecy over the credulous race which Congress was bent on intrusting with the most difficult tasks of citizenship. When Southern society, turned upside down, groped about for some means of righting itself, it grasped the Pulaski idea.

As it happened, Tennessee, the original home of the Klan, was the very state in which reconstruction began earliest; and though the process there was somewhat different from the experience of the cotton states, it was also the first state to find its social and governmental systems upside down. Tennessee was notable for its large Unionist population. The Unionists were strongest in the mountainous eastern half of the state, while the western half, dominant before the war, was strongly secessionist. The first step in reconstruction was to put the east Tennesseans into power; and the leader of the east Tennessee Unionists was “Parson” Brownlow. Except for his Unionism, Brownlow is generally conceded to have been an extremely unfit man for great public responsibilities, and when he became governor the secessionists of Tennessee had to endure much the same sort of misgovernment which in other states was attributable to carpet-bag officials. By the time it was a year old the Klan had gradually developed into a society of regulators, using its accidental machinery and its accidentally discovered power chiefly to suppress the lawlessness into which white men of Brownlow’s following were sometimes led by their long-nourished grudge against their former rulers, and into which freedmen fell so inevitably that no fair-minded historian can mete out to them the full measure of censure for it. In the Union League the Klan found its natural enemy; and it is quite probably true that, during the early period of their rivalry for control, more inexcusable violence proceeded from the League than from the Klan.

However, a survivor and historian of the Klan does not deny that even thus early the abuses inseparable from secrecy existed in the order. To suppress them, and to adapt the order to its new and serious work, a convention was held at Nashville early in 1867. The Klan, up to that time bound together only by a general deference to the Grand Cyclops of the Pulaski “Den,” was organized into the “Invisible Empire of the South,” ruled by a Grand Wizard of the whole Empire, a Grand Dragon of each Realm, or state, a Grand Titan of each Dominion (Province), or county, a Grand Cyclops of each Den, and staff officers with names equally terrifying. The objects of the Klan, now that it had serious objects, were defined: they were to protect the people from indignities and wrongs; to succor the suffering, particularly the families of dead Confederate soldiers; to defend “the Constitution of the United States, and all laws passed in conformity thereto,” and of the states also; and to aid in executing all constitutional laws, and protect the people form unlawful seizures and from trial otherwise than by jury. Acts of the Brownlow legislature reviving the alien and sedition laws were particularly held in mind.

From this time the Klan put itself more clearly in evidence, generally adhering to its original devices of mystery and silence, but not always successfully resisting the temptation to add to these violence. On the night of July 4, by well-heralded parades, it exhibited itself throughout Tennessee, and perhaps in other states, more impressively than ever before. In Pulaski, some four hundred disguised horsemen marched and countermarched silently through the streets before thousands of spectators, and not a single disguise was penetrated. The effect of mystery even on intelligent minds was well illustrated in the estimate, made by “reputable citizens,” that the number was not less than three thousand. Members who lived in the town averted suspicion from themselves by appearing undisguised among the spectators. A gentleman who prided himself on knowing every horse in the county attempted to identify one by lifting its robe, and discovered that the animal and the saddle were his own!

The remaining facts in the history of the Ku Klux proper need no lengthy recital. The effectiveness of the order was shown wherever, by its original methods, it exerted itself to quiet disturbed communities. Wherever freedmen grew unruly, disguised horsemen appeared by night; and thereafter the darkies of the neighborhood inclined to stay under cover after daylight failed. But the order had grown too large, it was too widespread, the central authority was too remote from the local “dens,” and the general scheme was too easily grasped and copied, to permit of the rigid exclusion from membership of such men as would incline to use violence, or to cover with the mantle of secrecy enterprises of a doubtful or even criminal cast. In Tennessee, the Brownlow government was bitterly hostile, and in September, 1868, the legislature passed a statute, aimed entirely at the Ku Klux, which went beyond the later congressional statutes in the penalties it prescribed for every act that could possibly imply complicity in the “conspiracy,” and in the extraordinary powers conferred upon officers and all others who should aid in detecting or arresting Ku Klux. The members of the order were practically outlawed, and naturally felt bound in self-defense to resort to methods which the central officers could not approve. In February, 1869, Governor Brownlow proclaimed martial law in several Tennessee counties, and the next day he ceased to be governor. The growing evils within the order, as well as the dangers which threatened it, doubtless made the wiser heads of the Klan readier to conclude that with the repeal of the alien and sedition laws and Brownlow’s departure for the United States Senate its work in Tennessee was done. So, a few weeks later, by an order of the Grand Wizard, the Klan was formally disbanded, not only in Tennessee, but everywhere. It is generally understood that the Grand Wizard who issued that order was no less a person than Nathan Bedford Forrest. How many dens received the order at all, and how many of those that received it also obeyed it, will never be known, any more than it will be known how many dens there were, or how many members. However, the early spring of 1869 may be taken as the date when the Ku Klux Klan, which gave its name and its idea to the secret movement which began the undoing of reconstruction, ceased to exist as an organized body.

But the history of the original Ku Klux Klan is only a part—and perhaps not the most important part—of the movement which in the North was called the Ku Klux conspiracy, and which in the South is to this day regarded, with a  truer sense of its historical importance, whatever one may think of the moral question, as comparable to that secret movement by which, under the very noses of French garrisons, Stein and Scharnhorst organized the great German struggle for liberty. Of the disguised bands which appeared and disappeared throughout the South so long as the carpet-baggers controlled the state governments, it is probably that not one half were veritable Ku Klux. Some were members of other orders, founded in imitation of the Ku Klux and using similar methods. Others were probably neighborhood affairs only. Yet others were simply bands of ruffians, operating in the night-time, and availing themselves of Ku Klux methods to attain personal ends which, whether criminal or not, were in no wise approved by the leaders in the Ku Klux and other similar organizations. How large a proportion of the violence and crime attributed to these lawless bands it is, of course, impossible to say; but it is certain that a number of those taken in disguise proved to be men of such antecedents, so clearly identified with the radical party, that they could not possibly have been members of the Ku Klux, the Knights of the White Camellia, or any other of the orders whose raison d’être was the revolt against radical rule.

The Knights of the White Camellia was probably the largest and most important of the orders, — larger even than the true Ku Klux Klan. It was founded at New Orleans late in 1867 or early in 1868, and spread rapidly through the states lying east and west, from Texas to the Carolinas. A constitution adopted at New Orleans in June, 1868, provided for an elaborate organization by states, counties, and smaller communities, the affairs of the whole order being committed to a supreme council at New Orleans. The recollection of members, however, is to the effect that very little authority was really exercised by the supreme council or even by the state councils, that the county organizations were reasonably well maintained, and that in most respects each circle acted independently. The constitution and the oath and ceremonial of initiation commit the order to a very clear and decided position on the chief question of the day. Only white men, eighteen years of age or older, were admitted, and the initiate promised not merely to be secret and obedient, but “to maintain and defend the social and political superiority of the white race on this continent.” The charge or lecture to the initiate set forth historical evidences of the superiority of the white race, made an argument for white supremacy, and painted the horrors of miscegenation. It enjoined fairness to negroes, and the concession to them of “the fullest measure of those rights which we recognize as theirs.” The association, so the charge explained, was not a political party, and had no connection with any. The constitution, moreover, restricted the order from nominating or supporting candidates for office.

The “Pale Faces,” the “Constitutional Union Guards,” the “White Brotherhood,” were other names borne by bands of men who did Ku Klux work. The majority of the congressional committee somehow got the idea that these were the real names, at different periods, of the one order which pervaded the entire South, and that “Ku Klux” was a name foisted upon the public, so that a member, when put upon the witness stand in a law court, might deny all knowledge of the organization. But the evidence of the existence of the true Ku Klux Klan, of its priority to all similar organizations of any importance, and of the existence of other orders with different names, is now too strong to permit of any doubt. The comparative strength of the various associations; the connection, if any there was, between them; their membership; the differences in their characters, aims, and methods, — on these things it is not probable that any clear light will ever be thrown. Surviving members are themselves somewhat hazy on such questions. And indeed it is not of the first importance that they should be answered; for we have enough to show how the Ku Klux idea worked itself out, and with what results.

The working of the plan is exhibited more authoritatively than I could portray it in the memoranda of a gentle and kindly man, albeit a resolute wearer of a Confederate button, who, thirty years ago, was the absolute chief of the Knights of the White Camellia in a certain county in the heart of the Black Belt. Speaking of the county organization merely, he says: —

“The authority of the commander (this office I held) was absolute. All were sworn to obey his orders. There was an inner circle in each circle, to which was committed any particular work: its movements were not known to other members of the order. This was necessary, because, in our neighborhood, almost every Southern man was a member. At meetings of the full circle there was but little consideration as to work. The topic generally was law and order, and the necessity for organization. In fact, almost every meeting might have been public, so far as the discussions were concerned.

“For the methods employed: in some cases they were severe, even extreme, but I believe they were necessary, although there was much wrong done when commanders were not the right men. There was too good an opportunity for individuals to take vengeance for personal grievances. A man, black or white, found dead in the road would furnish undisputed evidence that the Ku Klux Klan had been abroad. The officers of the law, even judges, were members; a jury could not be drawn without a majority of our men. In this county, no act of violence was committed by our circle. We operated on the terror inspired by the knowledge that we were organized. The carpet-baggers lived in constant dread of a visit, and were in great measure controlled through their fears. At one time, if one of our people threatened or abused a carpet-bagger, his house or stable would be fired that night.1 … This occurred so often that it was impossible to separate the two events. Word was accordingly sent to a prominent carpet-bagger that if the thing happened again we would take him out at midday and hang him. There were no more fires.

“The negroes had meetings at some point every night, in obedience to the orders of the carpet-baggers, who kept them organized in this way. So long as their meetings were orderly we did not interfere; but when I got information that they were becoming disorderly and offensive, I ordered out a body of horsemen, who divided into squads, and stationed themselves where the negroes would pass on their way home. They were permitted to dress themselves in any fashion their fancies might dictate, but their orders were positive not to utter a word or molest a negro in any manner. I rarely had to send twice to the same neighborhood. Occasionally a large body was sent out to ride about all night, with the same instructions as to silence. While the law against illegal voting had no penalty for the offense (no doubt an intentional omission) negroes often voted more than once at the same election. They assembled in such crowds at the polls that one had almost to fight one’s way to deposit a ballot. A body of our men was detailed on election day to go early and take possession, with the usual order for silence. Few negroes voted that day; none twice. No violence.

“We put up with carpet-bag rule as long as we could stand it. Then a messenger was sent to each of them—they were filling all the county offices—to tell them we had decided they must leave. This was all that was needed. They had been expecting it, they said, and they left without making any resistance. Owing to some local circumstances, the circle at —— was disbanded about the time of President Grant’s proclamation, but we were not influenced by it in any degree. I think there were few cases of the disbandment of circles. The necessity for their existence expired with the exodus of the carpet-baggers.”

That was the modus operandi, under a cautious and intelligent commander, in a neighborhood largely inhabited by men of birth and education. As it happens, the recollections of the commander are corroborated by one of the young men who obeyed his orders, now attorney general of the state, who adds that the proportion of “tomfoolery” to violence was about 1000 to 1. But even this straightforward recital of the successful performance of an apparently commendable work must make plain to any thoughtful reader the danger inseparable from the power of such an organization. In communities less intelligent, or where no such fit leader was chosen, the story was far different.

That violence was often used cannot be denied. Negroes were often whipped, and so were carpet-baggers. The incidents related in such stories as Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand all have their counterparts in the testimony before congressional committees and courts of law. In some cases, after repeated warnings, men were dragged from their beds and slain by persons in disguise, and the courts were unable to find or to convict the murderers. Survivors of the orders affirm that such work was done, in most cases, by persons not connected with them or acting under their authority. It is impossible to prove or to disprove their statements. When such outrages were committed, not on worthless adventurers, who had no station in Northern communities from which they came, but on cultivated persons who had gone South from genuinely philanthropic motives, — no matter how unwisely or tactlessly they went about their work, — the effect was naturally to horrify and enrage the North.

The white teachers in the negro schools were probably the class which suffered most innocently, not ordinarily from violence, but from the countless other ways in which Southern society made them aware that they were unwelcome and that their mission was disapproved. They themselves, in too many instances, disregarded the boundary lines between different social classes, as rigid and cruel in democracies as anywhere else, and by associating themselves with freedmen made it unreasonable for them to expect any kindly recognition from men and women who, under other conditions, might have been their friends. They too often not merely disregarded, but even criticised and attacked, those usages and traditions which gave to Southern life a charm and distinction not elsewhere found in America. A wiser and more candid study of the conditions under which their work must be done, an avoidance of all hostility to whatever they might leave alone without sacrifice of principle, would perhaps have tempered the bitterness of Southern resentment at their presence. We may also admit that the sort of education they at first offered the freedmen was useless, or worse than useless, — that theirs was a fool’s errand. But they should never have been confounded with the creatures who came, not to help the negro, but to use him. The worst work the Ku Klux ever did was its opposition to negro schools, and the occasional expulsion or even violent handling of teachers. There were adventurers in the schoolhouses, and probably there were honest men in the legislatures, the courts, the executive offices; but as a class the teachers were far better than the others. The failure to discriminate in their favor doubtless did more than anything else to confirm the minds of honest and well-meaning people of the North in the belief that it was the baser elements of Southern society, and not its intelligent and responsible men, who had set to work to overthrow the carpet-bag régime.

The Ku Klux movement was not entirely underground. Sheeted horsemen riding about in the night-time were not its only forces. Secrecy and silence were indeed its main devices, but others were employed. The life of the carpet-bagger was made wretched otherwise than by dragging him from his bed and flogging him. The scorn in which he was held was made plain to him by averted faces or contemptuous glances on the street, by the obstacles he encountered in business, by the empty pews in his neighborhood when he went to church. If his children went to school, they were not asked to join in the play of other children, and must perforce fall back upon the companionship of little darkies. He himself, if he took the Southern view of “difficulties,” and held himself ready to answer an insult with a blow, was sure to be accommodated whenever he felt belligerent. Probably not one in ten of his neighbors had given up the creed of the duello, though its ceremonial was not often observed. As for the “scalawag,” — the Southerner who went over to the radicals, — there was reserved for him a deeper hatred, a loftier contempt, than even the carpet-bagger got for his portion. No alien enemy, however despicable, is ever so loathed as a renegade.

But the Invisible Empire, however its sway was exercised, was everywhere a real empire. Wisely and humanely, or roughly and cruelly, the work was done. The state governments, under radical control, made little headway with their freedmen’s militia against the silent representatives of the white mans will to rule. After 1870, even the blindest of the reconstruction leaders in Congress were made to see that they had built their house upon the sands. During the winter of 1870-71, Southern outrages were the subject of congressional debates and presidential messages. In March, a Senate committee presented majority and minority reports on the result of its investigation in North Carolina. The majority found that there was an unjustifiable conspiracy, of a distinctly political nature, against the laws and against colored citizens. The minority found that the misgovernment and criminal exploiting of the Southern states by radical leaders had provoked a natural resistance and led to disorder and violence. In April, the first Ku Klux bill, “to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment,” was passed; the President was empowered to use the troops, and even to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. In May, the second Ku Klux bill, “to enforce the right of citizens of the United States to vote,” was passed. In October the President issued his proclamation. Troops were freely employed wherever there was an opportunity to use them, and the writ was suspended in nine counties of South Carolina. Hundreds of men were brought to trial before United States courts, under the two laws, and a number were convicted; but the leading men in the great orders were never reached. Northern writers have expressed the opinion that by the beginning of 1872 the “conspiracy” was overthrown. Nevertheless, the joint committee proceeded with its labors, and in February presented its great report on The Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. Majority and minority differed, as before; but the volume of reports and the twelve volumes of testimony enabled the minority to set forth with more convincing fullness the true nature of carpet-bag rule. In May, a bill extending the President’s extraordinary powers over the next session of Congress passed the Senate, but was lost in the House. How much the action of Congress and the President had to do with the disappearance of the Ku Klux it is impossible to say. But after 1872 the Ku Klux did, for the most part, disappear; and so, in one state after another, did the carpet-bagger and the scalawag. The fox’s skin had served its turn before it was cast aside.

Such, in brief outline, was the Ku Klux conspiracy according to the Northern view, the revolt against tyranny according to the Southern view, which was the beginning of the end of reconstruction. It was the unexpected outcome of a situation unexampled, and not even closely paralleled, in history. To many minds it seems to nullify the war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the constitutional amendments which were meant to seal forever the victory of the North over the South, and of liberty over slavery. To minds just as honest it seemed to reassert the great principles of the American Revolution. The majority of the congressional committee conducted their investigations after the manner of prosecuting attorneys dealing with ordinary criminals. The minority felt themselves bound to consider whether “an indictment against a whole people” would lie. To the majority “Ku Klux” meant simply outlaws; the minority thought that the first Ku Klux in history were the disguised men who, against the law, threw the tea overboard in Boston harbor.

The two views of the movement, like the movement itself and all that led up to it, are part and parcel of that division which was marked by Mason and Dixon’s line. It was a division of institutions; it was a division of interests; it was and still is a division of character and habits of thought. Northern men had one idea of the strife, and Southern men an entirely different idea. The Southerners did not and could not regard themselves as rebels forced to be loyal. They knew they were beaten, and they gave up the fight; but they did not understand that they were bound to cooperate in any further plans of their conquerors. President Lincoln had made it plain that if the Union arms prevailed slavery must go, and the Southerners, in their state conventions of 1865, formally abolished it. Secession had been tried, and had failed as a policy; they declared that they would not try it again. Left for a moment to themselves, they set to work on an arrangement that would enable them to use under freedom the same sort of labor they had used under slavery, and made a place in the new order for the blacks, whom they could not reduce to slavery again, but whom they felt to be unfit for citizenship. Then Congress interfered and undid their work, and they stood passive until they could see what the congressional scheme would be like. They found it bad, oppressive, unwise, impossible. They bore it awhile in silence. Then in silence they made up their minds to resist. What form could their resistance take? It must be revolutionary, for they had formally renounced the right of secession. It could not be open war, for they were powerless to fight. So they made a secret revolution. Their rebellion could not raise its head, so it went underground.

If one asks of the movement, “Was it necessary?” this much, at least, may be answered: that no other plan of resistance would have served so well. If one asks, “Was it successful?” the answer is plain. No open revolt ever succeeded more completely. If one asks, “Was it justifiable?” the “yes” or “no” is harder to say. There must be much defining of terms, much patient separating of the accidental from the essential, much inquiry into motives. Describe the movement broadly as a secret movement, operating by terror and violence to nullify laws, and one readily condemns it. Paint all the conditions, enter into the minds and hearts of the men who lived under them, look at them through their eyes, suffer with their angry pain, and one revolts as their pride revolted. Weigh the broad rule, which is less a “light to guide” than a “rod to check,” against the human impulse, and the balance trembles. One is ready to declare, not, perhaps, that the end justified the means, but that never before was an end so clearly worth fighting for made so clearly unattainable by any good means.

Nor does our hindsight much avail us. The end attained was mainly good. Southern society was righted. But the method of it survives in too many habits of the Southern mind, in too many short-comings of southern civilization, in too many characteristics of Southern life. The Southern whites, solidified in resistance to carpet-bag rule, have kept their solidarity unimpaired by any healthful division on public questions. Having learned a lesson, they cannot forget it. Seeing forms of law used to cloak oppression, and liberty invoked to countenance a tyranny, they learned to set men above political principles, and good government above freedom of thought. For thirty years they have continued to set one question above all others, and thus debarred themselves from full participation in the political life of the country. As they rule by fear, so by fear are they ruled. It is they themselves who are now befooled, and robbed of the nobler part of their own political birthright. They outdid their conquerors, yet they are not free.

  1. Here he refers to the oiling and firing of the stables of that particular Southern household in which the boyish inquiries I have referred to made a beginning of the investigations on which this paper is based.