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Thomas Nelson Page’s The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem


Edward Williams Clay, America, 1841.

2,701 words

Thomas Nelson Page
The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem [2]
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904

After the Civil War, the defeated South needed a champion. It needed someone who could articulate the rationale behind the lost Southern cause in such a way that would allow for the reincorporation of the former Confederacy back into the Union without alienating its former enemies. We all know that war is Hell, and after 1865, the South had had enough. Nevertheless, this didn’t mean that it hadn’t had valid reasons for seceding that needed to be understood. So how could one argue both for secession and union? How could one defend the South without seeming reactionary, or rebuke the North without stoking the dying fires of rebellion?

One does this by talking honestly about the tricky issue of race. It was the cause of most of our troubles then as it still is today. This is something both the hard Right and the hard Left can agree upon. Unlike today, however, a hundred years ago, the hard Right could still express its positions in polite society. This was in large part thanks to the great Southern champion and guardian of the literary tradition of the Lost Cause, Thomas Nelson Page [3].

And nowhere does Page do this more eloquently than in his 1904 essay collection, entitled The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem. This volume has been out of print for many years now, but is available from several reprint publishers.

Mostly forgotten today, Page was primarily known in his day for his sentimental pro-Southern fiction and for his service as the United States’ ambassador to Italy during the First World War. In the 1890s and early aughts, he was a bestselling novelist and national celebrity. His novel Red Rock [4] remains perhaps the most expansive and successful Reconstruction novel ever written. Further, his book Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War [5] deals quite poignantly with antebellum plantation life and paints a fairly rosy picture of slavery.

With The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem, however, Page abandons sentiment and gets his hands dirty, not only digging into the race issue but attempting to excise its cancerous source. Some of his conclusions may have been proven untenable with time, and his paternalistic affection towards the Negro may have become outmoded since the Civil Rights era. However, his candid and factual treatment of the race issue stands not only as a lasting affirmation of race realism, but as a testimony to the ecumenical ideas of justice and morality that the white race has given the world. The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem is (or perhaps has become) a commonsense call for white identity in a multiracial world. In Page’s time, which was still the heyday of Pax Caucasica, White Nationalism didn’t carry the pressing need it does today, and Thomas Nelson Page was no White Nationalist. However, today’s White Nationalists and ethnonationalists can certainly draw upon his research and arguments to further their causes. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Page would have approved.

Page introduces his work with characteristic humility:

No man can entirely dissociate himself from the conditions amid which he grew up, or free himself from the influences which surrounded him in his youth. The most he can do is to strive earnestly for an open and enlarged mind and try to look at everything from the highest and soundest standpoint he can reach. If he does this and tries to tell the truth absolutely as he sees it, he will, possibly, have done his part to help others find it.

Okay, so we’re staying within the Western philosophical tradition with respect to the truth and its apparent relativity. Page is not describing Negroes as a problem because he does not like them or wishes ill upon them. This is not about xenophobia or blind hatred. He describes Negroes as a problem because he estimates that what he calls “the race question” impacted one-third of the US population at the time, and “affects all those conditions which make life endurable and, perhaps, even possible.”

Clearly, Page was astute enough to recognize that disparate populations placed alongside each other in a single country can lead to major problems, and the more disparate these populations are, the worse these problems become. “Where ten millions of one race,” he writes, “confront within its borders of one country another race, the most opposite to it on earth, there must exist a question grave enough in the present and likely to become stupendous in the future.”

Although appearing as the penultimate chapter in The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem, Page’s essay “The Race Question” was actually first published in 1892. Here he bluntly predicts that the future of the United States depends on a proper solution to this question. He also frames the question separately for North and South. For the North, the question was about whether Negroes would achieve political equality with whites. That’s a nice, neat, theoretical way to put it. For the South, on the other hand, the question was purely about Negro domination. They knew the Negro would eventually dominate if race realist measures were not put in place to stop them.

Only experience with Negroes can lead one to such a conclusion, and such experience with Negroes is what the South had in spades (pun intended). Who on the Alt Right today doesn’t see this logic intertwined with the bricks of our crumbling inner cities? Who on the Alt Right today doesn’t see this logic in the depiction of ever-present, unrealistically sympathetic blacks in our popular media (and realistically unsympathetic blacks in our popular music)? Who on the Alt Right doesn’t feel this logic when confronted with Black Lives Matter and other thuggish, anti-American race terrorists who want more than anything to shake white people down and ultimately oppress them? Could it be that lifting the Negro out of servitude and out of second-class citizenship necessarily led to all of this?

Back in 1892, Thomas Nelson Page prophetically said that it would. According to Page, the Negro:

is as yet incapable, as a race, of self-government. And finally, that unless the white race continues to assert itself and retains control, a large section of the nation will become hopelessly Africanized, and American civilization relapse and possibly perish.

Later in the chapter, Page makes the claim which should earn him the respect of White Nationalists forever: “To us of the South it appears that a proper race pride is one of the strongest securities of our nation.”

The theory-versus-experience dichotomy mentioned above runs as a leitmotif through many of the essays in this volume. In the first chapter, “Slavery and the Old Relation Between the Southern Whites and Blacks,” Page writes of the “blind bigotry of the doctrinaire” (a great expression), which he finds embodied in those Northern gentlemen who presume to understand the Negro better than Southern whites do because “they have been thrown at times with a few well-behaved, self-respecting Negros, or have had in their employ well-trained colored servants . . .” At another point, Page writes that “the people of the North are guilty of the fatuity which destroys nations.” I believe that this is the kind of fatuity he was talking about.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of this Northern fatuity was the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Page avers “presented only one side of the question and did more, perhaps, than any one thing that ever occurred to precipitate the war.” (One wonders if Page here is echoing Abraham Lincoln who, upon meeting Stowe, was reported to have said to her somewhat in jest, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”) Page also makes the point that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “crystallized feeling against the South throughout the world.” He then spends the remainder of the essay defending Southern slavery as benign and civilized compared to slavery elsewhere, past or present (“The fidelity of the Negroes throughout the war was fully appreciated and called forth a warmer affection on the part of the masters and mistresses . . .”) and defending the Southern whites who allowed its practice (“The instinct for command of the white race . . . is a wonderful thing.”)

Page follows this up in his chapter, “Some of Its Difficulties and Fallacies,” with a more in-depth critique of the Northern way of thinking which led to the great blunder that was Reconstruction. He itemizes the false Northern assumptions as follows:

  1. All men are equal (specifically, the Negro is the equal to the white).
  2. The Negro must be sustained by government.
  3. The interests of the Negro and the white are naturally opposed to each other.

He then explains that once such assumptions were acted upon during Reconstruction, the Negro became “a burden and a menace” in the South. But thanks to the postbellum misconceptions about the South (instigated by propaganda such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Southerners could not explain this grievous situation to anyone outside of their region. Northerners simply refused to take a Southerner seriously unless he adhered completely to the above three misconceptions. A Southerner’s experience, position, and character “accounted for nothing,” according to Page, if he did not accept them.

If such behavioral restrictions seem familiar, that’s because what Page rails against in The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem is an incipient form of political correctness. And he had as much contempt for it as the Alt Right and ethnonationalists have for its modern iteration today.

Speaking of political incorrectness, Page, in the chapter entitled “Its Present Condition and Aspect, as Shown by Statistics” actually classifies Negroes in a Platonic sense into three groups. In ascending order of size, they are:

  1. The “more or less educated” who may or may not be well-behaved and may or may not possess a “counterfeit culture.”
  2. The “respectable, well-behaved, self-respecting element,” who make good citizens unless “under the domination of passion,” and make up “the backbone of the race.”
  3. The “wholly ignorant” class which, despite schooling, is “unaccompanied by any of the fruits of character which education is supposed to produce.”

According to Page, the third class vastly outnumbers the first two and must be reckoned with to attain an orderly society. Imagine such a classification appearing in a mainstream publication today!

Page is also not afraid to discuss the sexual and criminal nature of Negroes. In the same chapter he quotes William Hannibal Thomas, a “free colored” author, who wrote in his work, The American Negro [6]:

All who know the Negro recognize, however, that the chief and overpowering element in his make-up is an imperious sexual impulse which, aroused at the slightest incentive, sweeps aside all restraints in the pursuit of physical gratification. We may say now that this element of the Negro character constitutes the main incitement to degeneracy of the race and is the chief hindrance to its social uplifting.

For all his eloquence, Page does not get any better than that, except that he also provides data to back up his claims. He explains that rape was practically unheard of during the time of slavery and even shortly thereafter, but became a “fatal product of the new conditions,” with hundreds of victims during the Reconstruction period, both women and children.

As much as he despised lynching, Page assumes the difficult burden of arguing that it was Negro criminal and sexual misbehavior (or “ravishings”, as he calls it) which prompted much of that deadly practice. In the chapter entitled “The Lynching of Negroes – Its Cause and Its Prevention,” he offers a history of lynching and then provides a table from the Chicago Tribune which lists the causes assigned to the 450 lynchings which occurred from 1900 to 1903. Roughly eighty percent of the 450 victims from 1900 to 1903 were Negroes. 171 (or thirty-eight percent) of the lynchings were caused by murder or attempted murder, while 102 (or twenty-three percent) were the result of rape or attempted rape. (There was one caused by “rape and murder” which I counted among the murders.) An additional 18 (four percent) were the result of complicity in murder or aiding the escape of a murderer. Counter to the modern understanding which paints Negro victims of lynchings as innocent martyrs, there were only 68 cases, or fifteen percent, within this four-year span wherein a person was lynched merely for being suspected of a crime, for doing something offensive yet not illegal, for unknown reasons, or for no reason at all. This was still reprehensible, of course, but perhaps less so when considered within a more complete understanding of the historical context.

Page rightfully deplores the practice of lynching for its complete disregard of due process and its savage justice. However, “to get at the remedy,” he argues, “we must first get at the cause.” And the cause, in large part, was twofold: first, large, roaming gangs of armed Negroes raping white women and committing other crimes, and second, the reluctance of the occupying government forces to do anything about it. So, left to their own devices for their defense (and for revenge), whites did what needed to be done. Were there abuses? Sure. Did the whites at times kill innocent people? Absolutely. But if you listen to the mainstream narrative, that’s all they did. Now that we are armed with Page’s research, however, we can demonstrate how far from the truth that really is.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem is Page’s use of basic statistics. Nothing can shut an interlocutor up better than numbers, and Page is not at all shy about it. Most effective, in my opinion, is how Page demonstrates the Negro’s ability to squander his wealth through lavish and irresponsible spending. In the “Race Question” chapter, Page writes:

In 1860 the taxable values in the State [South Carolina] amounted to $490,000,000, and the tax to a little less than $400,000. In 1871 the taxable value had been reduced to $184,000,000, and the tax increased to $2,000,000. In 19 counties taken together, 93,293 acres of land were sold in one year for unpaid taxes. After four years of Republican rule, the debt of the State had increased from $5,407,306 to $18,515,033. There had been no public works of any importance, and the “entire thirteen millions of dollars represented nothing but unnecessary and profligate expenditures and stealings.”

The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem is rife with passages like this, especially in its Appendix.

Anyone who wishes to demonstrate how blacks have historically been a problem for their host populations should get their hands on this book. In it, Thomas Nelson Page not only presents a shamefully overlooked point of view on this topic, he also reveals how important understanding race is to a healthy and orderly society. Many of his predictions about the decline of American culture due to the Negro presence have come true. Not only this, but Page calls for a strong white identity in order to counteract the degeneracy triggered by the Negro. This is exactly what the Alt Right, White Nationalists, and other white identitarians are calling for these days, and it is more than gratifying to know that this sentiment is not as new as some of us think it is.

Thomas Nelson Page understood that a final separation of white and black would be the ultimate solution to the race question, although his views nevertheless differed from those of White Nationalists today. He wished nothing but good things for the Negro and didn’t want to see them deported or repatriated. He merely wanted to see them pursue vocational professions, and for them to return to race realism and the reverence they once had for whites in the antebellum South (and especially on the Virginia plantation where he grew up). He really believed that under Pax Caucasica, whites and blacks could live productively side-by-side. This hope certainly points to the morality and nobility of spirit behind his arguments in The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem. But with this hope came a warning, a warning which everyone on the Right should heed today, because upon it hinges the future of Western Civilization in North America:

We have educated him [the Negro]; we have aided him; we have sustained him in all the right directions. We are ready to continue our aid; but we will not be dominated by him.