The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis of Chapters 26-30


Chapter 26

Mr. Ellis becomes uncomfortable at the thought of lynching Sandy. It was his testimony that put Sandy in jail and that now threatened to condemn him to death. Ellis is against lynching, and he wrote against it several times in the Morning Chronicle. Though he grew up in the South, he had never been a supporter of slavery or violence. As the evening approaches, he feels more and more responsibility for “the intended auto-da-fe” and is less certain about what he actually saw. As he begins to think of the last time he saw Sandy at the cakewalk, he realizes that what he really saw was a white man impersonating a black man. He knows that it is Tom Delamere.

His first worry is that if he names Tom Delamere as the murderer, he will lose all chance with Clara. Though he will do a just thing, it will not be rewarded with love. “We might feel a certain tragic admiration for Brutus condemning his sons to death, but we would scarcely invite Brutus to dinner after the event.” He decides to go to the jail and protest against the killing, naming Tom as the murderer only if it will save Sandy’s life.

As he goes, he sees the preparations for the burning taking place. A fire pit and stake have been created in the center of town. Bleachers have been erected and the burning has been set for early in the evening “so that the children might not be kept up beyond their usual bedtime.” Ellis overhears several young men discussing which body parts they will keep as souvenirs. As he approaches the jailhouse, he meets old Mr. Delamere. Ellis tells him that he plans to save Sandy, but that he will not yet name the murderer. He can tell that this affair will be the end of Mr. Delamere.

Chapter 27

Mr. Delamere goes to his home and immediately enters his grandson’s room. He uses a stove poker to force open a locked drawer and finds the evidence of his grandson’s licentious behavior: dice, bottles of whiskey, cards, and photographs “which the old gentleman merely glanced to ascertain their nature.” Mr. Delamere spots a gleam of gold in the corner and reaches down to find a five-dollar gold piece. Mr. Delamere interrogates his cook who confirms that Tom came in late and then did not awake when she asked him about his breakfast.

Delamere goes back to the Morning Chronicle office and speaks with Major Carteret. He relays the information. He painfully tells the Major that his grandson committed the murder. When Carteret questions him further, Delamere gives the entire list of evidence against his grandson. Carteret sees that Sandy is clearly innocent, but the situation is difficult now. “The white people of the city had raised the issue of their superior morality, and had themselves made this crime a race question. The success of the impending ‘revolution’...depended in large measure upon the maintenance of their race prestige, which would be injured in the eyes of the world by such a fiasco.”

The only solution that Carteret can come up with is for Delamere to perjure himself by swearing that Sandy was with him the night of the murder. He does so and a bill is sent out to the city with the new facts of the case. The mob who would have lynched Sandy disperses. This “slight change in the point of view had demonstrated the entire ability of the leading citizens to maintain the dignified and orderly process of the law whenever they saw fit to do so.” Sandy is discharged from jail the next day and all those that wanted to lynch him now congratulated him on his freedom. “Sandy, having thus escaped from the Mr. Hyde of the mob, now received the benediction of its Dr. Jekyll.”

No further action is taken on the case. The next day, Mr. Delamere calls General Belmont to his house where he drafts a new will, leaving all his possessions to Sandy and to Dr. Miller’s hospital. An hour later, Mr. Delamere suffers a final stroke, which kills him. General Belmont decides not to hand over the will, but keeps it in safekeeping just in case Tom Delamere needs to know of its existence.

Chapter 28

A few weeks pass and Wellington resumes its “wonted calm.” Tom leaves only old Mr. Delamere’s wardrobe to Sandy and Major Carteret employs him as a butler in his own house. Tom does not visit Clara and Ellis, consumed by work at the office, does not make any immediate romantic advances towards her either. In the nation as a whole, the mood is tilting towards segregationist sentiment. There was a “growing contempt” for equal rights in the South. In the North, “a new Pharaoh had risen, who knew not Israel...who knew little of the fierce passions which had played around the negro in the past epoch....” In North Carolina, particularly, the state is given over to “venal and self seeking politicians” who have a mind only for reinstituting white supremacy at all levels.

The state adopts the “grandfather clause.” This clause stipulates that “all citizens whose fathers or grandfathers had been entitled to vote prior to 1867” are entitled to vote in current elections. This, of course, precludes all black persons since only whites could vote prior to that year. Over the course of time, “the negroes were reduced to the apathy of despair, their few white allies demoralized....” This is not enough for those in power in Wellington, however. The “Big Three” meet in the offices of the Morning Chronicle to discuss how to disenfranchise the town’s black population further. It will be two years before the grandfather clause goes into effect and “that would mean to leave the niggers in charge of this town for two years after the state has declared for white supremacy!” General Belmont inquires over the editorial from the black newspaper that the men had discussed earlier. Carteret finds it and they read it over again. With its strong opposition to lynching, the men see the article as a “racial lèse-majesté in the most aggravated form.” They decide to republish it.

The General calls in Jerry to have him fetch several rounds of liquor. The General is shocked when he sees Jerry and his face is “splotched with brown and yellow patches” and his hair shines as though he had “fallen head-foremost into a firkin of butter.” Jerry is embarrassed. The General realizes that Jerry has been reading the black paper and using a cream advertised in that paper that will make hair straight and skin white in just a few applications. This makes McBane sneer. Carteret’s thoughts turn to the idea that there is “no permanent place for the negro in the United States, if indeed anywhere in the world, except under the ground.” He sees Jerry’s actions as pathetic and ignorant. Later, when Carteret questions Jerry, he asks if he will vote in the upcoming elections. Jerry tells him that he will have nothing to do with the elections if the white people tell him not to vote. Carteret thinks Jerry is a fool, but Jerry understands the social dynamics of the town better than Carteret realizes.

Chapter 29

The article is published in the Morning Chronicle and the effect is immediate. The whites begin to murmur of violence and the blacks try to arm themselves. No white person will sell them firearms, however, and so they make do with old military rifles and revolvers. An armed contingent guards the office of the editor of the Afro-American Banner; feeling in danger, he disappears from town one evening. The three conspirators are very happy with the work that they have accomplished.

General Belmont proposes that they begin the “final act of this drama.” He tells them how he witnessed Paterno’s revolution against Igorroto in Nicaragua and how Paterno, with the arms and men, easily drove out the ruling government. This, Belmont tells them, is their chance to drive out the Republicans from Wellington. McBane goes one step further and suggests that several should be killed, but Carteret refuses to participate in premeditated homicide. The group goes down a list of all blacks and Republicans who should be kicked out of town. It is decided that the black preachers and Dr. Miller can stay, though Carteret admits to having a personal grievance against Miller. McBane calls this hypocrisy and says, “If this nigger doctor annoys the major, we’ll drive him out with the rest. This is a white man’s country, and a white man’s city, and no nigger has any business here when a white man wants him gone!” This brutal statement of the fact “robbed the enterprise of all its poetry, and put a solemn act of revolution upon the plane of a mere vulgar theft of power.” The hour of the revolution is fixed, but the conspirators overlook one fact -- “God, or Fate, or whatever one may choose to call the Power that holds the destinies of man in the hollow of his hand.”

Chapter 30

Olivia Carteret remains disturbed by what her Aunt Polly had told her before her death. The shock of Aunt Polly’s murder has kept her from opening the papers that she found in the pine box, but her nervousness over the situation finally allowed her to open them. The first document is a will. It leaves ten thousand dollars and a tract of land to the daughter of Julia Brown. The rest is left to Olivia. This gives Olivia a sense of relief. She takes the will, walks into the next room, and throws it into the fire. Just as it is burning, Olivia sees a line that she had missed -- “All the rest and residue of my estate I devise and bequeath to my daughter Olivia Merkell, the child of my beloved first wife.” This word “first” means that her father had taken a second wife.

Olivia grabs the envelope again and finds a certificate of marriage, executed in a county in South Carolina, between Julia Brown and her father. This paper shocks Olivia, but she cannot see how such a certificate could be honored since it is illegal for persons of mixed race to marry. She goes to the fireplace and throws the certificate in to burn. There is another letter in the envelope and Olivia takes it out and reads it. It is a long letter, written to Mr. Delamere asking him to be the executor of his estate upon his death. Olivia’s father gives his reasons for marrying Julia and asks that if Julia’s child should become an educated, virtuous woman in her adulthood, that Mr. Delamere should tell her that she is his lawful child and ask her to forgive his weakness.

Several days later, Olivia hypothetically asks her husband what would happen if it was discovered that her father had married his servant. Though Major Carteret thinks that his wife is over thinking the matter, he tells her that it could only be a valid marriage if it was conducted during the military occupation or in the state of South Carolina. Olivia is troubled by this. She feels that marriage is a right given from God. She cannot announce the marriage or make amends from the past, however, without shaming her father in the process. This causes her health to begin to deteriorate.


The character of Mr. Ellis represents the northern white audience that Chesnutt addresses his novel to. Chesnutt would not have addressed his book to a Southern audience, as speaking out against lynching and racial violence in such a way would have been condemned and met with violent resistance. Instead, like writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Chesnutt addressed his book to a sympathetic Northern audience that, through public opinion, might be able to improve the condition of the black community in the South.

Mr. Ellis is representative of those white Northerners who were still undetermined about what action to take regarding the lynchings and racial violence in the South. Ellis is educated and has a sense of moral outrage over the practice, but he is not sure of the path to take. He compares himself to Brutus, a reference to Lucius Junius Brutus who was a founder of the Roman republic. When Brutus’s sons rebelled against the republic, Brutus turned them both in and ordered their executions. Brutus’s actions carry with them a perception of both nobility and disgust.

Ellis is concerned that his actions to correct the accusations against Sandy will be considered too disgusting and will result in his own lack of standing in the community. However, he also understands that his failure to do anything will result in a murder. This, Chesnutt suggests, is the plight of the white Northern observer. They do not want to over-object to the violent situation in the South, since the nation was just beginning to recover from a bloody civil war, yet their inaction was tantamount to murder. Though Sandy was acquitted of the false accusations, Ellis cannot escape blood on his own hands. By declining to intervene, Ellis cost Mr. Delamere his life. Chesnutt means to alert his northern readers that silence on the subject of lynching and violence will always result in death.

Chapter Twenty-Eight is the beginning of the novel’s final act. There is a sense of uneasy normalcy returning to Wellington, though it is questionable how normal any community can seem with an everpresent air of violence. The narrator’s comment that “a new Pharaoh” has come to the North is a reference to the Bible story of the Hebrew enslavement. In this story, a new Pharaoh comes to rule over an Egypt that does not remember the contribution of Joseph and of the Hebrews to Egyptian society. The new Pharaoh then enslaves the Hebrew people. This refers to the conclusion of Reconstruction and the new policies of the United States government to encourage national unity. This national unity came at the sacrifice of black civil rights. The United States government, Chesnutt suggests, turned over the issue of civil rights to the Southern states.

This quote also references the analogy of Hebrew exodus to the ending of slavery. Throughout the period of slavery in the United States, slaves often compared their plight to this Biblical story, believing that God would bring them out of captivity just as he did for the Hebrew people. African American spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” and “Pharaoh’s Army Got Drowned” also make reference to this story. By creating an analogy between the Hebrew exodus and slavery, African American slaves were able to create a method of non-violent resistance to their white slave owners and slave drivers.