Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Powerby Jefferson Cowie, Basic Books, 512 pages, $35
Jefferson Cowie is a prodigious researcher who often demonstrates sensitivity to historical complexities, and his storytelling skills shine. The latest book by historian Vanderbilt, dominion of liberty, is readable and often provocative. But he layers a dubious thesis about Southern history on the facts, saying that “dispossession of land, slavery, power and oppression do not stand in the way of freedom – they are its expression”.
According to Cowie’s account, white people repeatedly used the doctrine of states’ rights to justify their “freedom to dominate” others. The Southern worldview, he argues, was a doctrine of “racialized radical anti-statism”, which then spread to the North and eventually became normalized in the modern Republican Party.
Central to the book’s narrative is Barbour County, Alabama, and in particular its largest community, Eufaula – a place Cowie sees as a microcosm of the White South and, to some extent, White America. The whites of Eufaula and surrounding county first asserted their “freedom to rule” by voiding treaty guarantees and occupying the Creek tribal lands for themselves. To justify their theft, the culprits, in collusion with leading Alabama politicians, cited the sanctity of local control; Cowie calls it a “frenzy of racialized anti-statism.”
In Cowie’s account, another so-called freedom—the “freedom to enslave”—animated campaigns in Barbour County to scuttle both reconstruction and plans for fairer land ownership. Once whites consolidated their power through fraud and violence, they meticulously protected their version of “freedom” through such measures as Jim Crow laws, the convict bail system, and lynching (“a form sinister freedom: the freedom to take a life with impunity”). With the demise of Reconstruction, “freedom turned out to be zero-sum: any increase in black freedom meant a decrease in white freedom “, writes Cowie. “To speak of emancipation today without historicizing and understanding the efforts of white people to win back their freedom of domination, without seeing how the emancipation of African Americans was transformed into the oppression of white people, is fail to understand a central problem in American history.”
Throughout the long post-Reconstruction period of “rest on matters of intervention in the South,” whites had little to fear from the federal government. The New Deal failed to challenge, and in some ways reinforced, the oppression of African Americans. Cowie argues that President Franklin Roosevelt had to depend on powerful Southern politicians to push through his agenda, and that they had enough clout to blunt anti-lynching bills and other threats to white supremacy.
Post-World War II movements wove together “racial conservatism and economic conservatism”, which would become “tied to the point of being a single laissez-faire, freedom-loving ideology known simply as the name of conservatism,” says Cowie. “Any federal intervention – whether on lynching, segregation, voting, or labor market regulation – was a threat to the sovereignty of a free people.”
The central player in this part of Cowie’s history was George C. Wallace of Barbour County, who as governor became known for his invocations of “freedom” and states’ rights, including his infamous 1963 stand at the University of Alabama school gate in Tuscalosa. In his subsequent presidential campaigns, Cowie writes, Wallace pursued a “Northern strategy” that took his “racialized anti-statism” to “working class ethnicities” and “the West.” Many of these Wallace voters quickly joined “the traditional but right-wing Republican Party”, creating “a political juggernaut”.
dominion of liberty ends with a forceful plea for a new federal mission to “advocate local civil and political rights for all peoples – freedom cries to the contrary be damned.”
A major weakness of Cowie’s thesis is its fatal reliance on highly subjective puns about the meaning of freedom. Despite some reservations to the contrary, his book rests on the premise that white rhetoric corresponded in some sense to a coherent and consistent belief system – that lynching, disenfranchisement, genocide and Jim Crow represented a genuine, albeit twisted, variant of freedom that went beyond mere “ideological facade.”
But even if most white Southerners sincerely believed that they were champions of “freedom,” that does not make it true, any more than it would be true to conclude that the Stalinists legitimately advanced their so-called principles of “democracy.” and “justice” when defending the purge trials of the 1930s. Historians have an obligation to question stated assumptions, including those advanced by self-interested whites in Barbour County.
Cowie’s own report on the highlights undermines the idea that all this Southern verbiage aligned with a genuine, or remotely coherent, pro-freedom agenda, even one that reserves freedom for members of one race. This pretext was almost systematically set aside when it conflicted with convenience. As Cowie notes, for example, the whites who dispossessed the Creek lands quickly abandoned the idea of local control once their actions provoked a war that threatened their very survival: “This time, states’ rights, freedom-loving intruders have turned desperately to the federal government. government to protect them from the problem they themselves created.
A more recent example arose following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed racial segregation in public schools. To escape school integration, Eufaula town fathers used the Federal Housing Act of 1949, a landmark achievement of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, to wipe out an entire black neighborhood through eminent domain. “In the city’s fight against the largest federal intervention in US civil rights history,” Cowie points out, “it has armed itself with another wing of federal power.”
While Cowie acknowledges the often negative consequences of New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives for African Americans, such as the use of slum clearance programs to destroy black neighborhoods, he shows an unfortunate tendency to make excuses to liberals “who wanted to improve the lives of the poor.” They continued to face “political restrictions”, or were given a “confused mission”, or were not given “sufficient tools and resources to do the job”. If the later history of these programs is any indicator, Cowie had better wonder if these failures were endemic to the “mission” itself.
Likewise, Cowie is only too willing to give Roosevelt, whom he credits with reading “politics with horrible clarity”, the benefit of the doubt for not insisting on anti-lynching legislation. When weighing the political calculus, Cowie concludes, the president had “too many things at stake – Social Security, collective bargaining, fair labor standards, housing, the Works Progress Administration, rural electrification , banking reform and a host of other new government programs – to go behind race relations with vigor.”
Such statements justify the inaction of a president who, when he wanted something, had a legendary talent for obtaining it. From 1937 to 1939, lopsided majorities in Congress gave Roosevelt more than enough political opportunity to both protect the New Deal and advance an anti-lynching bill — if an anti-lynching bill was really a priority. But he never publicly showed his support. In 1940, his influential, conservative, and southern vice president, John Nance Garner, privately endorsed such a bill. Roosevelt continued to do nothing.
Cowie also erroneously suggests that the states’ rights doctrine was unique to the South. It does not, for example, acknowledge the vigorous assertion of this principle by northern states in the 1850s through personal liberty laws designed to undermine the Fugitive Slave Act. It is telling that the term states rights was almost entirely absent from Southern declarations of secession, which more often centered on a very different, and sometimes dynamically opposed, “compact theory”: secessionists complained that the federal government had not sufficiently enforced the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution. Other telltale indicators of Confederate insincerity and opportunism include knee-jerk opposition to secessionist movements in West Virginia and Jones County, Mississippi. Much later, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus showed his contempt for localism by reversing Little Rock’s decision to integrate its schools.
Cowie knows how to tell a good story. And sometimes it hits the mark; its first chapters, dealing with the expulsion from the Creek, are particularly well done. But his book weakens as his larger thesis on the meaning and application of freedom becomes increasingly strained and untenable.