Review: C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South

C. Vann Woodward’s The Origins of the New South, 1877 to 1913 covers an extremely important but neglected period of Southern history which is only dimly remembered today compared to the Old South or the Confederacy.

Near the end of Reconstruction, the Democrats and the Whigs entered a forced marriage and became a new force in Southern politics, the “Conservatives,” in opposition to the “Radicals” who were made possible by the black vote. The Redeemers created a one-party state based on white supremacy in order to overthrow Radical rule.

The demise of Reconstruction, however, didn’t immediately lead to the end of the two-party system, the black vote, or the Jim Crow South. George Henry White of North Carolina, the last black congressman from the South, left office in 1901. The Southern states only adopted new constitutions or passed new laws to disenfranchise the negro between 1890 and 1908. The constitutionality of segregation and disenfranchisement was in dispute until Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and Williams v. Mississippi in 1898.

From 1865 until 1908, the status of the negro in the South was in dispute. Throughout this period, blacks voted, held office, and public facilities were integrated in parts of the South. Democrats and Republicans endlessly quarreled over the black vote. Election fraud became commonplace. For a time, Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, Lucius Q.C. Lamar II, and Wade Hampton III even opposed black disenfranchisement. The planter filled the void left behind by the demise of the carpetbagger as black voters often strategically aligned with their old masters against the upcountry Whites.

It was an odd sight to behold: the party of white supremacy, with the assistance of bribery, often carried the black vote. This is how Reuben F. Kolb, the populist, lost the governorship of Alabama in 1892 and 1894. In North Carolina though, Populist-Republican fusion briefly led to a period of black empowerment that was ended by the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. At different points in his career, the Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia supported black enfrachisement only to later become a strident white supremacist.

What I found particularly fascinating is that White Southerners seem to have become more racist around 1900 – a period that is often called the “Nadir of the Negro” – when the Jim Crow South was being created. It was the children of the Confederate generation, who had grown up under this mixed system, who created Jim Crow. In fact, the Confederate monuments which now dot the South were erected by this generation, partly as a public statement to announce that white supremacy had been fully restored.

At the national level, C. Vann Woodward notes that the South was in exile from 1865 to 1913, effectively it was the equivalent of a British crown colony. Woodward notes that between 1865 and 1912, no Southerner except Andrew Johnson, who was impeached and nearly removed from office, was nominated for president or vice president by either major party. Of the 133 cabinet members appointed during this period, only 14 were from the South, and of the 31 justices of the Supreme Court, only 7. The South furnished only 2 of the 12 speakers of the House of Representatives during these years, and fewer than one-tenth of the diplomatic representatives to the major powers. Woodward remarks that “never in the history of the country, and rarely in the history of any country, had there been a comparable shift in the geography of political power.”

The terms of “reunion” for the South after 1877 were Northern acquiescence to Southern home rule and sovereignty over the race question in exchange for Southern acquiescence to Eastern conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism. This dovetailed with the agenda of the “New South” promoters like Henry Grady, Richard Hathaway Edmonds, and Daniel Augustus Tompkins who envisioned an industrialized South rebuilt in the image of the East. In order to advance their vision of industrialization though, Grady and his associates were willing to allow the “New South” to become a resource colony of Northern capital.

The old planter aristocracy was crippled by the War Between the States and abolition. After the war, it was commonplace to find ex-Confederate generals working for Northern-owned railroads or the Northern-owned Louisiana Lottery or as agents and directors for other Northern-owned businesses. As the sharecropping and farm tenancy system arose from the ashes of slavery in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the surviving planters fused with the merchant class over time to become planter-merchants or simply merchants who lived in town while many others went into textiles, sawmills, railroads, or mining.

By the 1880s, a new class of businessmen and industrialists had emerged, which combined with the remnants of the old planter class to rule over an extremely rural world of impoverished sharecroppers and tenants. In parts of the South, industry was putting down roots: railroads crisscrossed the region, textiles were emerging in the Piedmont, sawmills dotted the timber belt along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, coal mining was getting started in Appalachia, and iron and steel in Birmingham and Chattanooga. Spindletop in 1901 in Beaumont, TX inaugurated the Texas Oil Boom.

The South was still utterly dominated by King Cotton though. The amount of acres in cotton and bales produced soared far beyond the antebellum era to reach its historic peak around 1913. As production soared, prices dropped, farmers lost their land, and sharecroppers and tenants were driven further into debt peonage. By 1894, the average price of a bale of cotton had dropped to 4.6 cents. Out of Texas and the Western South came a series of agrarian movements as the economic situation of farmers deteriorated: the Grange in the 1870s, the Agricultural Wheel in the early 1880s, and the Farmer’s Alliance in the 1880s.

In the 1890s, the great Populist revolt against the Bourbons in the South and their Eastern masters came when reform failed and the bottom fell out of cotton. Out of sheer desperation, the Populists embraced an agenda that was a radical departure from Eastern conservatism. The Populists were co-opted by the Democrats and beaten back by the state constitutions which disenfranchised large numbers of poor Whites, but many of their reforms were implemented in the 20th century.

After 1900, the rise of the Progressive movement in the South dominates the rest of this period, which culminated in the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 when the Republican Party fatefully split between Taft and Roosevelt, thereby bringing to power the first Southern Democrat in half a century. Unlike the Populists, the Progressives were mostly an urban movement of the business-oriented middle class:

– At the turn of the century, North Carolina was the most illiterate state in the United States. Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who was simultaneously the education governor and restorer of white supremacy, has created problems for modern progressives who wrestle with his legacy as the father of public education in North Carolina.

Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer regulated the railroads and improved public education in Alabama.

Gov. Hoke Smith of Georgia combined negro disenfranchisement with railroad regulation, improvements in public education, abolition of the convict lease system and reducing the maximum work week in textile mills.

Gov. Andrew Jackson Montague of Virginia combined negro disenfranchisement with good roads and good schools.

Gov. Thomas Campbell of Texas regulated the railroads, created the Texas State Board of Health, abolished the convict-lease system, and signed anti-trust laws.

Gov. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, the author of the Back To Africa bill in the Senate and Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, was known as “Bilbo the Builder” and implemented compulsory school attendance, improved the education system, reformed the tax code, and created the state highway system.

Gov. Jeff Davis of Arkansas, a populist and particularly colorful figure from this era, announced his candidacy for governor in June 1900 and embarked on a year-long campaign, visiting nearly every county. “The war is on,” he declared, “knife to knife, hilt to hilt, foot to foot … between the corporations…and the people.” Davis won the most resounding political victory in Arkansas history by carrying 74 of 75 counties.

Woodward writes:

“The Southern counterpart of a Northern progressivism developed nearly all the traits familiar to the genus, but it was in no sense derivitive. It was a pretty strictly indigenous growth, touched lighly here and there by cross-fertilization from the West. It sprouted in the soil that had nourished Populism, but it lacked the agrarian cast and radical edge that had frightened the middle class away from the earlier movement …

They envisiged as a common enemy the plutocracy of the Northeast, together with its agents, banks, insurance companies, public utilities, oil companies, pipelines, and railroads. Southern progressivism often took a sectional character, identifying the popular enemy with “foreign” interests.”

Oklahoma entered the Union in 1907 as a bastion of radicalism:

“In 1907, while the reform wave in the South was at its crest, the new state of Oklahoma entered the Union. The latent radicalism in Oklahoma, long repressed under territorial government,was released with the sudden force of one of her gushers, a brash and precipitant flood that shocked Eastern conservatives and startled some who considered themselves reformers …

But “in almost every article of the Oklahoma constitution” he found a “spirit of fierce opposition to monopolies” and a “jealousy of large business enterprises.” In fact, it required all of 7,000 words for the framers to list their restrictions and limitations upon corporations, railroads, and public utilities, and for good messure they added protection of “the right of the state to engage in any occupation or business for public purposes, agriculture excepted. Without any doubt the Southern reformers could count Oklahoma in their column.”

A century ago, the postbellum era came to an end with the inauguration of the progressive Woodrow Wilson as president, the candidate of the Solid South, in a scene which is shocking by contemporary standards. We are getting a little ahead of ourselves, but this excerpt comes from George Brown Tindall’s The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945:

“Half a century of Southern political isolation ended with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson on March 4, 1913. Whether Democratic or Republican, government for years “had been steadily conservative, Eastern, urban, industrial.” Whatever hopes and aspirations the agrarians and petty middle classes, Southern and Western, held had been classified as heresies: free trade, populism, Bryanism, and the conspiracy to debase the coinage with silver. Only the rise of a nationwide progressive movement finally had broken the spell of the bloody shirt and the full dinner pail, split the Republican Party, and permitted the Democrats to win in 1912. It was the victory of a minority party – Arizona was the only state outside the South in which Wilson polled a majority – but that served only to accentuate the position of the South as the main support of the winner.

Even the setting of the inauguration evoked a Southern mood. It was “one of the most perfect March days Washington had ever known.” A gentle breeze blew across the Capitol as the former Rebel, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White of Louisiana, administered the oath. Southerners crowded into Washington for the triumph, “brought along their full lung development and let it loose every few minutes.” Three hundred thousand marchers took four hours to pass down Pennsylvania Avenue; they represented the victorious Democracy from coast to coast, but reporters noted that a vociferous “Rebel Yell” broke out whenever a Southern figure rode by or a band blared Dixie! “Thousands of voices sang the words of it in unison.” If any Southern observer caught the portent of top-hatted and gray-gloved Negroes among the Tammany braves, that details seems not to have been recorded. …

His election was a kind of vindication for the South. The South, “beaten, bleeding, prostrate” half a century before, one reflected, had “come back to rule the Union.” … Five of ten cabinet members were born beneath the Potomac … In other administrative and diplomatic positions the South had “a vastly larger proportion of big and influential posts than it has held since the Civil War.” At the President’s right had, and one of the most influential members of the Wilson circle at least until 1919, though without official position, was Colonel Edward M. House of Texas.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue the “mellow accent” of the South was, if anything, even more prevalent. In the Senate more than half of the Democratic majority were Southerners, in the House more than two fifths; but even more significant was the Southern hold on major committee chairmanships: all but two of fourteen in the Senate and all but two of thirteen in the House.”

The sectionalism of the 1860s and later the 1890s was now alive and well in the triumph of Wilson and the progressives in the 1910s. Only the issues had changed. Now the East, constipated from wealth from ruling the Union uncontested for the previous 50 years, was about to get hit with the income tax:

“The progressive movement had put down sturdy roots in the South, a region to which modern capitalism had come late, where it had yet only begun to secure a foothold, and where many of the political leaders and the preponderance of small businessmen remained under the spell of an agrarian mystique that rendered them skeptical of finance-capitalism, protectionism, trusts, railroads, and the symbolic menace of “Wall Street.” Deeply impregnated with the traditional ideas of states’ rights, white supremacy, and free trad,e Southerner agrarians shaded off into several degrees of radicalism in fighting the battles of the farmers for democracy, railroad regulation, warehouses, and rural credits – a broad range of programs that looked to governmental intervention. Not a few of the small businessmen, closely identified with the farming communities from which their incomes rose, supported such battles. If they were alarmed at the threat of governmental regulation, they felt themselves drawn to Woodrow Wilson by sectional and party loyalties and by his enunciation of the New Freedom which paralleled their own concern to deny special privilege and restrain the growth of trusts. In the spirit of the New South they sought economic development first; but, unreconciled to the concentration of wealth in the East, they believed as strongly as the agrarian radicals that Wall Street financiers controlled economic power to their disadvantage. …

Southerners led in another drastic departure, a provision in the Underwood-Simmons Act for the first income tax under the Sixteenth Amendment. Drafted and guided through the House by Cordell Hull of Tennessee, it was altered under pressures from John Nance Garner of Texas in the House and Vardaman in the Senate to include a graduated surtax on large incomes. Opponents raised objections in the press and Congress on the grounds that it was class legislation and a sectional raid on Eastern wealth, but Hull disclaimed any intention of redistributing the wealth and justified it on the principle that Eastern wealth derived from all sections of the country: “I deny the right of wealth anywhere to segregate itself and then upon the plea of segregation to exempt itself from its fair share of taxes.”

Wilson resegregated the federal government for the first time since the Lincoln administration and the income tax was passed as a sectional measure to redistribute wealth from the East to the South and West. Fifty years after the end of the War Between the States, Southerners were now the new “abolitionists,” only this time it was the Money Power of the East that was under attack.

It will be interesting to learn more about how this played out in next book.

1 Comment

  1. The irony of this whole thing Hunter is how small government Southern Democrats came to favor an Income Tax and the Federal Reserve System. The last time before 1860 Americans had been taxed sort-of directly was during the Whiskey Rebellion. Both Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis instituted an Income Tax, to pay for the war effort.

    The Lincoln income tax expired in 1872, but oddly enough it was Democrats and Southern Democrats who picked up the idea of an Income Tax to replace the high tariffs, which hurt Southern agriculture. In 1894 Representative William L Wilson of West Virginia and Senator Arthur Gorman of Maryland (who had played baseball during the War of Northern Aggression) Pass the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act which imposed an Income Tax. The next year, the US Supreme Court threw out the Income Tax, stating that the US Constitution forbade income taxation.

    Ironically the Republicans, who were supposedly against the Income Tax, wrote the 16th Amendment, The authors were Republicans Norris Brown of Neb and Senator Nelson Aldrich of RI aka John D Rockefeller Jr’s Father in Law. The 16th Amendment was necessary for the implementation of the Federal Reserve Act, which the Rockefellers and Rothschilds had set up at Jekyll Island, Georgia in 1910. Senator Aldrich had been a part of that meeting. Usual Suspects,.

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