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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.