Thomas Dixon Jr.

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Thomas Dixon Jr.
Portrait of Thomas Dixon, Jr.jpg
Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr.

(1864-01-11)January 11, 1864
DiedApril 3, 1946(1946-04-03) (aged 82)
Alma materWake Forest College
Johns Hopkins University
OccupationMinister, lecturer, writer
Known forWhite supremacist; spokesman for white American South; glorifying Ku Klux Klan
Notable work
The Leopard's Spots
The Clansman
(sources for Birth of a Nation)
StyleHistorical romance; sermon or lecture
MovementLost Cause of the Confederacy
Spouse(s)Harriet Bussey (1886–1937)
Madelyn Donovan (1939–1946)
ChildrenThomas III, Louise, Gordon
  • Thomas Jeremiah Frederick Dixon (father)
  • Amanda Elvira McAfee (mother)
RelativesAmzi Clarence Dixon (brother) Harriet Bussey

Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr. (January 11, 1864 – April 3, 1946) was the most famous American at the beginning of the 20th century, what today would be a media celebrity. He was first a lawyer and member of the North Carolina State Legislature, then a Southern Baptist minister drawing overflow crowds to his sermons, then a full-time and skillful lecturer in great demand, then a highly successful novelist and playwright. He was the South's spokesperson; he especially wanted to counter what he considered lies in Uncle Tom's Cabin by telling the South's version of the Reconstruction era.

Dixon was a proud racist and believed in white supremacy and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which he did more than anyone else to popularize. He also opposed female as well as black suffrage.[1]:91 Two of his 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), in which the Klan saves the country, were combined by film director D. W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation (1915), the most expensive, successful, and innovative movie ever made up to that date. The movie had as direct result the rebirth of the Klan (the second Klan). The Klan's white robes and cross burning were innovations of Dixon.

Early years[edit]

Dixon was born in Shelby, North Carolina, the son of Thomas Jeremiah Frederick Dixon II and Amanda Elvira McAfee. He had an elder brother, preacher Amzi Clarence Dixon, who 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."[1]:7

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 landowner and slave-owner. His grandfather, Frederick Hambright (possible namesake for the fictional North Carolina town of Hambright in which The Leopard's Spots take place), was a German Palatine migrant who fought in both the local militia and in the North Carolina Line of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.[2] Dixon Sr. had inherited slaves and property through his first wife's father, slaves worth $100,000 in 1862.[1]:21–22[3][page needed]

Frontispiece to the first edition of Dixon's The Clansman.

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.[1]:23[3] Dixon grew up during Reconstruction after the Civil War. The government confiscation of farmland, coupled with what Dixon saw as the corruption of local politicians, the particular vengefulness of Union troops, and the general lawlessness embittered the young Dixon, who became staunchly opposed to the Reconstruction reforms.[1]:22-27

Family involvement in the Ku Klux Klan[edit]

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.[4]:388[5] "The romantic colonel made a lasting impression on the boy's imagination",[4]: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".[6] 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.[4]: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.[1]:23[5][7]


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 enrolled at 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.[1]:34 As a student there, he was a founding member of the chapter of Kappa Alpha Order fraternity.[8] 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".[4]:388 There he met and befriended fellow student and future President Woodrow Wilson.[1]:34[9] "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."[4]:388 On January 11, 1884, despite the objections of Wilson, Dixon left Johns Hopkins to pursue journalism and a career on the stage.[citation needed]

Dixon headed to New York City and enrolled in the Frobisher School of Drama to study drama. As an actor, Dixon's physical appearance became 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 to put his love for the stage into scriptwriting.[10] Despite the compliment, Dixon returned home to North Carolina in shame.[citation needed]

Upon his return to Shelby, Dixon quickly realized that he was in the wrong place to begin to cultivate his playwriting skills. After his initial disappointment from his rejection, Dixon, with the encouragement of his father, enrolled in the Greensboro Law School in Greensboro, North Carolina. An excellent student, Dixon received his law degree in 1885.[11][page needed]

Political career[edit]

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.[12] Despite being only 20 years of age and too young to vote, he won the election by a 2-1 margin, a victory that was attributed to his eloquence.[13] 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."[14] However short, Dixon's political career gained him popularity throughout the South for his championing of Confederate veterans' rights.[15]

Following his career in politics, Dixon practiced private law for a short time, but he would find little satisfaction as a lawyer and would soon leave the profession to become a minister.

Ministry and lecturing[edit]

Dixon was ordained as a Baptist minister on October 6, 1886, with his first practice in Greensboro, where he had attended law school.[1]:40 Church records show that in October 1886, Dixon 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.[citation needed]

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)[16]) in Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts. As his popularity on the pulpit grew, so did his demand as a lecturer.[1]: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.[1]: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.[1]:41

In August 1889, Dixon accepted a post in New York City although his Boston congregation was willing to double his pay if he would stay.[1]:42 In New York City, Dixon 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).[1]:42 "He was reportedly attracting larger congregations than any other Protestant preacher in the country. …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."[4]:389 Thousands were turned away.[17]

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."[17] 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."[18] 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."[19]

"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;"[20]:21 this was a nondenominational church. He continued preaching there until 1899, when he began to lecture full-time.[citation needed]

"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."[21]

Dixon enjoyed lecturing and was often hailed as the best lecturer in the nation.[1]:51[20]:25 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.[20]

[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.[22]

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."[20]: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.[1]:51[20]:25

Writings and film adaptations[edit]

"I thank God that there is not to-day the clang of a single slave's chain in this continent. Slavery may have had its beneficent aspects, but democracy is the destiny of the race, because all men are bound together in the bonds of fraternal equality with common love."

-Thomas Dixon Jr., 1896 from Protestantism and Its Causes, New York[5]

" amount of education of any kind, industrial, classical or religious, can make a Negro a white man or bridge the chasm of centuries which separate him from the white man in the evolution of human nature."

-Thomas Dixon Jr., 1905 from "Booker T. Washington and the Negro", p. 1, Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1905.[23]

Dixon's "Trilogy of Reconstruction" consisted of The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). Dixon's novels were best-sellers in their day, despite being racist pastiches of historical romance fiction. They glorify a antebellum American South white supremacist viewpoint. Dixon claimed to oppose slavery, but he espoused racial segregation and vehemently opposed universal suffrage and miscegenation.[24]

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.[25] 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.[25] If "Dixon used the motion picture as a propaganda tool for his often outrageous opinions on race, communism, socialism, and feminism,"[20][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.[25] One critic notes that the term for marriage, "the Holy of Holies", may be a crude euphemism for the vagina.[25] 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.[25]

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.[26] His writing centered on three major themes: racial purity, the evils of socialism, and the traditional family role of woman as wife/mother (Dixon opposed female suffrage).[27] 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.[28] He wrote his last novel, The Flaming Sword, in 1939 and not long after was crippled by a cerebral hemorrhage.[29]

Attitudes toward revived Klan[edit]

Dixon was an extreme nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, racist, reactionary ideologue, but he distanced himself from the "bigotry" of the revived second era Ku Klux Klan. 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."[30]:29 He denounced antisemitism as "idiocy", but only on the grounds that the mother of Jesus was Jewish.[citation needed] "The Jewish race Is the most persistent, powerful, commercially successful race that the world has ever produced."[31] 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." His ultimate intent was to promote aggressive far-right politics.[32]


Dixon and his first wife Harriet

Dixon married his first wife, Harriet Bussey, on March 3, 1886. Both were forced to elope to Montgomery, Alabama, after Bussey's father refused to give his consent.[33]

Dixon and Harriet Bussey had three children together: Thomas III, Louise, and Gordon. After a career of major ups and downs that saw Dixon earn and lose millions, he ended his career as an impoverished court clerk in Raleigh, North Carolina.[34] Harriet died on 29 December 1937, and fourteen months later, on February 26, 1939, Dixon suffered a crippling cerebral hemorrhage.[35] 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 one of his novels.[35]

Later life[edit]

Dixon is buried with Madelyn in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina. His gravestone reads:

Thomas Dixon Jr. 1864-1946 Lawyer-Minister-Author-Orator-Playwright-Actor A Native of Cleveland County and Most Distinguished Son of His Generation. -- He was the author of 28 books dealing with the reconstruction period. The most popular of which were 'The Clansman' and 'The Leopard's Spots,' from which 'The Birth of a Nation' was dramatized. -- His Wife Madelyn Donovan 1894-1975."[36]

Archival material[edit]

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.[37][38]

Additional archival material is in the Duke University Library.

List of works[edit]


Theater and cinema[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Cook, Raymond A. (1974). Thomas Dixon. Lexington, Kentucky: Twayne. ISBN 9780850702064. OCLC 878907961.
  2. ^ Society, Sons of the American Revolution Empire State (1899). Register of the Empire State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. The Society.
  3. ^ a b Gillespie, Michele K. and Hall, Randal L. Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louisiana State University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8071-3130-X
  4. ^ a b c d e f Bloomfield, Maxwell (1964). "Dixon's The Leopard's Spots: A Study in Popular Racism". American Quarterly. 16 (3). pp. 387–401.
  5. ^ a b c Roberts, p. 202.
  6. ^ Dixon, Jr., Thomas (1905). The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  7. ^ Dixon, Jr., Thomas (November 1905). "The story of Ku Klux Klan : some of its leaders, living and dead". Walker's Magazine. 1 (4). pp. 21–31.
  8. ^ "History and catalogue of the Kappa Alpha fraternity". Kappa Alpha Order, Chi Chapter. 1891: 228.
  9. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation
  10. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon.
  11. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America.
  12. ^ "Dixon, Thomas". American National Biography. Retrieved March 13, 2017. Dixon now decided that he would try politics, and in 1884 he ran successfully for a Democratic seat in the state legislature.
  13. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 36; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America
  14. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 38.
  15. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, pp. 38-39.
  16. ^ "Old Boston Church Has Final Service". Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts). December 29, 1964. p. 26.
  17. ^ a b "Rev. Thos. Dixon Resigns" (PDF). New York Times. March 11, 1895.
  18. ^ "Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr". Peninsula Enterprise (Accomac, Virginia). March 16, 1895. p. 2. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  19. ^ "Mr. Dixon Replies to Criticism". New York Times. January 14, 1895. p. 6.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Slide, Anthony (2004). American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2328-3.
  21. ^ "Names Seen In the Day's News". Morning Mercury (Huntsville, Alabama). February 7, 1905. p. 3.
  22. ^ "Dixon's Lecture". Emporia Weekly Gazette (Emporia, Kansas). October 16, 1902. p. 8.
  23. ^ Roberts, p. 204.
  24. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon, p. 27.
  25. ^ a b c d e Leiter, Andrew (2004). "Thomas Dixon, Jr.: Conflicts in History and Literature". Documenting the American South. Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  26. ^ Weisenburger, Steven (2004). "Introduction to Sins of the Father". University Press of Kentucky. p. xix. ISBN 0-8131-9117-3.
  27. ^ Cook, Raymond A. (1968). Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J. F. Blair. OCLC 729785733.
  28. ^ Slide, p. 30.
  29. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Davenport, F. Garvin. Journal of Southern History, August 1970.
  30. ^ Gillespie, Michele; Hall, Randal L. (2009). "Introduction". Thomas Dixon Jr. and the birth of modern America. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807135327.
  31. ^ "Race Hatred". Mitchell Capital (Mitchell, South Dakota). June 12, 1903.
  32. ^ "Thomas Dixon Dies; Wrote 'Clansman'", New York Times, April 4, 1946, p. 23.
  33. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 39.
  34. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Davenport, Journal of Southern History: August 1970; New York Times, April 17, 1934. p. 19, Dixon Penniless; $1,250,000 Gone.
  35. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 128.
  36. ^ "Thomas Dixon's headstone at". Retrieved 2007-02-07.
  37. ^ "Thomas Dixon Library Goes to Gardner-Webb College". Daily Times-News (Burlington, North Carolina). May 17, 1945.
  38. ^ John R. Dover Memorial Library. "Thomas Frederick Dixon, Jr. Collection". Gardner-Webb University. Retrieved April 3, 2019.


  • Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1986-1920. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8078-2287-6
  • Williamson, Joel. A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Oxford, 1986. ISBN 0-19-504025-2
  • McGee, Brian R. "The Argument from Definition Revised: Race and Definition in the Progressive Era", pp. 141–158, Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 35 (1999)

External links[edit]