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  • Empathetic Persuasion in Albion Tourgée's A Fool's Errand
  • Kathryn Hamilton Warren

[T]he moment they manifest a disposition to acquiesce cordially in the altered status of their former slaves, to treat them as freemen, and deal with them in justice and humanity, that moment will the Federal Government be free to leave them to manage their domestic affairs in their own way. It is to be hoped that they will learn to look at this matter aright, and lay aside the animosities toward the colored race, which now seem to have possession of their minds. This is their best policy from reasons of self-interest, as it is their duty from a humanitarian standpoint.

At the end of A Fool's Errand (1879), after the protagonist, Comfort Servosse, has failed to alter his southern neighbors' attitudes about race and political participation, he receives a piece of conciliatory advice from a northern mentor: "I have often thought that St. Paul would have been more forbearing with his Jewish brethren if he had always kept in mind the miracle required for his own conversion." 1 By drawing a parallel between St. Paul, a converted Jew and the first Christian evangelist, and Servosse, a carpetbagger and an evangelical proponent of radical Reconstruction, Albion Tourgée's character Enos Martin counsels patience. He reminds Servosse that radical change must be accompanied by a radically new way of seeing things, an alteration in vision akin to the way the scales fell from Saul's eyes. Similarly, the above passage from the Philadelphia Inquirer asserts that southern self-rule should be restored only upon evidence that southerners were "look[ing] at this matter aright" by setting aside their "animosities toward the colored race." Southerners too must adopt a new way of seeing. For both Tourgée in 1879 and an anonymous journalist in 1865, federal legislation alone would never be enough to effect the sweeping economic, social, and political changes that the Reconstruction they envisioned demanded. If they were to be followed, laws had to be accompanied by a new perspective. Whether such a change in perspective would be best brought about by reasoned argument, force, persuasion, or the passage of time was a vexed question, one which Tourgée took up with A Fool's Errand. [End Page 46]

However, where the writer for the Inquirer wrote in the immediate, hopeful wake of the Civil War, looking forward to changes on the horizon, Tourgée published his novel once having made the decision to leave the South after a fourteen-year stint fighting for racial justice in North Carolina. He had organized Greensboro's first black school; edited and published a Radical Republican newspaper; represented North Carolina as a delegate to the 1868 State Constitutional Convention; and served a six-year term as a superior court justice, a position he used to fight the Ku Klux Klan. During that same period, despite the efforts of Tourgée and others like him, southern governments and citizens adopted measures—poll taxes, literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, and convict labor, to name a few—that successfully negated the promises of freedom and political participation for African Americans that the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were meant to guarantee. It was the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, however, that sounded the official death-knell of Reconstruction by granting victory to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the disputed presidential election on the condition that the federal troops remaining in Louisiana and South Carolina cease interfering in southern affairs. Tourgée, then, penned his tormented novel about where to go after the failure of Reconstruction at the same moment that political and literary overtures to North-South palliation gained steam. Alongside the political concessions cemented by the North's guarantee of military non-interference arose a sentimental culture of reconciliation that, as Amy Kaplan and Nina Silber have argued, promoted a "willed amnesia" in the Gilded Age: novels featuring North-South marriages, fiction inventing a bucolic past for the South, and local color writing that commodified the regional in service to the national. 2

Tourgée's was a...


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