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Bourbons and Bourbon

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

The State That Forgot. South Carolina’s Surrender to Democracy. By William Watts Ball. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.50. South Carolina During Reconstruction. By Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $8.00.

The ancient and comfortable belief that Nature for each poison has supplied an adjacent antidote has justified itself in the coincidental publication of two books on South Carolina history. As the doctrines of both have been damned extensively, at one time or another, on the country’s stumps or in its councils, the final question as to which is poison and which antidote must be left to the taste of the individual.

It is wickedly unfair, however, to consider William Watts Ball’s “The State That Forgot” simply as history or as polemic, even though in many ways it is a most valuable addition to those branches of Caroliniana. If it is a book with a doctrine, that doctrine is not expounded from a pulpit, howled from a stump, or fetched in through a back door disguised as pure history. It comes instead in the course of conversation with a gentleman in an armchair at the other side of the fire who, in an excellent American tradition, illustrates his points with some of the best anecdotes that have come out of his part of America since Longstreet published “Georgia Scenes.”

In a way they would justify another title. “A Man Who Has Remembered” would fit well with these mellowed records of a life rich in human contacts and sympathies and set down by a “natural-born” story-teller, whose polemics will only offend bigots, being in no wise bigoted themselves; whose credos are tempered with common sense, whose heroes are human beings, and whose people and country are so tenderly loved that their very faults and foibles are matters of affectionate interest to be pointed out, even to the funny bone of a family skeleton, with discerning and good-humoured detachment.

As history he affords a mass of invaluable testimony on the way men and women thought and lived and hoped through troublous times in a State where troubles and successes have had the habit of a certain dramatic acuteness. He has known singularly well the generation of the Confederacy and has seen, or heard of, or thought about, every movement which has since been of moment to his State. He has all the advantages of a bilateral and informed point of view. He was born in the Up Country, married in Charleston, and has lived in the debatable ground of Columbia. As a reporter and editor of two of the State’s most important papers, he has had a remarkable opportunity to exercise an excellent nose for news, and to become better acquainted with both sections of the State than most of their devoted partisans.

It is only fair to warn those who would prefer to keep certain prejudices against Bourbons and bourbon to beware of this man. He serves them subtly. No raw liquor, bald high-ball, or rank cocktail is put by the side of your chair; but a toddy all warm and spiced, compounded with sugar and bitters on a base of mighty sound spirits. Good bourbon, he holds, was ever a sound drink; and Mr. Ball can teach the younger generation the almost lost art of enjoying it like gentlemen.

It is rather unfortunate that Messrs. Simkins and Woody might not have been treated to a sip of it now and then while writing their “South Carolina During Reconstruction.” After the dramatics of Claude Bowers’s “Tragic Era” had drawn public interest, a scholarly review of the period in the States most affected was very much in order. To that end these two professors have assembled and arranged a vast deal of material into a book so comprehensive and valuable that its faults are all the more unfortunate. Partly these might have been avoided if the authors hadn’t striven quite so hard to build the foundations of a New Jerusalem in a land that was neither very green nor particularly pleasant. Certain good things survived Reconstruction, and a few came of it, but these were symptoms rather than achievements, and can hardly compare with the inheritance of corruption to which they are joined. Nevertheless, at the end of that period, in spite of a high potential sectionalism, the State was still a united political entity, self-respecting and outwardly respected. Whatever his race had done, or been led to do, a Negro who showed capacities for citizenship was not altogether deprived of the responsibilities and privileges of that status. Popular belief to the contrary notwithstanding, there was no class, caste, or locality that deserved or received the ascription or proscription of Bourbonism.

It was left to the liberalizing efforts of the Agrarian Movement to introduce such things into a body politic which had until their time retained through manifold disasters the right to be considered one of the two real States of the American union. The reader not already acquainted with him must be warned that in his treatment of that same Agrarian Movement, Dr. Simkins has shown himself only too often an intemperate partisan. Unfortunately, he has allowed his predilection for the point of view of Tillman not only to color every conclusion which he has drawn on this previous period, but only too often to submit his evidences to a rather Procrustean violence.

Thus all mention of the celebration in Charleston when Hampton with rather dramatic circumstance secured the leadership of his party, seems studiously omitted. An obscurely worded footnote and the context show the marked effect of the Fort Moultrie Centennial on the fate of the State.

In the riot in that same city on the sixth of the following September one man’s enduring courage prevented such disastrous bloodshed as could have occurred nowhere else in the State. As an antithetic example to the affair at Hamburg, with its story of cold-blooded slaughter, it was almost due to the State’s claim to civilization that this no less significant incident be given more than a curt notice and that such conduct be allowed at least an appraising adjective.

Data are used incorrectly. When it is considered that Ludwig Lewisohn was not born until 1882 and did not enter the State until 1890, his personal experiences seem to have been rather freely drawn upon. Once, moreover, he is either misunderstood or misquoted in a fashion that shows wanton carelessness. In his “Cities and Men” he criticises the literary mind, specifically of his own time and of the country in general. The passage has been truncated, transferred back forty years or so, and applied to the State alone.

Further on, in a loosely worded catalogue the authors have staked out a claim to every possible writer, worthy of the name, who happened to be alive in their period. Of some twenty-odd listed a search of standard bibliographies gives a check on nineteen, and of these ten seem to be allowably cited. The rest had already done or were yet to do the work attributed to them.

In speaking of the poets they say of Sass, McKinley, and Bruns that “each of them published slim volumes,” but they leave it to their reader to discover that Sass’s and McKin-ley’s were issued in 1904, and when Bruns’s was published if at all. They name but one book, “Our Women in the War,” printed in 1885.

They have dehorned at least one devil. Of “Daddy” Cain, preacher, editor, and himself a Negro carpetbagger, they say that he was “usually in any reform movement which he thought would improve his race and protect them from carpetbaggers.” Two contemporary witnesses, A. B. Williams, in his vivid articles, and John S. Reynolds, in his more sober history, make him out an instigator of bloodshed and arson, and a hypocritical thief.

It would take a more competent critic than the writer to check fully the six hundred pages of this book. It would appear to be safer to try a general antidote. It is fortunate for a State that has already suffered sufficiently from partisan sectionalism that such an antidote has in this case fallen pat upon the event of the poison.


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