Review: Origins of the New South

Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. By C. Vann Woodward (Louisiana State University Press, 1951; reprint, Baton Rouge, 1971. Pp ix, 628)

woodward_originsofthenewsouth2Woodward’s cast of characters is dizzying at first glance: At the beginning of the conflict are the “Redeemers,” these latter-day Whigs gained political power on a platform of restoring “home rule” and overthrowing the legacy of corruption left by the Radicals. They were extremely distrustful of legislatures, and espoused a program that conveniently aligned with factory owners, railroad men, and merchants of Charleston, Columbia and other cities. In the end, this plan did little to promote the growth of an indigenous, and independent, Southern capitalist class; the introduction of new Southern economic development was subject to the leadership of Eastern capital interests, thus, Redeemers were the middlemen in a process that pinned Eastern capital interests against the “unredeemed farmer” and the Southern freeman. However, this conflict is muddy. It is not a direct face-off between two classes, but, rather, a mediated (and complicated — not to mention, messy) process of political corruption, backdoor deals, and a myriad of conflicting interests all competing for political and economic power.

Opposition to this persistent “Whiggery” took different ideological shapes: Woodward highlights the Independent elements (e.g., Johnson in Tennessee), the Bourbons (and their obstinate adherence to the old loyalties), and the Agrarian opposition (what later in the 1890s up by the Populist Party). Built on the legacy of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populist Party focused public attention on the social and economic chasm of the unredeemed farmer and the expanding national prosperity. By demanding social independence on the basis of land, Populists harked back to the Jeffersonian vision of the independent producers’ Republic as the only economically viable alternative to the abject dependence on philanthropic handouts. Prior to the Populists’ efforts however, some small farmers (e.g., in Mississippi) had responded to the encroaching interests of wealthier whites in the South by calling for the disenfranchisement of American blacks in Redeemer dominated regions. Woodward carefully parses out the reasoning behind this strategy and argues that poor whites saw the black votes as significantly tipping the scale for the wealthier white Souther politicians. While we can say that this ploy mobilized, i.e., politically instrumentalized, racists sensibilities, the primary target of the operation was not the American blacks, but, rather, the wealthy leaders of political rule. Woodward’s  insight here about the nature of this period is worth underlining: the primary lines on the sand where not drawn between “white supremacy” and black Americans, rather, the conflict hinged on who among those white Southerners would rule the new regime (and in what direction). In this light, the Mississippi plan effected the domination of political power by a small minority of whites who controlled both the poor whites and the disenfranchised blacks.

1. What is “Whiggery” for Woodward? How does it come to emphasize a continuity of interests (of an antebellum origins) that dominated political transformation in the South after Reconstruction? And how do we make sense of this in cases where there was no significant Whig Party before the War, e.g., South Carolina?

2. What do others make of the characterization of the Populist Party? I think it is interesting to note the colonial analogy (on pages 193-194), in which Woodward underlines how the Party was not an expression of “class consciousness,” rather it was “always more interest-conscious.” Woodward explains this by reference to colonial agrarianism, where small and big farmers formed an alliance against encroaching commercial relations and the mounting burden of tenure farming, etc.

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