- Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag during Radical Reconstruction
The life and career of Franklin Moses Jr. demonstrate that the Reconstruction era can never be reduced to simple terms. Moses and his family, slave owners and members of the plantation aristocracy, were initially lukewarm on secession, like many other Jews in the antebellum South. Once South Carolina left the Union, however, Moses held a minor military office. After the war, as editor of the Sumter News (1866-67), he became popular among native white South Carolinians through his criticism of northern missionaries and Radical Republicans. By late 1867, however, when most whites boycotted the state elections, Moses instead courted black votes and joined the Union League. He played a small role as a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1868, easily won a seat in the state house of representatives, and was elected Speaker by the majority of black representatives. As Republicans tried to build a party in a hostile environment, charges of corruption abounded. By 1872, with native white southerners largely abstaining from electoral participation, Moses defeated a Republican rival for governor.
Sworn in by his father, who was chief justice of the state's supreme court, in December, Moses tried to reduce the state's crippling debt and improve the conditions of African Americans while engaging in a variety of corrupt and illegal activities. As the 1874 election approached, Moses sought reelection, but the national Republican leadership convinced South Carolina Republicans to abandon him because of his association with corruption. At age thirty-seven, Moses's political career in South Carolina was over. Abandoning his wife and stealing from his mother, Moses fled the state and spent the remaining thirty years of his life as a petty criminal in the North. In 1906, he was found dead in a boardinghouse in Massachusetts, under suspicious circumstances. There was no investigation.
Moses of South Carolina is a curious book. Rather than falling into the common historical trap of excusing the faults of those we find appealing and ignoring the positive attributes of those we find reprehensible, it promises a welcome complex portrait of Frank Moses's life and career, a previously one-dimensional and largely forgotten figure from Reconstruction. [End Page 124] Ginsberg accurately observes that "Frank Moses was not an honest man. Moses, however, was not simply a dishonest man" (x). After stating that Moses accepted bribes, stole money, and took kickbacks on contracts, Ginsberg glibly asks, "But so what?" and follows with a series of Moses's positive accomplishments (2). Ginsberg sweepingly generalizes that "often, great deeds are achieved by individuals of dubious moral character while their more ethical fellows achieve nothing or even do harm" (2). Machiavelli would be proud.
Rather than conclude that heroes from the past are rarely as virtuous as we would like nor villains as unambiguously evil, Ginsberg attempts an amoral approach to Moses's career. He blithely asserts that "what the Democratic press called corruption was one of the few tools available to the Republicans" (164). Moses and his allies did not steal public funds "simply to line their own pockets" (126) but to sustain the Republican Party for the greater good! He pardoned local Republican officials caught using their positions for personal gain, because it was a crime "that had to be tolerated in the interest of maintaining a party organization" (127), "part of the price of maintaining a political machine" (132). The Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina likely used similar arguments to justify their violent means to a desirable end—the restoration of white supremacy.
Ginsberg applies his amoral judgments selectively. While he excuses Moses for corrupt practices because he "was the only one who actually lived the life others preached" regarding social equality between the races, Ginsberg eagerly condemns both violent white racism in the South and apathetic white racism in the North that left Moses and his black allies unable to sustain a government in South Carolina (191). Too often, Moses drops from the narrative...