Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The New South

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The New South

By Henry Watterson (1840–1921)

[Born in Washington, D.C., 1840. Died in Jacksonville, Fla., 1921. Speech at the National Bankers’ Convention, Louisville, Ky., 11 October, 1883.]

IT was not, however, to hear of banks and bankers and banking that you did me the honor to call me before you. I am told that to-day you are considering that problem which has so disturbed the politicians—the South—and that you wish me to talk to you about the South. The South! The South! It is no problem at all. I thank God that at last we can say with truth, it is simply a geographic expression. The whole story of the South may be summed up in a sentence: She was rich, and she lost her riches; she was poor and in bondage; she was set free, and she had to go to work; she went to work, and she is richer than ever before. You see it was a groundhog case. The soil was here, the climate was here, but along with them was a curse, the curse of slavery. God passed the rod across the land and smote the people. Then, in His goodness and mercy, He waved the wand of enchantment, and lo, like a flower, His blessing burst forth! Indeed, may the South say, as in the experience of men it is rare for any to say with perfect sincerity:
  • “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”
  • The South never knew what independence meant until she was taught by subjection to subdue herself. We lived from hand to mouth. We had our debts and our niggers. Under the old system we paid our debts and walloped our niggers. Under the new we pay our niggers and wallop our debts. We have no longer any slaves, but we have no longer any debts, and can exclaim with the old darkey at the camp-meeting, who, whenever he got happy, went about shouting, “Bless the Lord! I’m gittin’ fatter an’ fatter!”

    The truth is, that behind the great ruffle the South wore to its shirt, there lay concealed a superb manhood. That this manhood was perverted, there is no doubt. That it wasted its energies upon trifles, is beyond dispute. That it took a pride in cultivating what is called “the vices of a gentleman,” I am afraid must be admitted. But, at heart, it was sound; from that heart flowed honest Anglo-Saxon blood; and, when it had to lay aside its “store-clothes” and put on its homespun, it was equal to the emergency. And the women of the South took their place by the side of the men of the South, and, with spinning-wheel and ploughshare, together they made a stand against the wolf at the door. That was fifteen years ago, and to-day there is not a reward offered in a single Southern State for wolf skins. The fact is, the very wolves have got ashamed of themselves and gone to work.

    I beg you to believe that, in saying this, my purpose is neither to amuse nor mislead you. Although my words may seem to carry with them an unbusiness-like levity, I assure you that my design is wholly business-like. You can see for yourselves what the South has done; what the South can do. If all this has been achieved without credit, and without your powerful aid—and I am now addressing myself to the North and East, which have feared to come South with their money—what might not be achieved if the vast aggregations of capital in the fiscal centres should add this land of wine, milk, and honey to their fields of investment, and give us the same cheap rates which are enjoyed by nearer, but not safer, borrowers? The future of the South is not a whit less assured than the future of the West. Why should money which is freely loaned to Iowa and Illinois be refused to Alabama and Mississippi? I perfectly understand that business is business, and that capital is as unsectional as unsentimental. I am speaking from neither spirit. You have money to loan. We have a great country to develop.

    We need the money. You can make a profit off the development. When I say that we need money, I do not mean the sort of money once demanded by an old Georgia farmer, who, in the early days, came up to Milledgeville to see General Robert Toombs, at the time a director of the State Bank. “Robert,” says he, “the folks down our way air in need of more money.” The profane Robert replied: “Well, how in —— are they going to get it?” “Why,” says the farmer, “can’t you stomp it?” “Suppose we do stomp it, how are we going to redeem it?” “Exactly, Robert, exactly. That was just what I was coming to. You see the folks down our way air agin redemption.” We want good money, honest money, hard money, money that will redeem itself.

    We have given hostages to fortune and our works are before you. I know that capital is proverbially timid. But what are you afraid of? is it our cotton that alarms you? or our corn? or our sugar? Perhaps it is our coal and iron. Without you, in truth, many of these products must make slow progress, whilst others will continue to lie hid in the bowels of the earth. With you the South will bloom as a garden and sparkle as a gold-mine; for, whether you tickle her fertile plains with a straw or apply a more violent titillation to her fat mountain sides, she is ready to laugh a harvest of untold riches.

    I am not a banker, and it would be an affectation in me to undertake to advise you in your own business. But there is a point which relates to the safe investment of money on which I can venture to express an opinion with some assurance. That is, the political stability, involving questions of law and order, in the South. My belief is that life and property are as secure in the South as they are in New England. I am certain that men are at least as safe in Kentucky and Tennessee as women seem to be in Connecticut. The truth is, the war is over and the country is whole again. The people, always homogeneous, have a common National interest. For my own part, I have never believed in isothermal lines, air-lines, and water-lines separating distinct races. I no more believe that that river yonder, dividing Indiana and Kentucky, marks off two distinct species than I believe that the great Hudson, flowing through the State of New York, marks off distinct species. Such theories only live in the fancy of morbid minds. We are all one people. Commercially, financially, morally, we are one people. Divide as we will into parties, we are one people. It is this sense which gives a guarantee of peace and order at the South, and offers a sure and lasting escort to all the capital which may come to us for investment.