Birth of a Nation

Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

by Eric Foner
Louisiana State University Press, 142 pp., $14.95

The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890

by Steven Hahn
Oxford University Press, 340 pp., $29.95

White Land, Black Labor: Caste and Class in Late Nineteenth-Century Georgia

by Charles L. Flynn Jr.
Louisiana State University Press, 196 pp., $20.00

During the 1960s and 1970s, historians of the American South concentrated on the institution of slavery. Debates on the economic performance of the plantation, the relations between masters and slaves, and the results of slave efforts to create a culture and community of their own were vigorous and sharply defined. At times these scholarly disputes were noticed by the press, and authors of ambitious, interpretative books on slavery even appeared on TV talk shows to defend their views. During the past few years the slavery debates have subsided although they have not been fully resolved. But much was learned, and a consensus developed on one crucial point: the Afro-American slaves were now recognized as historical actors in their own right and not simply as the hapless victims of forces beyond their control.

With the great slavery controversy only temporarily exhausted and awaiting new perspectives that cannot yet be foreseen, the emphasis in work on southern history has moved ahead to the postwar era, to Reconstruction and the “New South.” The study of this turbulent period had somewhat stagnated during the boom in slavery history, and it is clearly ripe for reinterpretation. Furthermore, some of the postwar studies carry over from the studies of slavery.

The Reconstruction era itself (1865–1877) was, until very recently, dominated by a group of scholars known as “revisionists.” What they were revising was the older view that northern policies to reconstruct the South were ill-conceived and crassly motivated, and led to extremely corrupt governments composed of white opportunities (“carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”) who rode to power on the votes of ignorant blacks who should never have been enfranchised in the first place. The revisionists performed a necessary and valuable service by showing that proponents of “Radical Reconstruction” were at least partly inspired by a desire for racial justice, which anticipated the civil rights movement of recent times; they also deflated exaggerated views of the venality and incompetence of the southern Republicans—white and black—who presided over the “Radical” regimes. Besides pointing out the good intentions and positive achievements of the freedmen and their allies, they exposed the vicious racism and violent tactics of the “redeemers”—southern whites who opposed and eventually overthrew the Reconstruction regimes.

The problem with the revisionists, however, was that they were locked into a debate over issues that were essentially moral and ideological in character. Their defense of black rights and equality against the racist scholarship of the first half of the twentieth century was laudable; but once this message had gotten across, they demonstrated little capacity to shed new light on the complex process of how a slave society was transformed into something quite different.

The essential character of the “New South”—the more enduring order that emerged out of the wreckage of Reconstruction—was fixed for more than a quarter of a century by one of the most remarkable works ever produced by an American historian. C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South1 described the triumph of promoters of industrial capitalism over the South’s agrarian, antibourgeois traditions in the period after 1877 and exposed the oppression and exploitation of the masses—both black and white—by this new elite and its backers in the northern business community. Like the revisionist historians of Reconstruction, Woodward’s sensibilities were liberal and humanitarian, but he probed more deeply into the underlying sources of southern injustice and was less apt to substitute moralizing for analysis and explanation. Consequently, he raised questions about power relationships and the ideologies sanctioning them that continue to be central for “New South” historians.

The recent surge of interest in the postwar South reflects a desire to go beyond Woodward by taking a fresh view of some of the issues involving race, class, and power that he dealt with more than three decades ago. There is also a growing sense that the division between the years of Reconstruction and the New South is an artificial one and that many important themes can be effectively addressed only over a span running from the Civil War up to at least the 1890s.

The comparision of southern slavery with black servitude in other New World societies was an important aspect of the slavery debate. Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom adds a fresh perspective to Reconstruction by treating “emancipation and its legacy” in a similarly comparative way. He starts by skillfully surveying how emancipation worked in other nineteenth-century plantation societies and establishes the broad similarity of the struggles that ensued for control of land and labor. Looking mainly at Haiti and the British West Indies, he describes the conflict between those seeking to restore plantation production under a new labor system and the mass of ex-slaves, who defined freedom as relief from plantation discipline and the achievement of self-sufficiency through small-scale cultivation. His work demonstrates the proposition, acknowledged by economists as well as historians, that the agrarian lower classes invariably prefer even the most marginal and unremunerative forms of peasant proprietorship to working for wages on large estates. This seemingly universal propensity was heightened in the case of emancipated slaves, who identified supervised gang labor with their previous condition of servitude.

Planters, the European governments responsible for West Indian emancipation, and even an independent black regime in Haiti—all set out to restore staple production through a plantation system. They made vigorous efforts to prevent an independent black peasantry from emerging. Their success depended in part on geography or topography. Jamaican freedmen were able to flee to a mountainous hinterland unsuited for sugar plantations, and many were able to avoid returning to the plantations by squatting in the uplands and producing food crops for subsistence and sale in local markets. On flat Barbados, however, where most of the land was owned and controlled by white planters, the freedmen had no choice but to work for low wages on plantations.

But Foner is not a geographical determinist. What gave the pro-plantation forces the upper hand, everywhere except in Haiti, was their monopoly of political power. They could tax the peasants’ holdings or deny their communities necessary public services in order to pry them loose from the land, as was done in British Guiana, for example. If all else failed, they could substitute a plantation work force of indentured Asians for freed blacks, thus limiting black opportunities and giving rise to the multiracial societies of Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam. The result was the continuation of a coercive plantation system, with the freedmen reduced to economic dependency, powerlessness, and poverty. Foner shows how the European colonists in South and East Africa conducted a similar war on the agrarian prosperity and self-sufficiency of “subject races”; during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they thwarted the rise of an indigenous peasantry by denying Africans access to productive agricultural land.

When he shifts his attention to emancipation in the United States, Foner finds similar tendencies—but only up to a point. Immediately after the war, when southern whites controlled the reconstituted state governments called into being by President Andrew Johnson, “black codes” were passed that gave the freedmen no choice but to sign contracts to work on white-owned plantations under conditions reminiscent of slavery. But to the Republican-dominated Congress and to northern public opinion such measures smacked of a restoration of the old order in the South and a denial of the principle of “free labor” which was central to the Union cause in the Civil War. Consequently, Congress took control of Reconstruction away from the president and passed a series of laws and constitutional amendments (the fourteenth and fifteenth) designed to guarantee basic citizenship rights to the freedmen, including eventually the right to vote.

Enfranchisement of ex-slaves on the basis of universal manhood suffrage was a unique and radical aspect of American emancipation. It did not address the imbalance of economic power created by a white monopoly on land—proposals to confiscate and redistribute plantation acreage were defeated in Congress. But it did provide blacks with a basis for political participation and the exercise of power that led to a “remarkable political and social mobilization of the black community.” In the ensuing struggle over the terms and conditions of labor, blacks were not entirely powerless, particularly during the period when state and local politicians were dependent on their votes. In a case study of strikes on the rice plantations along the Combahee and Ashepoo rivers in South Carolina in 1876 and 1877, Foner shows how black influence on the local political authorities enabled the strikers to achieve some success.

As white Democrats returned to power in state and local governments during the 1870s, blacks lost most of their political leverage and eventually suffered almost total disfranchisement. But Foner argues convincingly that Reconstruction left an enduring legacy that put American blacks in a better position than those in most other societies in which slaves were emancipated. Constitutional obstacles to overt racial discrimination, coupled with the unwillingness of blacks to surrender what the nation had solemnly affirmed were their legitimate rights, meant that “the doors of opportunity…could never again be completely closed.” Oppressive as it turned out to be, the sharecropping system that replaced gang labor on southern plantations allowed a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that enjoyed by contract or indentured labor on Caribbean plantations or in South African mines. While it was difficult for blacks to own land, this was not forbidden as it was in the “white areas” of African colonies. (South Africa even outlawed black sharecropping as opening too many opportunities for “kaffirs.”) Foner’s argument comes down to the claim that things would have been a lot worse for southern blacks had congressional Reconstruction not overthrown the black codes of 1865–1866 and precluded their ever being reenacted in their original form.

Foner’s interpretation puts him on the side of the “optimists” in a major debate that is emerging among historians of Reconstruction. The “pessimists,” who have dominated recent scholarship, tend to view the entire effort to plant interracial democracy in the South after the Civil War as an abject failure, doomed to defeat from the beginning by such factors as the ulterior motives of northern Republicans, the accommodationism of leading black politicians, and the indomitable resistance of southern whites to racial equality. Foner does not glorify white Republicans and prominent black politicians; nor does he deny the strength of white resistance to the new order. But he wants to emphasize the resilience and resourcefulness of the freedmen, who made the most of their opportunities and created a world for themselves that was far short of what they wanted and deserved but substantially better than would have been the case had they not fought for the right to shape their own destinies.

The freedmen were striving for the kind of economic independence and relative security that had been enjoyed by the white yeoman class of the Old South. These non-slaveholding backcountry farmers, who generally owned their land but produced mainly for their own needs and local trade rather than for distant markets, have been neglected by historians concentrating on planters and plantations. Yet they made up most of the white population of the South, greatly outnumbering the substantial slaveholders who produced most of the cotton and other staples for export.

The Roots of Southern Populism is the first sustained effort to show what happened to the yeomen after the Civil War. Concentrating on the Georgia upcountry, and on two predominantly white counties in particular, Steven Hahn traces the yeomanry’s loss of independence and self-sufficiency to an encroaching market economy dominated by commercial interests. Although his study is not a systematically comparative one, as Foner’s is, he likens the fate of the yeoman to that of European peasantries swept aside by capitalistic modernization. If we combine Hahn’s insights with some of Foner’s, we can discern a new central theme for postwar southern history—the thwarting of peasant ambitions by the political economy of an emerging capitalism. While blacks struggled unsuccessfully to become a kind of free peasantry, whites who had previously enjoyed such status were being reduced to dependency.

Two groups won this struggle, according to Hahn: the merchants, who provided credit and marketed the crops, and the large landowners, who gained the upper hand over the new class of sharecroppers and tenants who did most of the actual farming under the increasingly decentralized plantation system of the postwar period. Hahn sharply contrasts the yeoman economy of the antebellum period, which was essentially a system of exchange between small independent producers, with the developing market capitalism of the postwar years, when the small farmer fell increasingly under the dominance of merchants who advanced him credit at exorbitant rates of interest, kept him perpetually in debt, and used their leverage as creditors to encourage a shift from subsistence to cash crops. As a result, the yeomen had to purchase food and other necessities formerly produced at home. They found their livelihood at the mercy of world cotton prices that were dropping catastrophically by the late 1880s.

This much of the story is well known. Where Hahn makes his most original contribution is in his account of legal developments that further decreased the chances of the yeoman to be self-sufficient. In the Old South there was a “commons” tradition that allowed hunting and stock grazing on all uncultivated land. It was possible to subsist by exploiting the unused portion of someone else’s holdings. Only crops, and no livestock, had to be fenced in, and most of the South’s vast numbers of hogs and cattle were raised on what amounted to an enormous open range. After the war, however, the extension of commercial farming into the backcountry created pressure for a new definition of property rights that directly threatened the livelihood and independence of those who had little or no land. Hunting on private property was banned or restricted, and, more importantly, a movement arose to require the fencing of livestock rather than crops. As Charles Flynn shows more fully in White Land, Black Labor, these restrictive land policies began in the old plantation belt and were initially aimed at increasing the subservience of black sharecroppers. But they later extended to white regions up-country, where they were gradually put in force through a series of “local option” elections.

Resistance to the new fence laws was vigorous and successful for a time—yeoman farmers had a strong tradition of political participation and democratic assertiveness dating from the age of Jackson. But through a variety of devious means, including outright fraud, the advocates of commercialism and absolute private property won out. Hahn views the outcome of the fence law controversy in Georgia as an American equivalent of the success of enclosure movements in European peasant societies. It marked the triumph of purely capitalistic market relationships over earlier traditions that had stressed a combination of communalism and small producer independence. It also created a groundswell of agrarian grievance and discontent that would find an outlet in the Populist movement of the 1890s.

Hahn’s study is impressively argued and richly documented. Its intensive and skillful use of local sources gives it a substantial and authoritative quality that disarms criticism. Yet some questions remain about his overall interpretation and the extent to which his evidence actually supports it. Unlike Foner, who compares slave emancipation in the United States with a number of other cases and finds differences as well as similarities, Hahn tries to fit his American example of “peasants vs. modernization” into an international pattern derived from Marxist historiography.

This homogenizing disposition may blind him to aspects of agrarian transformation in the post-bellum South that do not precisely fit the pattern. His evidence that most yeomen strongly preferred subsistence farming to the lure of profitable market production is not entirely convincing. He points to occasional complaints by the yeomen about the danger to stock from railroads, hostility to banks in the wake of financial panics, and especially to the resistance of livestock owners to fencing laws favoring cultivators. But these examples do not quite make the case. Similarly fragmentary evidence from other parts of the South suggests that yeomen also wanted improved transportation and credit facilities; at the very least such evidence raises the possibility that ambivalence rather than firm opposition was the characteristic response of small southern farmers to involvement in the market economy.

Some yeomen undoubtedly rejected “progress” and simply wanted to be left alone, but others welcomed it in the hope of improving their standard of living. How much of the anger that surfaced in the “agrarian revolt” of the 1890s resulted from anti-market traditionalism and how much from disappointment that the market failed to bring anticipated prosperity? In my view this question is still open, despite Hahn’s strenuous attempts to resolve it. What does seem reasonably clear is that the Populist movement, the roots of which Hahn professes to be uncovering, was firmly committed to production for the market. Proposals for nationalizing transportation and credit were not meant to abolish the market and restore semi-subsistance farming, but rather to control long-distance exchange in such a way as to assure profits to agrarian producers.

Also questionable is Hahn’s attempt to explain the racism of the white yeomen by their class position (as determined by their relationship to the means of production). He is no doubt correct in asserting that small property owners are generally hostile to propertyless proletarians. There were real conflicts of interest during Re-construction between white farmers struggling to preserve their homesteads and blacks who sought the aid of government to become landowners themselves. As J. Mills Thornton has pointed out in more detail, the increase of land taxes to produce revenues needed for public education and other social services demanded by the freedmen bore heavily on the white yeomanry and helped to estrange them from the Republican program of black advancement.2 It is well to recognize that the agrarian whites had economic reasons to hate blacks, but the element of sheer prejudice in that hatred is not thereby explained away. Why was it that the blacks who made it into the yeoman class evoked even more hostility than their landless brothers? And why was there so much enmity between the increasing number of whites who lost their land and became tenants or sharecroppers themselves and the masses of blacks who were in essentially the same boat?

Charles Flynn’s White Land, Black Labor, another study of rural Georgia in the late nineteenth century, proposes an alternative to Hahn’s view that white racism can best be understood as a form of class consciousness. Since it is less thoroughly documented and more schematic than Hahn’s study it will strike many readers as less persuasive. Much of it is devoted to recounting the now familiar story of how landlords and merchants tightened the screws of exploitation and reduced agricultural workers to a new form of servitude. But Flynn also advances a bold interpretation of these developments that effectively challenges Hahn’s neo-Marxist argument.

According to Flynn, the postwar South was a society with two autonomous systems of inequality or stratification—caste and class. For him “the central theme of southern history can be found in the interplay between the South’s culturally defined caste and economically defined class systems.” The caste idea was that any white person was superior to any black person; possessing white pigmentation and ancestry conferred, or was supposed to confer, an automatic gain in status. At the same time, class differences among whites, based on their wealth and control of productive resources, were palpable and important. Before the Civil War, the caste line was firmly established by the great divide between white freemen and black slaves. Although statistically significant, class differences among whites were politically manageable because yeomen who did not own slaves could claim membership in a dominant social group by virtue of their being free, enfranchised, and (for the most part) having land.

Emancipation and Republican Reconstruction policies directly threatened this white monopoly on citizenship and opportunity and thus provoked proponents of the caste system to violent resistance. Flynn shows that the yeoman Hahn portrays sympathetically was willing to engage enthusiastically in the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan. (In passing reference to the Reconstruction Klan, Hahn claims less convincingly that it was mainly an elite affair.) Applying a comparative perspective of his own, Flynn argues that the Klan and similar vigilante groups (such as the “white caps” of the post-Reconstruction era who specialized in running black farmers off land coveted by whites) were expressing a premodern folk consciousness. He likens their actions to the ritualistic harrassment of people who offended local customs that was characteristic of the European “charivari” tradition. What aroused southern vigilantism, he argues, was the failure of public authorities to sustain the accepted moral standards of the southern communities. What made it tragic was that the color line was a central part of the local folk morality, an element of the traditional value system that the Reconstruction governments were palpably affronting.

Leftist social historians who admire “primitive rebels” and peasant resisters to modernity may find this analysis perverse, and Flynn underscores the shock effect of his argument by criticizing historians whose ideological proclivities lead them to glorify “violent parochialism.” His skeptical, irreverent attitude toward the romantic populism that inspires much contemporary social history strikes me as justifiable and refreshing. It reminds us that injustice and cruelty come from the bottom up as well as from the top down, and from pre-capitalist as well as capitalist sources. Popular anti-Semitism in modernizing Europe would seem to be a comparable expression of folk bigotry.

Flynn also sets forth a broader argument about the nature of post-Reconstruction southern society that, in effect, extends Foner’s “optimistic” interpretation of Reconstruction. The effect of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, Flynn argues, was that blacks could no longer be treated as a separate menial class with a legal status clearly differing from that of lower-class whites. Despite much twisting of the law and de facto discrimination, no way could be found to impose the rigid differences of economic status and opportunities that racial slavery had guaranteed. The result was that oppressive legislation designed primarily to subordinate black labor—laws enhancing the power of landlords and employers over tenants and workers—had to be overtly nonracial. As increasing numbers of white yeomen lost their land and became tenants themselves, they were vulnerable to a system of exploitation designed for ex-slaves (although custom gave them some marginal advantages).

The inability of privileged whites to extend the social caste system to economic life, to say nothing of the greedy impulse of landlords and merchants to make full use of their leverage over tenants and small farmers of whatever race, resulted in a growth of class tensions and class conflicts within the dominant caste. Contrary to Hahn, Flynn believes that the white agrarian protest movements of the 1880s and 1890s were inspired in part by the desire for a more comprehensive color line which would translate customary social superiority into more tangible forms of privilege. To support this contention he notes the support given by some agrarian reformers and insurgents to Jim Crow laws and other racially discriminatory legislation.

Although Hahn and Flynn seem hopelessly at odds in their views of white agrarian attitudes, there is perhaps a way to reconcile them. The cultural resistance to market forces emphasized by Hahn can be seen as simply one aspect of a larger pattern of opposition to modernizing change. If one acknowledges with Flynn that the struggle for communal rights includes defending the right to exclude or subordinate dark-skinned “outsiders,” then a coherent synthesis might be achieved. But it would probably have to be at the expense of Flynn’s insistence that the agrarian reformers and protesters of the Eighties and Nineties were actually committed to the “New South” ideal of progress through crop diversification and a more scientific approach to farming. If there is a contradiction in Flynn’s generally tight argument, it is between the image of pre-modern “folk” defending a caste system through violence, and a contrasting image of agrarian entrepreneurs seeking reform at the expense of black sharecroppers whose labor they hoped to dispense with or make more efficient. Perhaps he is simply showing the differences in attitudes and behavior of two distinguishable groups within white rural society, but he makes no such distinction.

What is needed to resolve the questions raised by both of these studies of rural Georgia is more discriminating analysis of the social divisions among white farmers with small- to medium-sized farms and how these divisions shaped economic and racial attitudes. It appears that there was a conflict between traditionalists and modernizers among the mass of white cultivators, but the sources of that conflict remain obscure. Still, each book in its own way has greatly advanced the discussion of social and economic change in the post-bellum South. Along with Foner, Hahn and Flynn have raised and defined new issues that promise to make the debates on the aftermath of slavery as productive and illuminating as those on slavery itself.

  1. 1

    C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (Louisiana State University Press, 1951).

  2. 2

    See J. Mills Thornton, “Fiscal Policy and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction in the Lower South” in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (Oxford University Press, 1982).