Albion W. Tourgee

The most amazing thing connected with this matter, however, was the fact that the press of the North, almost without exception, echoed the clamor and invective of the Southern journals. In order to express their abhorrence for such as dared to go from the North, thinking to become residents of the South without an absolute surrender of all that they had hitherto accounted principle, one who was of more intense virulence than the others invented a new term, or rather reapplied one which he had already helped to make infamous. The origin of this new vehicle of malignity is said to have been this. In one of the North-western States, during early days of "wild-cat money" as it was termed, a plan was devised for preventing the solvency of the State banks from being too readily tested. An organization was formed which secured its issues by the mortgage of land, which mortgage the State had power to enforce as upon forfeiture, on behalf of the creditors, whenever the notes of the organization (they called it a bank) "should go to protest." To avoid this contingency was then the prime object. As the law had neglected to provide that banks organized under it should have a permanent place of business, this object was for a considerable time attained by neglecting to open any office, or having any permanent place of doing business, and putting their notes in circulation by means of agents, who carried the bills about the country in carpet-bags, and were hence denominated, "Carpet-baggers." It is said that one of these veritable carpet-baggers, an editor, who during the war had exhausted all the expletives of which he was master, in denunciation of Lincoln and the officers and men of the Federal army, and had, in return, been branded with that term of ineffaceable shame "Copperhead," was therfore at a loss for some fresh epithet to bestow upon the new class whom he had honored with his hate, and suddenly bethought himself of his own nickname. Whereupon he shouted, "Carpet-baggers!" Instantly it spread through the press of the South; and, with its usual subserviency, that of the North followed in its lead, and re-echoed its maledictions.

The name itself was a stroke of genius. Whoever first bestowed it on the peripatetic Wisconsin cashier was undoubtedly akin to the heaven-descended. In all history there is perhaps no instance of so perfect and complete an epithet. Sans-culottes is its nearest rival. "Abolitionist," its immediate predecessor, has the disadvantage of an etymological significance, which sometimes interfered with its perfect application. "Carpet-bagger" had, however, all the esentials of a denunciatory epithet in a superlative degree. It had a quaint and ludicrous sound, was utterly without defined significance, and was altogether unique. It was susceptible of one significance in one locality, and another in another, without being open to any etymological objection. This elasticicity of signification is of prime importance in a disparaging epithet: there is almost always a necessity for it. "Abolitionist" meant only one who was in favor of the abolition of slavery. At the North it had this significance, and no more. At the South it meant also, one who was in favor of, and sought to promote, negro-equality, miscegenation, rape, murder, arson, and anarchy, with all the untold horrors which the people there believed would follow the uprising or liberation of a race of untaught savages, lustful as apes, bloodthirsty as cannibals, and artful as satyrs.

So that this formulated difference then prevailed: -


Abolitionist. - One who favors the emancipation of slaves.


Abolitionist. - One who favors emancipation + infidel + murderer + thief + ravisher + incendiary + all hell's accumulated horrors, "not otherwise appropriated."

This epithet, as was said before, was liable to objection among a people who thought and defined. It was possible to show by ratiocination, as well as example, that an "abolitionist" was not, of necessity, an infidel, nor, ex vi termini, a murderer or thief. So when an unfortunate minister of the gospel happened to allow somewhat too much of the Master's truth to escape his lips, while tarrying south of Mason's and Dixon's Line, and was thereupon treated to hickory on his bare back, or hemp around his gullet, because he was an "abolitionist," the North was somewhat shocked at the disproportion between the offense and punishment; but the South heartily and honestly rejoiced, and thanked God with renewed devotion, because, to its apprehension, an inconceivably atrocious monster had been destroyed from off the face of the earth! And so the game of cross-purposes went on.

"Carpet-bagger," which was in some sense the lineal descendant of "abolitionist," was, as was very proper for a second edition, a considerable improvement on its immediate predecessor. It was undefined and undefinable. To the Southern mind it meant a scion of the North, a son of an "abolitionist," a creature of the conqueror, a witness of their defeat, a mark of their degradation: to them he was hateful, because he recalled all of evil or shame which they had ever known. They hissed the name through lips hot with hate, because his presence was hateful to that dear, dead Confederacy which they held in tender memory, and mourned for in widow's weeds, as was but natural that they should do. They hated the Northern man, who came among them as the representative and embodiment of that selfish, malign, and envious North, which had sent forth the "abolitionist" in ante bellum days, had crushed the fair South in her heroic struggle to establish a slave-sustained republic, and now had sent spies and harpies to prey upon, to mock and taunt and jeer them in their downfall and misfortune. To their minds the word expressed all that collective and accumulated hate which generations of antagonism had engendered, intensified and sublimated by the white-heat of a war of passionate intensity and undoubted righteousness to the hearts of its promoters. The Northern man who set up his family altar at the South stood, by natural and almost necessary synecdoche, for the North. He was to all that portion of the South which arrogates to itself the term Southern, not only an enemy, but the reporesentative in miniature of all their enemies. And this he was of course, and by consequence of his Northern nativity. It is true, he might in part relieve himself frm this imputation; but it rested upon him to do so. The presumption was against him; and, in order to rebut it, he must take the Gaelic oath to "love whom thou lovest, hate whom thou hatest, bless whom thou blessest, and curse whom thou dost anathematize."

To the Northern mind, however, the word had no vicarious significance. To their apprehension, the hatred it embodied was purely personal, and without regard to race or nativity. They thought (foolish creatures!) that it was meant to apply solely to those, who, without any visible means of support, lingering in the wake of a victorious army, preyed upon the conquered people.

So these formulated significations then prevailed: -


Carpet-bagger. - A man without means, character, or occupation, an adventurer, a camp-follower, "a bummer."


Carpet-bagger. - A man of Northern birth + an abolitionist (according to the Southern definition) + an incarnation of Northern hate, envy, spleen, greed, hypocrisy, and all uncleanness.

So the South cursed "carpet-baggers" because they were of the North; and the North cursed them because the South set the example.

In nothing has the South shown its vast moral superiority over the North more than in this. "I pray thee cuse me this people," it said to the North, first of the "abolitionists," and then of the "carpet-baggers;" and the North cursed, not knowning whom it denounced, and not pausing to inquire whether they were worthy of stripes or not. Perhaps there is no other instance in history in which the conquering power has discredited its own agents, denounced those of its own blood and faith, espoused the prejudices of its conquered foes, and poured the vials of its wrath and contempt upon the only class in the conquered territory who defended its acts, supported its policy, promoted its aim, or desired its preservation and continuance.


A Fool's Errand by One of the Fools by Albion W. Tourgee
Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, New York, 1880, pages 157-161.