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Washington Post, January 27, 1895 - p. 17


Gen. Bethune Was a Radical Reformer Fifty Years Ago.



Sketch of the Eventful Career of the Well-Known Georgian Who Bids Fair to Round Out a Full Century of Existence -- A Leader of Thought in the South a Generation Ago -- "Blind Tom" Was His Slave -- A Believer in State Rights.

Sometimes, when glancing carelessly over the columns of a daily paper, the eye is attracted by a name which holds it, while the mind overturns its memories to recall the personality it conveys. Almost forgotten actors in dramas that have filled an exciting day, and passed into the waste paper basket in the property room of progress, stalk again in this way across the creaking stage behind footlights long burned out, and those who say them in the flush of success forget that their fustian has been claimed by hungry moths and enjoy again the stirring scenes when their paint was fresh, and they breathed the grateful incense of a public's applause.

The announcement published a day or two ago of Gen. James N. Bethune's illness inspired in few minds any recollections of the long ago, but a half-dozen men here who are in themselves links between the past and the present were taken out of their mellow retirement for the moment, and translated to an epoch when Gen. Bethune was a power in the intellectual South, and a man of mark in its refined and chivalrous community.

Away back before most of the grandfathers of to-day were born, Gen. Bethune was helping to shape the sentiment of States Rights in its aggressive form. But that is anticipatory. It is well to state first that the distinguished old gentleman is not seriously ill, although he is confined to his residence on Capitol Hill, and that his strength and lustiness bid fair to enable him to round out a full century of existence. And that will not be very long, as he is now ninety-two years of age.

Born in Georgia in 1803.

He was born in Georgia in 1803, of distinguished lineage, being directly descended from the ancient house of Bethune, whose cavaliers were famous in the annals of Scotland and France 300 years and more ago. Reared as became his birth, he left his tutors early and entered the University of Georgia, where he was graduated in 1823. Two years later he was admitted to the bar, and early in his thirties he became solicitor general of his native State. He was an accurate scholar, deeply versed in science and literature, and possessed a masterful familiarity with the dead and living languages. But the restraints of his profession did not control his active and resourceful mind. He was forceful and original, and his views upon political and economic subjects were startling even to his colleagues, who were not at all chary of the extent to which their own opinions might go, for young Bethune may be truthfully called the first ultra secessionist and the first radical free trade Democrat who had the courage to enunciate his beliefs.

Previous to 1840 he founded and for many years afterward maintained at Columbus, Ga., a newspaper devoted to that propaganda, and to his teachings in its columns many of the ablest men in Georgia and the South have acknowledged their indebtedness. His idea of free trade was extreme. He believed that every custom house should be pulled down or otherwise abolished, and the books of the Treasury disposed of as old junk. He championed the policy of having the national government supported by the direct taxation of the States. He argued, for instance, that the equity and justice between the citizens of the States and the government of the United States could best be preserved by a system under which the Secretary of the Treasury should have but a single imperative duty. This was to consist in an examination of each general census taken and the discovery of the number of inhabitants residing in each State. The Secretary was then to ascertain as nearly as possible the amount required for the expenses of the general government, which should consist of the money needed for the support of the Army and Navy, the salaries of Congressmen, Senators, and the President and officials of the civil service, and what might be necessary to be appropriated by Congress for public improvements. This amount was to be divided per capita among the entire population of the United States, and then the Secretary of the Treasury was to call upon the Governor of each State for the sum represented by the total per capita of the inhabitants of this particular commonwealth. If, for instance, the public expense amounted to $45,000,000 and the country's population was $15,000,000, the per capita tribute to be paid by each person would be $3. If New York had 4,000,000 inhabitants and Ohio 100,000, according to Gen. Bethune's idea, the Empire State would have been compelled to pay $12,000,000 toward the support of the general government, while Ohio's share would have been $300,000.

He advanced this proposition with great ardor and conviction and was equally as convinced that any State in the Union had a perfect right to secede from her sisters whenever she found the companionship irksome or unfair.

Never Ran for Office.

In spite of his advanced political views, however, Gen. Bethune was never a candidate for office but once and then he was prevailed upon to run for Congress, and was defeated on account of those same extreme opinions.

It was but natural that such a man should have attracted other strong intellects toward him, and young Bethune became the close friend and compeer of the Colquitts, the Hamars, the Hills, Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and the other brilliant and powerful actors in the political drama and filled the public state of Georgia from 1825 to 1875.

During the Creek War of 1832 Gen. Bethune was a gallant officer, but was incapacitated when the great sectional struggle came for military duty, by reason of his age and the loss of a leg that he had sustained some years previously.

He is not only a man of ardent conviction and dauntless courage, but is noted as well for his generous impulses and tender sympathies, in spite of the rugged and severe manner and austerity with which he has always tried to cloak his real nature. The evening of his life has been spent at his estate, "Elway," in Faquier county, Va. He married Frances Gunby, of an old Maryland family, a woman lovely in person and character, who died many years ago. The surviving children are Judge Joseph D. Bethune of the Arizona bench; J. A. Bethune, of this city; Mrs. N. T. N. Robinson, wife of the Assistant Solicitor of the Treasury; Mrs. Boyle, widow of the late Dr. Cornelius Boyle, of this city; Mrs. Hauserd, of Columbus, Ga.; and Miss Bethune, of Virginia.

The negro pianist, Blind Tom, was among Gen. Bethune's slaves, together with Tom's father and mother, and numerous brothers and sisters.

Gen. Bethune is a militant Christian, and he published a few years ago a work entitled "The Mistakes of Ingersoll," which displayed the serene consciousness of his faith and his tolerance for the unfortunate lack of it in others.


James Bethune headstone

James N. Bethune died on February 13, 1895.
He is buried in the Bethune family plot in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus, Georgia.
Photo courtesy of Patti Andrews.

Return to biography of Blind Tom


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