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The Greatest Diarist
George Templeton Strong was not a public man, and he is not widely known today. But for forty years he kept the best diary—in both historic and literary terms—ever written by an American.
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Strong expected a protracted war. For all of the North’s advantage in numbers, wealth, and mechanical skills, he seriously questioned the government’s ability ever to “subjugate these savage millions of the South.” The dreary repetition of military defeats and diplomatic disappointments during the next two years fueled his apprehensions, and he could feel only a bitter consolation in the thought that Northern adversities were a divine prescription for national sickness. The country had to pay for its years of “selfish devotion to prosperous, easy money-making.” But this acceptance of God-administered tribulation did not inhibit him from raging at the Copperheads and Peace Democrats or the antidraft rioters whose rampage of burning and killing in July 1863 he describes in all its ugliness and horror. “I begin to doubt,” he writes early in that year, “whether the Northern people, with so large a percentage of false, cowardly, despicable sympathizers with Rebellion now prepared to intrigue against our national life, to bow down to the bullies of the South and to uphold nigger-breeding as the noblest of duties, can be saved, ought to be saved, or is worth the trouble of saving.”
He suffered through periods of even denser pessimism before the tide turned, but almost half-consciously he began to detect signs that the providential medicine was working. Given the “great mass of selfishness, frivolity, invincible prejudice … indifference to national life,” could Americans muster sufficient determination “to fight on through five years of taxation, corruption, and discouragement”? Strong finally decided that they could. Indeed, some of his own prejudices had melted in the holocaust. Not only had the war turned him into an abolitionist, but he, who had once scoffed at “nigger-lovers,” had now become a champion of the black race.
Until the war actually started, Strong had professed to be bored by the “irrepressible nigger. … no doubt he is a man and a brother, but his monopoly of attention is detrimental to the rest of the family.” Not what he called the “sorrows of Sambo” but his dislike of the South made him a reluctant champion of the black, and early in the war he advocated, if only for expediency’s sake, putting “bayonets in Negro hands.” What seemed to have turned him from a lukewarm apologist into an ardent defender of the blacks were the atrocities committed against them—“the most peaceable, sober, and inoffensive of our poor”—during the New York City draft riots, and the heroism of their troops in the field. By 1863 the canting anti-Negro talk of the Northern Democrats had provoked this scathing rejoinder: “‘Modern physiology, my dear sir, has, as you must be aware, demonstrated the essential inferiority of the black race and proved it to be anthropoid rather than human.’ Certainly. Why not? The Negro can be taught reading and writing and the first four rules of arithmetic, to be sure, and he is capable of keeping a hotel. He can fight like a hero and live and die like a Christian. But look at his facial angle, sir, and at the peculiarities of his skeleton, and you will at once perceive that his place is with the chimpanzee and the gorilla, not with man. Physical science is absolutely infallible, you know. No matter what the Church, or the Bible, or human instincts, or common sense may seem to say on any subject, physical science is always entitled to overrule them. It’s very true that the science of 1863 has reversed or modified about 250,000 of the decisions it gave twenty years ago, but that makes no difference.” A year later he emotionally recorded his feelings as the first New York black regiment, “armed, drilled, truculent, and elate,” marched down Broadway.
He raged at the antidraft rioters and the ugliness and horrors of their rampage.
It is a testament to the strength of Strong’s conversion that during the early days of Reconstruction when former abolitionists deplored the “prospect of Negro sovereignty” in the South, he attributed the ordinary person’s color prejudice to the common association of blacks with menial occupations. Knowing nothing about black professional men in the British West Indies who held their own, Americans couldn’t conceive of the black “helping to regulate our national finances and our foreign relations.” It did not occur to them that the black’s alleged “unfitness for legislation … is caused by the tyrannous wrong to which he and his progenitors have been subjected … by the atrocious system of slavery.”
As might be expected, Strong, who favored emancipation in 1861, approved of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At the beginning of his administration, Lincoln had few enthusiastic supporters among the Eastern gentry, and Strong himself periodically wavered in his allegiance. Lincoln seemed to Strong, as to others, too vacillating, too undignified, too much the shrewd Western clown. In the dark days of the war, Strong no longer laughed at “Honest Old Abe’s grotesque genial Western jocosities,” but although he doubted from time to time that Lincoln was “the style of goods we want just now,” he never completely lost faith in this “lank and hard-featured” man.