There is an old traveler’s story to the effect that in the highlands of Africa exists a race of monkeys who, during the cold season, gather into tight little knots, each one having for its centre a venerable senior of great wisdom and influence, and the business of the others being to keep him warm. The chief inconvenience of this organization is, that as there is a general desire to be the central monkey, much strenuous crowding toward the middle ensues, attended by an uncomfortable amount of scratching and squalling.
In consequence of the somewhat feudal, somewhat patriarchal, social position of the large planter, politics at the South have been conducted very much on the central monkey system, only that there has been a decent regard for the central monkey. Every community has its great man, or at least its little great man, around whom his fellow-citizens gather when they want information, and to whose monologues they listen with a respect akin to humility. For instance, the central monkey of Greenville was Governor Perry. When he stood at a corner people got about him; when he opened his mouth all other men present closed theirs. Had he favored the “constitutional amendment” Greenville would have accepted it; as he denounced it Greenville rejected it, without taking the superfluous trouble of reading it.
I found it so every where that I went, and during all the time that I remained, in the South. Not one man whom I met had read the amendment, yet every man scouted it with the utmost promptness, confidence, and indignation. He scouted it because he had been instructed to do so by his central monkey. The latter, the little great man of his district, had, of course, issued these instructions mainly because the third section of the amendment deprived him of the power to hold office unless a two-thirds vote of Congress should remove his disability, that Congress being then two-thirds Radical. In short, I found the chivalrous Southron still under the domination of his ancient leaders.
Political opinions had necessarily been somewhat muddled by the results of the war. The logic of events had been so different from the logic of De Bow’s Review and the Charleston Mercury that men scarcely knew what to think. A soul which had been educated in the belief that slavery is a divine and reverend institution could not help falling more or less dumb with amazement when it found that there was no slavery to revere. On this point, however, the Southern mind presently accepted the situation, and I found a surprisingly general satisfaction over the accomplished fact of abolition, mixed with much natural wrath at the manner of the accomplishment. “I am glad the thing is done away with,” was a frequent remark; “it was more plague than pleasure, more loss than profit.” Then would perhaps follow the Southern Delenda est Carthago—that is to say, “D—n the Yankees !“—always appropriate.
Just imagine the condition of a nation of politicians which sees every one of its political principles knocked into non-existence! Slavery and State sovereignty had for years been the whole of Southern statesmanship; they had formed the rudder, the keel, the hull, the masts, and the rigging; when they vanished the crew was in the water. The great men and the little men, all the central monkeys and all their adherents—every body was afloat like so much driftwood, not knowing whither to swim. Blessed interregnum! No wire-pullers, no log-rollers, no caucuses, no mass-meetings; a time of peace in which every man could mind his own business; an opportunity for building and launching financial prosperity. How we at the North envied it! how glad should we have been to drown our central monkeys! how we hoped that the conflict of sections was forever closed!
President Johnson, the greatest enemy of Dixie after Jefferson Davis, was the diver who brought up the wreck of Southern politics, and set it afloat on the simple tack of opposition to Congress. Since then there has been life and unity among the chivalrous Southrons; the old hopes and feelings, and, as far as possible, the old issues and opinions, have regained their empire; there has been one vast babble, factious, frothy, foolish, and beyond expression fatiguing.
I found it nearly impossible to converse ten minutes with a Southerner without getting on to the subject of politics. I saw the monster coming afar off; I made my preparations in good season to evade it; I dodged it, ducked under it, swam away from it; all useless. At the moment when I least expected it thrust out its arms like the picuvre of Victor Hugo, enveloped me in its slimy caresses, sucked me dry, and left me flaccid.
De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 224, January 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.
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