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Albion Tourgée on the religiously divine nature of slavery in A Fool's Errand, 1879


Albion Tourgée on the religiously divine nature of slavery in A Fool's Errand, 1879


This excerpt from Tourgee's A Fool's Errand describes the feelings of many white southerners that slavery was an inherent tenet to the Christian faith. This compares it to marriage, which means that southerners at this time viewed it in as high a light as one of the beloved sacraments. In this, the orator explains that it is heavily promoted by all preachers and thus, members of the church adhere to what they are told. This excerpt also explains the Christian idea that African Americans were naturally made for slaves and they are unfit for any other job.


Albion Tourgée


Tourgée, Albion. A Fool's Errand. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1879.



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"I have a curiosity to read them. I have heard so much about them, and never saw them before. You may not be aware, madam, that they were regarded as 'seditious publications' before the war; so that one could only get to read them at considerable risk and trouble. This I never cared to take; but now that it is all over, and the doctrines of these books have come to prevail, I would like to read the books just to see what hurt us."

She remarked that her husband had put them on the top shelf in order that he might not seem either to obtrude them upon his neighbors' notice, or to deny their possession by concealment.

"No, he has no cause for that now," said he; "though I remember when a man was tried and convicted, and sentence of whipping and imprisonment passed on him too, just for having one of those in his possession."

"I did not know," she said, "that the law actually made it criminal, or, rather, I supposed it was never enforced."

"Oh, yes! it was," he answered. "The case I allude to was Mr. Wanzer, who belonged to a very well-known family here in the county, though he had just come in from Indiana, which was the way he come to have the book about him. There was a big trial and a powerful excitement over it. He was very ably defended, and his lawyers took a heap of points on the law, which it was thought might be declared unconstitutional. But 'twasn't no manner of use. The Supreme Court stood by the law in every particular."

"I thought it was only mobs that interfered with people for reading what they chose," said she; "at least since the good old days when they used to burn people for reading the Bible."

"Well," said he, "there used to be mobs about it too: at least we used to get very much excited at the idea of people bringing what were called 'abolition' books here, to stir up our slaves to insurrection; and probably did some things that had as well not have been done."

"But how could you, Squire?" she asked. "This claimed to be a free country; and how could you think you had any right to persecute one for reading, writing, or saying what he believed? I suppose in those days you would have hung my husband for expressing his opinions?"

"In those days," said he solemnly, "Colonel Servosse would never have expressed such opinions. I admit that he is a brave man; but no one would any more have uttered such sentiments as he puts out now than he would have carried a torch into a powder-magazine. The danger was so apparent, that no one could be found fool-hardy enough to attempt it. I think such a one would have been torn limb from limb, as by a wild beast, by any crowd in the South."

"But you could not have thought that right, Squire," she interposed.

"Well, now, I don't think you ought to say that, madam. You see, you are blaming a whole people whom we are bound to admit were, in the main, honest in what they did. If any one believed slavery to be a divinely appointed and ordained institution, I can not see how he could do otherwise."

"If!" she said hotly. "Do you suppose there were any such?"

"Undoubtedly," he answered seriously,--"many thousands of them, and are to-day. In fact, you may say that the bulk of the Southern people believed it then, and believe it now. They regard the abolition of slavery only as a temporary triumph of fanaticism over divine truth. They do not believe the negro intended or designed for any other sphere in life. They may think the relation was abused by bad masters and speculators and all that, and consequently God permitted its overthrow; they have no idea that he will permit the permanent establishment of any system which does not retain the African in a subordinate and servile relation."

"But you do not believe any such horrible doctrine, Squire?" she could not help asking quickly.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am," he answered politely enough: "I don't know what I believe. I have been a slaveholder from my youth, and ever since I could remember have heard the institution of slavery referred to in the pulpit and in religious conversations, not so much as a thing that might be proved to be holy, but which was incontestably divine in its origin and character, just as much as marriage, or any other Christian institution. I don't think a minister who had a doubt upon that subject could have found any market for his religion here. Until the war was over, I think, if there was any one thing that I believed stronger and clearer and firmer than another, it was that niggers were made for slaves; and cotton, terbacker, sugar-cane, an' rice, were made for them to raise, and could not be raised in any other way. Now I'm most ready to say that I'll be dog-goned if I know what I do believe. I know the niggers are free, and, for all I can see, they are likely to stay so; but what's to come on't I don't know."

"My husband," said she, "thinks they will remain so, and become valuable citizens, and that the Southern people have actually gained by the war more than emancipation cost them"

"Yes, yes, I know," said he: "I've heard the colonel talk, and what he says looks mighty plausible too. I think it's that has had a heap to do with unsettlin' my faith. However, I do wish he would be more keerful. He don't seem to realize that he's among a people who ain't used to his free and easy ways of talking about every thing. I'm afraid he'll get into trouble. I know he means well, but he is so inconsiderate."

"He's not used to hiding his opinions," she said with something of pride.

"No," he answered; "nor are those he is among used to having their pet notions assailed in that manner. I'm afraid there'll be trouble. I was anxious to see him to-day, an' talk with him about it; but I shall have to come again. Meantime, if you'll let me take these books, I'll read 'em carefully an' perhaps find some way out of my dilemma."


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Albion Tourgée, Albion Tourgée on the religiously divine nature of slavery in A Fool's Errand, 1879, Civil War Era NC, accessed June 16, 2024,