Friday, February 7, 2014

There Are No Devils that We Don't Know

The place is South Carolina; the year, 1890. An election campaign is under way. The principal candidates vying for the office of governor are Benjamin Tillman, a progressive reformer who has fought vigorously for the rights of subsistence farmers, and Alexander Cheves Haskell, who is dedicated to preserving the dominance of the wealthiest landed families in the state.

Let us suppose that somewhere in the state there exists a voter of enlightened and humane sensibility. His duty, surely, is clear: he must cast his ballot for Tillman, or so it would seem. There is a complication, however. While Haskell shows himself nostalgic for the slave-holding glory days of ante-bellum Dixie, Tillman openly avers that he is seeking a mandate to impose baasskap with no veneer of Southern gentility.

Tillman won the election handily. His most notable action as governor was to amend the state constitution so as to effectively disenfranchise African-Americans, repealing the rights they had won during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. During his gubernatorial career, and later as a United States Senator, Tillman openly advocated the extra-judicial killing of black people. Few will be surprised to learn that a record number of African-Americans were lynched in South Carolina in 1890.

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