Of rabbits and presidents
Joel Chandler Harris wrote editorials for The Atlanta Constitution for almost a quarter of a century, through seven presidential elections, and one thing is clear from his columns: He despised partisan rancor. With a bitterly contested presidential election upon us, we’d like to look back at his opinions of several presidents.
Harris promoted the New South, the creed popularized by his newspaper colleague, Henry Grady. They meant slightly different things by it. For both, the New South meant looking forward and not being imprisoned by the past and the resentments of the Civil War. But Grady, though no defender of slavery, did espouse a version of white supremacy. Harris, according to his most recent biographer, Walter M. Brash (Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus and the “Cornfield Journalist”), believed that the emancipated were equal to whites and deserved to be treated that way.
Harris’s attitude toward the opposing presidents of the Civil War is telling. He did not care for the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis because he couldn’t quit fighting the war and exhibited what Harris called a “restless petulance.” Abraham Lincoln was another matter.
As a teenager growing up on a middle Georgia plantation during Sherman’s March to the Sea, young Joe Harris did not think highly of the commander in chief who ordered the invasion. “During the Civil War, he despised Lincoln,” Brasch writes. But two decades later, writing for The Constitution, Harris had come to regard the assassinated president as “one of the greatest men in history.”
It’s worth noting that we have found three portraits of Lincoln in the Wren’s Nest archives this year. They do not appear to have been used as dart boards.
In 1900, Harris wrote a four-part fictional series in The Saturday Evening Post about a Confederate plot to kidnap Lincoln. The plot fails because the Confederate spies charged with nabbing the president fall under the spell of his wit and humanity and refuse to carry it out.
Among the readers who enjoyed the story was Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote Harris a letter shortly after becoming president in 1901, thanking him for his efforts in “the blotting out of sectional antagonism.” Roosevelt was the only president Harris knew personally. When Teddy visited Atlanta in 1905, he sent word that he wanted to meet Harris because he and his family admired the Uncle Remus stories so much. The president later sent a stuffed owl to the Wren’s Nest so it could watch over the Harris family (its glassy eyes still look over the family room). He also invited the author to visit him in the White House, which Harris, who generally avoided
such social occasions, did in 1907.
After Harris died the following year, Roosevelt came to Atlanta and gave a speech to help raise money to turn his house into a museum. His successors in office, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, also endorsed the drive and allowed their names to be used as honorary board members.
Harris would have appreciated the fact that Taft was a Republican and Wilson a Democrat. In fund-raising, as in life, nonpartisanship has its advantages.