The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, June 25, 2004

South Carolina legislature under Radical Reconstruction

One of the best-known scenes of DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation is the unflattering tableau of the South Carolina House of Representatives [1].

Griffith's main source for the flick was the works of Thomas Dixon, The Leopard's Spots and, mainly [2], The Clansman. (Scenes of Negroes and carpetbaggers enjoying Liberty Hall in both the Leopard (p109ff) and the Clansman (p263ff.)

An earlier - if not the original - source for legislative mayhem in South Carolina under Reconstruction is JS Pike (James Shepherd Pike), who, it seems, who wrote for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune on the subject [3].

Pike's pieces, written in early 1873, were collected in a book published in 1874 entitled The Prostrate State.. An etext is available [4].

A sample from Chapter 1 (page 12):
...The wealth, the intelligence, the culture, the wisdom of the State, have broken through the crust of that social volcano on which they were contentedly reposing, and have sunk out of sighlt, consumed by the subterranean fires they had with such temerity braved and defied.

In the place of this old aristocratic society stands the rude form of the most ignorant democracy that mankind ever saw, invested with the functions of government. It is the dregs of the population habilitated in the robes of their intelligent predecessors, and asserting over them the rule of ignorance and corruption, through the inexorable machinery of a majority of numbers. It is barbarism overwhelming civilization by physical force. It is the slave rioting in the halls of his master, and putting that master under his feet...

And this written for a Northern liberal rag! By 1874, I hypothesise, even the liberal element in New York were heartily sick of Reconstruction, and appreciative of anything that might hasten its demise [6].

For all his high dudgeon on Southern antics, Pike, it seems, was not averse to dipping his snout in the trough of patronage: according to a promising-looking piece on Lincoln and the New York press, Pike was made US Minister to The Hague by Lincoln [5].

  1. I think it must have been. The term for the lower house as in the 1778 Constitution, Article II.

  2. The characters' names match those of the characters in the Birth, at least.

  3. Strange - because, if I understand things aright, Greeley was a supporter of the radical Republicans who decided to ram through the wretched policy in the first place!

  4. The format is not the easiest on the eye - the UNC Documenting the American South site also puts out HTML etexts - the Dixons linked above, for instance - but in much more congenial a format. (Pike's book seems not to be on that site.)

  5. This looks like an earlier/later version of the same piece.

  6. At what level support in New York for Radical Reconstruction maxed out, I know not. The coming (already arrived?) ethnic group in the town's politics - the Irish - had had a 'referendum' of their own on the Negro question just ten years earlier - in the 1863 Draft Riots. And, in 1861, didn't Mayor Fernando Wood propose that New York City secede from the Union?


Dixon actually uses Pike's words
rioting in the halls of his master
for the heading of the chapter of The Clansman on the subject: The Riot in the Master's Hall

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