Thomas Dixon Jr.
Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr.
January 11, 1864
Shelby, North Carolina, U.S.
|Died||April 3, 1946 (aged 82)|
Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.
|Alma mater||Wake Forest College|
Johns Hopkins University
Greensboro Law School
|Occupation||Minister, lecturer, writer|
|Known for||Advocacy of white supremacy|
|The Clansman |
(source of Birth of a Nation)
The Leopard's Spots
|Movement||Lost Cause of the Confederacy|
|Harriet Bussey (1886-1937)|
Madelyn Donovan (1939-1946)
|Relatives||Amzi Clarence Dixon|
Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr. (January 11, 1864 - April 3, 1946) was an American white supremacist, successively a politician, lawyer, Baptist minister, lecturer, novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. Referred to as a "professional racist",:510 Dixon wrote two best-selling novels, The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden - 1865-1900 (1902) and The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), that romanticized Southern white supremacy, endorsed the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, opposed equal rights for blacks, and glorified the Ku Klux Klan as heroic vigilantes. Film director D. W. Griffith adapted The Clansman for the screen in The Birth of a Nation (1915), which inspired the creators of the 20th-century rebirth of the Klan.
Dixon was born in Shelby, North Carolina, the son of Thomas Jeremiah Frederick Dixon II and Amanda Elvira McAfee, daughter of a planter and slave-owner from York County, South Carolina.:xvi He was one of eight children, of whom five survived to adulthood.:xvi His elder brother, preacher Amzi Clarence Dixon, helped to edit The Fundamentals, a series of articles (and later volumes) influential in fundamentalist Christianity. "He won international acclaim as one of the greatest ministers of his day.":7 His younger brother Frank Dixon was also a preacher and lecturer. His sister, Elizabeth Delia Dixon-Carroll, became a pioneer woman physician in North Carolina and was the doctor for many years at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
Dixon's father, Thomas J. F. Dixon Sr., son of an English-Scottish father and a German mother, was a well-known Baptist minister, as well as a landowner and slave-owner. His maternal grandfather, Frederick Hambright (possible namesake for the fictional North Carolina town of Hambright in which The Leopard's Spots takes place), was a German Palatine immigrant who fought in both the local militia and in the North Carolina Line of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Dixon Sr. had inherited slaves and property through his first wife's father, slaves worth $100,000 in 1862.:21-22[page needed]
In his adolescence, Dixon helped out on the family farms, an experience that he hated, but he would later say that it helped him to relate to the plight of the working man.:23[page needed] Dixon grew up after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period. The government confiscation of farmland, coupled with what Dixon saw as the corruption of local politicians, the vengefulness of Union troops, and the general lawlessness, embittered him, and he became staunchly opposed to the reforms of Reconstruction.:22-27
Dixon's father, Thomas Dixon Sr., and his maternal uncle, Col. Leroy McAfee, both joined the Klan early in the Reconstruction era with the aim of "bringing order" to the tumultuous times. McAfee was head of the Ku Klux Klan in Piedmont North Carolina.:388 "The romantic colonel made a lasting impression on the boy's imagination",:388 and The Clansman was dedicated "To the memory of a Scotch-Irish leader of the South, my uncle, Colonel Leroy McAfee, Grand Titan of the Invisible Empire Ku Klux Klan". Dixon claimed that one of his earliest recollections was of a parade of the Ku Klux Klan through the village streets on a moonlight night in 1869, when Dixon was 5.:387 Another childhood memory was of the widow of a Confederate soldier who had served under McAfee, accusing a black man of the rape of her daughter and seeking Dixon's family's help. Dixon's mother praised the Klan after it had hanged and shot the alleged rapist in the town square.:23
In 1877, Dixon entered the Shelby Academy, where he earned a diploma in only two years. In September 1879, at the age of 15, Dixon followed his older brother and enrolled at the Baptist Wake Forest College, where he studied history and political science. As a student, Dixon performed remarkably well. In 1883, after only four years, he earned a master's degree. His record at Wake Forest was outstanding, and he earned the distinction of achieving the highest student honors ever awarded at the university until then.:34 As a student there, he was a founding member of the chapter of Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, and delivered the 1883 Salutatory Address with "wit, humor, pathos and eloquence".
"After his graduation from Wake Forest, Dixon received a scholarship to enroll in the political science program at Johns Hopkins University, "then the leading graduate school in the nation".:388 There he met and befriended fellow student and future President Woodrow Wilson.:34[page needed] Wilson was also a Southerner, and Dixon says in his memoirs that "we became intimate friends.... I spent many hours with him in [Wilson's room].":167 It is documented that Wilson and Dixon took at least one class together: "As a special student in history and politics he undoubtedly felt the influence of Herbert Baxter Adams and his circle of Anglo-Saxon historians, who sought to trace American political institutions back to the primitive democracy of the ancient Germanic tribes. The Anglo-Saxonists were staunch racists in their outlook, believing that only latter-day Aryan or Teutonic nations were capable of self-government.":388 But after only one semester, despite the objections of Wilson, Dixon left Johns Hopkins to pursue journalism and a career on the stage.:168
Dixon headed to New York City, and while he tells us in his autobiography that he enrolled briefly at an otherwise unknown Frobisher School of Drama,:20 what he acknowledged publicly was his enrollment in a correspondence course given by the one-man American School of Playwriting, of William Thompson Price.:53 Apparently as an advertisement for the school, he reproduced in the program his handwritten thank-you note.
As an actor, Dixon's physical appearance was a problem. He was 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) but only 150 pounds (68 kg), making for a very lanky appearance. One producer remarked that because of his appearance, he would not succeed as an actor, but Dixon was complimented for his intelligence and attention to detail. The producer recommended Dixon put his love for the stage into scriptwriting.[page needed][page needed] Despite the compliment, Dixon returned home to North Carolina in shame.
Upon his return to Shelby, Dixon quickly realized that he was in the wrong place to begin to cultivate his playwriting skills. After the initial disappointment from his rejection, Dixon, with the encouragement of his father, enrolled in the short-lived Greensboro Law School, in Greensboro, North Carolina. An excellent student, Dixon received his law degree in 1885.[page needed]
It was during law school that Dixon's father convinced Thomas Jr. to enter politics. After graduation, Dixon ran for the local seat in the North Carolina General Assembly as a Democrat. Despite being only 20 years of age and too young to vote, he won the 1884 election by a 2-1 margin, a victory that was attributed to his eloquence. Dixon retired from politics in 1886 after only one term in the legislature. He said that he was disgusted by the corruption and the backdoor deals of the lawmakers, and he is quoted as referring to politicians as "the prostitutes of the masses.":181-186 However short, Dixon's political career gained him popularity throughout the South as he was the first to champion Confederate veterans' rights.
Following his career in politics, Dixon practiced private law for a short time, but he found little satisfaction as a lawyer and soon left the profession to become a minister.
Dixon claimed to be a friend of negroes, a claim Karen Crowe found "unconvincing". But he thought that they were not and never would be the equal of whites, who had superior intelligence; blacks could not benefit much even from the best education.:xxv Giving them the vote was a mistake, if not a disaster. The Reconstruction Amendments were "insane". He favored returning negroes to Africa, although there were far too many for this to ever happen; even the whole U.S. Navy could not keep up with the ones being born, much less the adults.:xxvi
Dixon tells in his autobiography of things he witnessed first hand:
In addition, because his uncle was very involved in both the Klan and other local politics -- residents funded him to go to Washington on their behalf -- he got earfuls of reports about other alleged misconduct by negroes and their white allies who controlled government in North Carolina.
Dixon had a particular hatred for Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, leader in the House of Representatives, because he supported land confiscation from whites and its distribution to blacks (see 40 acres and a mule), and according to Dixon wanted "to make the South Negroid territory".:xvii Historians do not support many of his charges.:xxiv
Dixon was concerned about "the woman question", women's suffrage. "His prejudices against women are more subtle." "For him, though a woman's real fulfillment lies most assuredly in marriage, the best example of that institution is one in which she takes an equal part.":xxix
Dixon was also concerned with threats of communism and war. "Civilization was threatened by socialists, by involvement of the U.S. in European affairs, finally, by communists... He saw civilization as a somewhat fragile quality thing threatened with wreck and ruin from all sides.":xvi
Dixon was ordained as a Baptist minister on October 6, 1886. That month, church records show that he moved to the parsonage at 125 South John Street in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to serve as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church. Already a lawyer and fresh out of Wake Forest Seminary, life in Goldsboro must not have been what young Dixon had been expecting for a first preaching assignment. The social upheaval that Dixon portrays in his later works was largely melded through Dixon's experiences in the post-war Wayne County during Reconstruction.
On April 10, 1887, Dixon moved to the Second Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. His popularity rose quickly, and before long, he was offered a position at the large Dudley Street Baptist Church (razed in 1964) in Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts. He was unpleasantly surprised to find prejudice there against negroes;:195 he always said he was a friend of negroes. As his popularity on the pulpit grew, so did the demand for him as a lecturer.:40 While preaching in Boston, Dixon was asked to give the commencement address at Wake Forest University. Additionally, he was offered a possible honorary doctorate from the university. Dixon himself rejected the offer, but he sang high praises about a then-unknown man Dixon believed deserved the honor, his old friend Woodrow Wilson.:41 A reporter at Wake Forest who heard Dixon's praises of Wilson put a story on the national wire, giving Wilson his first national exposure.:41
In August 1889, although his Boston congregation was willing to double his pay if he would stay, Dixon accepted a post in New York City.:42 There he would preach at new heights, rubbing elbows with the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt (whom he helped in a campaign for New York governor).:42 He had "the largest congregation of any Protestant minister in the United States.":21 "As pastor of the Twenty-third Street Baptist Church in New York City...his audiences soon outgrew the church and, pending the construction of a new People's Temple, Dixon was forced to hold services in a neighboring YMCA.":389 Thousands were turned away.John D. Rockefeller offered a $500,000 matching grant for Dixon's dream, "the building of a great temple". However, it never took place.:205-211
In 1895, Dixon resigned his position, saying that "for reaching of the non-church-going masses, I am convinced that the machinery of a strict Baptist church is a hindrance", and that he wished for "a perfectly free pulpit". The Board of the church had expressed to him three times their desire to leave Association Hall and return to the church's building; according to them, the crowds attending were not making enough donations to cover the Hall's rental, for which reason there was "a gradual increase of the indebtedness of the church, without any prospect for a change for the better." It was also reported at the time of his resignation that "For a long time past there have been dissensions among the members of the Twenty-Third street Baptist church, due to the objections of the more conservative members of the congregation to the 'sensational' character of the sermons preached during the last five years by the pastor, Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr." A published letter from "An Old-Fashioned Clergyman" accused him of "sensationalism in the pulpit"; he responded that he was sensationalistic, but this was preferable to " the stupidity, failure, and criminal folly of tradition," an example of which was "putting on women's clothes [clerical robes] in the hope of adding to my dignity on Sunday by the judicious use of dry goods."
In 1896 Dixon's Failure of Protestantism in New York and its causes appeared.
"Dixon decided to move on and form a new church, the People's Church (sometimes described as the People's Temple), in the auditorium of the Academy of Music;":21 this was a nondenominational church. He continued preaching there until 1899, when he began to lecture full-time.
"While pastor of the People's church [sic] in New York he was once indicted on a charge of criminal libel for his pulpit attacks on city officials. When the warrant of arrest was served on him he set about looking up the records of the members of the grand jury which had indicted him. Then he denounced the jury from his pulpit. The proceedings were dropped.":234-236
Dixon was someone "who had something to say to the world and meant to say it." He had "something burning in his heart for utterance." He insisted repeatedly that he was only telling the truth, furnished documentation when challenged,:279-280 and asked his critics to point out any untruths in his works, even announcing a reward for anyone who could. The reward was not claimed.
Dixon enjoyed lecturing, and found it "an agreeable pastime". "Success on the platform was the easiest thing I ever tried.":260 He went on the Chautauqua circuit,:23 and was often hailed as the best lecturer in the nation.:51:25 He tells us in his autobiography that as a lecturer, "I always spoke without notes after careful preparation".:260 Over four years he was heard by an estimated 5,000,000 attendees, sometimes exceeding 6,000 at a single program.:103 He gained an immense following throughout the country, particularly in the South, where he played up his speeches on the plight of the working man and what he called the horrors of Reconstruction.
[H]e can whirl words and ideas at an audience as few men can.... He spoke on the "New America" before an audience that nearly filled the opera house. The people held their breath and listened, they clapped their hands, they laughed and sometimes some of them cried a little, and when the lecturer[,] after a magnificent close, bowed himself off the platform, they felt wronged that they had paid fifty cents apiece to hear so short an address; then they looked at their watches to find that they had been listening two hours.
About 1896, Dixon had a breakdown caused by overwork. He had lived on 94th St. in Manhattan and on Staten Island, but did not like the weather, "and the doctor had come to see us every week". The doctor said he should "live in the country".:239 Now wealthy, in 1897 Dixon purchased "a stately colonial home, Elmington Manor", in Gloucester County, Virginia. The house had 32 rooms and the grounds were 500 acres (200 ha).:244-245 He had his own post office, Dixondale. The same year he had an 80 feet (24 m) steam yacht built, which required a crew of "two men and a boy"; he named it Dixie.:250 He says in his autobiography that one year he paid income tax on $210,000. "I felt...I had more money than I could possibly spend.":314
It was during such a lecture tour that Dixon attended a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dixon could hardly contain his anger and outrage at the play, and it is said that he literally "wept at [the play's] misrepresentation of southerners.":25 Dixon vowed that the "true story" of the South should be told. As a direct result of that experience, Dixon wrote his first novel, The Leopard's Spots (1902), which uses several characters, including Simon Legree, recycled from Stowe's novel.:51:25 It and its successor, The Clansman, were published by Doubleday, Page & Company (and contributed significantly to the publisher's success). Dixon turned to Doubleday because he had a "long friendship" with fellow North Carolinian Walter Hines Page.:177, 262 Doubleday accepted The Leopard's Spots immediately.:264 The entire first edition was sold before it was printed -- "an unheard of thing for a first novel".:266 It sold over 100,000 copies in the first 6 months, and the reviews were "generous beyond words".:266-267
Dixon turned to writing books as a way to present his ideas to an even larger audience. Dixon's "Trilogy of Reconstruction" consisted of The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). (In his autobiography, he says that in creating trilogies, he was following the model of Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz.[page needed]) Dixon's novels were best-sellers in their day, despite being racist pastiches of historical romance fiction. They glorify an antebellum American South white supremacist viewpoint. Dixon claimed to oppose slavery, but he espoused racial segregation and vehemently opposed universal suffrage and miscegenation.[page needed]:27 He was "a spokesman for southern Jim Crow segregation and for American racism in general. Yet he did nothing more than reiterate the comments of others.":4
Dixon's Reconstruction-era novels depict Northerners as greedy carpetbaggers and white Southerners as victims. Their prejudice and bigotry appealed to a readership that feared losing its privileged legacy of brutal oppression and exploitation. Dixon's Clansman caricatures the Reconstruction as an era of "black rapists" and "blonde-haired" victims, and if his racist views were unknown, the vile and gratuitous brutality and Klan terror in which the novel revels would be read as satire. If "Dixon used the motion picture as a propaganda tool for his often outrageous opinions on race, communism, socialism, and feminism,"[page needed]D. W. Griffith, in his film adaptation of the novel, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is a case in point. Dixon wrote a highly successful stage adaptation of The Clansman in 1905. In The Leopard's Spots, the Reverend Durham character indoctrinates Charles Gaston, the protagonist, with a foul-mouthed diatribe of hate speech. One critic notes that the term for marriage, "the Holy of Holies", may be a crude euphemism for the vagina. Equally, Dixon's opposition to miscegenation seemed to be as much about confused sexism as it was about racism, as he opposed relationships between white women and black men but not between black women and white men.
Another pet hate for Dixon and the focus of another trilogy was socialism: The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia (1903), Comrades: A Story of Social Adventure in California (1909), and The Root of Evil (1911), the latter of which also discusses some of the problems involved in modern industrial capitalism. The book Comrades was made into a motion picture, entitled Bolshevism on Trial, released in 1919. In the play The Sins of the Father, which was produced in 1910-1911, Dixon himself played the leading role.
Dixon wrote 22 novels, as well as many plays, sermons, and works of non-fiction. W.E.B. DuBois said he was more widely read than Henry James. His writing centered on three major themes: racial purity, the evils of socialism, and the traditional family role of woman as wife and mother. (Dixon opposed female suffrage.) A common theme found in his novels is violence against white women, mostly by Southern black men. The crimes are almost always avenged through the course of the story, the source of which might stem from a belief of Dixon's that his mother had been sexually abused as a child.:30 He wrote his last novel, The Flaming Sword, in 1939 and not long after was crippled by a cerebral hemorrhage.
While The Birth of a Nation is still viewed for its crucial role in the birth of the feature film, none of Dixon's novels has stood the test of time. In 1925, when Publishers Weekly documented the best-selling fiction of the past quarter century, no novel by Dixon was included.":5
Dixon would not be happy to learn that he is mainly remembered as a novelist. He saw himself as a man of ideas above all, and if he wrote fiction, it was only because at that moment, he considered it the best medium to transmit his ideas to a large public. Making a play of The Clansman would reach twice as many people "and with an emotional power ten times as great as in cold type".:280
In the years between the composition of The Clansman (1905) and Birth of a Nation (1915), Dixon was primarily known as a playwright.
Turning it into a movie was the next step, reaching more people with even more impact.:15 As he said à propos of The Fall of a Nation (1916): the movie "reached more than thirty million people and was, therefore, thirty times more effective than any book I might have written.":310
"Out of the royalties of Birth of a Nation I bought an orange grove in the heart of movieland [Hollywood] and built on it the first fully equipped Studio and Laboratory combined which the town had seen. In it I made my second picture and directed it.":309
Dixon was an extreme nationalist, chauvinist, racist, reactionary ideologue, although "at the height of his fame, Dixon might well have been considered a liberal by many.":18 He spoke favorably several times of Jews and Catholics. He distanced himself from the "bigotry" of the revived "second era" Ku Klux Klan, which he saw as "a growing menace to the cause of law and order", and its members "unprincipled marauders" (and they in turn attacked Dixon).:16 It seems that he inferred that the "Reconstruction Klan" members were not bigots. "He condemned the secret organization for ignoring civilized government and encouraging riot, bloodshed, and anarchy.":29 He denounced antisemitism as "idiocy", pointing out that the mother of Jesus was Jewish. "The Jewish race Is the most persistent, powerful, commercially successful race that the world has ever produced." While lauding the "loyalty and good citizenship" of Catholics, he claimed it was the "duty of whites to lift up and help" the supposedly "weaker races."
Dixon and Harriet Bussey had three children together: Thomas III, Louise, and Gordon.
Dixon's final years were not financially comfortable. "He had lost his house on Riverside Drive in New York, which he had occupied for twenty-five years.... His books no longer became...best sellers.":221 The money he earned from his first books he lost on the stock and cotton exchanges in the crash of 1907.:292-293 "His final venture in the late 1920s was a vacation resort," Wildacres Retreat, in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. "After he had spent a vast amount of money on its development, the enterprise collapsed as speculative bubbles in land across the country began to burst before the crash of 1929." He ended his career as an impoverished court clerk in Raleigh, North Carolina.[page needed]
Harriet died on 29 December 1937, and fourteen months later, on February 26, 1939, Dixon suffered a crippling cerebral hemorrhage. Less than a month later, from his hospital bed, Dixon married Madelyn Donovan, an actress thirty years his junior, who had played a role in a film adaptation of Mark of the Beast.:128 She had also been his research assistant on The Flaming Sword, his last novel. The marriage "induced indignation and outrage among his remaining relatives", who viewed her as a "bad woman". She cared for him for the next seven years, taking over his duties as clerk when he could no longer work. He tried to provide for her future financial security, giving her the rights to all his property. He says nothing about her in his autobiography.:xxxi
Dixon died on April 3, 1946. He is buried, with Madelyn, in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina.
The Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr. Collection, in the John R. Dover Memorial Library at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, contains documents, manuscripts, biographical works, and other materials pertaining to the life and literary career of Thomas Dixon. It also holds fifteen hundred volumes from Dixon's personal book collection and nine paintings which became illustrations in his novels.
Additional archival material is in the Duke University Library.
Dixon now decided that he would try politics, and in 1884 he ran successfully for a Democratic seat in the state legislature.