The Prostrate Slate: South Carolina Under Negro Government

Author: James Shepherd Pike  | Date: 1874

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Carpet-Bag Government (1873)

BY JAMES SHEPHERD PIKE

. . . 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. . . .

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. . . . As things stand, the body is almost literally a Black Parliament, and it is the only one on the face of the earth which is the representative of a white constituency and the professed exponent of an advanced type of modern civilization. But the reader will find almost any portraiture inadequate to give a vivid idea of the body, and enable him to comprehend the complete metamorphosis of the South Carolina Legislature, without observing its details. 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 of Congo; whose costume, visages, attitudes, and expression, only befit the forecastle of a buccaneer. It must be remembered, also, that these men, with not more than half a dozen exceptions, have been themselves slaves, and that their ancestors were slaves for generations. . . .

The corruption of the State government of South Carolina is a topic that has grown threadbare in the handling. The last administration stole right hand and left with a recklessness and audacity without parallel. The robbers under it embraced all grades of people. The thieves had to combine to aid one another. It took a combination of the principal authorities to get at the Treasury, and they had to share the plunder alike. All the smaller fry had their proportions, the legislators and lobbymen included. The principal men of the Scott administration are living in Columbia, and nobody undertakes to call them to account. They do not attempt even to conceal their plunder. If everybody was not implicated in the robberies of the Treasury, some way would be found to bring them to light. All that people know is, that the State bonded debt has been increased from five to fifteen millions, and that, besides this, there are all sorts of current obligations to pay afloat, issued by State officers who had authority to bind the Treasury. They are all tinctured with fraud, and some of them are such scandalous swindles that the courts have been able temporarily to stop their payment.

The whole of the late administration, which terminated its existence in November, 1872, was a morass of rottenness, and the present administration was born of the corruptions of that; but for the exhaustion of the State, there is no good reason to believe it would steal less than its predecessor. There seems to be no hope, therefore, that the villainies of the past will be speedily uncovered. The present Governor was Speaker of the last House, and he is credited with having issued during his term in office over $400,000 of pay "certificates" which are still unredeemed and for which there is no appropriation, but which must be saddled on the tax-payers sooner or later. . . .

. . . Then it has been found that some of the most unscrupulous white and black robbers who have, as members or lobbyists, long plied their nefarious trade at the capital, still disfigure and disgrace the present Assembly. So tainted is the atmosphere with corruption, so universally implicated is everybody about the government, of such a character are the ornaments of society at the capital, that there is no such thing as an influential local opinion to be brought against the scamps. They plunder, and glory in it. They steal, and defy you to prove it. The legalization of fraudulent scrip is regarded simply as a smart operation. The purchase of a senatorship is considered only a profitable trade. Those who make the most out of the operation are the best fellows. "How did you get your money?" was asked of a prominent legislator and lobbyist. "I stole it," was the prompt reply. . . . As has been already said, it is believed that the lank impoverishment of the Treasury and the total abasement and destruction of the State credit alone prevent the continuance of robbery on the old scale. As it is, taxation is not in the least diminished, and nearly two millions per annum are raised for State expenses where $400,000 formerly sufficed. This affords succulent pasturage for a large crowd. For it must be remembered that not a dollar of it goes for interest on the State debt. The barter and sale of the offices in which the finances of the State are manipulated, which are divided among the numerous small counties under a system offering unusual facilities for the business, go on with as much activity as ever. The new Governor has the reputation of spending $30,000 or $40,000 a year on a salary of $3,500, but his financial operations are taken as a matter of course, and only referred to with a slight shrug of the shoulders.

. . . The narration I have given sufficiently shows how things have gone and are going in this State, but its effect would be much heightened if there were time and room for details. Here is one: The total amount of the stationery bill of the House for the twenty years preceding 1861 averaged $400 per annum. Last year it was $16,000. . . . The influence of a free press is well understood in South Carolina. It was understood and dreaded under the old régime, and was muzzled accordingly. Nearly all the newspapers in the State are now subsidized. . . . The whole amount of the printing bills of the State last year, it is computed (for every thing here has to be in part guess-work), aggregated the immense sum of $600,000. . . .

The black men who led the colored forces the other day against a railroad charter, because their votes had not been purchased, were models of hardihood in legislative immorality. They were not so wily nor so expert, perhaps, as the one white man who was their ally in debate, but who dodged the vote from fear of his constituency; but they exhibited on that, as they have on other occasions, an entire want of moral tone, and a brazen effrontery in pursuing their venal purposes that could not be surpassed by the most accomplished "striker" of Tweed’s old gang. I have before alluded to the fact that on this occasion the blacks voted alone, not one white man going with them in opposing the measure they had conspired to defeat in order to extort money from the corporators.

This mass of black representatives, however ignorant in other respects, were here seen to be well schooled in the arts of corruption. They knew precisely what they were about and just what they wanted, and they knew the same when they voted for Patterson for Senator.

This is the kind of moral education the ignorant blacks of the State are getting by being made legislators. The first lessons were, to be sure, given by whites from abroad. But the success of the carpet-baggers has stimulated the growth of knavish native demagogues, who bid fair to surpass their instructors. The imitative powers of the blacks and their destitution of morale put them already in the front ranks of the men who are robbing and disgracing the State, and cheating the gallows of its due.

James S. Pike, (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1874), 12–50 passim.

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Chicago: James Shepherd Pike, The Prostrate Slate: South Carolina Under Negro Government in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TP6HUNY5J7S2BPK.

MLA: Pike, James Shepherd. The Prostrate Slate: South Carolina Under Negro Government, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TP6HUNY5J7S2BPK.

Harvard: Pike, JS, The Prostrate Slate: South Carolina Under Negro Government. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TP6HUNY5J7S2BPK.