Type to search

Carpetbagging

Share

Politics, said Mr. Dooley, “ain’t beanbag.” In an election year, therefore, it’s wise to remember that politicians will do anything to win. That’s how knuckle-bumps become “terrorist gestures” and POW experience is spun as proof that one is permanently deranged.

In that context, let’s consider the story of Chester County abolitionist J. Williams Thorne, who moved to North Carolina after the Civil War to farm and—he fervently hoped—help build a new, more democratic South. He even got himself elected to the North Carolina legislature. But his political enemies—including many ex-Confederates who were hostile to racial equality—pounced on Thorne’s unconventional religious views, which they used to expel him from his seat.

“Ostensibly, I was expelled on account of my religious opinions,” Thorne wrote to the editor of the West Chester Republican, “but really because I was a radical Republican.”

It could’ve been worse. If Thorne had been African-American in that time and place, he might’ve been lynched.

Born to a Quaker family, Thorne was a thoughtful, serious youth with an early taste for literature. He could recite poetry by the hour—Milton and Robert Burns, in particular. According to family lore, he once walked 20 miles to Wilmington to buy books.

As an adult, Thorne became a strict vegetarian who used Scripture, science and history to prove his the only fit diet for mankind. He kept his dog on a meatless regimen and insisted to visitors that the animal had “all the wisdom of Solomon” compared to his neighbors’ meat-eating dogs. He didn’t push vegetarianism on others, but when a son killed a chicken, Thorne was heard grumbling, “Every time someone gets hungry around here, we have to kill something.”

Thorne and his wife, Mary Pusey, opposed slavery. But they didn’t share the then-common belief that the best response to slavery was to abstain from participating in the system that supported it. William Lloyd Garrison was famous for dismissing the U.S. Constitution as a “covenant with Hell” that gave legal protection to slavery. Wendell Phillips argued that no true abolitionist would hold office because doing so required an oath of allegiance to that tainted document. Many refused even to vote.

Thorne believed it the duty of reformers to make change happen, by speaking, writing, voting and holding office. He sought opportunities to do them all. Thorne supported the Liberty Party, which proposed to abolish slavery through political action.

Historian R.C. Smedley, author of History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties, recorded an 1850 confrontation between Thorne and fellow Quaker Thomas Whitson. Whitson, a non-participating Garrisonian abolitionist, was trying to make Thorne see that politics equaled support of slavery.

“Would thee be willing, against the pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution, to assist fugitives in escaping from bondage?” asked Whitson.

“Yes,” said Thorne promptly. “There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent it. The very spirit of the preamble commands that I shall do it.”

“Thee shall have the opportunity,” said Whitson.

“I will be glad of it,” Thorne declared.

And so, a pact was formed. Thorne’s home became an Underground Railroad station. Thorne and his wife, Mary, also used their house as a school, and one of their teachers, Esther Kent, later married Smedley.

In 1860, Thorne was among the first to learn that a free black had been kidnapped by the Gap Gang, a band of thieves and counterfeiters that sidelined in returning runaways to their masters. “In many instances, this gang went boldly to farms where native free negroes were working,” reported the New York Times in 1888, “and on pretense of arresting them for some alleged crime, carried them off, and they were never heard of again.”

Thorne and a U.S. marshal arrived in Baltimore in time to stop the sale of a man identified in historical accounts only by the name Brown. Once freed, Brown identified his kidnappers, who were convicted. In retaliation, one member of the Gap Gang set fire to Thorne’s barn, which was destroyed, along with his entire harvest and all his farming equipment.

Thorne’s property was insured. But he was a tenacious sort who missed no opportunity to make life hard for defenders of slavery. He sought out witnesses who identified the arsonist, Francis Wilson, then pestered his insurance company’s lawyer to get a statement from a witness lest the man die before Wilson’s trial. Wilson, too, was convicted.

Thorne was known in Chester and Lancaster counties as a skilled debater and writer. He was a regular at area lyceums, where people listened as speakers dissected the issues of the day. A fellow debater wrote of him, “[Thorne] was an able, clear, forcible and singularly skillful debater, always fair and good humored. When he got his antagonist in a hole, he took care to keep him in it, but he did it so pleasantly that no one could find fault.”

In 1851, Thorne wrote an account of the Christiana Riot, in which local blacks killed a slave hunter. “The Christiana Riot and the subsequent conduct of the Southerners and their allies,” he wrote, “had the effect of opening the eyes of the people of the North to the iniquities of the Fugitive Slave Law and the power it gave the slave hunters to run roughshod over the rights and privileges of the people of the North.”

Such activism makes enemies. Possible evidence of this may be seen in the 1860 census, which recorded Thorne and his family as black. The census was taken by a local physician, William S. Latta, who was more conservative than Thorne in nearly everything. Perhaps Latta thought this would be a good joke on a local oddball known to oppose the census practice of classifying people by race.

Locally, Thorne was just another eccentric—and Chester County had many—who amused himself and others with speeches and letters to the editor. He was intelligent and honest, but could never have been elected to anything.

After Thorne moved to North Carolina in 1869, he found himself in a very different environment. Convincing Southerners of their errors had been an abolitionist dream for years. Before the Civil War, various utopians talked of planting free labor communities in the Upper South to demonstrate “that free labor was more economically efficient than slave labor,” says Chris Densmore, curator of Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library.

But almost no one actually went. Among the Longwood Quakers, only Thorne moved south. Surprisingly, for one so outspoken, he seems to have left no clear statement of why he went. He may have been motivated by idealism, by economic opportunity or both.

In any case, Thorne and Mary sold their Chester County house, bought 1,700 acres in Warren County, northeast of Raleigh, and commenced raising cotton and apples.

By the time Thorne arrived, Congress had rejected President Andrew Johnson’s mild form of Reconstruction in favor of a tougher version emphasizing racial equality. Radical Republicans pushed through the 14th Amendment, defining citizenship and guaranteeing equal protection to all. Former Confederate states were required to ratify the amendment and write new constitutions that reflected its principles.

In North Carolina—where voting rights had previously been restricted to male taxpayers—the new 1868 constitution abolishing property qualifications was supported by many whites. Working with freed slaves, they created the North Carolina Republican Party, which elected a governor and a majority of the Legislature in the 1868 elections. Opposing them were the Democrats, unreconstructed ex-Confederates and upper-class whites who had lost their monopoly on power.

Thorne, of course, was a Republican. And because he was educated, articulate and fully in sympathy with the new world order, Thorne seemed like a good candidate. He spoke widely to condemn Democrats’ efforts to create separate black and white schools, in defiance of the new constitution’s requirement for a “general and uniform system.” Democrats responded by ridiculing his appearances on the same platforms as African-Americans, part of their long-term (and ultimately successful) strategy to separate blacks and poor whites. In 1874, Thorne ran for Warren County’s seat in the House of Representatives—and won.

But soon enough, Thorne’s habit of speaking his mind worked against him. After the election, Democrats seized upon a pamphlet Thorne had written several years earlier debunking evangelical Christianity. In particular, Thorne attacked the idea that one must be a conservative, Bible-based Christian to be moral. “The evangelical church has almost always defended a popular wrong and opposed an unpopular wrong,” wrote Thorne.

Conservative Christians, he insisted, had defended slavery and were now the worst racists. He also dismissed the importance of the Sabbath.

Such thoughts were common enough among freethinkers, but they were never politically popular. A resolution was introduced that declared Thorne’s writings “subversive of good government and morals,” making him “unqualified to render the duties of a legislator.”

The House ignored affidavits from ministers that Thorne was no atheist. But it did give him an hour to defend himself, an hour in which Thorne blistered the body’s members.

“He showed that he not only believed in a God, but in a great deal better God than they worshipped,” wrote R.J. Houston of Lancaster in an 1897 tribute to Thorne. “A God who did not sanction drunkenness or gambling or fighting, as he presumed their God did, since nearly all of them engaged in these things; a God who would sometime mete out justice to the Ku Klux Klan, then murdering innocent people all over the state, which they seemed to encourage.”

He changed no minds, but returned to the capitol in 1876 as a senator. Over time, though, the balance of power slipped to the Democrats, partly due to the parliamentary skill demonstrated in this episode, and partly due to the physical intimidation that suppressed Republican political power. The result was the Jim Crow system, which lasted until the 1960s.

Because politics ain’t beanbag.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.
 

Previous Article
Next Article