• Email
  • Print

The Old New Order

The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction

by Edward L. Ayers
Oxford University Press, 572 pp., $30.00

For some observers, the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore signified the coming to power of a new generation of white southerners who are more cosmopolitan, racially tolerant, and forward-looking than their predecessors. Inevitably the phrase “the New South” has been used to describe the change that has allegedly occurred. The claim that a new South has arisen to put an end to the region’s history of backwardness and reaction (however defined) has been asserted before. In fact the phrase originated in the 1880s as the slogan of a vocal group of industrial and commercial promoters who proclaimed that the South had benefitted from the abolition of slavery and was now ready to join the North in pursuit of the American dream of prosperity through capitalist enterprise and wage labor.

But the original advocates of the South’s “new departure” made it clear that sectional harmony and new opportunities for northern capital to invest in the southern economy depended on certain conditions being fulfilled. The North had to acquiesce in southern efforts to dominate and control African Americans by means short of slavery; and those means included both legalized segregation and restrictions on voting designed to deprive blacks of the political power that they had briefly exercised during the Reconstruction period. Eventually the North and the nation as a whole not only consented to giving the white South a free hand in limiting the definition of the black citizenship mandated by the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendments; they also showed a decreasing concern for the rights of African Americans who lived in the northern states. It took a shift of national political forces and racial attitudes between the 1930s and the 1960s to make the South seem once again out-of-step and behind the times, and make “the New South” a popular slogan for another generation of liberals and reformers.

Edward L. Ayers’s The Promise of the New South reconsiders both the rhetoric and the reality associated with efforts to make the South appear modern and progressive during the years between the end of Reconstruction and the first decade of the twentieth century. This was undoubtedly a turbulent and eventful period in southern history, but historians have disagreed on whether the region in fact deeply changed or remained pretty much the same. Was there in fact a revolutionary transformation that ushered in a New South to replace the Old South of slavery, plantations, and apparent deviations from the American norm of democratic capitalism? Or did the legacy of the old order persist to such an extent that the South changed only superficially, remaining for the most part in a state of arrested social and intellectual development that served to maintain the distinctiveness that had long set the southern states off from the rest of the country?

In his classic work, The Mind of the South, published in 1941, the cultural critic Wilbur J. Cash made the case that the South had remained, right up to his own time, “another land, sharply differentiated from the rest of the American nation, and exhibiting within itself a remarkable homogeneity.”1 For Cash the “New South” was, culturally and psychologically speaking, very much like the old. But a decade after Cash’s book appeared, C. Vann Woodward produced a magisterial work of historical scholarship, The Origins of the New South, which emphasized change rather than continuity in nineteenth-century southern history.2 Woodward did not argue that the South of the early twentieth century had become exactly like the rest of the country; for it remained significantly poorer and less industrialized. But its dominant ethos or mentality came to resemble that of the North to the significant extent that a new elite of merchants and industrialists succeeded in substituting bourgeois or capitalist values for the quasi-aristocratic and agrarian ideals that had predominated before and during the Civil War.

For the past forty years, historians have debated Woodward’s thesis that new men with new values displaced the antebellum slave-holding gentry as the controlling element in southern society and politics in the late nineteenth century. Some have defended his views, while others have noted the persistence of prewar planters and their families as large landowners, key investors in urban-industrial development, and political power brokers.3 A fair-minded review of this literature might suggest that both sides in the debate have scored telling points and that the reality was one of accommodation and compromise between old and new elites and between modern economic and social developments and long-standing southern traditions. A historian who wished to sum up the scholarship on who ruled in the New South, and how, might well conclude that the region had a leadership of diverse social origins and sometimes conflicting economic interests that nevertheless tended toward strong agreement on certain fundamental ideas that had an antebellum pedigree and were thus enshrined in the regional tradition—white supremacy, states’ rights, relatively inactive and inexpensive government on all levels, and the economics of laissez faire or free trade.

Ayers’s The Promise of the New South is the most ambitious, comprehensive, and original survey of post-Reconstruction southern history to appear since Woodward’s Origins. But it is not the kind of bold new synthesis that is likely to displace Woodward’s book as the work on the period against which all others will be measured. Ayers has decided, for the most part, to avoid forthright “revisionism” and to sidestep many of the debates that Woodward set in motion, although he makes some points that would tend either to refute or to support Woodward. For example, he notes that planters and farmers dominated state legislatures during the years immediately following Reconstruction, thus casting doubt on Woodward’s claim that the “Redeemers” who overthrew Reconstruction were the vanguard of a nonagrarian middle class.

But in general he is not much interested in the origin and ideology of southern elites. His book is much influenced by the “new social history”—the strong tendency in American historical writing of the Seventies and the Eighties to look at history mainly from the vantage point of ordinary people, or “from the bottom up.”

Along with this shift of attention from elites to plain folk the new social historians have sought to dignify the common experience and to view the poorest and most disadvantaged social groups as historical agents rather than as mere victims of mistreatment by their bosses and social superiors. It is sometimes claimed that the new social history is equivalent to “radical history” and that the older historiography centered on elites implied a conservative social and political perspective.

A comparison of Woodward and Ayers does not support such a view. When Woodward wrote about New South elites, he was implicitly passing judgment on them for their exploitation of blacks and impoverished whites. His book was in part the product of moral indignation at the injustices imposed on people by the rulers of the New South (although that indignation was often veiled in irony) and was an implicit condemnation of the social and economic system that they had bequeathed to his own generation of southerners. If he stressed the victimization of blacks, of “redneck” sharecroppers or mill workers, he did so in a way that invited the reader to empathize with them. Moreover his respectful treatment of Populists and other dissenters from the prevailing orthodoxies of race and class pointed to ways of thinking that might have solved some of the South’s problems. In short, Woodward’s book was deeply political in its emphasis and implications.

Ayers, on the other hand, emphasizes the satisfactions and unavoidable human tragedies of everyday life almost more than he does the kinds of sufferings and deprivations that can be attributed to the social and economic system. Not drawn to generalizing about classes or social structures he describes a fragmented and diversified social world in which the lines of responsibility for what is happening to people are far from clear. Social history that fails to advance a clear conception of the relation between political and economic power and reveal the extent to which dominant groups shape the cultural life of the society as a whole often ends up being apolitical even when it advertises its willingness to listen to the voices of the plain folk as a form of historiographic populism. A common trait of such history is its tendency to substitute culture for politics.

The clearest example in Ayers’s book is his treatment of the Pentecostal movement that swept the South around the turn of the century. This outburst of religious emotionalism involving spiritual possession and speaking in tongues has been neglected by historians (Woodward disposed of it in a single paragraph), and Ayers performs a real service by showing its importance. But his view of the Pentecostal churches is that they are “profound acts of creation” which, far from being escapist, put forth a view of the world that “more than the Populists…rejected the dominant vocabulary of human worth, replacing it with a language of glorious struggle.” This strikes me as high praise for a movement of the poor and powerless that left them no better off than they were before, except in the psychological sense of making them feel better about themselves. I realize that the Marxian conception of otherworldly religion as “the opiate of the people” and the secular liberal view of supernaturalism as a barrier to rational political action are both out of favor with social historians, who tend to assume that any beliefs that poor and uneducated people find emotionally satisfying are worthy of great respect and are somehow conducive to their liberation. But I wonder sometimes about the condescension that is involved in judgments of this kind. Glorifying a set of beliefs that one would reject in other contexts—and doing so principally because they appear to emanate from the bottom of society—verges on an abdication of intellectual and moral responsibility.

Ayers’s avoidance of the larger issues of power and political economy that Woodward and his critics have confronted is matched by his failure to ask how the period between 1880 and 1906 which is his subject fits into the larger pattern of southern history. Unlike Woodward, he conveys little impression of what came before and thus cannot say much about what was new about this period and how it compares with the antebellum and Reconstruction experiences. He also fails to look ahead, except in the most cursory fashion, to trace the fate of the tendencies that had fully emerged around the turn of the century or even to indicate what features of this era proved to be especially long-lasting.

Still, there are some distinct advantages in Ayers’s circumscribed and piecemeal approach to “life after Reconstruction.” He is able to look at particular developments in a fresh and relatively unbiased way. His depth of research and skills at quantification lead to significant revisions or at least modifications of our understanding of a number of special topics, such as collective violence (including lynching), race relations, and the agrarian movements that culminated in Populism. If he provides no new interpretation of the South in general, except perhaps to show that it was a more diverse and complicated place than previous historians have been willing to acknowledge, he does make some lesser discoveries that will be difficult to ignore.

As the author of an earlier, highly respected book on crime and punishment in the nineteenth-century South,4 Ayers is in a good position to shed new light on the most notorious public activity of the New South years, the ritualistic lynching of blacks accused of some crime or violation of etiquette that clashed with the prevailing norms of white supremacy. Woodward and his critics have had relatively little to say about this phenomenon. In an important work on post-Emancipation southern race relations, Joel Williamson explored the psychological and cultural sources of lynching and offered a provocative explanation for why these extra-legal executions became more frequent and clearly racial during the last decade or so of the nineteenth century.5 Williamson attributed the upsurge of racial hysteria and violence to the tendency of white males, who had failed to be effective breadwinners in a time of economic distress, to compensate for their feelings of impotence by venting their rage on black males and their sexuality. But he did not explain the geographical distribution of lynching within the South. Ayers provides a new understanding of the social and demographic setting of these atrocities by demonstrating that they were most likely to occur in predominately white counties of relatively thin population density that were experiencing an increase of black population. In such areas, where public authority and law enforcement were relatively weak, terror and violence were the only means readily available to ensure that blacks remained “in their place.”

On broader issues of black-white relations, especially the much debated subject of how and why legalized racial segregation or “Jim Crow” came into existence, Ayers also has new insights. Building to some extent on the earlier work of Howard N. Rabinowitz,6 Ayers notes that the first Jim Crow laws appeared in the 1880s and were a direct consequence of the tendency of people of both races to avail themselves of the South’s relatively new system of rail transportation. The specific problem was how to deal with middle-class blacks who sought to assert their social status and personal tastes by riding in the first-class or “ladies”’ car. Genteel whites resented these claims to social equality, but blacks who held first-class tickets often refused to be consigned to the second-class or “smoking” car; more than a few of them sued the railroads, sometimes successfully, when conductors responded to white complaints by ejecting them from the facilities they had paid for. Providing “separate but equal” cars specifically designated for whites or blacks was a response to this situation. The somewhat later segregation of urban streetcars came from a similar refusal of blacks to comply, with white desires to establish a voluntary or customary form of separate seating. What Ayers’s account reveals that has usually been overlooked is that a principal reason why extra-legal or voluntary segregation failed to satisfy white supremacists was that blacks, especially members of the growing and aspiring black middle class, simply refused to give up their right to sit anywhere they wanted in deference to white desires, and had to be coerced into doing so by the full power of the law. Most earlier accounts of the rise of Jim Crow had ignored the ways by which blacks forced the white South to legislate its racist convictions.

Ayers also presents a sensible and persuasive interpretation of the most dramatic and influential challenge to the political hegemony of the New South elites—the agrarian protest movement that culminated in Populist insurgency during the 1890s. Unlike historians such as Lawrence Goodwyn who have looked to late nineteenth-century Populism as a model for late twentieth-century radicalism.7 Ayers views this movement strictly within the confused and volatile setting of its own time and place, finding that the program and ideology of the Southern Farmers Alliance of the late 1880s and the People’s Party that became its political expression varied greatly from one southern state to another. Gently but firmly he dissents from Goodwyn’s views. He denies that the “real Populism” was a radical assault on the emerging American system of corporate capitalism that could realize its aims only through the public ownership or control of key economic activities. He also denies that authentic Populists were betrayed when the party joined the Democrats in nominating William Jennings Bryan in 1896, thereby narrowing their program to Bryan’s panacea for the economy—a free coinage of silver that would inflate agricultural prices.

Ayers shows that free silver had always had an important place in Alliance and Populist thinking and that the tendency to concentrate on this issue began in many states almost from the moment that the party was formed and found itself in need of a program that would attract enough voters to give it a chance to win. In general. Ayers’s southern Populists are more moderate and, to my way of thinking, more plausible than those found in the work of historians who see them as the great exemplars of an American radical tradition. Some of them were indeed quite radical, but most of the farmers attracted to the movement sought practical help in dealing with the problems of low prices and indebtedness rather than a social and economic revolution: many of them in fact were optimistic enough to believe that their needs could be met through moderate reforms or limited changes in public policy.

In keeping with his general approach of shifting attention away from leaders and formal ideologies to the roots of popular behavior. Ayers makes a careful quantitative analysis of Populist electoral support and concludes that

Populism grew in counties that had seen the arrival of the new order’s railroads, dry goods, and villages but not its larger towns and mills. The Populists tended to be cotton farmers who worked their own land, though it was land that produced only with some reluctance. Living in counties that were predominantly white but had no strong Republican presence, these farmers felt they could, indeed must, break with the Democrats.

The reason that few whites in predominantly black counties voted Populist was that “whites in the Black Belt often felt compelled to maintain political unity, whether by consensus or by force, against the black majority.”

Other examples could be cited to show how Ayers’s judicious and undogmatic examination of particular topics helps to discredit some oversimplified and tendentious views of southern life and politics during this period. He also deserves much credit for his pioneering exploration of such previously neglected aspects of cultural history as popular religion and music. It is refreshing, for example, to see a general history of this kind giving to the origins of black jazz the kind of attention once reserved exclusively for such products of the white southern imagination as nostalgic writing about the Old South. Perhaps it is not, after all, a grave shortcoming of this book that its parts are greater than the whole and that it advances no original thesis about the New South in general to rival Woodward’s bold and comprehensive interpretation. Read alongside Woodward’s Origins. Ayers’s book deepens and enriches our sense of the diversity and complexity of southern life and cautions against sweeping generalizations that will not bear close examination in the light of careful empirical research.

Some future historian will undoubtedly try to match Woodward’s grasp of the underlying forces that made the South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century both new and old at the same time. But he or she should only do so after mastering Ayers’s many insights into the experiences of people of both races and all classes during a challenging and unsettling period.

  1. 1

    W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (Vintage, 1991), p. xlvii.

  2. 2

    C. Vann Woodward, The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Louisiana State University Press, 1951).

  3. 3

    This historiography is skillfully summed up in Howard N. Rabinowitz, The First New South, 1865–1920 (Harlan Davidson, 1992).

  4. 4

    Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century South (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  5. 5

    Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  6. 6

    See Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865–1890 (Oxford University Press, 1978).

  7. 7

    See especially Lawrence Goodwyn’s influential Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 1976).

  • Email
  • Print