Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State

March 14, 1874, page 229

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(The members call each other thieves, liars, rascals, and cowards.)
Columbia.  "You are Aping the lowest Whites.  If you disgrace your Race in this way you had better take Back Seats."

If we may trust the following report, taken from a recent number of the Charleston News, some of the colored members of the South Carolina Legislature must be men of very different stamp from the cultivated and able gentleman who represents the State in the Congress of the United States. During a recent debate in the House on the appropriation for the penitentiary, a motion for a reduction of the amount named in the bill led to the following scene:

Minort (colored). "The proposed appropriation is not a whit too large."

Humbert (colored). "The institution ought to be self-sustaining. The member only wants a grab at the money."

Hurley (coming to Minortís relief). "Mr. Speaker, I riseó"

Humbert (to Hurley). "You shet you mouf, Sah." (Roars of laughter)

Greene (colored). "That thief from Darlington." (A delicate allusion to Humbert.)

Humbert. "If I have robbed any thing, I expect to be Ku-Kluxed by just such highway robbers as the member [Greene] from Beaufort. If I get in the penitentiary, I wonít ask for $65,000 to support me."

Greene (to Hurley). "You know as much about it as you do the Governorís contingent fund."

Hurley. "At least no one has been able, or ever attempted, to refute my charges against the Governor, and his Excellency will not dare deny them."

Greene (colored). "No; but if the Governor were not such a coward, he would have cowhided you before this, or got somebody else to do it."

Hurley. "If the gentleman from Beaufort [Greene] would allow the weapon named to be sliced from his cuticle, I might submit to the castigation."

The next day Mr. Greene attempted to explain that he did not mean to say Governor Moses was a coward.

Greene (rising to a question of privilege). "It was not the Governor to whom I referred, but his aids. What I said was that if the Governorís aids were not cowards, they would have cowhided Hurley, and if I were a member of the Governorís staff, I would have done it before this."

Hurley (rising to a counter-question of privilege). "Nobody on the Governorís staff, nobody he could put on there, not the doughty gentleman from Beaufort, nor the valiant Governor himself, dare undertake to cowhide me."

This, says the Charleston News, "is the usual style in which the business of law-making and money-grabbing is conducted in the South Carolina Legislature. The radical members call each other thieves, liars, and rascals without any provocation, and do not appear to have any idea that they are insulting any body, or that they are not telling the Gospel truth. Roars of laughter on the part of the House and an increased consumption of pea-nuts follow these outpourings of fish-fag rhetoric; but for the honest citizens of the State the farce threatens to have a tragic ending." The moral to be drawn from this is indicated in Mr. Nastís cartoon on our front page. These ignorant and incompetent legislators must give place to those who will more faithfully represent the worth and intelligence of the people of the State, both white and colored. But it must be confessed that the colored members of the South Carolina Legislature could point to very unsavory precedents as to manner and language among white legislators of Southern and Northern States.


While the Reconstruction effort faced an opposition in the South characterized by intimidation and violence, a political backlash against those policies developed in the North. Many Northern white Americans became wary of the continued use of the military to enforce a political agenda. Concerns about national priorities were exacerbated when an economic depression began in 1873-74, provoking much of the Northern electorate to insist that the government concentrate on economic affairs. Adding to the Northern white reaction against the federal Southern policy was the conventional wisdom that the Reconstruction governments had become corrupt. Those sentiments combined in the fall 1874 elections to allow the Democratic party to win control of Congress for the first time since before the Civil War.

In fact, there had been corruption in the Reconstruction governments. Most historians, however, have concluded that it was no worse, and often not as bad, as the corruption in other state governments at that time or in the past. Yet, the commonly-held belief that Reconstruction governments were especially corrupt would continue well into the twentieth century. Much of the blame for the alleged malfeasance was placed unfairly on black office-holders. The South Carolina legislature was particularly targeted as a symbol of corruption because it was the only state legislature in which blacks held a majority of the seats.

For years, Thomas Nast had used his artistic talents in Harperís Weekly to generate sympathy for the plight of black Americans and support for black civil rights. This illustration, though, demonstrates that he was not immune from accepting the standard line on Reconstruction corruption or from using racial stereotypes to make his point. The imagined scene takes place in the South Carolina legislature. The corresponding text in Harperís Weekly contains a fictional and stereotyped exchange between black legislators. The newspaper notes, however, that the corruption was probably no worse than other instances of political graft.


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