Who Owns the Whip?: Chesnutt, Tourgee, and Reconstruction Justice

Article excerpt

Justice is pictured blind and her daughter, the law, ought at least to be color-blind. (Albion Tourgee, qtd. in Olsen, Thin 90)

Nowhere, in the history of our jurisprudence, has [the] power of the courts been more strongly exerted than in the matter of Negro rights, and nowhere has it been more swayed by prejudice and class interest. (Charles Chesnutt, "Courts" 1)

In many ways, Albion Tourgee's relationship to turn-of-the-century African American writers is paradoxical. His fiction focusing on the injustices suffered by African Americans in the South, his continuous support of Reconstruction legislation, and his pro bono work on the Plessy v. Ferguson case all demonstrated a profound commitment to changing the racist structures of American society. He was perhaps the most vocal and visible white writer who promoted "radical" Reconstruction. Later, in the 1880s and early 1890s, a time when virtually no white people were harshly criticizing racial injustices, Tourgee wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Inter Ocean ("A Bystander's Notes") advocating racial equality (Kull 119). His ideas and writing proved to be instrumental, and at times inspirational, to the work of many emerging black writers. W. E. B. Du Bois claimed he was influenced by Tourgee's fiction, and in his 1910 article reflecting on Reconstruction, Du Bois cited favorably Tourgee's journalistic scholarship of twenty years earlier (Olsen, "Tourgee" 23).

Even as he ardently supported the "negro cause," however, Tourgee expressed attitudes which often appear naive, lacking insight into the complex situation of Southern race relations. As his quote in the epigraph illustrates, Tourgee's view of Reconstruction politics seems to be idealistic, depending upon a "color-blind" justice system in which "right reason" will prevail over racist sentiment. Clearly, Tourgee understood that the justice system was not free of racism; he argues, for example, in Plessy v. Ferguson that "the Court has always been the foe of liberty... until forced to move on by public opinion" (qtd. in Lofgren 149). Yet even as he recognized these biases and the fact that the Supreme Court was governed by social tides, Tourgee clung devoutly to the notion that the education of both Southern whites and blacks could lead to a color-blind justice system capable of transcending society's differences and correcting its injustices. Furthermore, his line of reasoning in the Plessy case (which argues, among other things, that the indeterminability of Homer Plessy's race should nullify segregation legislation) seems to protect the "mulatto elite," who could theoretically "pass," rather than arguing for the equality of African Americans as a whole. (1)

Charles Chesnutt undoubtedly understood the ambiguous position that Tourgee held in relation to the African American community. In his now well-known 1880 journal entry, Chesnutt cited Tourgee's fiction--principally A Fool's Errand--as the inspiration for his stories of the color line. Many critics have made much of this entry, in which he discusses the immense popularity of Tourgee's writing and subject matter. Scholars such as Myles Raymond Hurd ("Step"), Julian Mason, Jr., Richard Lewis, Peter Caccavari, and Richard Brodhead (ch. 6) have all given extended attention to the entry, quoting and analyzing it at length. These critics have rightly emphasized Tourgee's influence on Chesnutt's career as a writer, as one of the sparks which ignited his literary aspirations. Nevertheless, when we look at both Tourgee's political career and his literary one in conjunction with Chesnutt's short stories, we can see that Chesnutt challenges the very tenets upon which Tourgee's political and literary convictions rest. In this essay, I will argue that in the final story of The Wife of His Youth (1899), "The Web of Circumstance," Chesnutt questions the plausibility of the seemingly progressive belief in a "blind"--or, in this case, "color-blind"--legal system in which Tourgee so fiercely believed. …