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To the Editor of the Savannah News


TO THE EDITOR OF THE SAVANNAH NEWS


January 30, 1883.

On the 16th of this month you did me the honor of addressing to me personally an editorial article in your journal on the subject of homicide in the Southern States. You do not deny, as I understand you, that the discussion of the subject in the Evening Post and the Nation may have been prompted by motives friendly to the Southern people. You can scarcely think otherwise when you remember — as certainly many Southern men remember — that I was one of the first among Republicans in Missouri that championed, at the expense of their party standing, the reënfranchisement of those disfranchised on account of their participation in the rebellion; one of the first among Republicans in the Senate who advocated a general amnesty, who never ceased to denounce the abuses of the so-called carpet-bag governments and who zealously opposed every policy or measure calculated to withhold from the Southern people their rights and privileges as citizens. And what I did in the Senate those who are associated with me in the Evening Post did with equal zeal in the press. We therefore may say that we befriended the Southern people when they most needed friends, and that the same spirit animates us now and gives us a right to speak. Neither can you, as an intelligent and well-informed man, give your countenance to the silly insinuations which you mention in your article, that this discussion has on our part been conducted with a desire to divert immigration from the South and to direct it to some other part of the country. For you must be well aware that for many years before the beginning of this discussion the South has attracted but very few immigrants, and that there are at present no signs of migration turning that way. What you have not can not be taken from you, and if there is anybody who does not desire you to have it, he will naturally find it the best policy to leave things just as they are. But what we wish is not to leave things just as they are.

I am somewhat surprised at your suggestion that the Evening Post would show more friendship for the South if, instead of drawing your attention to certain disturbing influences by way of criticism, it spoke of the “great resources” of the South, of its “wonderful recuperation from the waste of war,” etc. That is what the Evening Post has lost no proper occasion for doing. No man can more sincerely rejoice at the return of prosperity to the South than I do, and it is for that very reason that I deplore the circumstances which prevent your recovery and progress from being more rapid and general. Heartily wishing that you should have that immigration of men and means, which for the development of your resources is so eminently desirable, we ask for the privilege — and it may be claimed as a privilege of friendship — to inquire into the reasons why those advantages are turned away in so great a measure from your fertile soil and your great opportunities. It is not for our benefit, but for yours, that this inquiry is made, for its results may be much more valuable to the Southern people than to anybody else. I know that friendly services of this character are not always graciously received, but this consideration should not deter those who mean well and whose duty it is to discuss matters of public interest.

No observing and candid man will deny that one of the reasons why immigration shuns the South, in spite of its genial climate, its fertile acres and its variety of tempting advantages, consists in a social distemper, which finds its expression in the frequency of certain kinds of homicide. I say “certain kinds of homicide,” for I do not deny that there are classes of crime which occur more frequently in other parts of the country. You point to the cities of New York and Chicago as examples of the insecurity of human life at the North. I admit at once that robbery, and murder for the sake of robbery, are more rare in the South than among the crowded populations of our great centers, and that in this respect a man's life may be safer almost anywhere in Georgia than on certain streets of New York or Chicago after dark. The same may be said comparatively of all great capitals in the world. But the homicides in the South which attract so much attention and produce so baneful an effect are not murders perpetrated by professional thieves who kill men to rifle their wallets; they are homicides occurring among persons whom, in a multitude of cases, your own journals are in the habit of designating as gentlemen, as citizens of respected standing, of good families, belonging to the better classes of society. And these homicides are the result of commonplace troubles, disagreements about business matters, importunities of creditors, social disputes, family feuds, quarrels about a dog or a horse, accidental insults, heated words at a ball or a card table or a church meeting.

The question may be asked whether homicides of that kind are more infamous in character than murders committed for the purpose of robbery, and I answer at once that they are not. But when I am further asked why such homicides should do more harm to your community in the estimation of the world than murders for the purpose of robbery do to ours, the answer is that here the murderer is, as a general thing, condemned by public opinion and hunted down as an infamous criminal and hung, if caught, while the kind of manslaying in the South I speak of is, as a general thing, greatly “deplored,” but at the same time very frequently excused, and almost universally protected against due punishment by morbid public sentiment. In the one case, the law-abiding citizen finds public opinion, which condemns manslaying as an infamous crime, as well as the organs of the law, which punish it as such, strongly on his side, while in the other case he finds himself confronted by certain traditional notions of society which are apt to protect the willful manslayer against social infamy as well as against the punishment provided by the law. And such traditional notions, and the practices which grow up under them, create a social atmosphere which most people, when they deliberate upon the choice of a new home or field of enterprise, prefer to avoid.

It has been suggested that this view of the case is practically controverted by the thousands of people of means who go into the mining regions of the far West to invest their capital there, although the homicidal use of the revolver and bowie knife is comparatively as frequent there as in the South, if not more so. But this fact does not impugn my argument in the least, for this simple reason: The law-abiding citizen who goes to the far West knows to an absolute certainty that the ruffianly state of society there is a thing of only a short duration; that, as immigration pours in it will very soon establish those habits of social order which its good elements bring with them, and that in introducing those habits there will only be a few lawless ruffians to put down, but no settled adverse public opinion or morbid social notions of any strength to overcome. This is a universal experience with which the law-abiding citizen going there is well acquainted, and, therefore, he is not deterred from going. But as to going to the South, he fears that he would find those social notions which furnish excuse and exemption from punishment to the manslayer as the principal obstacle to that good order which he considers essential to his well-being. This is the difference, and it is just this difference which, in its practical effects, tells so seriously against the South.

Now, as to the facts concerning homicides in the Southern States, you say in the editorial article addressed to me: “We confess that the practice complained of, while it is not so prevalent as the editor would make it appear, is none the less to be deplored, and, we are convinced, is rapidly going into desuetude.” I emphatically disclaim all desire to make that “practice” appear more prevalent than it really is. What the Evening Post has been doing for two or three months, is not to invent any cases, nor to exaggerate them, but simply to discuss them as they were reported by Southern newspapers.

Their number, I regret to say, was quite large, too large indeed, to be accepted as representing the decline of the practice. And it was the Southern press that classified them, and drew attention to them by elaborate descriptions. In a multitude of instances we were told the deed was done by a man “greatly respected by his neighbors,” of a “well-known family,” or “a citizen of prominence,” or “a member of good society,” and that the occurrence was “generally deplored,” or that it had “cast gloom over the community”; and, in not a few cases, that “further difficulties were apprehended.” But we did not once hear that the perpetrator was tried, found guilty and hung, or even that it was generally hoped he would be. Thus it was the Southern press which made these homicides conspicuous and gave them their peculiar significance. What we did was simply to point out to the Southern people that, for the sake of their good name as well as prosperity, such outrageous practices should not only be deplored, but stopped. And as you yourself “confess that the practice is to be deplored,” I may fairly assume that you earnestly desire to see it stopped. We are thus engaged in a common cause, and you will, therefore, surely take it in good part if I venture to make some suggestions concerning the means to be used to that end.

It is necessary to set those forces in motion which are apt to exercise healthy influence upon public opinion. There are several prominent journals in the South which substantially agree with us. And judging from the letters received in this office from persons of high character and respected standing in the South, there are many men in that part of the country who are deeply grieved at the practices we lament, and whose voices would certainly be listened to if speaking out openly, boldly and in concert. If in every Southern State such men were prevailed upon to come forward and form associations under the name of law and order societies, or any similar title, for the distinct object of suppressing this evil, they would, supported by the most respectable part of the press, soon be able to produce a powerful impression upon public sentiment, and to organize a strong, perhaps an irresistible influence. This is the plan I commend to your serious consideration.

They would have to direct their efforts mainly to three objective points: First — To eradicate, especially from the minds of young men, the antiquated and foolish notions that it is decent and gentlemanly and chivalrous to resort to violence upon every possible provocation. Second — To discourage the carrying of concealed weapons and to see that the laws prohibiting it be enforced. Third — To use their whole influence to the end that homicide be punished according to law without fear or favor. Let me say a few words on these points in their order.

There is much extravagant talk in the South about a “higher type of manhood” which “quickly resents an injury,” and about a “chivalrous” or “cavalierly” spirit which is always ready to appeal to the sword or to the pistol to redress one's own or other people's grievances. This sort of talk is very apt to seduce the imaginations, especially of young persons, who are easily made to believe that they will show themselves as “perfect gentlemen,” or become superior beings, or win a sort of patent of nobility, if on the slightest occasion they are prepared to feel insulted, and then to put a bullet or a charge of buckshot into somebody else's body. Such young people should be taught well, by precept and example, to appreciate the difference between a gentleman and a ruffian. They will then perceive that, in point of fact, a ruffian is easily and frequently “insulted” by a ruffian, but a true gentleman is very rarely insulted by another true gentleman. When one of these rare cases happens there are almost always methods of composition short of violence, and honorable to both parties. When a gentleman is insulted by a ruffian he will only lower his own dignity by adopting the ruffian's method of settling a quarrel. When ruffians insult one another they should not be permitted by any decent person to believe that respectable society will regard them as gentlemen if they fight each other with revolvers or shot guns, and thus settle their quarrel in a ruffianly way.

No community, and no member of it, should be permitted to forget that it is the great office of the law to redress wrongs and to protect the individual against assaults upon his rights, his honor, his property and his life. Your trouble is in a great measure that there are so many persons among you who think they can not, or they ought not, to intrust to the law and its organs affairs in which they have any personal feeling and interest, and that “taking the law in one's own hand” is regarded with too encouraging a leniency by public sentiment. It is the characteristic mark of civilized society that the individual looks to the law for his protection and the enforcement of his rights, while the habitual resort to violence by self-help is the equally characteristic mark of the barbarous state.

Constant self-help by force and violence in resenting insults or in enforcing claims of right may have been considered “chivalry” some centuries ago. But that kind of chivalry has been outgrown by a higher civilization. Those who try to put a pleasing face upon the homicidal practice by speaking of it as owing to high spirits of the “descendants of the cavaliers” in the South, seem to forget that an overwhelming majority of the descendants of that race of cavaliers live not here, but in England; and that, it may be supposed, the best of the cavalierly spirit has descended upon those of the native soil, together with their names, their escutcheons and their family traditions — at least as much as upon the side lines in the Southern States. But the descendants of the cavaliers in England have become civilized in the same way as other people of this century. They have undoubtedly retained a good deal of pride of ancestry, and in most cases a lively sense of honor. But while they have their disputes and quarrels like the rest of us, we do not hear of any shooting and stabbing among them. In fact, if any member of their order should try to demonstrate his cavalierly spirit and his quickness to resent an insult by whipping out a revolver on every occasion, or by going after an enemy with a shot gun, they would look upon him as an unmitigated ruffian, entirely unworthy of their society, and they would have him tried and hung if he actually killed anybody. In this civilized century that man is regarded as the finest cavalier who most conscientiously reveres the sanctity of the law, shows the most just and generous spirit in the treatment of his fellow-men, maintains his dignity by abstaining not only from all mean but also from all brutal things and cultivates the highest graces of civilized life. If the high-spirited young men of the South desire to take rank among the modern descendants of the cavaliers, and to become themselves true cavaliers of the nineteenth century, they will quickly drop — together with their antiquated notions of chivalry — their revolvers and their shotguns as protectors of their honor and as their badges of nobility.

But even if they would model their conduct rather after the knights of five hundred years ago, it should not be forgotten that some of the cases on record would at no period of history have been thought to have any kind of chivalry in them. For instance, when a man, who wants to avenge a real or imaginary insult, deems the whole code of honor satisfied if he simply notifies his enemy that he will shoot him at sight, and then kills him with a shotgun from an upper-story window; or when a debtor puts a bullet into the heart of a creditor who insults him by dunning at an inopportune time.

Intelligent, generous and ambitious as the people of the South are, I should think it could not be difficult by a proper presentation of the case, coming from the most respected class among them, to awaken them to a keen appreciation of the mischief springing from such antiquated and discreditable notions of chivalry and honor.

The practice of carrying concealed weapons appears very much in the same light. That revolvers are habitually carried by a very large portion of the male population of the South is an admitted fact. Now, I ask you, in all soberness, what condition of society would you call it, in which a gentleman thinks it necessary, whenever leaving his house, to put a revolver in his pocket in anticipation of some “difficulty” with some other gentleman, which may induce or oblige him to kill the latter? This view of the matter may at first sight seem exaggerated. But is it so in fact? Ask yourself, for what purpose are deadly weapons so generally carried in the South? Not for protection against wild beasts or against highway robbers. You insist yourself that as to robbers the roads in Georgia are safer than some of the streets of New York or Chicago, and I do not deny it. And yet no gentleman here thinks it necessary to have a pistol on his body when he goes to his business place or to his club or to a ball. The few individuals who do so will scarcely be considered gentlemen any longer when the fact of their constantly carrying arms becomes known. Why, then, is it done by so many persons belonging to the best society in the South? Is it not really done in constant expectation of some insult, or some dispute, or some collision — in one word, some “difficulty” which may oblige or induce the carrier of the pistol to make use of it by killing somebody? Is not the mere statement of the case sufficient to show that this widespread habit is in itself a severe reflection upon the social condition in which it prevails? Is it not true that the men going constantly armed in anticipation of a quarrel thus carry a temptation to resort to violence with them, and that thus their pistols become the cause of their “difficulties”? Are not there a great many men in the South to-day who would never have got into bloody and disgraceful troubles had they not habitually carried revolvers ready to their hands, and who now devoutly wish they had never done so? Would not Southern society be in a position much more unassailable before the world, and much more satisfactory to itself, if such a habit had never prevailed?

Laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons can not become efficient unless they are supported by a strong public opinion and by social custom. As soon as decent people, in sufficient force and concert, speak out on the subject and make their influence felt, so that a man habitually carrying arms must feel himself in danger of being frowned upon by polite society as “not a gentleman,” or rather as a ruffian, those who have any social aspirations will soon abandon the dangerous habit, and the decisive step in the way of that reform will be accomplished; for, public opinion settled, the unruly can then be coerced by the enforcement of the law.

And it will then no longer be difficult to secure the third point I mentioned, the punishment of the manslayer according to law. When willful homicide, unless justified by the clear necessity of self-defense or mitigated by the extremest circumstances of mental distress, is regarded and treated by society as the infamous crime it is, which must exclude the perpetrator from all civilized and self-respecting companionship, it will find juries to convict and judges to sentence the guilty and governors to withhold their pardon. There will then be no element ever so rough that it might not be brought under the control of legal authority.

You and all those in the South who “confess to deplore” the homicidal practice, and who in their hearts must necessarily desire to stop it, should therefore feel called upon promptly to take this matter in hand with that courage which, conscious of serving a good cause, is not to be daunted by the fear of temporary unpopularity. If the law and order societies I have suggested are formed all over the South, and if they pursue their end with pluck and energy, they can scarcely fail of success; and their success will confer a blessing upon the South, of which they will have reason to be prouder than of any warlike exploits and for which their children will never cease to be grateful.

Do not reject this advice as coming from one who does not live among you. The Southern people have more and warmer friends here than they are apt to recognize — friends who are heartily glad of every sign of advancement and prosperity in the Southern States, who esteem and admire the many good and noble qualities of the Southern people, and whose cordial wishes accompany every effort you make in the way of social and material progress. And we feel it to be a pity that these efforts should be hampered by deplorable traditions of the past, and that those noble qualities should be dimmed by a blemish which you yourselves need only see as others see it, in order to wipe it out. I assure you, we have undertaken this discussion, not from any desire to exhibit that blemish to the world, for the Southern press has done that, nor from any meddlesome spirit of fault-finding, but to stir up the sensitiveness of the Southern people to the keenest possible perception of an evil existing among them and of the necessity of correcting it by their own endeavor. And I may assure you also that nothing will give us more genuine and heartfelt pleasure than to record and bring to public notice and commendation any movement in the right way.

In your editorial article you seem to intimate that in this part of the country, too, there are evils enough to which we might devote our reformatory zeal. This is true, and we faithfully strive to subject those home distempers to proper diagnosis and treatment as occasion offers. If you find that we have overlooked any, I shall gratefully accept the benefit of your criticism and advice as a welcome reciprocation.

Since you have addressed yourself in your journal personally to me, I trust you will not deny me the favor of giving this letter a place in your columns so that it may meet the eye of the same circle of readers.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).

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