Letters from the South
A trip into the interior of the State, from which I have just returned, gave me an opportunity to form a clearer opinion of the working of the newly introduced free-labor system and its prospects. I went from here to Orangeburg by railroad in a rickety old passenger car, at the rate of ten miles an hour, the thermometer up to ninety-five — and from there to Columbia in a carriage, over a road of deep sand, at the rate of four miles an hour. Truly it was the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties.
The land along the railroad from Charleston to Orangeburg is of a very inferior kind, alternating between swamp and sand. The plantations resemble in appearance the backwood farms of the West. The little straggling villages, such as Somersville, Branchville and Orangeburg, as seen from the railroad, bear a similar character. I did not see a single cotton field. The only crop planted is corn, the average yield of which is computed by some at eight, by some at more than fifteen bushels to the acre. I am informed there is but little cotton and rice planted in any part of the State. This is owing partly to an order issued by the confederate government during the rebellion enjoining upon farmers to devote most of their land to the raising of breadstuffs, partly to an impression prevailing among the colored laborers, who look upon the cotton culture as something reminding them too forcibly of their former condition, and who deem it best to see to it that there be something to eat, which, under present circumstances is very sensible. Between Orangeburg and Columbia I saw but two cotton fields, but those two looking very well — the rest all planted in corn.
Most of the planters have entered into contracts with the freedmen, and a large majority of the freedmen remained on their old plantations. A not inconsiderable number have indeed gone to Charleston, especially such as formerly belonged to hard masters, and their crowding together along the seaboard gives rise to a great many inconveniences. That the general disposition is to stay is shown by the fact that there are many plantations on which the full force is still at work. The contracts are made under the supervision of the military post commanders where there are no agents of the Freedmen's Bureau; the latter have, indeed, not yet penetrated far into the interior. Some of the contracts submitted by planters to our military commanders had to be rejected, containing provisions which would have left to the freedmen nothing like a fair proportion of the crops, or binding them again to a certain kind of involuntary labor. The order of General Hatch, directed against the system of “peonage,” the introduction of which had been attempted by some influential men obviously on mature consideration, has been extensively published in the Northern press. I had an opportunity to examine the contract which called forth this order. It was so framed as to leave to the freedmen only a very insignificant share of the crops, subject to all sorts of constructive charges, and then binding them to work off the indebtedness they might incur, it being in the power of the employer to keep them always in debt to him.
The supervision of the military and the agents of the Freedmen's Bureau would perhaps be less necessary in many cases, could a general system of paying wages in money be introduced. But that seems at present impossible, most of the planters being without available pecuniary means. As it is the interference of our officers is indispensable; it is in fact the only thing which renders the contract system practicable. Both parties look upon them as the only reliable arbiters; they are appealed to by either party, when the other refuses to fulfil the contract, and the freedmen, in most cases naturally distrustful of their former owners, look up to the officers of the United States with full confidence, as their natural protectors.
The ultimate success of the contract system will depend principally on two things: first, the willingness of the planters to carry it out in good faith, and secondly, the efficiency of the colored people as free laborers. The experiment is still too young to permit a decisive judgment on either of these points, whatever our preconceived opinions may be. I will, however, endeavor to state the impressions I have so far received.
First as to the dominant class. The South Carolinians must certainly be a most extraordinary people; at least I have been assured so by every South Carolinian whom I had a conversation with. “Sir, the South Carolinians are different from all other people. They were violent secessionists; they made war upon the government in good faith. They were ready to die for their principles. They made the issue, now they are overpowered — ‘not conquered, but overpowered,’ as some have it. They acknowledge their defeat. The questions at issue are decided; secession is gone up and the slaves are emancipated. The people of South Carolina accept the results of the war and mean to be good citizens. There is no State in the Union in which there will be less trouble than in South Carolina. Our people are chivalrous and high-minded people, and having once made up their minds, &c, &c.” Granting all this, it would, perhaps, not prove the South Carolinians to be very different from the rest of mankind; I will admit, however, that there does not seem to be the least disposition here to impede the restoration of the Union, in point of form. The people of South Carolina will, on the contrary, reconstruct their State government and elect senators and representatives with great alacrity.
As to the abolition of slavery, I have no doubt every thinking man in this State has come to the indeed inevitable conclusion that the peculiar institution cannot be revived; not as if they had accepted this result of the war with great favor, for every planter will tell you that he deplores it. Nor was it at first their intention to “accept” the abolition of slavery without resistance. Immediately after the close of the war a great many planters made strenuous effort to keep their former slaves on their plantations for the avowed object of having them still in their possession when, after the complete restoration of civil government, the emancipation proclamation would be declared unconstitutional and the negroes reduced to their former condition. The unconstitutionality of the emancipation proclamation was in their opinion a settled thing, and they entertained but little doubt that Congress, immediately after the reädmission of the Southern members and senators, would set it aside. I was told that a considerable number of planters requested one of our highest navy officers, before his departure from here, to tell the President that nothing at all stood in the way of a cordial reunion if only a little of the peculiar institution could be preserved. Permit me to put only a little drop of poison into your cup, and you may consider me your friend. A hope like this may be lingering still in the hearts of a few, and here and there you may still hear a South Carolinian planting his foot heavily upon constitutional ground; but a large majority of the intelligent have undoubtedly given it up. The reason is simple: The negroes, they say, are not so “demoralized” that they can no more be made good reliable slaves.
And yet, the same men will tell you that the negro will not work unless compelled to do so. There is one feature in the abolition of slavery which strikes the planter favorably; it is, that he shall no longer be obliged to take care of the negro. But, on the other hand, he is rather inclined to insist that the negro shall work for him as before; for, he argues, the work must be done, and there is at present only the negro to do it; but, as the negro will not work unless compelled to, we must have some means of compulsion to make him work. This shows that there is in the mind of the planter a vast difference between the abolition of slavery and the organization of free labor. The free labor he has in view is based upon the assumption that the negro is compelled to work.
I find that this belief is quite generally entertained; at least it is quite generally expressed. In fact, the planter has so far known the negro only as a slave, and as a slave the negro worked only upon compulsion. The planter, who has been taught from his childhood to look upon the system of free labor as intrinsically bad, jumps at the conclusion that a negro, who, as a slave, never worked except upon compulsion, will not work without compulsion now. Nor has the contract system so far furnished him any experience to the contrary. The contract system, as it at present exists, is only a makeshift, and cannot be expected to yield very favorable results the first year. Most of the contracts were made in the very midst of the working season. The sudden transition from slavery to freedom just at such a time necessarily interrupted the work which was going on. Such periods of transition never pass over without a certain confusion; and, taking all circumstances together, it is quite surprising that there should be so much work done as is really going on. It is not remarkable that irregularities should occur, but that they should not be far more extensive. Several intelligent persons in Charleston, who take a more comprehensive view of the matter, assured me that they looked upon the conduct of the colored people generally as quite admirable.
But the planters in the country take a different view of the case. Whenever any thing does not go as they would have it, when a negro does not show the same style of obedience the master was formerly accustomed to, when a laborer takes it into his head to prefer another plantation to that on which he was formerly held as a slave, the argument is at once ready: “You see, the niggers will not work unless they are forced. They are not fit to be free laborers.” If the negroes should undertake to act in every particular as free laborers in the North act every day without causing the least surprise, I am sure the whole people of South Carolina would be in a paroxysm of fright and declare the whole colored population in a state of open insurrection. People in these parts do not know what free labor is; they have not learned yet to draw benefit from its advantages, and to submit to its inconveniences. Everything they do not like in it, all the irregularities which are inseparable from its sudden introduction, are for them proof sufficient that the system cannot be carried out with the colored population, and that the negro will not work unless he be under the government of force.
This gives rise to all sorts of projects. In the northwestern part of the State a number of planters held a meeting last week for the purpose of establishing concert of action. The plan brought forward by the leading minds was, to drive the negroes away from that part of the State and to employ white labor. The circumstance that in that part of the State, where principally wheat and corn are raised, the principal part of the labor was done for this season, gives that plan a peculiar flavor. However, more humane counsels prevailed, and the plan was not acted upon. Even in the low country along the seaboard, the idea of introducing German and Irish laborers in large numbers to do the work of the negroes is seriously discussed. These people do not seem to know that foreign emigrants do not come to this country to work as farm hands for others, but to acquire property for themselves. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that, if they cannot have the negro as a slave, they do not want to have him at all. I have no doubt all these impractical notions will gradually subside, if the military power of the United States continues to hold its protecting hand over the negro. But two things are evident to me: the free-labor experiment is in a majority of cases not undertaken in good faith, as far as the planters are concerned. They either do not believe, or affect not to believe, in the possibility of its success; they will therefore act very little like men who want to insure its success. The other thing is, that if under these circumstances the military power should be removed, the whites would at once act upon the theory that the negro will not work without compulsion. An attempt to introduce some new system of forced labor, not, perhaps, exactly slavery in its old form, but something similar to it, would probably draw consequences after it of the most serious nature. Such is at present the disposition of a large majority of the whites. There are, of course, exceptions, and there will be more in the course of time; but their number is, I believe, not large enough to make their influence felt.
As to the colored population, it can certainly not be said that their present conduct is such as to put them upon a level with the free laborers of the North. Nor would it be reasonable to expect such a thing. But a short time ago they were slaves, forced to work for others and forbidden to think for themselves. The shackles suddenly falling off, it is by no means wonderful that their first impulse should be to have a holiday. Some felt inclined to use their freedom first in walking a little away from their plantations. All this is perfectly natural, and I do not know of any white race on earth that, under the same circumstances, would not have yielded to the same impulse, only to a much larger extent — for it is surprising how little on the whole these liberties were indulged in by the negro. Just as natural is it that they should feel inclined to stand up a little more independently before their former owners. There is probably no race on the face of the earth that, under the same circumstances, would have behaved with so much modesty and forbearance. It requires only a word of advice from a Federal officer, and in most cases not even that, to make them enter into contract relations with their former masters. It is true, of the binding force of a contract they have but a crude and indefinite conception, but their former condition was certainly not calculated to impress them with the idea that there exists a moral obligation to fairly exchange value for value. An officer told me a very significant anecdote. On a visit to a plantation not far from Charleston he heard the planter scold a negro for his laziness. “You lazy nigger,” said he, “I am losing a whole day's labor by you!” “Massa,” retorted the negro, “how many days' labor have I lost by you?” To make the negro work like a free laborer, he must first practically be made aware that he is working, not for others, but for himself. There is a general complaint that the negroes are very much given to stealing, not money and valuables, but pigs, vegetables and eatables generally. Now you ask a planter what the negroes get to eat. “Corn meal.” “Nothing but corn meal?” “No.” “No meat at all?” “No, I haven't got any.” “And they have to do heavy work day after day on nothing but corn meal?” “Yes.” “Well, then, it is not very surprising if here and there they lay violent hands on a stray pig.” It is a fair question to ask, whether any class of laborers in the world would be more abstemious.
In some localities the idea has got into the heads of the negroes that the land belongs all to them. A single word from an officer in blue is sufficient to abuse them, and as soon as they are informed that the land belongs to somebody else, they go on working, as if they had never indulged in a contrary impression. But there is one notion which prevails so strongly and so generally among them, that it seems almost impossible to eradicate it. It is, that they are not obliged to work on Saturdays. I am informed that the origin of this notion is to be found in the habit prevailing among the poor whites to devote their Saturdays, not to regular work, but to hunting, or fishing, or going to town. It seems to be the impression of the negroes quite generally that the privilege not to work on Saturdays is one of the characteristics of the freeman.
On the whole it may be said that the negroes laboring under the contract system, in spite of the distracting influence of the confusion of ideas inseparable from so abrupt a transition, are doing a “middling fair” share of labor. Free labor in South Carolina is certainly not what free labor is in Ohio or Illinois. It will still be far from reaching that standard next year, although there will be a nearer approach to it. While the planters know so little what free labor is, it would be unjust to expect that the negro should know it better. In his former condition he was aware that the more he worked, the more he benefited his master. He will certainly become a far more efficient laborer as soon as it becomes clear to him that the more he works the more he will benefit himself. I am sure the colored man will learn sooner what he has to do as a free laborer than the white man in these parts will learn how to treat a free laborer.
The advantages of school education have so far been enjoyed only be the negroes living on the sea island and in Charleston. There is as far as I can learn, not a single school established yet in the interior of the State. It is most important that this matter should be taken in hand as soon as possible. The authorities or the benevolent societies of the North should see to it that there be a school in every convenient locality as soon as the crops are in and the people have time to spare from their daily avocations. Instruction must be imported here, for it is not an indigenous plant. Not a moment should be lost to make arrangements for this important object, and sober, discreet, sensible persons should be selected as teachers to give the negroes a just and clear idea of their situation, their rights and their duties.
As to the free-labor problem in this part of the country, the difficulty rests in a far higher degree with the whites than with the blacks. As long as the military authority of the government rules here, every thing will go comparatively well. Under present circumstances no other tribunal could decide the differences between whites and blacks to mutual satisfaction, and I doubt whether the decisions of any other tribunal would by both parties be acquiesced in. The whites have a vague apprehension of negro insurrections, which sometimes gives rise to ridiculous local panics, and they look to our forces for protection, while the blacks have full confidence in our officers and soldiers as their natural friends. Thus the military power of the united States gives a feeling of security to both.
But what will happen if our troops be once withdrawn? and they cannot stay here and govern the State eternally. What would happen if the troops were withdrawn today it is not difficult to say, and everybody here feels it: a number of little collisions which in a short time might ripen into a great one. The reason is not that anybody desires it; neither the whites nor the blacks, and least of all the true friends of the blacks; for it is impossible that such a collision, while it would bring with it great calamities to the whites, should not result in greater and more permanent disasters to the colored race. But the distrust between the whites and blacks is so great and the ill will with which the free negro is looked upon by the whites so apparent, that it absolutely requires the presence of the troops to prevent explosions.
At present it is well for the people to understand that the free-labor experiment in this part of the country is in so precarious a condition as to call for continuous attention and protective care on the part of the government. Time will do away with many of the more threatening difficulties, provided it be well employed. The elements of a great and lasting success are there; they will bear good fruit unless the government withdraw its fostering and protecting care before they are ripened into independent vitality.