On Sunday, August 13, 1911, in the steel town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, an African-American man named Zachariah Walker killed a white security guard in what Walker insisted was an act of self-defense. Fleeing the police, he attempted to commit suicide and was taken to the hospital to recover from a gunshot wound. That night, six masked men forced their way into the hospital and dragged Walker from his bed. Forcing him to crawl for half a mile, they then turned him over to a mob, which the Philadelphia Inquirer estimated to number between 3,000 to 5,000 men, women and children, including “many of [Coatesville’s] leading citizens.” These respectable townspeople “without any effort to conceal their identity, looked on without any evidence of disapproval.”
The scene they witnessed was Walker “tossed upon a pyre of blazing hay, straw and fence rails,” as the Inquirer reported. After he “crawled out of the flames, with shreds of flesh hanging from his charred body, he was roughly seized and flung back into the fire, where the mob had decreed he should die.” When ropes restraining him burned, Walker somehow managed to crawl out of the flames once more, only to be hurled back into them, his “cries of agony … drowned by the jeers of the crowd.”
In time the cries died away, and members of the mob waited around until the ashes cooled. Then they collected bone fragments. The next day, boys stood on street corners and sold souvenirs of what remained of Walker’s body. Fifteen men and boys were indicted for their roles in the atrocity, but public outcry against their prosecution was intense, and no one was convicted.
Accounts of the event appeared in newspapers along the East Coast. One reader who was “greatly moved” by the lynching was a vigorous and well-connected New York writer, political activist, and sometimes lawyer named John Jay Chapman. For a full year, Chapman “brooded silently,” according to Richard Hovey, one of the few scholars to undertake a serious study of his work. “Then he took action,” Hovey writes. “He did a symbolic thing, unique in the annals of this nation.”
Chapman wrote that he believed “the whole country would be different if any one man did something in penance.” So he traveled to Coatesville “and declared my intention of holding a prayer meeting to the various business men I could buttonhole.” That few showed the slightest interest in his idea did not deter him, nor did the difficulty of hiring a hall. On August 16, 1912, he took out an ad in the Coatesville Record that read:
A Prayer Meeting will be held
On Sunday morning, at 11 o’clock
At the Nagel Building
Silent and aral [sic] prayer:
Reading of the Scriptures:
Brief address by John Jay Chapman
In memory of the Tragedy of August 13, 1911
O Lord receive my prayer
The words Chapman spoke that night would come to feature in textbooks of rhetoric and anthologies of America’s greatest speeches. But he addressed an almost empty audience—and therein lay much of his act’s significance.
Not many people today know a thing about Chapman, and precious few conservatives would reserve a plinth for him in their statuary hall. Chapman had already been forgotten more than three-quarters of a century ago when Edmund Wilson wrote in 1976, “hardly one reader in a million has heard of even the name of John Jay Chapman.” More’s the pity, since Wilson regarded Chapman as perhaps the finest writer on literature of his generation, an opinion shared in many respects by Jacques Barzun, who edited Unbought Spirit, an anthology of Chapman’s works published in 1998. As an observer of politics, Chapman is equally stimulating, and as a writer on the mechanics of political change―and as a practitioner of the methods he promoted―this remarkable man should be of special interest to conservatives.
Chapman himself was a Progressive―an anti-Tammany Hall reformer who had a considerable influence, scholars say, on New Republic founder Herbert Croly. Conservatives today have been browbeaten into scorning the Progressives, but theirs was a response to problems that troubled conservatives, too: a society busily producing, in the words of Chapman’s admirer and near contemporary Albert Jay Nock, “an upper class materialized, a middle class vulgarized, a lower class brutalized.”
Born in New York City in 1862, Chapman was the son of Henry Grafton Chapman, president of the New York Stock Exchange, and great-grandson of Supreme Court Justice John Jay. Chapman’s grandmother was an associate of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, about whom Chapman would write a book-length study. A Harvard man, Chapman practiced law until 1898, when he devoted his energies to politics and journalism.
From 1897–1901 he ran his own bracingly independent newsletter, The Political Nursery, which publicized reformist politicians and policies. A friend and one-time ally of Theodore Roosevelt’s, Chapman eventually broke with TR, concluding that he was a “broken-backed, half-good man … [and] trimmer”―an opportunist. Besides a number of books, Chapman wrote literary essays, poems and plays, though only the books and literary essays bear re-reading.
A Hudson River grandee, he was a convivial soul and a devoted family man. A son, Victor Chapman, who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and flew as a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, was shot down over France. Another son, Chanler Chapman, who died in 1982, was the model for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
Chapman was especially busy during the New York City elections of 1895, working to dismantle Tammany Hall and playing what Edmund Wilson called
a spirited and provocative part. He made speeches from the cart-tail in the streets and created a great impression by getting down and manhandling hecklers who were trying to break him up―he was a man of formidable build―then going back and finishing his speech, and afterwards buying his opponents drinks.
Chapman could confound even admirers’ attempts to pigeonhole his thought or predict his moves. “He just looks at things and tells the truth about them―a strange thing even to try to do,” William James wrote, “and he doesn’t always succeed.” It has never been “easy to make peace with him,” Barzun concedes, “for he is so unsettling. There is the matter of the man’s perpetual cross-grainedness―a cross-grainedness that is going to offend every reader sooner or later.” Some reasons for this offense, as we will see, are understandable.
We Americans have too readily persuaded ourselves that, no matter our station in life, we are among the powerless and disenfranchised. This is an ironic twist on our “rugged individualism.” Because we like to see ourselves as rebellious challengers to authority, we also like to exaggerate the forces arrayed against us. This is why Rush Limbaugh and Fox News like to think they speak for the disenfranchised and offer an “alternative” to the mainstream media. Thus even conservatives have come to see themselves as aggrieved underdogs, forever besieged by forces so vast and intimidating that there is nothing much we can accomplish as individuals.
This is true of white people as well as black, rich as well as poor, male as well as female. Impotent as individuals, we are convinced that the only leverage we have is by combining forces with thousands―ideally, millions―of others who share our sense of injustice, persecution or resentment. We speak—or shout—truth to power, but always in chorus. We march, we assemble, we occupy, to show that our outrage is shared by countless others.
Taking our cue from street theater, from college sporting events, from flash mobs, and from the preachments of Saul Alinsky, we hide our otherwise timid souls behind face paint and engage in acts of gooney exhibitionism the whole point of which is to get on cable TV. That is what we call a “demonstration,” as if there is no other way to express ourselves as citizens.
Chapman at Coatesville offers another way. He reminds us that in a “demonstration” something is exemplified and incarnated―in this case, a troubled conscience or, as Chapman put it, a penance. Chapman acted alone, and his action was rooted in a larger theory of social change, one that is particularly well suited to a political tradition that puts great stock in the individual. This is a country established in part in the belief that individuals matter and what we have to say as individuals—rather than just as anonymous members of sociological groups or political movements—is important.
“We are met,” Chapman told his audience in Coatesville, “to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history―not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent of our share in it.” It was perhaps fitting that the effort to prosecute those who tortured Zachariah Walker had failed “because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.”
Although Chapman lived on the Hudson, he continued,
I knew that the great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years―the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it. No special place, no special persons, are to blame. The trouble has come down to us out of the past. The only reason that slavery is wrong is that it is cruel and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel. Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because he did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on.
Patriotic Americans have a hard time hearing these words. Conservative Christians insist on the depravity of man and say they believe all nations come under judgment, but they somehow manage to exempt their own country.
That only two people showed up for Chapman’s prayer service―an African-American woman from Boston and a police informant―does not make what he said any less true. The poor attendance might even make his accomplishment more impressive, insofar as it is still discussed today—if only by those few who know of Chapman. That an apparent failure can actually reverberate into the next century supports Chapman’s understanding of social change, or, as he called it in a book of the same title, “practical agitation.”
Published in 1900, Practical Agitation is a manual for political activism that does not seek immediate gratification and does not insist that “demands” be met. His is agitation for the long haul, and in that it is conservative in ways that Alinsky’s, for example, is not. Chapman’s is activism for grownups.
“We think that political agitation must show political results,” he writes. “This is like trying to alter the shape of a shadow without touching its objects.” The results of practical agitation “cannot show in the political field till they have passed through the social world.” The goal should be to change the way people think and feel, rather than how they vote. A vote is “only important because it is an opinion,” and it is opinions that must be influenced. This can be done by argument, by the amassing and dissemination of data. Evidently this can also be done—when the right imitates the tactics of the left—by bullying legislators at town hall meetings or subjecting young women in difficult circumstances to gruesome images on placards at abortion-clinic protests.
But there is another way, one that involves personal example and calls all of us to repent, not just those of whom we disapprove. This way is also more effective. “Everyone is aroused from his lethargy by seeing a real man walk on the scene, amid all the stage properties and marionettes of conventional politics,” Chapman had discovered from his own hard-won experience. People might object to what such a brave soul says and does, but they listen, and their hearts and minds are changed whether they admit it or not. They do not necessarily vote for such a candidate, “but they talk about the portent with a vigor no mere doctrine could call forth, and the discussion blossoms at a later date into a new public spirit, a new and genuine demand for better things.”
That is why the practical agitator should never compromise his views. “It is the very greatest folly in the world for an agitator to be content with a partial success,” Chapman wrote. “It destroys his cause.” He becomes part of the corrupt system he sought to clean up. You can give up 10 percent of what you want only at the cost of “ninety percent of your educational power; for the heart of man will respond only to a true thing.” The agitator must never settle. “If, by chance, some party, some administration gives him one percent of what he demands, let him acknowledge it handsomely; but he need not thank them. They did it because they had to, or because their conscience compelled them.”
Conscience looms large for Chapman, and conscience is closely tied to the private will, which is “always set free by the same process: by the telling of truth. The identity between public and private reveals itself in the instant a man adopts the plan of indiscriminate truth-telling. Let a man blurt out his opinion. Instantly there follows a little flash of reality.” Indiscriminate truth-telling requires a sense of humor, or at least a gift for satire. Complacent people “are so soft with feeding on political lies that they drop dead if you give them a dose of ridicule in a drawing-room. Denunciation is well enough, but laughter is the true ratsbane for hypocrites.”
It is the individual―the individual conscience, to be precise―that determines political and social change, and it follows that the man or woman who seeks to prick the conscience of his neighbor will be no stranger to loneliness. Do not expect cheering throngs in hotel ballrooms celebrating your victories with you because, if you are doing it right, the victories will be slow in coming. That should not trouble disciples of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, who believe change should not be rushed. This is something “movement conservatives” in recent decades seem to have forgotten.
“Do not think you are wasting your time, even if no one joins you,” Chapman wrote a full decade before he failed to raise a crowd at Coatesville. “The prejudice against the individual is part of the evil you are fighting.”
The first thing anyone hears about Chapman involves Coatesville. The second is the business about his arm, which is mighty grisly too. In 1886, while he was a student at Harvard Law School, Chapman attended “the most innocent kind of party,” where he met a friend from childhood. When this friend was making what Chapman decided were improper advances toward a young lady he admired (and would later marry), he invited this rival to step out onto the lawn. There Chapman picked up a stick and thrashed the man.
The next thing Chapman remembered was returning to his room in Cambridge where a coal fire burned in the fireplace. Overcome with remorse for beating his friend, Chapman wrapped a pair of suspenders tightly around his left forearm, plunged the left hand into the fire, “and held it down with my right hand for some minutes.” When he removed the hand, “the charred knuckles and finger-bones were exposed.”
“This will never do,” Chapman told himself, and he set off for Massachusetts General Hospital. Put under ether, he woke up the next morning “without the hand and very calm in my spirits.” A few days later he was visited by Dr. Reginald Heber Fitz, “the great alienist” and “an extremely agreeable man.” In the course of his examination, Fitz asked Chapman whether he was “insane,” and Chapman said, “This is for you to find out.” The arm “healed up rapidly,” while Chapman’s “inner composure, so far as I remember, was complete.”
The question of Chapman’s sanity is complicated. Throughout his life, he was weighed down by mental afflictions of one kind or another. A nervous breakdown in 1899, when he was 37, confined him to a dark room for 18 months. A few years later, he suffered another collapse, and after half a year of bed rest in which he was spoonfed by a nurse he hobbled about on crutches for six months more. He contemplated suicide “but somehow thought it wasn’t of much importance.”
Like a number of remarkable men of his time―William and Henry James, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln―Chapman wrestled with demons that sometimes won the battle, if not the war. It seems obvious that at times he was out of his mind. To his credit, he realized this about himself. He also came to accept that this madness could find expression in indefensible enthusiasms, and he would take measures to cool down. This is one way to account for the fact that in the 1920s Chapman gave voice to half-cracked utterances that are repulsive and disappointing―and all-too-characteristic of the Hudson Valley aristocracy at that time of great social upheaval.
A social critic as trenchant as John Adams or H. L. Mencken, Chapman was troubled his entire life by what he saw as the vulgar and vertiginous swirl of American life. In the years between the wars, he became convinced that it was the masses, not the middle class, that were “most inimical,” according to his biographer Hovey, “to the things of the mind and spirit.” Reading of “labor troubles,” he began to fear that the nation was “rocking with Bolshevism in every form, from parlour to garret, from pulpit to slum.” In Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, he detected the influence of the “Jewish peril.” More than that, he feared the waves of Irish Catholic immigrants. When he protested Harvard’s decision to elect a Catholic as a Governing Fellow, he began receiving letters of support from cranks, including Madison Grant, who was at once an enlightened conservationist and a celebrated theorist of “scientific racism.”
That same year, 1924, Chapman in an unpublished manuscript bemoaned the timidity of respectable citizens in the face of mounting threats. The Ku Klux Klan, he wrote, at least was not afraid to discuss the “true dangers―the Negro question, the Jewish question, the Catholic question and immigration.” He began to fantasize about connecting the “Ku Klux element with the better elements of the East. The K.K. are on the right track, i.e., open war, and the rest of the country is in a maze of prejudice against the K.K. due to manipulation of the Eastern Press.” The following year, Chapman’s poem “Cape Cod, Rome and Jerusalem,” which traced America’s troubles to the “Jesuit and the Jew,” appeared the Klan’s National Kourier.
These eruptions seem uncharacteristic of Chapman, and they were. For most of his life, he was a forthright opponent of racism and bigotry. In 1897, he wrote that “the heart of the world is Jewish” and called it a “monstrous perversion―that we should worship their God and despise themselves!”
For all his anti-Catholicism, which he said he inherited from Huguenot forbears, in 1914 Chapman rented a storefront in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and turned it into a boys-and-girls club for the neighborhood children, most of whom were Irish immigrants. This was a popular activity of its time, reflecting a certain condescension, perhaps, but well meaning. In 1923, when Harvard President Abbot Lawrence Lowell prohibited a black student from living in the same dorm with whites, Chapman protested in the New York World that the action was an attempt to “keep alive at Harvard the idea of white supremacy.” Such blacks “among us as can receive a college education must be offered one which is without stigma.” College, in fact, was where otherwise prejudiced young people can be educated out of their ignorance.
In his classic The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America, E. Digby Baltzell concedes that even in his most “fanatic” period, Chapman “had the insight to see the dangers and fallacies of his extreme anti positions.” In mid-1925, for example, he wrote to a friend in France, “The decay of life, mind, and character of the American has got on my brain and come out in the form of anti-Catholicism,” a mania he clearly felt was something to be gotten rid of. “It is all too easy to become toqué”―meaning cracked―“in agitating anything that is anti.” Such a stance toward the rest of the world, “turns into a mystic hostility and this in turn grows very often into a ‘manie des persecutions.’ Men come to believe they are spied on, followed, and treated with black magic by the organization or sect that they hold in horror.”
Chapman needed to get a grip on himself, and he did. He sailed to Europe to clear his brain. Four years later, after Herbert Hoover defeated Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party, Chapman told a friend he had become “quite calm about the Roman question ever since the election―somehow got rid of it.” That was an exaggeration, but he was making progress. In 1931, with good-humored self-deprecation, he said he was perfectly capable of passing a whole “row of convents and Roman Churches on the way up the Hudson with equanimity. All is well.” In two years, he was dead.
There are lessons for conservatives not only in Chapman’s sunnier moments but also in his bleaker ones. His obsession with immigration fueled his feelings of isolation, and in the dank prison cell of his disordered mind, he saw in the Klan virtue where there was only venality. His seemingly willful blindness to the evils of racism led him to forget and then violate the methods for meaningful civic action he had established with such eloquence years before. He cut away for all time much of the moral authority he once possessed, squandering the “educational power” that, for him, was the quintessence of successful agitation.
“In the twenties,” Chanler Chapman wrote, “my father fought a twilight battle with the present.” Conservatives know how that can feel. This is a movement, after all, that defined itself back in 1955 as standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Where the conservative movement has made great gains in recent decades is in establishing networks of well-financed organizations in Washington that provide comfortable careers for ideologues and opportunists. Assuming that the way to influence the political world is by amassing mailing lists and raising money, they have funded think tanks, front groups, lobbying firms, and other agitprop factories, and they have elected senators and congressmen and countless state legislators. But by their own admission, conservatives have very little to show for all this effort. That is because these activities can become ends in themselves, and they almost always do. That is the danger of attempting to change “the shape of a shadow without touching its objects.”
Chapman’s approach is closer to that of Francis of Assisi, at least as described by G.K. Chesterton. Moved to repair the ruins of San Damiano, Francis understood that the way to build a church “is not to pay for it, certainly not with somebody else’s money. The way to build a church is not even to pay for it with your own money. The way to build a church is to build it.” So Francis collected stones and begged others for stones. Enduring ridicule, he rebuilt the church with his own hands, discovering, in Chesterton’s words,
that his glory was not to be in overthrowing men in battle but in building up the positive and creative monuments of peace. He was truly building up something else, or beginning to build it up; something that has often enough fallen into ruin but has never been past rebuilding; a church that could always be built anew though it had rotted away to its last foundation-stone, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.
It would be a mistake to confuse conservatism with a church. But it is not an error to approach the ordeal of its restoration with reverence, with humility, with a sense of individual and collective responsibility alike and in full awareness of the fact that to make real gains, as Chapman once wrote, we must “never reap but only sow.”
Alan Pell Crawford is the author of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.