Excerpt from The Prostrate State
Published in 1874; reprinted on Making of America Books (Web site)
A Reconstruction-era journalist provides an inaccurate account of the African American politician
"Seven years ago these men were raising corn and cotton under the whip of the overseer. To day they are raising points of order and questions of privilege. They find they can raise one as well as the other. They prefer the latter. It is easier, and better paid.…"
To the white Southerners who lost the American Civil War (1861–65), nothing was more humiliating than the idea of their former slaves casting ballots and holding elected office. They argued that African Americans, particularly the illiterate (unable to read or write) ex-slaves who had no education, were too ignorant to vote or rule wisely. They also held racist views that African Americans would never be equal to whites. When Congress gave Southern African American men the ballot under the Reconstruction Act of 1867 (see Chapter 10), one angry South Carolinian declared that, "I shall never cast another vote so long as I live," James L. Roark wrote in Masters without Slaves. Another man in Tennessee said that "to be governed by my former slaves was an ignominy [disgrace] which I should not and would not endure."
Indeed, the ex-slaves had a lot to learn. But many of them were eager to do so. They poured into newly created freedmen's schools to learn how to read. They attended political meetings to learn about the candidates and the upcoming elections. Not surprisingly, they threw their support behind the Republican Party, the party that had pushed for their freedom and political rights. Party supporters made sure to remind African Americans of this, as described in High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson:
In Selma, Alabama, a man arose in front of the polling place and held up the blue ticket denoting the conservative [Democratic] slate. "No land!" he shouted. "No mules! No votes! Slavery again!" Then he held up the red Radical [Republican] ticket. "Forty acres of land! A mule! Freedom! Votes! Equal of a white man!"
Some Southerners say the party went a step further to intimidate African Americans to vote for Republican candidates. "They [African Americans] had been industriously drilled into believing that if they did not vote the republican ticket they would be placed back in slavery or deported to Africa," ex-Confederate soldier William Robert Houghton (1842–1906) wrote in his brotherhood memoirs, Two Boys in the Civil War and After.
The same act of Congress that gave Southern African American men the vote took it away from certain ex-Confederates. By the end of 1867, African American voters outnumbered white voters in the South, about 703,400 to 660,000. Some of those whites were so disgusted by the changing political tide that they boycotted, or abandoned, the elections altogether. Numerous African Americans were elected to offices ranging from city councilman to congressman, and almost immediately they faced opposition (see Chapter 12). The white members of the Georgia legislature expelled their newly elected African American colleagues in 1868, and countless African American officials were threatened or attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups (those who believe that whites are superior and should be in charge; see Chapter 15).
The South Carolina legislature quickly drew the nation's attention as the only assembly in which African American members outnumbered whites. When the legislature convened (gathered) in 1868, African Americans held seventy-eight seats in the House of Representatives and ten seats in the Senate. Whites held only forty-six seats in the House of Representatives, although they had twenty-one seats in the Senate. While these numbers would change slightly over the years, African Americans held a majority in the legislature until 1874. "When negro domination had … been established," H. H. Chalmers wrote in 1881 in "The Effects of Negro Suffrage," "there ensued a scene of incompetence, profligacy [wastefulness], and pillage [robbing], the like of which has never disgraced the annals [historical accounts] of any English-speaking people."
At least that was the picture painted by journalist James Shepherd Pike (1811–1882) in his 1874 book, The Prostrate State. The title itself suggested whites lying prostrate, or face-down, as a conquered people. Although he was a northern Republican who opposed slavery, Pike did not support equal rights for African Americans. At one point, he thought freed slaves should be sent to another country or placed on their own reservation. His racist views are reflected in The Prostrate State, where he described South Carolina's African American legislators as clueless and corrupt. In various passages, Pike wrote that lawmakers refurbished the capitol with $480 clocks and $650 chandeliers, renovated their apartments with Belgian carpets, and voted to reimburse the Speaker of the House $1,000 for a lost horse racing bet—all with taxpayer dollars.
The outrageous account was widely read but far from objective, as noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. Pike "had long held racist views," and the journalist had published similar commentaries about African American officials before he ever visited South Carolina. Furthermore, Pike "acquired much of his information from interviews with white Democratic leaders and seems to have spoken with only one black Carolinian."
But Pike's readers did not know that. They believed what he wrote, and urged others to read the book. As noted in "The Effects of Negro Suffrage," if Pike's "book could be put into the hands of all our people, it would give them amore truthful idea of the reconstruction era" than any other books of the time.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from The Prostrate State:
- As part of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Congress gave Southern African American men the right to vote and run for office. The same act barred certain ex-Confederates from doing the same. For many Southern whites, it was the worst humiliation they could imagine.
- South Carolina was the only state in which African Americans held a majority of the seats in the legislature. It drew national attention as an example of what could be expected of African American officials.
- Although Pike's book was widely read, historians question its accuracy. Pike held racist views and had published similar commentaries on African American officials before visiting South Carolina. It also appears that most of Pike's tales of the South Carolina legislature came from Democrats who opposed African Americans' rights, and that the journalist only spoke to one African American resident while writing his book.
Excerpt from The Prostrate State
In the place of this 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, though it is done without malice and without vengeance, it is nevertheless done.… Let us approach nearer and take a closer view. We will enter the House of Representatives. Here sit one hundred and twenty-four members. Of these, twenty-three are white men, representing the remains of the old civilization.… There they sit, grim and silent. They feel themselves to be but loose stones, thrown in to partially obstruct a current they are powerless to resist. They say little and do little as the days go by. They simply watch the rising tide, and mark the progressive steps of inundation .… He comports himself with a dignity, a reserve, and a decorum, that command admiration. He feels that the iron hand of Destiny is upon him. He is gloomy, disconsolate, hopeless.…
This dense negro crowd they confront do the debating, the squabbling, the law-making, and create all the clamor and disorder of the body. These twenty-three white men are but the observers, the enforced auditors of the dull and clumsy imitation of a deliberative body, whose appearance in their present capacity is at once a wonder and a shame to modern civilization.
Deducting the twenty-three [white] members referred to, who comprise the entire strength of the opposition, we find one hundred and one remaining. Of this … ninety-four are colored, and seven are their white allies. Thus the blacks outnumber the whole body of whites in the House more than three to one.… The Speaker is black, the Clerk is black, the door-keepers are black, the little pages are black, the chairman of the Ways and Means [committee] is black, and the chaplain is coal-black.… It must be remembered, also, that these men, with not more than half a dozen exceptions, have been themselves slaves, and that their ancestors were slaves for generations.…
One of the things that first strike a casual observer in this negro assembly is the fluency of the debate, if the endless chatter that goes on there can be dignified with this term. The leading topics of discussion are all well understood by the members, as they are of a practical character, and appeal directly to the personal interests of every legislator, as well as to those of his constituents. When an appropriation bill is up to raise money to catch and punish the Kuklux, they know exactly what it means. They feel it in their bones. So, too, with educational measures. The free school comes right home to them; then the business of arming and drilling the black militia.…
But the old stagers admit that the colored brethren have a wonderful aptness at legislative proceedings. They are "quick as lightning" at detecting points of order, and they certainly make incessant and extraordinary use of their knowledge.… The talking and the interruptions from all quarters go on with the utmost license .…
But underneath all this shocking burlesque upon legislative proceedings, we must not forget that there is something very real to this uncouth and untutored multitude. It is not all sham, nor all burlesque. They have a genuine interest and a genuine earnestness in the business of the assembly which we are bound to recognize and respect, unless we would be accounted shallow critics. They have an earnest purpose, born of a conviction that their position and condition are not fully assured, which lends a sort of dignity to their proceedings.… The whole thing is a wonderful novelty to them as well as to observers. Seven years ago these men were raising corn and cotton under the whip of the overseer. To-day they are raising points of order and questions of privilege. They find they can raise one as well as the other. They prefer the latter. It is easier, and better paid.… It means escape and defense from old oppressors. It means liberty. It means the destruction of prison-walls only too real to them. It is the sunshine of their lives. It is their day of jubilee. It is their long-promised vision of the Lord God Almighty.
What happened next …
Some journalists took issue with Pike's portrayal, offering their own accounts of the educational and economic improvements occurring in South Carolina. But for the most part, Pike's account was accepted as a true picture. As noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, "despite its many inaccuracies, The Prostrate State not only helped make South Carolina a byword for corrupt misrule but reinforced the idea that the cause lay in 'negro government.'" Other newspapers and magazines followed with similar articles—so even people who never heard of The Prostrate State read similar articles in Scribner's, Harper's, or the Atlantic Monthly.
Decades later, former South Carolina governor Daniel H. Chamberlain (1835–1907) argued that the African American–dominated legislature was part of the "wide reign of corruption and general misrule" of the era. In "Reconstruction in South Carolina," Chamberlain pointed to the numbers: The state debt rose from $1 million in 1868 to $17.5 million in 1872. The cost of holding the annual legislative session rose from $20,000 before the war to $617,000 in 1871. The congressional act that gave the ballot to seventy-eight thousand African American men in South Carolina was "a frightful experiment," Chamberlain concluded. "Ought it not to have been as clear then as it is now that good government, or even tolerable administration, could not be had from such an aggregation of ignorance and inexperience and incapacity?"
But in his book Black Reconstruction in America, African American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) explained that such numbers are only part of the story. Southern legislators faced the costly task of rebuilding roads, bridges, and other facilities destroyed by the war. In many cases, they were also building their first public schools across the state. They had to raise millions of dollars in taxes and borrow millions more to accomplish the work. Northern bankers charged unusually high interest, or borrowing fees, on the money because of the risky political climate in the South, Du Bois wrote. Those high interest rates, charged as a percentage of the borrowed money, were so high that "If there were outstanding in 1874 twenty or even thirty millions of [dollars] of debt, it is unlikely that this represented more than ten millions in actual cash delivered," wrote Du Bois.
At the same time, many Southern whites resented the way this money was being raised and spent. Because most taxes were collected on businesses, banks, and machinery—something few African Americans had—most of the tax burden fell on whites. Yet some of the new budget items, such as the $900,000 public school system, would benefit African Americans (as well as whites). Some whites refused to pay taxes, which only caused the legislature to raise more taxes to make up the shortfall, Du Bois claimed.
Du Bois argued that the true legacy of African American legislators can be found in the South Carolina constitution, which was largely written by African American delegates. Aside from creating a statewide public school system, the constitution did away with debtors' prisons and allowed men to vote even if they did not own property. "The constitution was written in good English and was an excellent document," Du Bois wrote. But the other work of South Carolina's African American lawmakers has been distorted, in part, because "little effort has been made to preserve the records of Negro effort and speeches, actions, work and wages, homes and families," Du Bois contended. "Nearly all this has gone down beneath a mass of ridicule and caricature [mockery], deliberate omission and misstatement."
Did you know …
- According to The Prostrate State, the African American legislators bought themselves elegant porcelain "spittoons," or containers for spitting the juices from chewing tobacco. The spittoons instantly became a symbol of the alleged extravagance of the South Carolina legislature.
- In some Southern counties, the African American men who were appointed to oversee the new school districts were illiterate. They signed official documents with an "X," the symbol used when a person cannot write his or her own name.
- Before the Civil War, Southern whites paid taxes on the slaves they owned, as slaves were considered property. But once slavery was abolished, or outlawed, Southern states could no longer collect such a tax. To make up for the lost revenue, they raised taxes on land and businesses.
Consider the following …
- If you were a Northerner in the 1870s reading The Prostrate State, how would you feel about requiring Southern states to give African American men the right to vote and run for office?
- Can you find three examples of racist language in the Prostrate State excerpt?
- Why is The Prostrate State considered an inaccurate account of the South Carolina legislature?
For More Information
Chalmers, H. H. "The Effects of Negro Suffrage." North American Review (February 1881): pp. 239–48. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ChaEffe.html (accessed September 20, 2004).
Chamberlain, Daniel H. "Reconstruction in South Carolina." In Reconstruction in Retrospect: Views from the Turn of the Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1935. Reprint, New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Houghton, William Robert, and Mitchell Bennett Houghton. Two Boys in the Civil War and After. Montgomery, AL: Paragon Press, 1912. Also available at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Pike, James Shepherd. The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFK... (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Roark, James L. Masters without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.
Smith, Gene. High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.