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Woman-Suffrage as Judged by the Working of Negro-Suffrage.


Woman-Suffrage as Judged by the Working of Negro-Suffrage.

James Dodson

A FALSE principle wrought into real life always works itself out in disaster. Nemesis watches it. Its malign nature will out relentlessly. Its working is like that of demoniacal possession: the dispossession comes with outcry and convulsions.

Such is the naked fact in the issue of our experiment in giving the ballot to the negro of the plantation. We put the most delicate blossom of civilization into the hands of a herd of ignorance and brutishness. We uplifted men to the ultimate height of republican freedom, whose donkeys knew nearly as much of its responsibilities as they did. We drew from the rice-fields to the polls men who in some instances deposited there circus-bills, hotel dinner-bills, and copies of the Lord’s Prayer. We threw open halls of legislation which the finished culture of the land had graced, to men who not only could neither read nor write, but whose guffaws in derision of parliamentary order, as they sat with feet higher than their heads, betrayed scarcely more of intelligence than the bray of an ass. The Rhetts and Legares, and Hamptons and Calhouns of a great State,[1] have been succeeded in part by Sambo and Pompey, and Caesar[2] and Jerusalem.[3]

The issue, to the most sanguine believers in the necessity of the experiment, must seem to be a dead failure. Not only has it breeded bad legislation, and repudiated debts, but the fundamental law of representative government—that by which majorities rule—has been abrogated by force. The process has been so revolutionary, that we have had to coin a new word to express it. “Bulldoze” will live long in our language in token of the wretched business.[4]

Political partisans may gloss it over as they please; yet few non-partisans in the land doubt that minorities rule to-day in South Carolina and Louisiana, and probably in three other Southern States. Govs. Chamberlain and Packard are de jure chief magistrates of their respective Commonwealths [i.e., South Carolina and Louisiana]. They have the sympathy of thousands who feel compelled, by a necessity which knows not law, to support the policy which disowns them.[5] Their rivals govern only by the right of a usurpation, which, in theory, has supplanted republican government by a tyranny. The same revolution extended through the country would make every State government a despotism, and the form of representative rule a farce.

Yet we yield to it as a necessity. A necessity which is above law is the issue of the first false move which gave the franchise to men who were neither fitted for it, nor able even to understand it. Through no fault of theirs—poor souls!—they were lifted to an eminence which they had never known enough even to ask for. The sympathies of the best minds of the nation must be with them, rather than with their lordly superiors. They have done as well, in their unnatural elevation, as anybody could have been expected to do, if suddenly and volcanically tossed into responsibilities so vastly above their education and their history.

But it is no kindness to them to suffer our compassion to blind us to the facts of their condition, which both they and we must now face together. The facts of the situation have driven our theories cut of sight. We can not help seeing that there are things in the administration of States which are more potent than numbers. We have to count other things than heads, white or black. We must confess that intelligence, culture, knowledge of the art of government, the habit of rule, pride of ancestry and historic prestige, have more real power in ruling a great State than the brute force of hands. The “bayonets” which “think” beat back thrice the number of those which do not think. Upset society to-day by plunging these thinking forces underneath, and heaving ignorance and inherited debasement, and the traditions of slavery, to the top, and the first thing we learn is that society will not stay thus upset. It inevitably turns over again into its natural condition, stands on its natural feet, and erects again its natural head, let the majority of the bits of paper, in or out of the ballot-box, count for whom they may. The head comes uppermost, let the hands do what they will.

Color and hair, and nose and lips, have nothing to do with such a revolution and counter-revolution. Any race in South Carolina, fresh from the auction-block and the lash of the rice-field, could no more govern an intelligent and cultured minority, heirs to the history of South Carolina, than a herd of buffaloes could govern Minnesota. To this fact of political science our whole theory of government by majorities has been forced to succumb in a day. Think what we may of it, the fact is there, and our theory is nowhere. Such is the exorcism of the body politic, by which it rids itself of a tampering with the franchise which was against nature. The hopeless despotism under which New York is drifting towards bankruptcy is only another fruit of the same reckless extension of suffrage at the North. Such silent revolutions are mightiest issues of apparently smallest forces. They resemble that in which an ounce of water in midwinter may rend asunder a ton's weight of granite in a night.

Where, now, is the parallel between negro-suffrage at the South and the proposed suffrage of woman? In respect to intelligence and culture, and their prerogatives, it does not exist at all. Whether it exists in respect to the instinct and capacity of government, may be an open question. But the parallel is clear in this, which is the ultimate fact in both cases, that the ballot is given, or supposed to be given, not to exceptional classes, few in number, but to the half of the population which has no physical power to defend it. They can neither take it by force, nor hold it if assailed by force.

“Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

A principle of political destiny is expressed in these words, than which gravitation is not more sure. Liberty, such as is involved in the gift of suffrage, is impossible, on any large scale, to a race, or nation, or tribe, or class, which has not power to take the right, if it is a right, and to hold it against all aggressors. This is the secret, back of all other causes, of the failure of negro-suffrage at the South. Excess of numbers by a few thousands or tens of thousands is of no account, where the cultured brain, the heirloom of centuries, is all on the side of the minority. The negro majority, in receiving the ballot, received an elephant. They did not know what to do with it; and, in the very first real conflict about it, they could not defend it by force of arms. Such a majority is not fitted for the ballot; nor is it their right, in any sense which implies a blessing in it, till they reach a stage of civilization in which they can not be “bulldozed” out of it.

Before the war, when servile insurrection was threatened, the Southern planter used to smile, saying, “One gentleman is a match for three negroes.” So he was, so long as the traditions of a free race backed him up, and the traditions of a slave race weighted the negro down. Why did Gov. Chamberlain call on the National Government for troops to execute the will of the legal majority of South Carolina? With twenty thousand able-bodied majority at his beck, why did he not summon them to execute their own will in the defense of their own rights and his? Gov. Rice would have done that in Massachusetts. Gov. Robinson would have done it in New York. The Governor of Ohio proclaimed the natural law of State government, when he was importuned, in the midst of the late labor strikes, to telegraph to Washington for troops, and replied, “I will not ask for one bayonet from the President till every loyal citizen of Ohio is whipped.” Why did not Govs. Chamberlain and Packard act on the same theory?

They dared not do it. As wise statesmen and humane men, they could not do it. They knew that that would mean a war of races. They knew, that, in such a war, the weaker race must go down. They knew that numbers, unless overwhelming beyond the facts of any black majority in the South, was the least important factor in the problem. The citizens of Liberia show only a prudent estimate of the relative strength of the two races, by their law that no white man shall own a rood of land within the bounds of the republic. Haytiens [i.e., Haitians], in their revolt against the French in the time of Toussaint L'Ouverture, showed the same shrewd foresight in the motto of one of the insurgent banners: “One white man too much for St. Domingo.” The white race in either of the revolutionized States of the South, in such a war of races, if let alone by the North, would have been the conqueror in a month. No surer way could have been devised to remand the black race to slavery under laws of peonage, than to have initiated the war of races just then and there, at the close of a political campaign which had convulsed the nation, and ended with a disputed succession.

No: there was no hope for the negro; and in mercy to us all Gov. Chamberlain held still, though it was in his power to plunge the continent into civil war. Laws of nature had been disregarded in giving the franchise to majorities who were unfit for it, with no checks conservative of the ascendency of intelligence and of property; and, at the very first real trial of the principle, the retribution came. He was the true statesman who bowed in silence to the inevitable.

Is it said, in reply, that this assumes that right depends on might? I answer, Some rights do depend on might. The right of revolution does. Besides, the objection begs the question. Suffrage, abstractly considered, is nobody’s “right.” No “Bill of Rights” ever read that “all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and the elective franchise.” Suffrage is primarily a responsibility, and a fearful one. The “right” to it is an aftergrowth, depending on many things, of which one is the power to defend it. It is no kindness, but a fearful wrong rather, to lay it upon a crowd of beings who must fling it away in a panic at the first call to protect it by resort to arms.

Here, then, lies the parallel between the suffrage of the negro and the proposed gift of it to women. Unlike in every other point vital to the argument, the two are alike in this, except that the disadvantage of woman is fourfold that of the negro,—that the distribution of physical power renders the gift neither a right nor a blessing. That which was unnatural, because untimely, to the negro, must be for ever unnatural to woman. She could never defend it if contested by man. She could never enforce laws enacted by majorities of female voters, in opposition to men. A war of races would be a tragedy. A war of sexes would be a farce.

Moreover, legislative hostility of the sexes is no bugbear. It is not all improbable. Take but a single case. Suppose a declaration of war by a majority of female legislators, sustained by a majority of female voters. War is declared, supplies are voted, taxation is decreed, and conscription ordered, by the major voice of woman. Her natural aversion to bloodshed goes for nothing in the hypothesis. History shows that war and its pageantry are popular with the female sex. Its weaknesses in that direction are quite equal to man’s. Once in a fight, woman is a more unreasoning animal than man. No other mobs equal those of women in ferocity. Witness the Faubourg St. Antoine.

Our late civil war was largely the work of women. Intelligent Southerners say that the social impulse which drove their section into rebellion was the furor of its women. I have been told by one well informed of the facts, that even South Carolina probably, and Georgia certainly, would never have seceded, but for the mordant sarcasm of their refined and cultured ladies, which made it impossible for chivalrous young men to resist the current. Few little incidents of the war so impressed upon our soldiers the intensity of Southern attachment to the “lost cause,” as that of the Mississippi maiden, who, in defiance of her triumphant foes, sang “Dixie,” with unbroken voice and flashing eye, while the home of her childhood was burning to the ground under their torches.

So, too, since the conflict of arms has ceased, we are told that the conflict of opinion and of feeling is kept up most bitterly by Southern women. No other class of Southern society is so difficult of "reconstruction" as its intelligent and high-born ladies. Planters, merchants, lawyers, physicians, journalists, of the South, accept the situation with equanimity, and her soldiers with generosity, when their wives and daughters will not permit so much as the hem of their garments to touch in the street those of their Northern sisters. When Gen. Butler was in command at New Orleans, it was the highbred ladies of the city who spat in the faces of officers of the Federal army. Could one Southern man have been found who would have done that?

The opposition of woman to man in the prosecution of war and its collateral measures, then, is not impossible. Let that hostility express itself in legislation, and who is to execute its will? Who shall carry on the war? Who is to enforce the legislative will of woman in any thing, if man opposes it? The popular parody on “Woman’s Will” may do for the ball-room. It is not argument: it is a wretched libel upon woman, which has neither wit nor wisdom.

In sober earnest, woman with the gift of suffrage would be just where any other half of society would be if destitute of resources to defend the gift. A majority of women, like the majority of negroes, must forego the gift whenever the frenzy or the trickery of political passions deprives them of it. In both cases, there is no power behind to protect it. In both cases, the gift of it is legislation against nature, though for very different reasons. Such legislation must be expected to work disaster in a hundred ways which no human wisdom can foresee. Fight with gravitation, and you are sure to be worsted in catastrophes which gravitation never would have developed if it had not been resisted. Dam up the Mississippi, and contest its passage to the Gulf, and you must reckon upon floods and inundations away back to the gorges of the Rocky Mountains. So long as water runs down hill, so long will Nature have her way in the affairs of States as well, in defiance of enactments of law, and voices of majorities.


[1] [The Rhetts, Legares, Hamptons and Calhouns were all families of landed gentry in South Carolina. Members of these families occupied the top tier of state government until Reconstruction after the war.]

[2] [In 1796, Philadelphia playwright John Murdock published his play, “The Triumph of Love; or, Happy Reconciliation,” in which a Quaker named George Friendly manumits his slave Sambo. In 1798, he followed this play with another entitled, “The Politicians; or, A State of Things,” in which the recently freed Sambo debates two slaves friends named Pompey and Caesar over the pros and cons of French versus American republicanism. On the stage, this was portrayed by white men in black face arguing points about which they were obviously illiterate. Reconstruction had brought this kind of buffoonery to the politics of South Carolina.]

[3] [This refers to the violent 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. It came to an end when Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, Virginia, in November of that year. This refers to the violence inherent in Reconstruction.]

[4] [The word “bulldoze,” or “bulldose,” means a “dose fit for a bull.” This word was coined during the 1876 U.S. presidential election. It referred to the intimidation of black men, who wished to vote, using severe beatings, particularly in the South.]

[5] [After president Ulysses S. Grant ended Reconstruction, removing federal troops from southern states, in 1877, Republican governors, Daniel Chamberlain and Stephen Packard, were replaced by Democrat governors, Wade Hampton III and Francis Nicholls. In both of these elections the results were in dispute and both parties claimed victory. In the Compromise of 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to acknowledge the Democratic candidates, who opposed Reconstruction, over their incumbent Republican governor opponents in exchange for the electoral votes of those states.]