Thursday, March 26, 2015

The End of Reconstruction and Death of Southern Republicanism - a "Brass Tacks" Update

In an earlier post, I presented evidence that the “brass tacks” of the idiom, “get down to brass tacks,” are “coffin tacks.”  Coffin tacks were widely used as decorative elements on caskets during the mid-1800s, when the idiom first emerged.  A newspaper article from 1867 explained that, getting (or coming) down to “brass tacks” was a call to address the eternal truths that everyone faces when worldly sham and deceit is left behind upon death.  Although substantial, circumstantial evidence supports the suggestion that “brass tacks” are “coffin tacks,” I had only identified the one, single article clearly suggesting that “brass tacks” were understood as an allusion to death.  

I have since found another article, from the same period, that corroborates the suggestion that “brass tacks” is a reference to death.  The article was written in New Orleans during post-Civil War Reconstruction in 1875; a time when Black voters could still freely exercise their right to vote, and before White terrorists and withdrawal of Federal control ushered in the era of segregation and Jim Crow.   

The article criticized alleged waste, fraud, and corruption in connection with Republican-led efforts to purchase the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans for use as the Louisiana State House.  Republicans, the party of Lincoln, enjoyed the widespread support of Black voters and held full control of the Louisiana legislature.  The writer warned Black voters, specifically, to avoid supporting a Republican Party that was as corrupt as its Democratic predecessors: 

We tell the colored voters that when warned against reduction into political bondage by the Democrats, they had also better keep an eye upon the risk where they may run from false and fraudulent Republicans, if there be such among them. 

The article paints a bleak picture of how Federal authorities might over-react to such corruption:

Unusual excitement may pervade the country. Innocent Republican officials and Representatives may flee from the country to the city.  They may demand a protection which the State government can not give and federal bayonets, indespensable to safety and order, may make a party war-cry against the Republican party throughout the Union.  Such are the possible consequences of corrupt or even questionable legislation.

The article warns that such action could lead to the death of the Republican Party in Louisiana:

   Brass Tacks. 

There appear indications that these significant articles of hardware may again be in legislative demand. . . .

For ourselves if in the inscrutable decrees of Providence the principles upon which all human liberty is founded are to perish through the dissensions or default of its professors, we hope to be spared the sorrowful spectacle of seeing the Republican coffin in Louisiana secured and decorated by brass tacks.

The New Orleans Republican, February 14, 1875, page 4.

This metaphoric use of “brass tacks” as an allusion to death is consistent with the understanding of metaphoric “brass tacks” as “coffin tacks” in the idiom, “get down to brass tacks.”

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