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Charles W. Chesnutt to Mary Adelene Moffat, 14 November 1889

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  Chas. W. Chesnutt, Att'y at Law, 30 Blackstone Bld'g, Cleveland, O. Miss A.M. Moffatt, Sec'y Open Letter Club, New York.

I thank you for the opportunity of reading Hon. A. M. Waddell's1 letter.2 His statement of the County Government system, though brief, is correct; and from it may be readily gathered what Mr. Waddell does not directly say—that it centralizes the government of the State in the hands of the legislative majority, and entirely takes away the power of any loyal majority of the opposite political party.

I cannot quite agree with Mr. Waddell in regard to the degree of corruption which characterized the Carpet-bag County governments. They were not all corrupt, nor were the corrupt all equally corrupt, nor was the financial condition so bad as he puts it. In fact, Mr. Waddell's own letter bears me out in this statement. On the second page of his letter he says: "The result (of carpet-bag government) that in a very short time they (the Eastern counties) were overwhelmed with debt and ruined financially." On the same page, in the following paragraph, he says that the result of the return to the old or centralized system, "was wonderful, for those which had been bankrupted were in a very few years out of debt, paying dollar for dollar, and their securities at par". I submit 1   2 that the two statements do not harmonize perfectly: the ruin which could be so easily repaired could not have been so deep-seated or complete, especially when the fact is taken into consideration that the recuperative power of the South was very small for many years after the war. It must also be borne in mind that the carpet-bag governments found the South bankrupt—the country was impoverished, the local treasuries empty, the industries paralyzed. The reorganization of the State and County governments, the establishment of a common-school system for the whole people, (a fact for which the carpet-bag governments must be given credit), were necessarily expensive; and a public debt was not a new thing in history.

To say that the misgovernment and corruption of the carpet-bag governments was unparalleled in history is a strong statement. The government of New York City under the Tweed regime,3 the financial methods, or lack of method, of many of the Central and South American governments, the notorious corruption of Russian local administration, are instances which invite comparison. And the recent defalcations of the State Treasurer's of Kentucky and Louisiana4 suggest that even if the white people of the South have a monopoly of personal honesty and political integrity, the supply is unfortunately not large enough to go around.

But the greatest mistake which Mr. Waddell, and indeed most Southern writers on this subject make, is in ascribing the mistakes and the corruption of carpet-bag rule to the Negroes. That these things were mostly due to the rapacity of corrupt and unscrupulous white men seems to be overlooked. Mr. Waddell himself   3 would be the last to say that the Negroes either engineered or profited to any great extent by the several considerable jobs which disgraced carpet-bag rule in North Carolina. The Negroes had no competent leaders among themselves; they received neither advice nor assistance from the Southern white people, who were indeed rather gratified at seeing them him sink deeper and deeper into the slough of incompetency, for successful government by the Negro would have been a shock to their preconceived notions, and harder to bear than even the worst misgovernment.

And that is the root of the whole trouble in the South. The white people not only do not wish to be governed by the Negroes, whether well or ill; (and it is very natural and proper that they should not wish to be governed entirely by Negroes, who as a class are undoubtedly inferior in ability to govern); but they do not want the Negroes to share with them the power which their numbers and their citizenship justly entitle them to, The white people are willing to curtail their own liberties very materially, as they do by the North Carolina system of County government, in order that they may entirely eliminate the Negro as a political factor.

I do not believe this is necessary to good government in the South, and especially in North Carolina even under present party divisions; for in that State there is a higher average of intelligence among the colored people and a larger number of whites throughout the State who are in political sympathy with the Negroes, than perhaps in any other Southern State except Virginia. But laying partisan considerations aside,   4 one half of the time and ingenuity spent in conciliating the Negroes, in winning their friendship and confidence, that is now employed in subverting their rights under cover of law, would enable the white people of North Carolina and of the whole South to govern by the supremacy which superior wealth, station, education and experience in public affairs would naturally give them. This method of controlling the Negroes has never been tried. It would require some concessions on the part of the whites. It would require a change of attitude toward the colored people; it would require such a recognition of their political and public rights as would disarm their distrust of the whites. It would require, too, a cessation of such utterance as the following from the New Orleans Times–Democrat of November 5, 1889:-

"When Gov. Hill, upon his recent visit to Atlanta and Vhattanooga[sic], told the people in his public addresses that the settlement of the race issue is a mere matter of money, that astute politician did not know what he was talking about. x x x The race issue is a natural antagonism; it springs from innate differences between the Negro and the Caucasian, and has nothing whatever to do with education or the lack of education. To the Negro varnished with such learning as he is capable of acquiring, there is even a more pronounced antipathy than to the Negro of the cotton-field and the kitchen."5

No one would deny that a state of things such as I have spoken of, if it could be brought about, would be better for both races than the present system of suppressing the Negro by hook or crook, to which system, by the way, the recently enacted election law of North Carolina is a subtle but effective "clincher." Until the policy of conciliation has been tried and has failed, there will not be in the minds of fair-minded people any sufficient excuse   5 for a system which is avowedly based on a denial of the principles of "pure democracy"—a doctrine so highly lauded by the Southern whites in the abstract, and when it enlarges their own powers or privileges, and so completely ignored by them when it conflicts with their notions of so-called Anglo-Saxon superiority.

But pardon the length of my letter. Your correspondent, as I happen to know, is an able attorney as well as a veteran politician, and has presented his side of the case to you in its strongest light. But in the saving clause of his letter, where he foresees a possible future when the Negroes will not (to paraphrase his language by the slang of the day) regard "public office as a private snap, there seems to speak the fair-minded man rising above the advocate, and looking forward to a time when the laws will be employed to extend rather than to restrict the liberty of the citizen.

Very respectfully yours, Chas. W. Chesnutt.

Correspondent: Mary Adelene Moffat (1862–1956) was George Washington Cable's personal secretary and then co-worker in his Home Culture Club headquartered at Northampton, Massachusetts. She began working with Cable in 1888 after hearing him lecture, and continued until 1907.

1. Alfred Moore Waddell (1834–1912), a North Carolina attorney, served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1871-1879), and was central in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, a White supremacist coup that overthrew an interracial city government, targeted Black elected officials, killed between 60 and possibly 300 Black citizens, and terrorized several thousand who fled the city and never returned. Waddell was installed as mayor, and remained in office until 1906.[back]

2. The Waddell letter Chesnutt references had been solicited by Cable. A few months earlier, Cable had asked Chesnutt for a letter on the North Carolina county government system, and on September 9, 1889, Chesnutt responded with a draft. Cable also approached Waddell for a letter on the same topic. Waddell responded on October 31, 1889, and this is, presumably, the letter Chesnutt here analyzes. For a transcription of Waddell's letter, see "To Be an Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889–1905, ed. Joseph R. McElrath and Robert C. Leitz, III (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 52n2.[back]

3. William M. "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878) was the head of the Democratic Party political machine, known as Tammany Hall, which played a major role in New York City politics. He was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement.[back]

4. Chesnutt refers to Kentucky State Treasurer James W. Tate, who embezzled and outright stole more than $200,000 from the state. Tate disappeared, and was never found, but an investigation uncovered corruption that extended beyond Tate. Louisiana State Treasurer Edward A. Burke was embroiled in several scandals over many years that seemed to indicate misappropriation of state funds, and he was voted out of office in 1888. He was charged in 1889, but he had left the U.S., and he never returned.[back]

5. Chesnutt is quoting from "Gov. Hill and the Negro," the New Orleans Times-Democrat, November 5, 1889: 4. David Bennett Hill (1843-1910), a New York Democrat, served as governor of the state, 1885-1891.[back]