The Prostrate State

Author: James Shepherd Pike

Show Summary
James S. Pike

The Prostrate State

[1873]

Yesterday, about 4 P.M., the assembled wisdom of the State, whose achievements are illustrated on that theatre, issued forth from the State-House. About three-quarters of the crowd belonged to the African race. They were of every hue, from the light octoroon to the deep black. They were such a looking body of men as might pour out of a market-house or a courthouse at random in any Southern State. Every Negro type and physiognomy was here to be seen, from the genteel serving-man to the rough-hewn customer from the rice or cotton field. Their dress was as varied as their countenances. There was the secondhand black frock-coat of infirm gentility, glossy and threadbare. There was the stove-pipe hat of many ironings and departed styles. There was also to be seen a total disregard of the proprieties of costume in the coarse and dirty garments of the field; the stub-jackets and slouch hats of soiling labor. These were the legislators of South Carolina.

In conspicuous bas-relief over the door of exit, on the panels of the stately edifice, the marble visages of George McDuffie and Robert Y. Hayne overlooked the scene. Could they veritably witness it from their dread abode? What then? "I tremble," wrote Jefferson, when depicting the character of Southern slavery, "I tremble when I reflect that God is just." But did any of that old band of Southern Revolutionary patriots who wrestled in their souls with the curse of slavery ever contemplate such a descent into barbarism as this spectacle implied and typified?

"My God, look at this!" was the unbidden ejaculation of a low-country planter, clad in homespun, as he leaned over the rail inside the House, gazing excitedly upon the body in session. "This is the first time I have been here. I thought I knew what we were doing when we consented to emancipation. I knew the Negro, and I predicted much that has happened, but I never thought it would come to this. Let me go."

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. These are good-looking, substantial citizens. They are all from the hill country. The frosts of sixty and seventy winters whiten the heads of some among them. 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. Grouped in a corner of the commodious and well-furnished chamber, they stolidly survey the noisy riot that goes on in the great black Left and Centre, where the business and debates of the House are conducted, and where sit the strange and extraordinary guides of the fortunes of a once proud and haughty State.

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 ate 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 members referred to, who comprise the entire strength of the opposition, we find one hundred and one remaining. Of this one hundred and one, 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. On the mere basis of numbers in the State the injustice of this disproportion is manifest, since the black population is relatively four to three of the whites. . . . As things stand, the body is almost literally a Black Parliament. . . . 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 is black, and the chaplain is coal-black. At some of the desks sit colored men whose types it would be hard to find outside the Congo; whose costume, visages, attitudes, and expression, only befit the forecastle of a buccaneer.

One of the things that first strike a casual observer in this Negro assembly is the fluency of 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 Ku Klux, 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. They are eager on this point. Sambo can talk on these topics and those of a kindred character, and their endless ramifications, day in and day out. There is no end to his gush and babble. The intellectual level is that of a bevy of fresh converts at a Negro camp-meeting.

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. No one is allowed to talk five minutes without interruption, and one interruption is the signal for another and another, until the original speaker is smothered under an avalanche of them. Forty questions of privilege will be raised in a day. At times, nothing goes on but alternating questions of order and of privilege. . . . The Speaker’s hammer plays a perpetual tattoo all to no purpose. . . . The Speaker orders a member whom he has discovered to be particularly unruly to take his seat. The member obeys, and with the same motion that he sits down, throws his feet on to his desk, hiding himself from the Speaker by the soles of his boots. In an instant he appears again on the floor. After a few experiences of this sort, the Speaker threatens, in a laugh, to call "the gemman" to order. This is considered a capital joke, and a guffaw follows. The laugh goes round, and then the peanuts are cracked and munched faster than ever; one hand being employed in fortifying the inner man with this nutriment of universal use, while the other enforces the views of the orator.

A large, well-built, showy kind of white man, with a good voice and fluent speech, was addressing the House yesterday. Standing beside me on the floor, near the Speaker’s chair, was a snug-built, round-headed, young black man, of perhaps one-quarter white blood. He had full eyes, thick lips, and woolly hair, and was brusque and lively. I asked who was the speaker.

"Oh," replied he, with a toss of the head and a scornful air, "that is a chuckle-head from ——. He has got about as much brains as you can hold in your hand."

My pride of race was incontinently shocked. Here was a new view. It was no longer the white man deriding the incapacity of the Negro. The tables were emphatically turned.

He continued: "You have heard of Beverly Nash? There he sits. A full-blooded black man, six feet high. He was formerly a slave of W. C. Preston, and afterward a bootblack at one of our hotels. He is now a substantial citizen, and a prominent leader in the Senate and in the State. He handles them all. The lawyers and the white chivalry, as they call themselves, have learned to let him alone. They know more of law and some other things than he does; but he studies them all up, and then comes down on them with a good story or an anecdote, and you better believe he carries the audience right along with him. All the laugh and all the ridicule is on his side. And when he undertakes a thing, he generally puts it through, I tell you. No, sir, there is now nobody who cares to attack Beverly Nash. They let him alone right smart."

"They were mostly slaves, these people in the Legislature?"

"Yes, nearly all, including the Speaker of the House; not more than five or six were freeborn."

"And you?"

"No, sir, I never was a slave. I was raised in Charleston. My parents were free and my grandparents before them."

[A white carpet-bagger tells Pike that "they were getting shoved out all round."]

My informant was undoubtedly well informed. He was more alive to the facts than another less interested might have been. For he was an office-holder and a carpet-bagger. His species have had their day in South Carolina. This he foresees, and naturally quakes in his shoes. His track in the State has been one of robbery and desolation, and there is none to lament his final expulsion, whoever follows.

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Chicago: James Shepherd Pike, The Prostrate State, ed. James S. Pike in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1X3DFZH4M8RR8S8.

MLA: Pike, James Shepherd. The Prostrate State, edited by James S. Pike, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1X3DFZH4M8RR8S8.

Harvard: Pike, JS, The Prostrate State, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1X3DFZH4M8RR8S8.