A Council Of State by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature


Luther Hamilton was a great political power. He was neither representative in Congress, senator nor cabinet minister. When asked why he aspired to none of these places of honor and emolument he invariably shrugged his shoulders and smiled inscrutably. In fact, he found it both more pleasant and more profitable simply to boss his party. It gave him power, position and patronage, and yet put him under obligations to no narrow constituency.

As he sat in his private office this particular morning there was a smile upon his face, and his little eyes looked out beneath the heavy grey eyebrows and the massive cheeks with gleams of pleasure. His whole appearance betokened the fact that he was feeling especially good. Even his mail lay neglected before him, and his eyes gazed straight at the wall. What wonder that he should smile and dream. Had he not just the day before utterly crushed a troublesome opponent? Had he not ruined the career of a young man who dared to oppose him, driven him out of public life and forced his business to the wall? If this were not food for self-congratulation pray what is?

Mr. Hamilton’s reverie was broken in upon by a tap at the door, and his secretary entered.

“Well, Frank, what is it now? I haven’t gone through my mail yet.”

“Miss Kirkman is in the outer office, sir, and would like to see you this morning.”

“Oh, Miss Kirkman, heh; well, show her in at once.”

The secretary disappeared and returned ushering in a young woman, whom the “boss” greeted cordially.

“Ah, Miss Kirkman, good-morning! Good-morning! Always prompt and busy, I see. Have a chair.”

Miss Kirkman returned his greeting and dropped into a chair. She began at once fumbling in a bag she carried.

“We’ll get right to business,” she said. “I know you’re busy, and so am I, and I want to get through. I’ve got to go and hunt a servant for Mrs. Senator Dutton when I leave here.”

She spoke in a loud voice, and her words rushed one upon the other as if she were in the habit of saying much in a short space of time. This is a trick of speech frequently acquired by those who visit public men. Miss Kirkman’s whole manner indicated bustle and hurry. Even her attire showed it. She was a plump woman, aged, one would say about thirty. Her hair was brown and her eyes a steely grey–not a bad face, but one too shrewd and aggressive perhaps for a woman. One might have looked at her for a long time and never suspected the truth, that she was allied to the colored race. Neither features, hair nor complexion showed it, but then “colored” is such an elastic word, and Miss Kirkman in reality was colored “for revenue only.” She found it more profitable to ally herself to the less important race because she could assume a position among them as a representative woman, which she could never have hoped to gain among the whites. So she was colored, and, without having any sympathy with the people whom she represented, spoke for them and uttered what was supposed by the powers to be the thoughts that were in their breasts.

“Well, from the way you’re tossing the papers in that bag I know you’ve got some news for me.”

“Yes, I have, but I don’t know how important you’ll think it is. Here we are!” She drew forth a paper and glanced at it.

“It’s just a memorandum, a list of names of a few men who need watching. The Afro-American convention is to meet on the 22d; that’s Thursday of next week. Bishop Carter is to preside. The thing has resolved itself into a fight between those who are office-holders and those who want to be.”

“Yes, well what’s the convention going to do?”

“They’re going to denounce the administration.”

“Hem, well in your judgment, what will that amount to, Miss Kirkman?”

“They are the representative talking men from all sections of the country, and they have their following, and so there’s no use disputing that they can do some harm.”

“Hum, what are they going to denounce the administration for?”

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“Oh, there’s a spirit of general discontent, and they’ve got to denounce something, so it had as well be the administration as anything else.”

There was a new gleam in Mr. Hamilton’s eye that was not one of pleasure as he asked, “Who are the leaders in this movement?”

“That’s just what I brought this list for. There’s Courtney, editor of the New York Beacon, who is rabid; there’s Jones of Georgia, Gray of Ohio–“

“Whew,” whistled the boss, “Gray of Ohio, why he’s on the inside.”

“Yes, and I can’t see what’s the matter with him, he’s got his position, and he ought to keep his mouth shut.”

“Oh, there are ways of applying the screw. Go on.”

“Then, too, there’s Shackelford of Mississippi, Duncan of South Carolina, Stowell of Kentucky, and a lot of smaller fry who are not worth mentioning.”

“Are they organized?”

“Yes, Courtney has seen to that, the forces are compact.”

“We must split them. How is the bishop?”


“Any influence?”

“Lots of it.”

“How’s your young man, the one for whom you’ve been soliciting a place–what’s his name?”

Miss Kirkman did her womanhood the credit of blushing, “Joseph Aldrich, you mean. You can trust to me to see that he’s on the right side.”

“Happy is the man who has the right woman to boss him, and who has sense enough to be bossed by her; his path shall be a path of roses, and his bed a flowery bed of ease. Now to business. They must not denounce the administration. What are the conditions of membership in this convention?”

“Any one may be present, but it costs a fee of five dollars for the privilege of the floor.”

Mr. Hamilton turned to the desk and made out a check. He handed it to Miss Kirkman, saying, “Cash this, and pack that convention for the administration. I look to you and the people you may have behind you to check any rash resolutions they may attempt to pass. I want you to be there every day and take notes of the speeches made, and their character and tenor. I shall have Mr. Richardson there also to help you. The record of each man’s speech will be sent to his central committee, and we shall know how to treat him in the future. You know, Miss Kirkman, it is our method to help our friends and to crush our enemies. I shall depend upon you to let me know which is which. Good-morning.”

“Good-morning, Mr. Hamilton.”

“And, oh, Miss Kirkman, just a moment. Frank,” the secretary came in, “bring me that jewel case out of the safe. Here, Miss Kirkman, Mrs. Hamilton told me if you came in to ask if you would mind running past the safety deposit vaults and putting these in for her?”

“Certainly not,” said Miss Kirkman.

This was one of the ways in which Miss Kirkman was made to remember her race. And the relation to that race, which nothing in her face showed, came out strongly in her willingness thus to serve. The confidence itself flattered her, and she was never tired of telling her acquaintances how she had put such and such a senator’s wife’s jewels away, or got a servant for a cabinet minister.

When her other duties were done she went directly to a small dingy office building and entered a room, over which was the sign, “Joseph Aldrich, Counselor and Attorney at Law.”

“How do, Joe.”

“Why, Miss Kirkman, I’m glad to see you,” said Mr. Aldrich, coming forward to meet her and setting a chair. He was a slender young man, of a complexion which among the varying shades bestowed among colored people is termed a light brown skin. A mustache and a short Vandyke beard partially covered a mouth inclined to weakness. Looking at them, an observer would have said that Miss Kirkman was the stronger man of the two.

“What brings you out this way to-day?” questioned Aldrich.

“I’ll tell you. You’ve asked me to marry you, haven’t you?”


“Well, I’m going to do it.”

“Annie, you make me too happy.”

“That’s enough,” said Miss Kirkman, waving him away. “We haven’t any time for romance now. I mean business. You’re going to the convention next week.”

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“And you’re going to speak?”

“Of course.”

“That’s right. Let me see your speech.”

He drew a typewritten manuscript from the drawer and handed it to her. She ran her eyes over the pages, murmuring to herself. “Uh, huh, ‘wavering, weak, vaciliating adminstration, have not given us the protection our rights as citizens demanded–while our brothers were murdered in the South. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, while this modern’–uh, huh, oh, yes, just as I thought,” and with a sudden twist Miss Kirkman tore the papers across and pitched them into the grate.

“Miss Kirkman–Annie, what do you mean?”

“I mean that if you’re going to marry me, I’m not going to let you go to the convention and kill yourself.”

“But my convictions–“

“Look here, don’t talk to me about convictions. The colored man is the under dog, and the under dog has no right to have convictions. Listen, you’re going to the convention next week and you’re going to make a speech, but it won’t be that speech. I have just come from Mr. Hamilton’s. That convention is to be watched closely. He is to have his people there and they are to take down the words of every man who talks, and these words will be sent to his central committee. The man who goes there with an imprudent tongue goes down. You’d better get to work and see if you can’t think of something good the administration has done and dwell on that.”


“Well, I’m off.”

“But Annie, about the wedding?”

“Good-morning, we’ll talk about the wedding after the convention.”

The door closed on her last words, and Joseph Aldrich sat there wondering and dazed at her manner. Then he began to think about the administration. There must be some good things to say for it, and he would find them. Yes, Annie was right–and wasn’t she a hustler though?


It was on the morning of the 22d and near nine o’clock, the hour at which the convention was to be called to order. But Mr. Gray of Ohio had not yet gone in. He stood at the door of the convention hall in deep converse with another man. His companion was a young looking sort of person. His forehead was high and his eyes were keen and alert. The face was mobile and the mouth nervous. It was the face of an enthusiast, a man with deep and intense beliefs, and the boldness or, perhaps, rashness to uphold them.

“I tell you, Gray,” he was saying, “it’s an outrage, nothing less. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Bah! It’s all twaddle. Why, we can’t even be secure in the first two, how can we hope for the last?”

“You’re right, Elkins,” said Gray, soberly, “and though I hold a position under the administration, when it comes to a consideration of the wrongs of my race, I cannot remain silent.”

“I cannot and will not. I hold nothing from them, and I owe them nothing. I am only a bookkeeper in a commercial house, where their spite cannot reach me, so you may rest assured that I shall not bite my tongue.”

“Nor shall I. We shall all be colored men here together, and talk, I hope, freely one to the other. Shall you introduce your resolution to-day?”

“I won’t have a chance unless things move more rapidly than I expect them to. It will have to come up under new business, I should think.”

“Hardly. Get yourself appointed on the committee on resolutions.”

“Good, but how can I?”

“I’ll see to that; I know the bishop pretty well. Ah, good-morning, Miss Kirkman. How do you do, Aldrich?” Gray pursued, turning to the newcomers, who returned his greeting, and passed into the hall.

“That’s Miss Kirkman. You’ve heard of her. She fetches and carries for Luther Hamilton and his colleagues, and has been suspected of doing some spying, also.”

“Who was that with her?”

“Oh, that’s her man Friday; otherwise Joseph Aldrich by name, a fellow she’s trying to make something of before she marries him. She’s got the pull to do it, too.”

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“Why don’t you turn them down?”

“Ah, my boy, you’re young, you’re young; you show it. Don’t you know that a wind strong enough to uproot an oak only ripples the leaves of a creeper against the wall? Outside of the race that woman is really considered one of the leaders, and she trades upon the fact.”

“But why do you allow this base deception to go?”

“Because, Elkins, my child,” Gray put his hand on the other’s shoulder with mock tenderness, “because these seemingly sagacious whites among whom we live are really a very credulous people, and the first one who goes to them with a good front and says ‘Look here, I am the leader of the colored people; I am their oracle and prophet,’ they immediately exalt and say ‘That’s so.’ Now do you see why Miss Kirkman has a pull?”

“I see, but come on, let’s go in; there goes the gavel.”

The convention hall was already crowded, and the air was full of the bustle of settling down. When the time came for the payment of their fees, by those who wanted the privilege of the floor, there was a perfect rush for the secretary’s desk. Bank notes fluttered everywhere. Miss Kirkman had on a suspiciously new dress and bonnet, but she had done her work well, nevertheless. She looked up into the gallery in a corner that overlooked the stage and caught the eye of a young man who sat there notebook in hand. He smiled, and she smiled. Then she looked over at Mr. Aldrich, who was not sitting with her, and they both smiled complacently. There’s nothing like being on the inside.

After the appointment of committees, the genial bishop began his opening address, and a very careful, pretty address it was, too–well worded, well balanced, dealing in broad generalities and studiously saying nothing that would indicate that he had any intention of directing the policy of the meetings. Of course it brought forth all the applause that a bishop’s address deserves, and the ladies in the back seats fluttered their fans, and said: “The dear man, how eloquent he is.”

Gray had succeeded in getting Elkins placed on the committee on resolutions, but when they came to report, the fiery resolution denouncing the administration for its policy toward the negro was laid on the table. The young man had succeeded in engineering it through the committee, but the chairman decided that its proper place was under the head of new business, where it might be taken up in the discussion of the administration’s attitude toward the negro.

“We are here, gentlemen,” pursued the bland presiding officer, “to make public sentiment, but we must not try to make it too fast; so if our young friend from Ohio will only hold his resolution a little longer, it will be acted upon at the proper time. We must be moderate and conservative.”

Gray sprang to his feet and got the chairman’s eye. His face was flushed and he almost shouted: “Conservatism be hanged! We have rolled that word under our tongues when we were being trampled upon; we have preached it in our churches when we were being shot down; we have taught it in our schools when the right to use our learning was denied us, until the very word has come to be a reproach upon a black man’s tongue!”

There were cries of “Order! Order!” and “Sit down!” and the gavel was rattling on the chairman’s desk. Then some one rose to a point of order, so dear to the heart of the negro debater. The point was sustained and the Ohioan yielded the floor, but not until he had gazed straight into the eyes of Miss Kirkman as they rose from her notebook. She turned red. He curled his lip and sat down, but the blood burned in his face, and it was not the heat of shame, but of anger and contempt that flushed his cheeks.

This outbreak was but the precursor of other storms to follow. Every one had come with an idea to exploit or some proposition to advance. Each one had his panacea for all the aches and pains of his race. Each man who had paid his five dollars wanted his full five dollars’ worth of talk. The chairman allowed them five minutes apiece, and they thought time dear at a dollar a minute. But there were speeches to be made for buncombe, and they made the best of the seconds. They howled, they raged, they stormed. They waxed eloquent or pathetic. Jones of Georgia was swearing softly and feelingly into Shackelford’s ear. Shackelford was sympathetic and nervous as he fingered a large bundle of manuscript in his back pocket. He got up several times and called “Mr. Chairman,” but his voice had been drowned in the tumult. Amid it all, calm and impassive, sat the man, who of all others was expected to be in the heat of the fray.

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It had been rumored that Courtney of the New York Beacon had come to Washington with blood in his eyes. But there he sat, silent and unmoved, his swarthy, eagle-like face, with its frame of iron-grey hair as unchanging as if he had never had a passionate thought.

“I don’t like Jim Courtney’s silence,” whispered Stowell to a colleague. “There’s never so much devil in him as when he keeps still. You look out for him when he does open up.”

But all the details of the convention do not belong to this narrative. It is hardly relevant, even, to tell how Stowell’s prediction came true, and at the second day’s meeting Courtney’s calm gave way, and he delivered one of the bitterest speeches of his life. It was in the morning, and he was down for a set speech on “The Negro in the Higher Walks of Life.” He started calmly, but as he progressed, the memory of all the wrongs, personal and racial that he had suffered; the knowledge of the disabilities that he and his brethren had to suffer, and the vision of toil unrequited, love rejected, and loyalty ignored, swept him off his feet. He forgot his subject, forgot everything but that he was a crushed man in a crushed race.

The auditors held their breath, and the reporters wrote much.

Turning to them he said, “And to the press of Washington, to whom I have before paid my respects, let me say that I am not afraid to have them take any word that I may say. I came here to meet them on their own ground. I will meet them with pen. I will meet them with pistol,” and then raising his tall, spare form, he shouted, “Yes, even though there is but one hundred and thirty-five pounds of me, I will meet them with my fists!”

This was all very rash of Courtney. His paper did not circulate largely, so his real speech, which he printed, was not widely read, while through the columns of the local press, a garbled and distorted version of it went to every corner of the country. Purposely distorted? Who shall say? He had insulted the press; and then Mr. Hamilton was a very wealthy man.

When the time for the consideration of Elkins’ resolution came, Courtney, Jones and Shackelford threw themselves body and soul into the fight with Gray and its author. There was a formidable array against them. All the men in office, and all of those who had received even a crumb of promise were for buttering over their wrongs, and making their address to the public a prophecy of better things.

Jones suggested that they send an apology to lynchers for having negroes where they could be lynched. This called for reproof from the other side, and the discussion grew hot and acrimonious. Gray again got the floor, and surprised his colleagues by the plainness of his utterances. Elkins followed him with a biting speech that brought Aldrich to his feet.

Mr. Aldrich had chosen well his time, and had carefully prepared his speech. He recited all the good things that the administration had done, hoped to do, tried to do, or wanted to do, and showed what a very respectable array it was. He counseled moderation and conservatism, and his peroration was a flowery panegyric of the “noble man whose hand is on the helm, guiding the grand old ship of state into safe harbor.”

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The office-holders went wild with enthusiasm. No self-interest there. The opposition could not argue that this speech was made to keep a job, because the speaker had none. Then Jim Courtney got up and spoiled it all by saying that it may be that the speaker had no job but wanted one.

Aldrich was not moved. He saw a fat salary and Annie Kirkman for him in the near future.

The young lady had done her work well, and when the resolution came to a vote it was lost by a good majority. Aldrich was again on his feet and offering another. The forces of the opposition were discouraged and disorganized, and they made no effort to stop it when the rules were suspended, and it went through on the first reading. Then the convention shouted, that is, part of it did, and Miss Kirkman closed her notebook and glanced up at the gallery again. The young man had closed his book also. Their work was done. The administration had not been denounced, and they had their black-list for Mr. Hamilton’s knife.

There were some more speeches made, just so that the talkers should get their money’s worth; but for the masses, the convention had lost its interest, and after a few feeble attempts to stir it into life again, a motion to adjourn was entertained. But, before a second appeared, Elkins arose and asked leave to make a statement. It was granted.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “we have all heard the resolution which goes to the public as the opinion of the negroes of the country. There are some of us who do not believe that this expresses the feelings of our race, and to us who believe this, Mr. Courtney has given the use of his press in New York, and we shall print our resolution and scatter it broadcast as the minority report of this convention, but the majority report of the race.”

Miss Kirkman opened her book again for a few minutes, and then the convention adjourned.

* * * * *

“I wish you’d find out, Miss Kirkman,” said Hamilton a couple of days later, “just what firm that young Elkins works for.”

“I have already done that. I thought you’d want to know,” and she handed him a card.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “I have some business relations with that firm. I know them very well. Miss Anderson,” he called to his stenographer, “will you kindly take a letter for me. By the way, Miss Kirkman, I have placed Mr. Aldrich. He will have his appointment in a few days.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Hamilton; is there anything more I can do for you?”

“Nothing. Good-morning.”


A week later in his Ohio home William Elkins was surprised to be notified by his employers that they were cutting down forces, and would need his services no longer. He wrote at once to his friend Gray to know if there was any chance for him in Washington, and received the answer that Gray could hardly hold his own, as great pressure was being put upon him to force him to resign.

“I think,” wrote Gray, “that the same hand is at the bottom of all our misfortunes. This is Hamilton’s method.”

Miss Kirkman and Mr. Aldrich were married two weeks from the day the convention adjourned. Mr. Gray was removed from his position on account of inefficiency. He is still trying to get back, but the very men to whom his case must go are in the hands of Mr. Hamilton.

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