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Albion Tourgée on privileges of rights depended on how African Americans used them in A Fool's Errand, 1879


Albion Tourgée on privileges of rights depended on how African Americans used them in A Fool's Errand, 1879


In this excerpt from A Fool’s Errand, Tourgee includes a letter of correspondence between him and a Northern individual with political prowess regarding the civil liberties freedmen had been granted and how they had utilized them. Tourgee and this individual get into an altercation about how much agency African Americans with their newly acquired right to vote. Tourgee argues that even with liberty and a vote, they are still against opposing forces of local government which are highly racist and looking to degrade their situation. However, the northern individual differs in his opinion which is that the government has done all they can do by granting them these civil liberties. He believes their duty stops with that and ignores the fact that African Americans are newly enfranchised and still up against many opponents.


Albion Tourgée


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



Original Format



COLONEL,--Your letter of recent date is received, and I have duly considered
its contents. The state of affairs which you picture is undoubtedly most
distressing and discouraging; but I can not see how it can be improved by any
action of the General Government. The lately rebellious States are now fully
restored, and are sovereign republics, of co-ordinate rights and powers with
the other States of this Union. The acts of violence described are of course
offenses against their laws, and as such are punishable in their courts. It is
no doubt a misfortune that those courts are either unable or unwilling to
punish such crimes; but it is a misfortune that does not seem to me to be
remediable by national legislation.

It must be evident to you that the government can not always interfere in the
internal affairs of those States. They must be allowed to control, direct, and
order their own affairs, as other States do. It is, no doubt, very unfortunate;
but it is far better than to break down or disregard the fundamental principles
of our government,--the sacred barriers of the Constitution. Individual
discomforts and evils must give way to the public good. The principle of
self-government must be recognized and maintained, even at the sacrifice of
individual interests and rights. The States must protect the lives, persons,
and property of their own citizens from aggression on the part of others. The
National Government can not act, so long as its existence or its
authority is not assailed or interfered with.

Of course there will always be instances of grievous wrong practiced, both upon
individuals and upon classes, in all of the States. I suppose there are
classes, in every State, which are liable to injustice and oppression; but the
government can not interfere. You say these acts are done to prevent the free
exercise of the ballot, and I have no doubt you are right; but I do not see how
that affects the question. In fact, my friend [for the Wise Man called all men
his friends], it is necessary that the people of the South should learn, what
it seems almost impossible that some can apprehend after so many years of
military government,--that all these questions of the rights of citizens are
relegated, by the fact of reconstruction, to the tribunals of the States, and
must be settled and determined there, according to the spirit of the

There is one thing, however, that you will allow me to say. If the colored people and the Union men of the South expect to receive
the approval, respect, and moral support of the country, they must show
themselves capable of self-government, able to take care of themselves. The
government has done all it can be expected to do,--all it had power to do, in
fact. It has given the colored man the ballot, armed him with the weapon of the
freeman, and now he must show himself worthy to use it. We have prepared him
for the battle of freedom, and it is for him to furnish the manhood requisite
for the struggle.
The same is true of the poor white and of the Union man.
Instead of whining over the wrongs they suffer at the hands of the rebels, they
should assert themselves, and put down such lawless violence. They should
combine to enforce the law, or, if the law can not be enforced, then to protect
themselves. The capacity of a people for self-government is proved, first of
all, by its inclination and capacity for self-protection. This capacity must
exist in order that self-governing communities may exist. The doctrine of
government by majorities is based upon the idea that the majority will be
sufficiently bold and self-asserting to claim and maintain its rights. It is
contemplated, of course, that they will do this in a lawful and peaceable
manner; but it is also presumed that they will be capable of such assertion by
physical means, should an appeal to force at any time become necessary. If you
can not obtain protection through the courts, I do not see why you should not
protect yourselves. If people are killed by the Ku-Klux, why do they not kill the

There are the questions that arise in my mind. I would not presume to advise, but
think they are the questions which all reasonable men must propound to
themselves in regard to this matter.

  To this letter the
Fool answered as follows:--

"MY DEAR SIR,--Your letter in reply to mine of the 5th inst. recalls the recent
past very vividly. I am perhaps bound to admit your conclusion that the
National Government can not interfere without violating some of the traditions
of our Federal Republic, but not its principles, and especially not its

"It should be remembered that these States as re-created-- not re-constructed--are
mere creatures of the national power. Our legislators and theorizers have been
puttering and quibbling upon the idea, that because there can be no secession,
or dissolution of the Union, upon any principle of reserved right, therefore
there can be no destruction of the States. By a flimsy fiction it is held that
Georgia was a State of the Union at the very time when a hostile
government was organized there, dominated every foot of her territory, exacted
allegiance and tribute from every inhabitant of her soil, and furnished her
contingent for armed resistance to the United States.

"It is a shallow trick of the sciolist. The act of rebellion, when it is so far
successful as to overturn the government of a State of this Union, and
establish a hostile one in its stead, destroys that State. The fallacy
lies in the application of the word 'State,' in its original or international
sense, to one of the subordinate commonwealths of our nation. A 'State,' in
that sense, is simply (1) a certain specific territory (2) occupied by an
organized community (3), united under one government. If that could be applied
to any of our States without modification, this conclusion might be true. But,
in order to define our 'State' correctly, we must add one other element;
to wit (4), sustaining certain specific and defined relations to other States,
and to the National Government of the United States of America.

"It is this last element which rebellion destroyed, and thereby annihilated the
Every element of a State of the American Union remained, except this
statal relation to the Union; and this is just the very element which is as
necessary to statal existence as breath to life. It is what distinguishes a State
of the Union
from all other organized communities of earth called 'States.'
You may have all but this, and there is no State in the sense we use it,
but only a skeleton, a lifeless body. It is this element which reconstruction
It is this element which is under the control of the General
Government, and must be so held and deemed, or reconstruction was a
clear and flagrant usurpation.

"You think this a startling doctrine; but, if it be not true, then both the nation
and the loyal people of the South are in a most dangerous dilemma. It may not
be permissible even to suppose that the plan of reconstruction adopted was not
absolutely perfect; but for the argument, allowing it to be found impracticable
and ineffective, then, according to the reasoning adduced by you, there is no
remedy. As the tree fell when the State was admitted by congressional action,
so it must lie to the end of time. It is like marriage,--a contract
indissoluble by either or both of the parties, a relation which no antagonism
can ever impair or destroy. If that is so, then you are right, and our appeal
for aid is worse than futile.

"But, if it be true, how great was the crime of those
who thrust upon the poor, ignorant colored people of the South, upon the few
inexperienced and usually humble Union men, and the still fewer Northern men
who have pitched their tents in this section, the task--the herculean and impossible
task-- of building up self-regulating States which should assure and protect
the rights of all, and submit quietly and cheerfully to the sway of lawful

"It should be remembered that the pressure for reconstruction came from the North,--not
from the people of the North, but from its politicians. It was
reduced to practice, not because society here was ripe for its operation, but
to secure political victory and party ascendancy. I do not object to this
motive: it is the very thing that makes the government of parties generally
safe. I allude to it only to show that we of the South, native or foreign-born,
are not responsible for the perils which are now threatening the work that has
once received the approbative fiat, 'It is finished!' When we prophesied
failure, as so many of us did, we were pooh-poohed like silly children; and
now, when we announce apparent failure, we are met with petulant impatience,
and told to take care of ourselves.

"It is all well for you, sitting safely and cosily in your easy-chair under the
shadow of the dome of the Capitol, to talk about asserting ourselves,
protecting ourselves, and retaliating upon our persecutors. Either you have not
apprehended our condition, or you are inclined to 'mock at our calamity.'

"Resistance, I mean such resistance as would be effective, is very nearly impossible. In the
first place an overwhelming force is always concentrated on the single isolated
individual. It is not a mob, except in the aggregation of strength and numbers.
Every thing is planned and ordered beforehand. The game is stalked. He that
resists does so at hopeless odds. He may desperately determine to throw away
his life; but he can accomplish no other result than to take one with him as he
goes, and the chances are against even that. You must remember that the attack
is only made at night, is always a matter of surprise, and put in operation by
a force whose numbers strike terror, always enhanced by their fantastic guise,
which also greatly increases the chances of a misshot or false blow, should the
unfortunate victim try to defend himself.

"Resistanceby way of retaliation is still more absurd. Suppose a party of men should whip
you to-night, and you should find yourself unable to penetrate their disguise,
or discover their identity in any manner, would you start out to-morrow, and
run a-muck among your fellow-townsmen? Or would you guess at the aggressors,
and destroy without proof? Evidently not. To organize such retaliation would
not be difficult. Such is the exasperation of the colored people, that they
would readily join to give a smoking house in exchange for every bleeding back:
indeed, if they were not restrained by the counsel of cooler and wiser heads,
we should soon have a servile insurrection here, which would make the horrors
of Santo Domingo pale before its intensity. Should we put your advice into
practice, the government would soon find a way to interfere, despite the
constitutional provisions, or, more properly, constitutional scruples,
of some. Leaving out of sight the fact that this is a contest of poverty,
ignorance, and inexperience, against intelligence, wealth, and skill,--the
struggle of a race yet servile in its characteristics with one which has always
excelled in domination,--you will perceive that the idea of retaliation, even
among equals in rank and intelligence, would be futile and absurd.

"As to the State authorities: the
courts, you have seen, are powerless. In a county in which there have been two
hundred such outrages, there has never been a presentment by the grand jury for
one of them. The impossibility of identification, the terror which prevents
testimony being given, and the fact that the very perpetrators of these
midnight assassinations are found on all juries, show this beyond a
peradventure: so that is out of the question also. The Executive of the State
is bound by constitutional limitations much less fanciful and airy than those
which you have adduced in excuse for the national legislation. He can not
interfere where the process of the courts is not resisted. The whole theory and
policy of our government is to secure this right to the citizen. The
denunciations of all our old Declarations of Rights were leveled expressly at
such usurpations. The Executive who should dare to organize a military force to
protect its citizens, or to aid in apprehending or punishing such men, would do
so, not only in peril of his life from assassination, but also at the risk of
impeachment, degradation, and ruin.

"So we are remitted to our original petition to the National Government. If that
can give us no aid, we have none to hope for. We can only repeat the Petrine
cry, 'Save, Lord, or we perish!



To this letter the Wise Man made no answer, but verbally stated to a mutual friend
that he considered it very disrespectful to him. The Wise Men of that day
looked upon the supporters of reconstruction at the South as mere instruments
in their hands,--to be worked as puppets, but to be blamed as men, for the
results of their acts. They had not yet arrived at that refinement of cruelty
which also made them scapegoats for the results of others' ignorance and folly.
That was to come afterward.


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Albion Tourgée, Albion Tourgée on privileges of rights depended on how African Americans used them in A Fool's Errand, 1879, Civil War Era NC, accessed June 16, 2024,