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The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 14-27

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Redemption Through Violence:
White Mobs and Black Citizenship in Albion Tourgée's A Fool's Errand

Jeffrey W. Miller

"The modern prince . . . can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form."

—Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (circa 1929-1935)

Although Gramsci here discusses how the Communist Party must go about organizing its base of power, his analysis serves as an apt description of how the "modern prince" of white mob violence expressed a collective will in the South after Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century. Gramsci provides an appropriate epigraph, because I find no better example of hegemony, defined by Gramsci as "the 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group" (12), than the coercive power of white vigilante violence in the post-Reconstruction South. The hegemonic power of white culture combined vigilante justice with legalized prejudice and segregation in order to dictate local qualifications for citizenship that superseded the federal constitution.

Historians have long noted the persistence and power of the white [End Page 14] mob in the post-Reconstruction South. David Godshalk claims that the mob formed a collective will that had specific methods and goals: "In addition to its symbolic function in reaffirming the power and dominance of white men, mob violence played a powerful role in intimidating blacks, controlling black behavior, discouraging open black resistance against racial injustice, and preventing black economic competition" (147). Certainly, the southern landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was riddled with racially-motivated violence, manifested by numerous riots and lynchings. In this article I will analyze one particular racial conflict that occurred in Hamburg, South Carolina in 1876, then compare it to Albion Tourgée's fictionalized version of race and mob violence in his 1879 novel, A Fool's Errand.

My analysis of the Hamburg riot and A Fool's Errand demonstrates that violence is used as a weapon by whites in order to restrict or discourage elements of black citizenship. Furthermore, the events of Hamburg delineate the beginnings of the southern ideology of redemption through violence, and A Fool's Errand operates as a response to that ideology. We can view redemption through violence as something akin to the "regeneration through violence" posited by Richard Slotkin in his seminal study of the American frontier. Slotkin claims that the first Europeans in America regenerated "their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation" through violent conquest of native peoples (5).

Slotkin details how that process was couched explicitly in religious terms: the explorers and settlers of the Americas were endowed with "a sense of shared mission—a belief that their presence in the New World was decreed from above with definite ends in view and that deviation from those ends was equivalent to mortal sin" (37). That sense of shared mission evolved into the Christian evangelism so prevalent in the southern states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with the Civil War, many southerners were swept by a furious religious revivalism (Faust 63). After the political cause of the Confederacy was lost, that revivalism was transformed into what Charles Reagan Wilson calls the "southern civil religion," a culture steeped in ritual that saw the southern way of life as a Christian imperative for virtue and order (219ff).

Amy Kaplan has theorized that the "reassuring order of the domestic color line" provided a comfortable touchstone for soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War in 1898 (222). She contends that the Rough Riders "have been understood as a unifying cultural symbol" that healed [End Page 15] the conflicts of the Civil War and Reconstruction (232). I would suggest that the southern civil religion operated as a method for unifying the culture of the...


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