Letter to Senator Joseph C. Abbott on the Ku Klux Klan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the murder of North Carolina state senator John Walter Stephens, radical Republican and district judge Albion W. Tourgée sent Joseph Carter Abbott a detailed letter outlining atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan in central North Carolina. A former general in the Union Army, Abbott had moved to North Carolina after the war and was then serving as a US senator. Concentrating on acts of violence committed against African Americans, poor whites, and Republican politicians, Tourgée presents grim statistics of murder and mayhem as evidence for his compelling argument that swift action by the federal government was necessary to stop the violence. Copies of the letter were sent to several prominent politicians, including North Carolina governor William Woods Holden. That summer, it was published in the New York Tribune, bringing national attention to the Klan’s activities and rousing the public and Congress to take action against the secret society.

Summary Overview

After the murder of North Carolina state senator John Walter Stephens, radical Republican and district judge Albion W. Tourgée sent Joseph Carter Abbott a detailed letter outlining atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan in central North Carolina. A former general in the Union Army, Abbott had moved to North Carolina after the war and was then serving as a US senator. Concentrating on acts of violence committed against African Americans, poor whites, and Republican politicians, Tourgée presents grim statistics of murder and mayhem as evidence for his compelling argument that swift action by the federal government was necessary to stop the violence. Copies of the letter were sent to several prominent politicians, including North Carolina governor William Woods Holden. That summer, it was published in the New York Tribune, bringing national attention to the Klan’s activities and rousing the public and Congress to take action against the secret society.

Defining Moment

Albion Tourgée’s letter outlining the atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was prompted by the murder of his friend and protégée John W. Stephens. A native North Carolinian, Stephens had worked as a tobacco trader and agent for the American Bible and Tract Society. During the Civil War, he had served the Confederacy, but after the South surrendered, he became a Republican and worked to advance the enfranchisement of African Americans and assure them equal treatment. Tourgée, a district judge, mentored Stephens in his law studies, enabling Stephens to become a justice of the peace in Caswell County, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in 1869 and 1870. Conservatives were outraged at Stephens’s activities in support of African Americans, and he quickly became a target for the Klan.

On May 21, 1870, Stephens attended a Democratic political meeting at the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville. There, he met former Democratic sheriff Frank Wiley, whom he hoped to convince to run again for the office as a Republican. Wiley, a member of the Klan, lured Stephens into the basement of the courthouse. There, a group of Klansmen stabbed him, leaving his body in a locked storage room, where it was discovered the next day.

Tourgée must have learned of the murder almost immediately, as his letter to Senator Abbott was written only a few days after the event. Stephens’s murder was far from anomalous, however; it was simply the latest is a long list of outrageous violations committed by the Klan against African Americans and their white supporters. In his letter, Tourgée provides a catalog of some of these crimes, which include murders, beatings, rapes, and property damage. Tourgée calls for the federal government to take swift, specific action to curb the violence occurring in North Carolina and elsewhere throughout the South.

It is worth noting that others besides Tourgée were moved to act against the Klan after Stephens was killed. Most notable among them was Governor William Holden, who, in June 1870, cited a list of criminal activities similar to those described in Tourgée’s letter as justification for calling out the state militia to quell Klan violence. Holden was given a copy of Tourgée’s letter, and he likely arranged its publication in the New York Tribune, then one of the most widely read papers in America.

Author Biography

Albion Winegar Tourgée was born May 2, 1838, in Williamsfield, Ashtabula County, Ohio, and raised on his father’s farm. He enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1859 but was forced to leave for financial reasons in 1861. He worked briefly as an educator in New York before enlisting in the Twenty-Seventh New York Volunteers in April 1861. Injured during the Battle of Bull Run in July, he left active service to recuperate but returned to duty with the 105th Ohio Volunteers. Because of his exemplary service, the University of Rochester awarded him a bachelor’s degree in 1862 and a master’s degree in 1865. Tourgée married Emma Kilbourne, his longtime sweetheart, in May 1863. Harsh conditions in the western theater and several months in a prisoner of war camp exacerbated his prior injury, forcing him to resign his commission in late 1863.

After leaving the military, Tourgée completed studies in law and worked as an attorney, journalist, and teacher. In October 1865, he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he set up a law practice. One of thousands of Northerners intent on reforming political, social, and economic conditions in the South, Tourgée proved a staunch radical Republican. In 1868, he was elected a district judge, a position he held for six years. That same year, he played a major role in drafting the state’s civil code. Tourgée’s six years on the bench were filled with controversy, as his consistent support of African Americans and fellow Republican reformers angered Southern conservatives, who referred to him and other transplanted Northerners as “carpetbaggers.” He received numerous death threats from the secretive Ku Klux Klan and, for some time, found it necessary to carry arms when going out in public.

Tourgée moved back north in 1879 and became a writer and advocate for civil rights. His most widely read work, A Fool’s Errand by One of the Fools (1879), is a fictionalized account of his experiences in North Carolina. Tourgée’s 1880 nonfiction work The Invisible Empire exposes the reign of terror caused by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1896, Tourgée filed a brief in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark civil rights case that set the course for race relations in America for more than half a century. Tourgée argued for what he called “color-blind justice” that would guarantee equal rights to every American. The Supreme Court decided instead that “separate but equal” accommodations were sufficient.

In 1897, Tourgée was appointed US consul to Bordeaux, France, where he spent the last years of his life. He died on May 21, 1905, of complications from the wounds he had received during the Civil War.

Document Analysis

The murder of John W. Stephens, Albion Tourgée’s close friend, served as the impetus for the long letter Tourgée wrote on May 24, 1870, to Joseph C. Abbott, then representing North Carolina in the United States Senate. The two men had similar backgrounds. Like Tourgée, Abbott was from the North, having been born and raised in New Hampshire, but remained in the South after the war. He served in the Union Army, rising to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1865. Both men were delegates at North Carolina’s 1868 constitutional convention. Tourgée no doubt felt confident that, in writing to Abbott, he was addressing a friend to whom he could lay out a series of complaints about activities of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and ask for assistance in putting an end to them, lest the Klan’s reign of terror undo the activities of Republicans to reform the Southern political system and guarantee civil rights for African Americans in the South.

Although cast in the form of personal correspondence, Tourgée’s letter is actually a carefully crafted argument that lays out the case for federal intervention in North Carolina and other Southern states to end the atrocities being perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. As such, it is similar to the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson, writing for the committee appointed by the Second Continental Congress to draft the document, carefully delineates the specific offenses that justified the colonists’ decision to break away from Britain. One important formal difference between the two documents may help highlight the difficulty Tourgée faced in making his case. The Declaration of Independence employs deductive logic and is organized as a formal syllogism. Jefferson first states as a major premise what he believes is a universal truth: when a ruler denies people their inalienable rights, those people are justified in rebelling. Jefferson follows this assertion with a list of facts (his minor premise) that explain how King George III has violated the colonists’ rights. The conclusion that Americans are justified in their cause follows logically. Tourgée has no major premise from which to argue, or if he does, he leaves it unstated. Instead, he employs inductive logic to build his case, relying on the accumulation of specific evidence to convince Abbott that the federal government, especially the Republicans in Congress, should take immediate action to relieve the suffering of African Americans and their white Republican allies in the South. It should be noted, though, that while Tourgée relies on logic to lead Abbott (and others) to conclude that immediate relief is necessary, he peppers his letter with words that evoke strong emotions to supplement the logic of his appeal.

Tourgée’s argument may be outlined as follows. The murder of state senator John W. Stephens, a hero in the cause of enfranchisement and equal rights for African Americans, is a high-profile example of what has been happening in North Carolina for some time. Statistics prove that Klan violence is widespread, and reports of specific incidents reveal that it is grotesque and sadistic. Government officials have so far been powerless or unwilling to stop the violence. Therefore, action is needed at the federal level to protect citizens and bring Klan members and their supporters to justice.

Tourgée begins by paying tribute to Stephens, whom he calls a “brave, honest Republican citizen” who “manfully refused to quit the field,” even in the face of repeated threats from the Klan. Calling Stephens a Republican is a way for Tourgée to remind Abbott that Stephens had the same objectives as Abbott in his own political activities. In fact, Tourgée continues, Stephens was determined to remain with the African Americans who had elected him to office in order to end the “outrages” to which they were being subjected, or “die with the other victims of Rebel hate and national apathy.” The last phrase is one to which Tourgée returns at the end of his letter, but first he describes the level and types of violence that prompt him to appeal to Abbott (and the United States Congress) for assistance.

Tourgée relies on two types of evidence to make his case: statistics that demonstrate the magnitude of the problem of unchecked Klan violence and graphic anecdotes of individual atrocities. For example, he notes “twelve murders in five counties of the district during the past eighteen months” and “1,000 outrages of a less serious nature.” He reports that a source in Chatham County has evidence of more than two hundred similar events, while one in Alamance County has firsthand knowledge of fifty and strong evidence of nearly two hundred as well. He closes the first major section of his argument, the presentation of evidence of Klan atrocities, with a list of powerful statistics: in the district where Tourgée lives, there have been “twelve murders, 9 rapes, 11 arsons, 7 mutilations” confirmed, four to five thousand instances of property damage, and seven to eight hundred cases of beatings and other instances of maltreatment.

At the same time, Tourgée seldom misses an opportunity to present his statistics in a context aimed at generating strong emotional reaction from his reader. For example, pointing out that “3,000 poor, ignorant, colored Republican voters” had elected Stephens to the North Carolina Senate not only highlights the wide support Stephens had among the formerly disenfranchised portion of the local populace, but also reminds Abbott that the African Americans for whom people like himself and Tourgée had fought were the ones who were now being victimized again by Stephens’s murder. Numbers provide specificity, and Tourgée makes good use of them in dramatizing the impact of the Klan’s reign of terror. He details the way men and women, dragged from their beds, are beaten with sticks or switches, fifty to one hundred blows being the “usual allowance,” although occasionally “200 and 300” are “administered.” The use of neutral terms, such as “allowance” and “administered,” creates a macabre counterpoint to the high number of blows given to these defenseless victims.

Perhaps the best example of Tourgée’s ability to employ specific data for emotional effect is in his description of the beating of two women (one of them in her seventies) with a paddle. With the precision of a carpenter outlining measurements for the construction of a household item such as a cabinet or storage chest, Tourgée gives exact dimensions of this cruel “instrument of torture” that Klan members used to punish two white women “of good character.” The point that Klan violence extends beyond the African American community would not have been lost on Abbott or on anyone else who might read Tourgée’s impassioned plea for outside help.

While statistics may provide an indication of the scope of the problem on which Tourgée wishes to report, he relies on other rhetorical methods to engage Abbott emotionally so that he may be prompted to act against the Klan. One of Tourgée’s most effective techniques is to relate specific anecdotes about the Klan’s treatment of victims. The story of the two white women beaten with a paddle is one such example. Equally effective in rousing emotions of revulsion are examples used to support Tourgée’s claim that there is “a fiendish malignity and cunning” in some of the Klan’s activities. The simple sentence noting an attack on a black man in which “an iron staple [was] driven through his person into the log” is an example of understatement and circumlocution. The word “person” is used euphemistically: Abbott and other nineteenth-century readers would have understood that Tourgée was referring to the man’s genitalia.

A longer anecdote recounts what might be the most horrific act Tourgée ascribes to the Klan, an attempt to murder a young African American couple by burning them alive in bed. The hideous unstated link between the heat of sexual passion and the literal heat of the fire may well have motivated this particular form of torture, as many Southern whites at this time believed African Americans were incapable of controlling sexual urges. Tourgée renders a graphic account of the young couple’s plight as their attackers meticulously prepare them for what should have been certain death. That they escaped may be little short of miraculous, but their bodies forever bear the scars of the incident. To emphasize his point, Tourgée ends the paragraph with a monumental understatement: “The house was burned.” The juxtaposition of this bald report of property damage stands in sharp contrast to the agony which the young man and woman have suffered and will continue to suffer at the hands of these night riders who depart the scene with “shouts of laughter.”

Tourgée concludes this section of his argument with a typical rhetorical device, noting that he “could give other incidents of cruelty” and then citing two more specific examples. He says at this point “it is unnecessary to go into further detail” but follows his disclaimer with the list of statistics that provide a frightening summation of Klan violence. Having demonstrated to his satisfaction that a serious problem exists, Tourgée then moves the next section of his argument, a damning account of government inaction in the face of these atrocities.

“And yet the Government sleeps,” Tourgée states. This jarring indictment is the lead-in for an emotional diatribe against all levels of government, which, to date, had been ineffective in quelling the Klan’s activities. Chief among the targets of Tourgée’s wrath is his own Republican Party, which he feels has abandoned brave souls like Stephens (and himself). Instead of receiving support from the national party, these “poor disarmed nurses” who “took their lives in their hands” to foster Republicanism are now being “sacrificed, murdered, scourged, mangled,” Tourgée claims, because the party “scheme” to bring about Reconstruction gradually while placating Democrats (especially conservative Southerners) might be derailed should stronger actions be undertaken in their defense.

The language Tourgée employs in this section of his argument is particularly emotional. He claims to be “ashamed” of his state, which cannot protect its duly elected officials. Behind that statement is his knowledge that many in North Carolina, including some public officials, supported the Klan’s objectives. He is especially “ashamed” of the Republican Party, which, despite holding the reins of political power, lacks “nerve or decision enough to arm its own adherents.” That statement reveals Tourgée’s radical stance, since arming “adherents” would have meant giving weapons to African Americans. Following through on such a plan would have infuriated Southern conservatives, who believed arming a large population of former slaves would lead to a much-feared black uprising that could wipe out all whites in the South.

To impress upon Abbott the seriousness of his complaint, Tourgée employs a military analogy that was sure to hit home with the former Union officer. “A General” who would permit thousands of his troops to be “destroyed by private treachery even in an enemy’s country without any one being punished” would deserve “universal execration.” Therefore, in times of peace, a government that permits similar “wholesale slaughter of its citizens” is even more detestable. Not to act on behalf of those being oppressed can only be attributed to “cowardice, inertness, and wholesale demoralization,” Tourgée concludes. Certainly neither Abbott nor any Republican could have failed to be startled or even angered by such strong words.

Sadly, Tourgée continues, the sense of outrage that ought to be felt by every person of good moral character is absent, perhaps because four years of war had “dulled our Nation’s sense of horror.” Tourgée believes too many Southern demagogues have been allowed to get away with outrageous behavior because Republicans have been unwilling to face up to their responsibilities to oppressed people in the region. At this pivotal point in the nation’s history, Tourgée suggests, the Republican Party lacks leadership. Someone must step forward–a strong politician with the qualities of generalship that helped the North win the war, perhaps–to remedy these evils.

Abbott, the former commander-turned-politician, could see himself in both roles presented in Tourgée’s comparison. In fact, the letter contains strong evidence that Tourgée wants Abbott to see himself as a military commander who must take decisive action against an enemy that is slaughtering his forces. A look back at the letter’s salutation makes this point clear. Rather than addressing Abbott as “Senator,” Tourgée addresses him as “My Dear General.” Already reminded subtly of his role as a defender of the rights of African Americans and of Republican values, Abbott would have quickly grasped the point Tourgée was making. It was time for men of action like Abbott to take steps to bring the Klan to justice.

Tourgée is ready with specific suggestions for solving the problems he outlines in his missive. Rather than moaning and wringing their hands in uncertainty and indecision, the members of Congress should exercise their power to bring about change, using military force if necessary. Tourgée claims an effective remedy can be provided by implementing three specific strategies: making the activities of the Klan acts of “insurrection or sedition,” punishable by federal, rather than state, law; organizing and employing the national military, not state militia, to enforce the new law; and employing detectives to identify those who are perpetrating atrocities.

Tourgée believes the Klan’s activities are no different from those of the Southerners who attempted to secede nearly a decade earlier. The group’s “ultimate aim is unquestionably to revolutionize the Government.” In the most impassioned sentence in his letter, Tourgée concludes with a graphic description of the only plausible possibilities for his Republican colleagues should Congress not move to curb the Klan’s activities. Failing the courage to act, Republicans should simply “offer our throats to the knife”–in other words, become sacrificial lambs, although there is no hope that the cause in which they will be sacrificed will be won. Republicans, including Tourgée, would thereby “emasculate” themselves, because failure to act would be unmanly. Worst of all, failure to act would make Republicans (and their followers) “a nation of self-subjugated slaves,” reverting to the intolerable conditions that existed in America before the Civil War. The many hard-fought battles in which the party and its agents have engaged in the five years since the war’s end will have been for naught, Tourgée warns, and as noted earlier in the letter, the Republican Party will have “signed its death warrant.”

The care with which Tourgée took to craft his argument suggests that he knew the letter would become a public document at some time. Certainly he would have expected Senator Abbott to share it with others in Congress, whether by reading it or by using it as the basis for making a case for the government to intervene in affairs in North Carolina and elsewhere. In fact, the letter circulated on Capitol Hill during the summer of 1870, helping shape the opinion of members of Congress who initiated a series of laws to curb the Klan’s activities. Additionally, although Tourgée was not pleased that the letter was published in New York Tribune on August 3, the document once again proved effective as a weapon against the Klan. In what was then among the most widely read papers in the country, Tourgée’s missive was used to point out the nature and extent of the Klan’s activities (although the published version may have exaggerated the statistical data Tourgée originally shared) and to highlight the difficulties state and local politicians were experiencing in trying to eliminate its pernicious influence.

Essential Themes

Written while Congress was deliberating legislation to restrict activities of the Ku Klux Klan, Tourgée’s letter to Abbott may have influenced legislation that made much of what the Klan did a violation of civil and criminal law. Certainly his pleas and those of other Republicans living in the South prompted Congress to investigate the Klan’s activities and enact a series of laws to protect civil rights for all citizens. The Enforcement Act of 1870 banned the use of force, intimidation, or other means of coercion to keep people from voting; the Enforcement Act of 1871 gave the federal government the right to oversee elections, and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 granted federal officials wide powers to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the legislative level, these strong actions provided a framework to curtail the Klan’s activities and guarantee the safety of African Americans and those who sympathized with their cause when these groups chose to exercise rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. In the short term, these laws effectively negated the Klan’s influence, and by 1872, the organization had disbanded.

Sadly, Tourgée’s prophesy regarding the effects of Republican inactivity in vigorously promoting civil rights for African Americans proved devastatingly accurate. In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end, and the president withdrew federal troops that had been dispatched to the South specifically to assist in bringing former Confederate states into compliance with new laws designed to guarantee equal rights for former slaves. At the same time, federal oversight of state governments ended. With little interference from the federal government, Southern states were allowed to enact a series of repressive segregationist laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which affected African Americans’ ability to receive the same education, hold the same jobs, or live in the same neighborhoods as whites.

Ironically, Tourgée was a principal participant in the Supreme Court case that effectively gave federal government sanction to segregation. In 1896, as lead member of the plaintiff’s counsel, Tourgée filed a brief with the court on behalf Homer A. Plessy in his suit to overturn Louisiana’s Separate Car Act (1890), which required passengers of different races to ride in separate rail cars. Tourgée’s plea for what he called “color-blind justice” was passed over in favor of a decision that segregation was permissible as long as “separate but equal” facilities and services were provided to all citizens of a state. Worse, after World War I, the Klan reorganized and African Americans were once again subjected to intimidation and physical violence throughout the South. The Supreme Court decision permitting state-sponsored segregation stood for half a century until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated legal segregation and paved the way for greater racial equality in the United States.

Bibliography
  • Bradley, Mark L. Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2009. Print.
  • Elliott, Mark. Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality: From the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Gross, Theodore L. Albion W. Tourgée. New York: Twayne, 1963. Print.
  • McIver, Stuart. “The Murder of a Scalawag.” American History Illustrated 8 (1973): 12–18. Print.
  • Nye, Russel B. “Judge Tourgée and Reconstruction.” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 50 (1941): 101–14. Print.
  • Olsen, Otto H. Carpetbagger’s Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgée. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965. Print.
  • Tourgée, Albion W. “Letter to Senator Joseph C. Abbott (1870).” Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée. Ed. Mark Elliott and John David Smith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2010. 47–51. Print.
  • Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper, 1971. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Beckel, Deborah. Radical Reform: Interracial Politics in Post-Emancipation North Carolina. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011. Print.
  • Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
  • Escott, Paul D., ed. North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008. Print.
  • Hume, Richard L. “Carpetbaggers in the Reconstruction South: A Group Portrait of Outside Whites and the ‘Black and Tan’ Constitutional Conventions.” Journal of American History 64.2 (1977): 313–30. Print.
  • Katz, William L. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History. Seattle: Open Hand, 1987. Print.
  • Newkirk, Vann R. Lynchings in North Carolina: A History, 1865–1941. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.
  • Newton, Michael. The Ku Klux Klan: History, Organization, Language, Influence and Activities of America’s Most Notorious Secret Society. Jefferson: McFarland, 2007. Print.
  • Parsons, Elaine Frantz. “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan.” Journal of American History 92.3 (2005): 811–36. Print.
  • Randel, William P. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1965. Print.
  • Zuczek, Richard. “The Federal Government’s Attack on the Ku Klux Klan: A Reassessment.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 97.1 (1996): 47–64. Print.
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