Booker T., Grover C. and "King Cotton"

Updated on December 8, 2019
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JOHN C. GREGORY is an independent copy writer, novelist and agricultural journalist. Learning from the land and from history is his mission.

The Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 in Atlanta, Georgia
The Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 in Atlanta, Georgia
Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President of the United States
Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President of the United States

The very first event that counted as a “world’s fair” was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851. Inaugurated by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, the gathering served as a bold invitation to the states of the world: bring your best innovations here and allow them to stand side by side with ours before the cold analysis of judges, both dispassionate and partial. For five months, six-million visitors streamed through the Crystal Palace, an architectural innovation in and of itself. After Albert’s unqualified success, the template proliferated.

There was an era when international expositions and world fairs found a nourishing breast in the United States: the first in 1876 in Philadelphia, the next in 1893 in Chicago (the venue for the historical novel, The Devil in the White City). 1901 saw a subsequent fair come to Buffalo, NY where President William McKinley was assassinated. Undaunted, the U.S. received international expositions at San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Seattle—among other cities—over the ensuing decades. These productions showcased American economic and cultural ingenuity and dynamism. The last one on American soil, sadly, visited Spokane, Washington in 1974.

Of particular interest to conservative and libertarian types was the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895. This Atlanta, Georgia expo was significant because a tri-fold dynamic took hold of the proceedings: the spirit in the air promoted economic cooperation to end sectionalism; economic empowerment to blunt racism; and plain old entrepreneurship to rebuke central planning. The manifestations of this spirit were President Grover Cleveland, Booker T. Washington and John Philip Sousa respectively.

The “Big One” Gets a Second Chance on Sectionalism

Grover Cleveland returned to the presidency in 1893 with lessons learned. At the outset of his first term (1885-1889), a prima facie case that the oversized chief executive was the ideal agent to end the sectionalism of war-torn America was definitely plausible. After all, he was a born and bred northerner, yet also a Democrat – the predominant political affiliation of Dixie. On the surface, he would have the trust of both sides. His inaugural rhetoric seized upon this advantage:

Moreover, if from this hour we cheerfully and honestly abandon all sectional prejudice and distrust, and determine, with manly confidence in one another, to work out harmoniously the achievements of our national destiny, we shall deserve to realize all the benefits which our happy form of government can bestow.[1]

Yet the psychic and spiritual wounds of the Civil War ran deep. His sincere attempts to sow seeds of good will backfired in spectacular fashion.

Wanting to show sufficient honor for those dead and injured from their exposure to combat, the “Big One” embarked on a vigorous program to ferret out frivolous military pension applications. Northern veterans, aware that Cleveland had paid a proxy to serve in his place during the war, saw these vetoes as the cold-hearted policy of a draft dodger. Yankee feelings were further inflamed when the well-meaning commander-in-chief directed his War secretary to return captured Confederate battle flags to their unit survivors. Meanwhile, Southern agrarians were furious with Cleveland for his strict adherence to the gold standard, making debt more expensive for farmers. They viewed the 22nd president as a “Bourbon Democrat,” a tool of bankers and railroad owners.

Unable to catch a break for his efforts, Cleveland was driven from office in 1888. During his wilderness years, he came to grips with two realities. First, he could remain honest and principled while still being sensitive to Union vets’ sensibilities. Second, he believed a prosperous South was a better balm for sectional resentment than symbolic gestures by the president. As one Southern editor opined, “The South, having had its bellyful of blood, has gotten a taste of money, and is too busy trying to make more to quarrel with anybody.”[2] A booming, diversified Southern economy would blunt both the bitterness of the Lost Causers and the agitation of the agricultural populists. Cleveland’s return engagement at the White House would reflect this education.

The Cotton States and International Exposition would show the world that the American South was a player. Cleveland had attended its predecessor event, the 1887 Piedmont Exposition. Also in Atlanta, this was a regional fair that set the stage for the 1895 extravaganza. The president would make no speech at the latter (and much larger) confab. In fact, he was not present at the opening…yet his approval was unmistakable. From his vacation home on Cape Cod, Grover Cleveland threw a switch that remotely electrified the buildings at the fairgrounds. It suited his view of his office—and the government—perfectly. Cleveland consistently referred to himself as “chief magistrate.” He deigned to be neither a cultural leader nor celebrity (he would lose his nine-course lunch if he could see how times have changed!). This “last Jacksonian,” as historian Charles Calhoun called him, would safeguard liberty by confining government—beginning with his ample self— to its proper space.[3] Later, he would attend as a spectator, making no speeches, but meeting the orator who stole the show.

The “Wizard of Tuskegee” Conditions Self-Rule on Self-Reliance

Booker T. Washington’s address at the Exposition’s opening is legendary, yet controversial to this day. The “Wizard of Tuskegee” was a former slave bearing chip-free shoulders, a vexing void to the social justice warriors of the day. To be certain, few others deserved to bathe in bitterness more than Washington. Yet he was propelled by better angels to, first, survive the challenge of emancipation and then to excel – all on his own considerable merits.

Washington’s autobiography gives countless examples of the sub-human rudeness of his childhood circumstances:

I cannot remember having slept in a bed until after our family was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Three children…had a pallet on the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags upon the dirt floor.

He could recall no play or recreation of those early years, only arduous tasks, none of them piquing his fertile intellect.

Except one:

I had no schooling whatever when I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.[4]

Washington would indeed attain scholarly bliss, but not without a severe probation. Yet one most important lesson was learned before he even gained literacy. When plantations were liberated, owners and their sons were often left adrift. They did not know how to farm, and could no longer pay overseers since the workforce was gone. The sight and sense of these white families disintegrating economically and socially—while heartening perhaps to radical abolitionists—evoked sympathy from Booker T. Washington. It also served as an object lesson about learning from the ground up, a teaching he would convey at the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895.

The speaker had embraced a bottom-up philosophy from his first days at liberty by working from dawn to dusk in the salt mines. After dusk, completely spent physically, he learned to read. Finally, he gained acceptance to a new college for Negroes, an institution through which he worked his way as a janitor. Upon graduation Washington received an instructor appointment before setting up Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, initially without campus, infrastructure or students. Without working capital, he he sold the sweat equity of his students – and himself. Clearing land for agriculture and husbandry, the teacher and students created value and reaped its benefits. Professor Marvin Olasky notes some pushback in that pioneer phase:

Some of the students protested, arguing that they had come for an education so they would not have to do manual labor, “slave work.” Washington, however, swung his ax vigorously, both showing and telling that “There is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem…It is as important to know how to set a table and keep house as it is to read Latin.”[5]

Now an established educational leader, Washington was unchanged when he delivered his Cotton States Exposition valedictory in 1895. This was the first world’s fair venue with a “Negro Building” engineered and constructed entirely by African-Americans. Booker T. Washington’s address was only fitting since so much Tuskegee hardware was on display inside. To those of his race, he implored them to “Cast down your bucket where you are.” What he told them is still today conveyed in countless management training programs and military academies. Gurus no less renown than Stephen Covey advise the necessity of vertical training from the shop floor to the executive suite. Necessity aside, this advice was unwelcome among many ex-slaves who had toiled in exhaustion and humiliation. Some dubbed Washington “The Great Accommodator.”

Yet his message to southern whites gave lie to that nickname. To exposition attendees he sprinkled his good will with words of warning:

Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.[6]

Though personally admired by everyone, Booker T. Washington advocated a strategy that was too plodding in pace and devoid of vengeance to please the powers that be in the infant civil rights movement. That it might have proved more successful than what unfolded is now the stuff of historical argument.

The “March King” Balances the Books with Musical Assets

The son of Portuguese and German immigrants, John Philip Sousa played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band – “The President’s Own” – from the age of 13. Ascending to musical leadership of this elite ensemble, Sousa famously served at the helm for 11 years before stepping down to form his own band. Having composed hundreds of military and ceremonial works, the “March King” also wrote ballads, operettas and myriad dances. Aside from a few dozen marches – which remain patriotic staples – most of his works live on in relative obscurity.

In his day, Sousa was a veritable rock star, so to speak, criss-crossing the United States – and a goodly part of the globe – with his musicians, thrilling audiences with stirring arrangements (from his own hand and those of many others). In fact, he introduced music of Wagner and Berlioz, for example, to his listeners before those works really took off in American concert halls and opera houses. He not only strived to present music of value to his public, he sought more so to capture the public’s sense of what is inspiring, uplifting and ennobling. This kept him from the snobbery and elitism of so many contemporaries. After years of service to his country, he instinctively understood who now employed him—the patrons of his concerts.

To Sousa, this was as it should be. The Marine Band and its counterparts from the other armed services had their place, for sure; but government underwriting of the performing arts warped Sousa’s baton. Speaking with a Paris correspondent from the New York Herald, the bandmaster confessed to a sobering of his viewpoint:

Although at a certain period of my life I rather favored the “National” theatres, “National” orchestras, “National” bands, and “National” conservatories. I have been converted completely by a comparison of the superior results produced by individual effort over those due to a governmentally-subsidized art.

Sousa was convinced that government patronage immunized musicians from a sense of urgency to perform at their zenith. It may even sow seeds of contempt. From the same interview:

When a bandmaster has nothing to pay his bandsmen with save what the public thinks he deserves he must do good work or go to the wall. But if he has the government behind him it is merely in human nature that he will quote the famous saying: “the public be damned!”[7]

The present state of symphony orchestras, with their dependency on foundation grants and government funding over ticket sales, corroborates Sousa’s observation.[8]

The 1895 Cotton States fair gave him another chance to gauge the value of his offerings per the tastes of the exposition’s visitors. World’s fairs of this kind—even well-attended ones—were notorious financial train wrecks. Income and expense estimates rarely panned out and this event was no exception. A week prior to the Sousa Band’s planned arrival, organizers frantically wired the bandleader to stay home – they had no money to honor their contract. The March King’s solution was vintage Sousa:

…I made a proposition; we would release the management from the contract; we would give a series of concerts at the Festival Hall, charging an admission of fifty cents, all profits to revert to us; either side was privileged to terminate this agreement by a week’s notice.[9]

The hall was packed for every performance. Those same officials who begged Sousa to abort the trip ended up imploring him to remain indefinitely. Marches written for expositions were routinely consigned to amnesia but Sousa’s “King Cotton” was an immediate hit, and remains implanted in the concert band canon today. Yet the real legacy of the Sousa Band’s performances in Atlanta in 1895 relates to the failure of the governing body to meet its obligations according to the fees and levies it collected. On paper, there was a disbursement for these incredible musicians; in fact, overhead ate that outlay before it could be laid out. Mr. Sousa applied private enterprise, not only meeting his payroll and travel expenses, but pulling the whole exposition into the financial black, as well.[10]

The Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 presented to the nation—and the world—three forms of reconciliation, all effective because of less government management and oversight. After a difficult start, President Grover Cleveland learned that less is more when trying to heal the ruptures of sectionalism. The teacher Booker T. Washington reminded blacks and whites that a free economy will demand that they live and work together to their betterment, lest it work against them to their detriment. Finally, the bandmaster Sousa demonstrated the fiduciary superiority of retailing one’s wares directly as opposed to leaning on centralized authority to provide just compensation. Coming together in America’s libertarian moment, all three get accolades for various and sundry achievements.

It is their common philosophy that gets the brush-off.


[1] Albert Ellery Bergh, editor, Grover Cleveland Addresses, State Papers and Letters (New York: Sun Dial Classics Co., 1908), 60.

[2] Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966), 323.

[3] Charles W. Calhoun, From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010), 97.

[4] Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, Inc., 2010), 5-7.

[5] Marvin Olasky, The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1999), 112-113.

[6] Washington, 222.

[7] Interview with New York Herald (Paris Edition), A Sousa Reader: Essays, Interviews and Clippings, ed. Bryan Proksch (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2017), 32-33.

[8] Cooper, Michael. 2016. “It’s Official: Many Orchestras Are Now Charities.” New York Times, November 15, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/arts/music/its-official-many-orchestras-are-now-charities.html.

[9] John Philip Sousa, Marching Along: Reflections of Men, Women and Music (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2015), 89-90.

[10] Paul E. Bierley, John Philip Sousa: A Descriptive Catalog of His Works (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 55-56.

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa

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