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The Little Man’s Big Friends

This book covers more than two centuries of American history, seeking to explain the evolution and enduring power of a racially inflected understanding of freedom.

Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power 
by Jefferson Cowie.
Basic, 497 pp., £25, December 2022, 978 1 5416 7280 2

Earlier​ this year, Randy McNally, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate, issued a proclamation declaring April 2023 Confederate History Month. He urged ‘citizens from across this state’ to remember their ancestors’ ‘heroic struggle’ for ‘individual freedom’. Observers outside Tennessee may find it incongruous to identify a war fought to preserve slavery with the ideal of freedom, but Jefferson Cowie, who teaches history at Vanderbilt University, in the heart of the state, wouldn’t be surprised. His new book seeks to explain why so many Americans, especially but not exclusively in the South, have understood freedom as an entitlement limited to white people. Cowie argues that ‘white freedom’ has long entailed the power to dominate others, especially non-whites, without interference from the national government. The fear that white freedom is under assault by Blacks, or immigrants, or a faraway national government, helps to explain why in the last election Donald Trump carried Tennessee in a landslide, winning 60 per cent of the vote and all but three of the state’s 95 counties. In many parts of the US, every month is Confederate History Month.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan, historians have struggled to explain why so many members of the white working class have abandoned their loyalty to the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and decided to vote for candidates whose policies, including tax cuts for the rich, hostility to trade unions and an embrace of economic globalisation, undermine their own economic interests. In perhaps the most widely read book on the subject, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Thomas Frank argued that the upheavals of the 1960s generated fears and resentments that allowed issues such as abortion rights and racial equity to eclipse economics. Cowie’s book is both an ambitious history lesson and a contribution to this ongoing discussion, recently reinvigorated by working-class support for Trump.

Cowie’s previous work includes Capital Moves (1999), an account of how RCA, a manufacturer of radios and televisions, obsessively pursued cheap labour at home and abroad, and Stayin’ Alive (2010), which drew on images of workers in popular culture to argue that organised labour is no longer a self-conscious power in American life. In both, he was able to weave class, culture, politics and ideology into a consistent narrative and to connect local histories with national and global events. The same qualities are evident in Freedom’s Dominion. The book covers more than two centuries of American history, seeking to explain the evolution and enduring power of a racially inflected understanding of freedom.

The oldest of clichés and the most inspiring of human aspirations, freedom is fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation. ‘Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow,’ the statesman Ralph Bunche wrote in 1940, ‘knows that this is “the land of the free” ... [and] the cradle of liberty.’ Cowie’s account builds on Tyler E. Stovall’s recent book White Freedom, which argued that the crystallisation of the notion of freedom as a natural right, simultaneous with the expansion of slavery in the Atlantic world, led to it being increasingly racialised as an ideal. ‘Oppression and freedom are not opposites,’ Cowie writes, nor is a rhetorical commitment to liberty incompatible with an insistence on the right of those who enjoy freedom to enslave others.

Cowie focuses on four eras in the history of a place most readers won’t have heard of: Barbour County, located in south-eastern Alabama. It might seem counterintuitive to pick a county located in the pre-Civil War cotton kingdom, later the site of rigid racial segregation, to epitomise the evolution of American freedom. Some readers will recoil from the idea that the US is Barbour County writ large: why not choose New York City or a county in California to illustrate the dream of individual mobility and economic opportunity? What about somewhere in the Midwestern ‘heartland’, where American values – family, religion and hard work – supposedly flourish? But, for Cowie, Barbour’s history exemplifies the rise of the idea of freedom as a white prerogative. It’s also the birthplace of George Wallace, one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century, who struck electoral gold by claiming that an alliance of the federal government and the civil rights movement was undermining the freedom of whites. Cowie uses Barbour to describe the way a ‘racialised, domineering version of American freedom’ became increasingly linked to ‘anti-statism’, hostility to federal intervention in local affairs.

Fear of an autocratic central state goes back at least as far as the revolutionary era. After the US Constitution was adopted, significantly strengthening the existing national government, a considerable number of Americans, known as Anti-Federalists, warned of impending tyranny. To mollify them, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, protecting Americans’ essential liberties against abuses of national power. Initially, no clear connection existed between freedom, whiteness and fear of centralised authority. (A large majority of the presidents and Supreme Court justices between the Revolution and Civil War were, after all, Southern slaveholders or, as opponents called them, ‘Northern men with Southern principles’; the national government did not pose a threat to Southern interests.) Cowie identifies conflicts in the 1830s between the Creek nation, whose lands included most of Barbour County, and a small army of white settlers in the region, as a key development in the definition of freedom as racialised anti-statism. Local and state governments aided and abetted the intruders, but at first officials in Washington sided with the Native Americans, who had signed treaties with the federal government that ceded much of their land but guaranteed ownership of the rest in perpetuity. Even President Andrew Jackson, whose career, Cowie writes, revealed a ‘merciless hostility’ to the Native American population, insisted that states’ rights must yield to national authority and treaties must be obeyed. Jackson threatened to dispatch troops to Alabama to drive out whites who had illegally settled on Creek land.

Half a century earlier, in the Proclamation of 1763, the imperial government in London had tried to establish peace between Indigenous peoples and colonial settlers by barring whites from acquiring land west of the Appalachian mountains. The resentment caused by this edict helped to inspire the movement for American independence. The Earl of Dunmore, the governor of colonial Virginia, later notorious for arming slaves to fight on the British side during the War of Independence, complained that Americans ‘do not conceive that government has any right to forbid their taking possession’ of Indian land. Even the bellicose Jackson could not overcome the combined power of white settlers, land speculators and local courts that consistently ruled in favour of those Cowie calls ‘land thieves’. Jackson’s effort to protect the Native Americans accomplished nothing except to persuade many whites that the federal government posed a threat to their freedom, defined in part as access to land. Ironically, the eventual triumph of white settlers required a powerful exercise of national authority, the removal beyond the Mississippi of tens of thousands of Native Americans, including many Creeks, in the Trail of Tears. Cotton plantations worked by slaves replaced Native communities in the states of the Lower South. Some of the resulting wealth, Cowie points out, is visible today in the mansions that dot the streets of Eufaula, Barbour County’s largest city.

In his second section, Cowie examines the way the crisis that produced the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction ended up powerfully reinforcing white Alabamans’ view of the federal government as a threat to their ability to rule over the region’s Black population. During the 1850s, white residents of Barbour County became increasingly insistent on being left alone to manage their affairs, including ownership of slaves, without national interference. When Abraham Lincoln, who had pledged to halt the westward expansion of slavery, was elected president in 1860, they doubled down on the idea that the national government was their enemy and moved to create a new nation, a slave owners’ republic. In the end, the mobilisation of federal power was crucial in bringing about what Southern whites considered a loss of freedom: the end of slavery, the ousting of the old ruling class from local power and the establishment of the first biracial democratic governments in American history. Constitutional amendments guaranteed the end of slavery, Black citizenship, the equal protection of the laws regardless of race and, for Black men, the right to vote. Each amendment ended with a clause empowering the federal government to enforce its provisions – a promise (or threat) of future national action. Unfortunately, as Sidney Andrews, a Northern journalist who visited the South in 1865, observed, ‘the whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the Negro means the same thing as freedom for them.’ To white citizens of Barbour, the expansion of freedom for Blacks meant its diminution for whites. The white population resolved to overturn Reconstruction, first by political mobilisation, then by violence.

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If the Civil War proved anything, Supreme Court Justice Samuel F. Miller declared in 1887, it was that those who believed a strong federal government posed a danger to liberty ‘were in error’. But the enjoyment of freedom by former slaves depended on outside power. For a time, such power was forthcoming. In the early 1870s, President Grant sent troops to South Carolina and federal marshals to Alabama to protect former slaves. The willingness to intervene with force soon waned, however, and the violent overthrow of Reconstruction followed, a process whites called Redemption, or the restoration of ‘home rule’.

With the end of Reconstruction, Cowie turns to the era of ‘Federal Power in Repose’. The provisions of the amended Constitution became dead letters as far as Blacks were concerned. No longer fearing federal intervention, Southern states enacted measures to solidify white power. To illustrate the practical consequences of national inaction, Cowie provides a description of the convict lease system that subjected countless Blacks convicted of petty crimes to servitude. He makes clear, however, that the reestablishment of ‘white freedom’ did not erase class differences within the white population. While the rest of the country moved forward economically, the planters and merchants who governed Alabama and other Southern states adopted a low-wage developmental model, which impoverished many whites as well as African Americans. As in other parts of the South, the People’s Party, or Populists, rose to prominence in Barbour County in the late 19th century, a direct challenge to elite domination. For a time, some white Populists even advocated that poor Black and white farmers join forces for mutual economic benefit. After crushing the Populists with the same combination of fraud, violence and appeals to white solidarity that had overturned Reconstruction, in 1901 Alabama’s leaders pushed through a new state constitution that disenfranchised nearly all Blacks: in order to vote, people had to persuade registrars, all white, that they were of ‘good character’ and understood ‘the duties and obligations of citizens’. Future interracial political co-operation became impossible.

Is​ ‘repose’ the right way to describe the status of the federal government in the era between Reconstruction and the New Deal? Certainly, those years witnessed the abdication of national responsibility for protecting the rights of Black citizens. But Cowie’s local focus creates problems. The role of the federal government has always been more contested than Cowie suggests. Anti-statism may be the dominant outlook, but there is another tradition in which the national government actively promoted economic growth and the interests of business. Its roots go back as far as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party in the early republic. National power may have disappeared from Barbour, but elsewhere it was much in evidence, especially when the interests of corporations, closely tied to the nationally dominant Republican Party, were at stake. More than once, labour uprisings were met by the intervention of federal troops. Indeed, some of the same soldiers who were withdrawn from the South as part of the Bargain of 1877 that ended Reconstruction were deployed in the North to suppress a national railroad strike. Meanwhile, the army was battling Indians in the West, bent on opening their lands to exploitation by railroads, mining companies and farmers. Native Americans did not think the federal government was in ‘repose’. And an activist Supreme Court invalidated numerous state laws that sought to regulate the conditions of labour. This protection of corporate interests inspired reformers to conceive of new ways the federal government might use its power. The Populists called for the nationalisation of the railroads and government control of the credit system to help ease the plight of small farmers. Progressives in both major parties supported an expansion of federal economic regulation. Not ‘repose’ but national power seemed a more reliable shield for corporate interests than local ‘home rule’.

In The Great Exception (2016), Cowie portrayed the New Deal, which brought into being an administrative state and a national safety net, as a detour from the main trajectory of American history, in which anti-statism is the default position. But this fails to explain why the New Deal coalition enjoyed widespread support throughout the country for decades as Americans looked to the federal government for economic relief. To be sure, white freedom still reigned in the South. But FDR actively promoted a definition of freedom as economic security for ordinary Americans guaranteed by the federal government, implicitly offering a contrast to the notion that national power was the embodiment of tyranny.

Cowie turns finally to the era of the civil rights movement and the ensuing backlash. Some participants called these years the Second Reconstruction, a successor to the time when federal power was used against the Southern racial system. With its freedom rides, freedom songs and insistent cry ‘freedom now’, liberty became the movement’s rallying cry. Many white Southerners adopted their own equation of the era with Reconstruction, warning that federal civil rights legislation violated local freedom. Cowie argues that despite the courage of the mass protesters, Black political rights still depended on federal enforcement. And the more the national government intervened, the more whites associated it with a loss of freedom. In Barbour, white officials sought to undermine Blacks’ newly regained political rights through gerrymandering, manipulation of voting qualifications, harassment of those who went to the polls and other subterfuges. At one point, white Eufaulans came up with a plan to avoid school integration by having the city’s Housing Authority employ the power of eminent domain – funded, ironically, by federal slum clearance grants – to seize the homes of African Americans living in proximity to whites. Once the city was segregated residentially, school district lines could follow without explicit mention of race. Eufaula’s school board cancelled non-academic events to prevent Black and white students from socialising, and the city’s high school didn’t hold an integrated prom until 1991. All this was defended in the name of freedom.

Legally speaking​, the backlash failed. Federal laws and court rulings dismantled de jure segregation and Southern Blacks regained the right to vote. But in the Democratic primaries of 1964 and an independent run for president four years later, Barbour’s favourite son, Governor George Wallace, brought the politics of white freedom to the rest of the nation. Wallace began his career as a supporter of Big Jim Folsom, an imposing figure known as ‘the little man’s big friend’. Folsom spoke the language of economic populism, castigating the elite that controlled state politics while calling vaguely for fair treatment of the state’s Blacks. But sensing that resistance to civil rights was eclipsing economic issues, Wallace shifted his focus to maintaining white supremacy. After losing the gubernatorial election of 1958 to the even more racist John Patterson, Wallace vowed never to allow himself to be outdone in playing the race card. He was elected governor in 1962, for the first of four terms. ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,’ he proclaimed in his inaugural address. The central theme of his speech, however, was not segregation but freedom, a word he used 25 times. With a keen sense of political theatre, Wallace created an indelible image for TV by blocking the doorway of the University of Alabama’s registration building to prevent the court-ordered admission of the first Black students. He withdrew and the students entered. But he had made himself a national standard-bearer for white freedom.

Earlier than many politicians, Wallace realised that support for his views was not confined to the South. In the Newtonian physics of American politics, any action designed to improve the condition of Black Americans called forth an equal and opposite reaction. In 1964, the year that Lyndon Johnson, who had identified himself with the civil rights movement, won an overwhelming national victory, the voters of California approved a referendum prohibiting the state government from promoting housing integration. Wallace received an enthusiastic reception from ethnic working-class voters in cities like Milwaukee with his message that freedom was under assault. His campaigns were a harbinger of a conservatism in which, in the name of freedom, racists united with business-oriented opponents of New Deal economic policies. While Wallace’s dream of using white resentment as a ticket to the White House failed to materialise, his campaigns cast a long shadow over American politics. In the South, Wallace helped to catalyse a remarkable transformation of political alignments. White voters en masse abandoned the Democratic Party, which had controlled the region since the end of Reconstruction, for the once despised Republicans. ‘The “Wallace factor”,’ Cowie insists, ‘became the key variable for understanding the future of American politics.’ Shortly before his death in 1998, Wallace reminisced: ‘Nixon. Reagan. Clinton. Welfare reform. Crime. Big government ... They [are] all saying now what I was saying then.’ Trump can be added to this list.

Cowie makes a convincing case for the enduring power of the idea that freedom, however defined, is a white entitlement. But not all hostility to the federal government can be explained by racism. As Anne Kornhauser showed in Debating the American State (2015), even as the New Deal was being launched, some liberal reformers echoed conservatives’ concerns about the implications for political democracy of government by unelected experts. In 1971, the lawyer Lewis Powell Jr, later appointed to the Supreme Court by Nixon, wrote an influential memorandum for the US Chamber of Commerce urging corporate executives to enlist in what he described as an ideological war in which freedom, defined as free-market economics, was ‘under broad attack’, especially on college campuses. The Powell Memorandum inspired the creation of an array of conservative think tanks ready to do their part in the battle of ideas. It didn’t mention race: Powell was addressing elites, not mobilising voters. But the prospect of an alliance between anti-government activists bent on repealing the New Deal and Wallace’s electoral base proved too alluring for conservatives to resist. The result was a Faustian political bargain exemplified by Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’, Reagan’s decision to launch his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered, and the infamous 1988 campaign ad by George H.W. Bush that identified his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton, a dangerous Black criminal. Today’s corporate Republicans who find Trump’s inflammatory appeals to white grievances and his demagogic hostility to the ‘deep state’ distasteful have never acknowledged that they themselves helped lay the groundwork for his political ascent.

Recent presidents have not said much about freedom. Obama didn’t often invoke it, preferring to speak of community, equality and responsibility. Trump preferred the language of raw power. Cowie begins his book by calling for the idea of white freedom to be replaced by ‘a vigorous, federally enforced model of American citizenship’ that will ‘fight the many incarnations of the freedom to dominate’. Biden seems to have been listening. In April he launched his campaign for re-election with a brief speech that promised to rescue the idea of freedom from Republicans. Cowie’s narrative, however, suggests that this is unlikely to happen soon. More than half a century after he stood in the ‘schoolhouse door’, the ghost of George Wallace still haunts American politics.

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia and the author of many books on Reconstruction, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2011.

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