What do we mean when we talk about freedom? Jefferson Cowie, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, addressed this question in his monumental work Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History. The book focuses on Southern white resistance to federal authority — in the name of freedom — over two centuries in Barbour County in southeastern Alabama (particularly in its largest town, Eufaula).
The tale begins in the early nineteenth century with the efforts by whites to illegally seize and settle lands retained by the Muscogee Creek Nation — a conflict that, ironically, forced the Creeks to rely for protection on federal forces sent by President Andrew Jackson, despite his notorious hostility toward Native Americans. In the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Barbour County whites resisted federal efforts to impose a biracial democracy, culminating in an 1874 massacre of African-American citizens attempting to vote.
Jim Crow segregation prevailed in Barbour County for the better part of the following century. Elite rule and white supremacy were enforced not just through sharecropping and disenfranchisement but also through the brutal actions of convict leasing and lynching. Finally, with the coming of the civil rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s, Alabama Governor George Wallace – a Barbour County native – fought federal integration efforts and vowed to uphold “segregation forever!” Wallace’s successes in Democratic presidential primaries — well beyond the South — in 1968 and 1972 showed the populist potency of combining racial resentment with opposition to federal power.
In all of these episodes, Cowie demonstrates that white Alabamians defined freedom, not just in terms of individual liberty and civic participation, but also of their freedom to enslave and dominate. This latter conception of freedom frequently pitted local and state authorities against federal authority.
In this podcast discussion, Cowie acknowledges that federal authority frequently fell far short of its stated aims and principles. Nevertheless, it was the only hope for those who sought political rights and equality before the law. Although the successes of the civil rights struggle in the American South have been uneven and partial, Cowie emphasizes that “you do everybody a disservice if you call a mixed bag a failure.”
Jefferson Cowie: This question of federalism, this question of freedom within federalism, are all central to the American experience. The state is really conflicted in at least three ways: local, state, and federal levels. And we really need to be thinking more about the conflict within the federal structure as a central question of American history.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted and honored to be joined today by Jefferson Cowie, one of the nation’s really great historians. He is the James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He has also been a fellow and faculty member at Stanford University, Cornell University, and UC San Diego.
His most recent book, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History. He’s also the author of several other terrific histories, including 2016’s The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, as well as the 2010 book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. Welcome, Jeff!
Jefferson Cowie: I’m happy to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations on the Pulitzer, of course, but also for all the truly excellent historical craftsmanship that went into Freedom’s Dominion. I actually thought that it got fewer reviews in popular media than it deserved. The most charitable interpretation I can come up with is that such outlets noted its length, its scholarly depth, and concluded that maybe the reviews were left best to the academic journal side of things. But in fact, it’s really an enthralling, moving, beautifully written book that emphatically deserves a wide audience. And I hope that after the Pulitzer it will get one.
Jefferson Cowie: You and me both. I think the other problem with it was the launch date. It was two days before Thanksgiving, which was just a disastrous time to set a book out. It’s the holidays, it’s the end of the year, so it’s not making lists, and it’s going to be another month before anybody’s actually reading anything. I sort of attribute it to that.
Geoff Kabaservice: The book, if I may describe it in exceedingly general terms, is a retelling of almost two centuries of Southern white resistance to federal authority in the name of freedom, told from the standpoint of Barbour County, Alabama and its main town, Eufaula. It probably won’t be surprising if many listeners haven’t heard of those places. Barbour County, in the southeastern corner of the state, has only 25,000 citizens. And the principal claim to fame of Eufaula, which is located on the Chattahoochee River across from Georgia, is as the self-proclaimed “Big Bass Capital of the World.”
But Barbour County nonetheless was home to eight governors of Alabama, more than any other county in the state. And the most well-known of these, of course, was George Wallace, who was governor effectively from 1963 to 1987. And you begin your book with Wallace’s January 1963 inauguration speech at which he infamously declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” — words actually written by his speechwriter, Asa Carter, who was the founder of a local Ku Klux Klan organization.
But you very perceptively observed that those were almost the only mentions of the word “segregation” in Wallace’s address. “In contrast,” you write, “he invoked ‘freedom’ twenty-five times in the speech — more than Martin Luther King Jr. would use the term later that year in his ‘I Have a Dream’ address at the March on Washington.” And this is significant, you continue, because while “It is easy to ignore or dismiss Wallace’s call for freedom as little more than ideological window-dressing for his racism,” in fact a close reading of the history of Wallace’s native Barbour County reveals what you call “the largest and most central conflict in American political history: that over the meaning of American freedom.”
So, Jeff, tell me about the genesis of Freedom’s Dominion and how it came to be focused on the particular place of Barbour County and the particular issue of the contested meaning of American freedom.
Jefferson Cowie: Well, I’d like to tell you I did a scientific survey of all possible counties in America to find the quintessential county that represented these questions. But in fact, we were just driving down to the Gulf Coast with my family on a particularly cold winter day. This is when I taught at Cornell University and it was 20 degrees below zero, and we decided we needed to get out for a little while. So we drove down to the Gulf Coast, and we drove through this town.
I had been thinking about this question of freedom and the things that bothered me about freedom, the questions I had about it, the complexities, the sort of reflexive nature of freedom. And I’d been thinking about some sort of expression of it: some outlet, a place, a person. I didn’t want to do a national kind of narrative. I felt that was a little too easy. I wanted to hold myself accountable to something a little narrower. So I hit this place, and we’re driving through, and it had these beautiful mansions on either side of the road and these gorgeous arcing trees, and then this other side of town that was rather dilapidated. And I was like: “This could be it. This could be it.”
And the funny thing was I went back to my study at Cornell and I started doing research from the beginning, and I didn’t find out that George Wallace was from Barbour County until probably six months into the project. And that’s when it became fate, because so much of my work has revolved around George Wallace, especially the ‘70s book, Stayin’ Alive.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me guess: you were on your way to Panama City Beach, maybe?
Jefferson Cowie: Somewhere down there, yep.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was trying to think how would you end up going through Eufaula. I’ve been to Dothan, Alabama, which where you get if you keep following the road down. But Eufaula is really not on one of the main roads that go through the South.
It’s also worth pointing out that your book has a lot of obvious relevance to the nation’s post-George Floyd racial reckoning and the populist presidency of Donald Trump. But you began work on this book long before either of those phenomena had occurred.
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah, I wouldn’t say long before Trump, but substantially before Trump. I started it about 18 months before Trump was elected. And there’s a couple of things I like about that fact. One is that it’s not seen through the prism of Trump. I don’t really feel like the questions I was asking were being asked, as so many questions are being asked right now, through that prism. But also the kinds of enduring questions that I’m interested in are sort of… I think this book works even without Trump ever being elected, in that this question of federalism, this question of freedom within federalism, are all central to the American experience. And when we talk about the state, we talk about it in these blanket terms. And the state is really conflicted in at least three ways: local, state, and federal levels. And we really need to be thinking more about the conflict within the federal structure as a central question of American history.
Geoff Kabaservice: You refer at several points to Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s definition of freedom as a kind of chord with three particular notes. Can you explain a little more about that?
Jefferson Cowie: This goes back to a longstanding read that I’ve had of Orlando Patterson’s enormous book on freedom in the Western world. He basically goes all the way back to ancient societies and says that the only reason we understand freedom is because there was slavery; that you need that dyad in order to make sense of it, that kinship and belonging and community were actually more important than freedom or liberty until you actually have slavery. He follows this through all of Western history and comes up with this formula. As you say, he says freedom is a chord with three notes.
The first one is the one we all cherish, I think, as Americans, and that is individual liberty: the freedom from coercion from the state, from other people — the types of things that are protected in the Bill of Rights. The second one is something that we don’t cherish enough, and that is the freedom to participate in the making of your political community and the governing of your political community. And then the third is the note that I’m exploring this book: the freedom to dominate other people, the freedom to oppress. And this is the most controversial dimension, and this is the theme that’s sort of below the surface that I’m trying to push back up.
The irony of the three notes, as it turned out in this place in southeastern Alabama, in Barbour County, is that the first two notes were mobilized most effectively in pursuit of the third. That is, individual rights and the political community got very worked up when the third note — that is, the freedom to oppress, the freedom to dominate, the freedom to enslave — was threatened.
Geoff Kabaservice: You play out your saga over two centuries in essentially four extended episodes of conflict between white Alabamians and the federal government. The first begins in the early nineteenth century with the efforts by white settlers to seize and settle the lands retained by the Muscogee Creek Nation under the terms of the 1832 Treaty of Cusseta between the Creeks and the U.S. government under President Andrew Jackson. The second is the resistance to the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the 1860s and ‘70s that ended with the blood soaked so-called “redemption.” The third was the reassertion of white supremacy and Jim Crow over the better part of the next century, extending past the New Deal era into the ‘50s. And then the fourth was the reaction by George Wallace and others against the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ‘60s.
And this book is really full of surprises, even to people who are familiar with the broad outlines of American and Southern history. For example, President Andrew Jackson is probably best remembered today for his atrocious actions against Native Americans, including the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. But I was surprised to see you portray him as a comparative moderating force relative to the local whites in eastern Alabama in the 1830s.
Jefferson Cowie: That’s exactly right. I had to reread the sources multiple times to get that, because it cuts against the grain of what we understand as historians to be the essence of Andrew Jackson. Let me lead with the fact that it’s not that he didn’t want the Creek people to leave — he did. But he had set up this treaty and he was prepared to honor it. And so Barbour County, and Eufaula in particular, really begin as a white settlement when these intruders come in across the Chattahoochee River and begin to colonize this area against the treaty rights that Jackson has set up with the Muscogee Creek people, in what was known then as the Creek Nation, this area the size of New Jersey along the Chattahoochee River.
And he sent in federal marshals, and later federal troops, to remove white settlers from Native American lands. It’s the reverse of what we expect of Andrew Jackson, and so it’s rather shocking. What’s really interesting about that fact is one, this place is born as a white settlement in opposition to federal power. Federal power comes in and basically removes it: burns key buildings, destroys others, kicks people out. And it’s not just any federal government, it is possibly the most sympathetic federal government to their interests ever. And in fact, Jackson won every county in Alabama. But many counties turn against him after this act. So yeah, it’s a little bit of a different interpretation, I think, of Jackson. But in no way does it deny the fact that he basically delivered the better part of three states from indigenous hands to American hands.
Geoff Kabaservice: Again, one of the resonances with the present era and our current politics is that as much as Jackson was on the side of these white settlers, any federal action really seemed to stir them into the proverbial hornet’s-nest kind of rage and conspiracy theories and beliefs that they were going to be enslaved. There was an episode where federal troops killed this scoundrel, Hardiman Owens, who tried to dynamite them all, and he then becomes a martyr. He’s like the Ashli Babbitt of the 1830s. So this is a dynamic that we can see very deeply ingrained in American history.
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah, it is. And the killing of Hardiman Owens is such an amazing story, especially the aftermath of it, where he does in fact become a martyr for his rather insane resistance to federal troops. Like you say, he tries to blow them up with a keg of gunpowder, and he tries to do these other tricks that don’t really work, until finally a trooper shoots him. And then it becomes a sort of regional, even national scandal.
But here again is the same story played out in which the federal government is taking away local whites’ freedoms to basically dominate land — and freedom is land under Jacksonian and Jeffersonian logic. That’s the central element to how white Americans thought about freedom at that point. And so to deny that was to deny the essence of freedom. And that’s what federal troops are doing, and that’s why people like Hardiman Owens could become these martyrs — at least until another character shows up, of course, in another improbable twist, which is Francis Scott Key.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. Just talk briefly about the role that Key played in this. Of course, people will know him as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but he plays a much less illustrious role here.
Jefferson Cowie: He comes across in my book as a bit marshmallowy, a bit foppish. Having become a Jackson man, Jackson sends him out to deal with this mess that Jackson’s stirred up by promising Indians one thing and promising, in broad brush strokes, white settlers everything. And so he sends Francis Scott Key out there, and he basically makes a bit of a hash of the whole thing. He sells the whole project out — sells out the indigenous people and sets up what becomes known as the Second Creek War, where finally the Creek people realize they have no allies left. And they launch basically a guerilla war against the settlers, which triggers the federal government — on the settler’s side this time — and they don’t stand a chance.
Geoff Kabaservice: The Creeks would have known about Jackson as well, and would have had no reason whatsoever to trust him or the federal government of which he was the head. And yet they did — because they had to, I guess.
Jefferson Cowie: They had to. That’s exactly right, Geoff. Where are they going to turn? And this plays out throughout the book: indigenous people, freedmen, and later on civil rights workers all look toward federal citizenship while whites look toward local and state citizenship. And that’s the rub, because they know they’re going to get a raw deal on the local and state level.
And the way that Jackson could wash his hands of this whole thing and say, “Oh, you know what? You’re really state citizens, not federal citizens. You’re not covered by us.” And that essentially meant Alabama could strip them of fishing rights, hunting rights, land rights, citizenship rights, rights to appear in court, everything. So that’s why… It’s not that they love Jackson. It’s just that the federal authority is all they had.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the term you use for this white resistance to federal authority — when necessary, because of course they call in the feds to help them after the Creeks declare war — you call this “racialized anti-statism.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Jefferson Cowie: That’s a clunky term. I’m not super fond of it, but I certainly use it a lot. The idea is that this push for freedom from federal power is really, at its basis, highly racialized. But it’s not just some idea of race; t’s actually land, it’s labor power, it’s political control. It’s not some loose idea of race. Their resistance to federal power is directly connected to whites’ capacity to control the land and labor of other people — and those other people are generally non-white. So that’s why I call this version of freedom “racialized anti-statism.”
As you say, though, the trick element of this is that they’re not afraid of using the state when it’s theirs. That’s the sort of hypocrisy at work. So we see them using federal power — demanding federal power — when the Second Creek War happens. And this story goes on all the way through the New Deal and other things. So they’re not just anti-statist. It’s an anti-statism of a certain convenience.
Geoff Kabaservice: Use of the state for me but not for thee, as it were.
Jefferson Cowie: Indeed.
Geoff Kabaservice: Does it seem to you that this kind of racialized anti-statism is peculiar to the South for most of American history, or is it perhaps a more virulent version of a broader national ideology?
Jefferson Cowie: Well, that was the question, right? Because, real quickly, going back to our previous thoughts there — the state for me, not for thee — is that in general, the state works for the vast majority of white people in America. It’s what it has done. It’s done its service. The question is when it betrays that. That’s the friction. When the federal government comes in and challenges white authority on the local level, that’s when things get sticky.
So the question of how does this work on the national level… That’s why the Wallace dimension is so interesting. By the mid-twentieth century, he is a voracious reader of Barbour County history. He loves everything about Barbour County. And he’s raised on Reconstruction mythology and all this sort of stuff. But in that same speech that we started our conversation with, the 1963 gubernatorial inaugural, he scans the entire nation and says, “You rock-ribbed New Englanders, and you Westerners who feel the flame of liberty, and you tough-talking Midwesterners — you’re all Southern. You’re all Southern.”
And partially because of the great migrations — the white great migrations — they are. But there is this thing… And when he takes his campaign national, as you know, he begins to win primaries: in ‘68 and ‘72. Well, in ‘68 he is an independent, but in ‘72 he begins to win primaries and is making inroads right into the belly of the beast, in the United Auto Workers and other liberal institutions. It was his gamble that yes, this would work nationally. And I think it does.
Geoff Kabaservice: So let’s step back for a second from the book. Can you tell me something about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where did you study? Who were some of your principal influences?
Jefferson Cowie: I grew up in the Midwest, outside of Chicago. My dad was a custodian at the local high school. And as quickly as I could, I left that Midwestern town as soon as I graduated from high school. And in this sort of Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen-esque kind of “On the Road” ideal, I headed to the West Coast. I ended up at Berkeley and worked for a number of years in the building trades, and then eventually went to the University of California. This was at the tail end of the California Master Plan, where education was excellent and very cheap. I paid $700 a semester; I tell my students that every year, that there is another way. And there, I would say probably the biggest intellectual influence up to that time was Leon Litwack, who wrote a great deal about the late nineteeth century and the course of freedmen. Been in the Storm So Long was one of those enormous books of that era, both in impact and scale.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which also won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for History, if I recall correctly.
Jefferson Cowie: That’s impressive. I knew it won one, but I didn’t know… If you can pull the year out, more power to you. For somebody who didn’t really understand how race worked, what the history was, being in his class was a revelation, an absolute revelation. And then later on I decided I was going to be a labor historian, because I was interested in how economic inequality worked in America. I thought that the question of economic inequality was more interesting in some ways, and how do you run a democracy in the midst of a stratified class system? I ended up studying labor history
But this book is sort of an elliptical return to some of those early questions about race and the national experience. I think there’s a lot of thinking about your own intellectual past where you work, and I appreciate that very much. I really like the reflection. So for me, I think the same sort of reflection is I actually thought that you could subsume questions of race into questions of class. And I began to feel, in the last 15 years, that that’s probably not the case. Race is so powerful, a kind of organizational arc throughout history, that it was inescapable as its own dimension.
Geoff Kabaservice: When we met up in 2018 at the Miller Center for that conference on America First and isolationism, I got onto you about my disagreement with your characterization of punk rock in your book Stayin’ Alive. And your response was, “Oh yeah, you’re one of those.” I actually found it quite touching that one of your readers made a mixtape for you of punk rock to try to change your mind about the music.
Jefferson Cowie: It was great. I was giving a talk at Temple University, invited by Bryant Simon, on the book. And somebody raised their hand and asked that same question and said, “Do you stand by this?” And I was like, “Well, it’s complicated, blah, blah, blah.” And he came up and plopped a mixtape right on me, and he said, “Listen to this.” And it was the best sort of reader response I think I’ve ever received.
Geoff Kabaservice: But what was already pretty notable in Stayin’ Alive was that, relative to the run of most labor historians that I knew, you had much broader interests. And it seemed to me that you actually had to explore a lot of new intellectual/academic ground to write Freedom’s Dominion as well.
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah. The problem with academic life and especially tenure is you have the freedom to do the same thing over and over again if you want. And where’s the fun in that? It should be a license to explore, a license to keep pushing the boundaries of what you think you understand and how you understand the world. And so I think each one of my books sort of changes the lens rather substantially.
And Stayin’ Alive, yeah… I’m not a pop culture scholar or a movie scholar. I just watch the movies and listen to music — and got some things wrong, apparently, about punk, even though I was stage diving at Dead Kennedy shows in the early ’80s. I just want you to know, Geoff, I have some cred.
Geoff Kabaservice: Absolutely! So here’s a question for you then… How much time had you spent in the South prior to getting into the subject of Eufaula?
Jefferson Cowie: Well, I live here now.
Geoff Kabaservice: You do live in Nashville, that’s right. Whether Nashville is still part of the South is an open question.
Jefferson Cowie: Right, right. We have a very commodified version of the South here in Nashville with the pedal taverns and bridal parties going down to Broadway and listening to a very sterile version of country music. But my mother’s side of the family is from Greensboro, North Carolina. A lot of them worked in the mills, mostly as secretarial/administrative staff; all that stuff had been mechanized by then. So I had that influence. My mom used to joke that I was named after Jefferson Davis, which is not the case — it’s Thomas Jefferson.
And then I went to grad school at UNC, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which at the time was just an amazing place to do social history. And Southern history was really exploding under Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and my advisor Leon Fink and other folks. So, coming back here, coming back to Vanderbilt… I was at Cornell for nineteen years, I guess. And then we moved back here before Trump was elected because we wanted to get out of the bubble and I wanted to sort of reconnect with the country. Little did I know the country was going to reconnect with me in a rather dramatic way after the election of Trump.
So that’s sort of my connection with the South. And I’ll tell you, intellectually, I took a seminar on the Old South in graduate school under Harry Watson. And we read a book by Mills Thornton called Politics and Power in a Slave Society, about Alabama. And when I started thinking about this project, I went back and I looked at that book and I had — this was in the ‘90s — and I went back and I looked at this book while I was working on Freedom’s Dominion, and I had circled every use of “liberty” and “freedom.” And Mills Thornton had figured out the whole question that I was working on already. I was honored that he was willing to read the manuscript for me.
So anyway, I’ve been kind of struggling on and off with these questions of the South, and the South’s relationship to the North, and George Wallace, and freedom — on and off for quite a while.
Geoff Kabaservice: Should any of you American-spelling j-Jeffs want to avoid the racial overtones of Jefferson Davis or even Thomas Jefferson, we g-Geoffs would welcome you over here. So I did notice a point in this book, Freedom’s Dominion, where I saw some references to some of your previous work, because you write that Eufaula was subject to “the resource curse.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Jefferson Cowie: This is the idea that societies that develop around a specific resource — oil, diamonds, cotton, whatever it’s going to be, whatever commodity an area is rich in — it will twist development around that in a sort of monocultural way. And that kind of monoculture breeds all sorts of developmental problems. If your answer to every problem is more cotton or more oil or more whatever it is, then you’re not getting the type of economic diversity that a rich capitalist development depends upon. And then when that commodity goes, obviously you’ve got nothing left. And there are several characters throughout the book who are like, “We’ve really got to stop this. We’ve got to move on and try some other crops or do some other things, or at least get some textile mills in here.” Breaking out of that resource curse is a long struggle.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you say that this actually affects the character, I guess, of the white labor force as well?
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah, absolutely. And even smallholders begin to bend towards… Even if maybe they might be better doing subsistence agriculture or a little bit for the market, they’re going to try and inch the cotton production more and more into their arable land, even if it’s not great land. So they’re affected by it. White sharecroppers are an enormous part of the Deep South by the early twentieth century, especially after Black people moved during the first Great Migration. And the biggest hope they have, actually, is working in a textile mill, which I discuss in one of the chapters.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the second act of your book picks up with the Reconstruction era, and particularly the Radical Reconstruction that followed Ulysses Grant’s election as president in 1868 and the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. And in thinking about you and Reconstruction, you said you were a student of Leon Litwack… He was a student of Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley…
Jefferson Cowie: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Stampp was, I think, the single most important historian moving the discipline’s interpretation of Reconstruction away from the so-called Dunning School, which essentially took the slavemasters’ point of view of slavery as a benign institution and Reconstruction as this corrupt and undemocratic imposition on the South. And Stampp’s first book, The Peculiar Institution, only came out in 1956. Stampp himself was with us until 2009. Litwack just died in 2021. This is a relatively recent reinterpretation, I think, all things considered in the grand scheme of things.
Jefferson Cowie: The degree of ideological blinders on the Dunning School was staggering: to be able to go in and look at what was going on and just say, “Oh, obviously these benighted Black people just cannot possibly handle democracy, and everything’s out of control, and it’s a whole Birth of a Nation film sort of experience…” Because as soon as you actually read the documents, it’s absolutely crystal clear what’s going on.
And in the case of Eufaula and northern Barbour County, whites felt subjugated by federal authority when Radical Reconstruction government and troops came in and said, “This is going to be a biracial democracy,” and they did it at bayonet point. And the white locals tried all sorts of shenanigans to get out from underneath this — quite dramatic stories — until finally they gave up and just decided in November 1874 to open fire on voters in the streets, Black voters who are lined up to vote.
And this was essentially not just a riot. The Dunning School would’ve said, “This is crazy Black people acting crazy.” Liberals would’ve said, “Oh, look at this unfortunate riot.” But in fact, this was a coup d’etat. And in fact, federal marshals who were on the ground said, “This is a coup.” And the problem there was that in fact federal troops were told to stand down. And that was ultimately the tragedy of that moment: that the federal government did not live up to its job there. And I’ve said that the federal government is a hero of the book, but it’s a terrible hero, very ineffective.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s at the very least a hero with feet of clay, that’s for sure.
Jefferson Cowie: Feet of clay, weak knees, the whole thing, right.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the satisfactions of being a historian is, at least in some tiny measure, trying to set the record straight. The Eufaula newspapers portrayed the 1874 Election Day Massacre in exactly the terms that you mentioned that the Dunning School would say. But you have what I thought was a very illuminating quote from a local planter, Eli Shorter, which is: “If you don’t come with us, we will exterminate you as we did the poor Indians.” That somewhat seems to give the game away. And you also commented on the “galling, detailed, and unrestrained mendacity” of the accounts in the local newspapers. That’s the kind of thing you do encounter in other branches of study when you look at Nazi and Soviet news reports too.
Jefferson Cowie: Right. And this opens up the question that some people have asked: Is this a herrenvolk democracy? Is this a master race democracy? It’s a question I skirted just because some of that stuff’s so loaded that it’s not necessary, because the story’s so powerful and rich on its own that you don’t need to necessarily supercharge it with rhetoric. I try not to use a lot of terms, actually. I don’t use “whiteness” very often. I don’t use “herrenvolk,” I don’t use “white supremacy” even unless my actors are using it. I try to let the sources speak in that regard. But yeah, the degree to which they lied through their teeth is just amazing. Because they, in an organized fashion, hid weapons all over downtown. And when somebody said, “Go!,” they shot people. 80 people were shot in downtown Eufaula…
Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe more, for all we know, right?
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah, that’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: I had talked with Jeremi Suri, a professor at the University of Texas, about his book Civil War by Other Means, which is about Reconstruction and really the tragedy of American history that Reconstruction was not allowed to go forward and reshape the South. You provide some interesting glimpses of life under Reconstruction, which included the election of James T. Rapier as the first and last time Barbour County..
Jefferson Cowie: First and last.
Geoff Kabaservice: …ever sent an African-American to represent them in Congress…
Jefferson Cowie: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: …in 1872. Yet there also is this question of… If you are the federal government, or if you’re relying on the federal government to safeguard your rights, really the outcome depends on the willingness of the government to provide resources, to maintain troops in an occupied territory for that long, and then also just individual commanders. It seems in this case that the African Americans of Eufaula were really sold out by a weak-kneed Union commander.
Jefferson Cowie: That’s right. This cuts multiple ways. I think that’s really insightful. Because on the one hand, I walked away from this book by the time I was done — and I can tell you a great civil rights-era story on this — convinced that the one thing federal authority should be doing is the one thing it doesn’t do, and that is to be the enforcer of political rights. The rest will take care of itself. If you guarantee the right to vote to everybody and you back it up, the rest of the questions of politics and political economy will be much easier, I think. That includes all the questions we’re fighting with right now, whether it’s gerrymandering or convict voting or whatever it’s going to be.
But the fact that these people, whether they’re the Muskogee Creek people or the freedmen, are dependent upon federal power — it’s just a fact of life. I don’t know a way around it. Nobody likes the federal government; that’s why Wallace got so far railing against it. But this is the only mechanism I can see, short of armed resistance, armed defense — which of course is tried by the Native Americans, tried by Black people, but it tends to engender so much tyranny-of-the-majority problem that it’s a no-win situation. So it really does require, I think, the use of the federal government.
Geoff Kabaservice: What follows the withdrawal of the federal military presence after Reconstruction is a chamber of horrors, really. You called what followed “the neo-slavery of convict leasing, the vigilante justice of lynching, the degradation and debt of sharecropping, and the official disenfranchisement of African Americans under Jim Crow.” I think while listeners are likely to know something about lynching and disenfranchisement, they are unlikely to know the full horror of convict leasing. Can you tell us something about that?
Jefferson Cowie: That chamber of horrors, as you so aptly put, emerges as the federal government is in retreat — “in repose,” as I put it. So you have this period, after the mid-1870s all the way up really until the New Deal, where the federal government is pretty much hands-off. One of the first things that happens is they try to reconstitute a certain kind of neo-slavery within the coal mines outside of Birmingham. One of the key players in this is a Barbour County bigwig, J. W. Comer, whose brother B. B. Comer became governor.
The idea is they would go around and buy up convicts from the local jails, buy up their terms and send them off to work in the mines. This work is horrible because, honestly, at least if you were a slave they were invested in keeping you alive. In this case, it was, essentially, they would just get another convict; it was very easy. It also prevented people from participating politically, because if you stuck your neck out they were going to throw you in jail, and if they threw you in jail you’re going to go to the mines. So it became also a political disciplining agent. It also provided money for the state coffers, and it basically paid for the entire state prison system plus. So it’s a bit of a silver bullet for white power in Alabama after Reconstruction, in a dark and evil way.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also added that from the elite Bourbons’ perspective, this also had the benefit of keeping unions free of white labor — keeping white labor unions out of the mines, rather.
Jefferson Cowie: Right, because you can divide the workforce. That’s your best shot at keeping unions out.
Geoff Kabaservice: You made a relatively brief reference to the Eufaula white populist Reuben F. Kolb, whose efforts to make an impact on politics really resulted in the Democratic Party stealing the elections throughout the 1890s. I used to run across a lot of grad students who were enthralled by this idea that there could be a biracial populism, using class against the masters. You seem to put less emphasis here than one might have expected. I wondered if this reflects any change in perspective.
Jefferson Cowie: As I said, I’m sort of recovering from that idea that you could easily have a sense of class solidarity triumphing over these types of adversities. But what we see here is… Reuben Kolb was a good guy, a populist. He wanted to break out of the resource curse by growing melons. He had a famous melon, “Kolb’s Gem,” that he wanted people to grow. He really tried to overthrow the Bourbon elite and democratize the Democratic Party, connecting in various ways with the Democratic Party. He runs a number of times and there’s different shifting alliances that would just bore your listeners probably. But what happens after that challenge, that really was never very interracial… If they just tolerated the idea of equality, even in a Jim Crow sense, they paid the cost. It was too big of a stumbling block for organizing. But the very threat of this ends up in the 1901 Constitution that essentially disenfranchises Blacks — and actually a lot of poor whites as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: You mentioned that in the end the 1901 Constitution, which was a Progressive measure, ended up disenfranchising more poor whites than Blacks.
Jefferson Cowie: That’s right, in the long run. Not immediately, but over the course of a couple of decades later, in net terms. So Progressivism in the South was essentially all about disenfranchisement, and that was a big, bold measure for what people thought was good and progressive. What do I call that chapter? I think it’s “White Oligarchy as Jeffersonian Democracy.” That idea that a white oligarchy — i.e., what we would call the Bourbon elite — could rule so effectively by championing the small-state government concepts that they inherited from Jefferson, I thought, was particularly interesting. That was the hardest chapter to write, actually, to wrap my brain around what was happening on the political dimensions of how this was unfolding. And in fact, what they’d done is taken this Jackson and Jefferson thread of smallholder, anti-government yeoman-like politics for themselves, the elite, and disenfranchised the rest. It was a pretty brilliant move.
Geoff Kabaservice: So skipping ahead to George Wallace… When he runs for governor the first time, I guess in 1958, he runs as a comparative moderate, particularly on the racial issue. When he loses to a more robust segregationist, he vows not to get out-segged again, although that wasn’t the word he used…
Jefferson Cowie: A very polite word you have selected…
Geoff Kabaservice: This does suggest that Wallace and maybe quite a few of the other populists weren’t really sincere in their racism, that it was just opportunistic in the long run. Jefferson Cowie: So, Wallace… There was a growing move — a very slow, very incremental move —toward some tolerances for a more progressive view of race relations in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It wasn’t great. Let’s remember, this is the era of the Dixiecrats. As soon as the Democrats put a civil rights plank in the platform, the Dixiecrats bolt and go to Birmingham. I’m not trying to paint some rosy picture. But you have a whole series of candidates and leaders who are, “Hey, let’s build roads. Let’s build trade schools and hospitals. And let’s not just give Black people the absolute dregs of society.” It’s not visionary by any sense of the imagination, but it’s not this dark, most vicious version of racism that will come.
What happens — and here’s a sort of irony to my state story — is Brown v. Board of Education. So Brown happens, the federal government comes in and says, “We’re going to integrate schools.” And then comes the bus boycott right up the road in Montgomery. That’s when the white population really digs in, in a reactionary position on federal power. That’s where Wallace is sort of in transition. Black lawyers found him very, very respectful of them when they appeared before him when he was a judge. They’re like, “Oh, this guy’s all right. We can’t get lunch anywhere in town — he brings lunch in. And he calls us ‘Sir.’” But then he sees the writing on the wall —between Brown v. Board and being beat by a very racist candidate — and he comes out swinging.
But the genius of George Wallace — and I do think he was a political genius of sorts — is that he didn’t just run on race. That’s where we come full circle to the opening story, to the 1963 inaugural. Race was there at all times, but he really ran against federal power. That’s where the rubber met the road. That meant he wasn’t just going to get the snarling racists, but he was going to get… He’s got a coalition now. He’s not just race-baiting to the one extreme end of the electorate, but now anti-tax people, anti-regulation people, white working-class people who don’t want Blacks moving into their neighborhood, things like this. Now you’re getting a bigger group of people — and who doesn’t have a beef against the federal government?
Geoff Kabaservice: So to what extent do you think that modern conservatism is George Wallaceism writ large?
Jefferson Cowie: That’s an interesting question. Kevin Phillips famously said that the Wallace voters were moving between a Democratic past and a Republican future. To a certain extent, that’s true. The weird thing is that Wallace remained a Democrat throughout his entire life. He never left the party except when he was running as an independent in ’68 for the presidency. He wasn’t a Strom Thurman who joined the Republican Party or somebody like that. So there’s that.
But that type of anti-statist energy, I think, is really important for understanding Wallace and this trajectory of modern conservatism. I’ll be curious what you think of this, but what it dawned on me was in ‘64 when Goldwater runs, he’s not winning a lot of states. He’s winning the Deep South, which he’s ambivalent about. He wants to be the party of freedom from government, not the party of racism. But he’s winning because of his opposition to civil rights and the Civil Rights Act. He’s winning the Deep South.
Wallace sends an envoy out to tell Goldwater, “Hey, you and me, we team up and together we’ve got the one-two punch.” I call this the double helix of American conservatism. Racism on its own only gets you so far, and anti-statism — “Oh, we’re going to free you from the government” — only gets you so far. You start twirling those two things around each other and you have a pretty powerful formula. I think that is, in many ways, the future.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think it’s a powerful mix, I agree with you. But it’s a mix that has appeal in certain places and contexts and not in others. The only point on which I really disagreed with you, from a factual standpoint I’d say, was when you said that in 1964, “The racial conscience of the Republican Party… all but died at the San Francisco convention.” Well, you know, I wrote a book about the persistence of racial liberals in the Republican Party. You could say that, in the long run, your prediction came true.
Jefferson Cowie: Was that a quote, or did I say that?
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s your quote.
Jefferson Cowie: Okay. I’m just wondering whether I was quoting somebody else. But yeah, okay, I totally stand corrected on that if that’s the case.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s a question of emphasis. But I think the bigger question is to what extent do politicians succeed when they appeal to the worst angels of the public rather than the better?
Jefferson Cowie: Well, that’s why I think Nixon’s so good. He can do it by taking the sharp edges off, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah.
Jefferson Cowie: And Reagan is even way better than Nixon.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a vignette you have in there about George Wallace going in to meet LBJ, and LBJ giving him “the treatment.” Here are two Southern populists, but LBJ ultimately is better at it. And in some sense it was by aspiring to the good nature and the better angels of Wallace that he knew were in there: “Do you want your monument to say: ‘George Wallace — he hated’ or ‘George Wallace — he built’?”
Jefferson Cowie: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: That was still a time, I think, when those Southern populists wanted to build things. I’m just not sure that’s the case anymore.
Jefferson Cowie: I agree. I couldn’t agree more. And the crisis of the Democratic Party — not the Republican but the Democratic Party — is how to function without the South. It’s the one thing nobody ever talks about in all this stuff, which is that the segregationist conservative wing of the Democratic Party was central to the success of the New Deal, central to the success of the postwar era politically. And without that, the Democratic Party is a coastal party with the occasional wins sprinkled out in the center. And that’s been a problem really since the ‘80s and the ‘90s.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, I know it’s too pat of a question… But do you, as someone on the left, see any chance of the Democratic Party winning back the white working class that you’ve written so much about and so well?
Jefferson Cowie: Oh, God. I was going to say, that’s a question back from the Stayin’ Alive book tour. Gosh, I would like to think that at some point somebody’s going to look at these burned-out towns where the factory left and have opioid addictions and guns and whatever and say, “What we really need here is a boost to the economic structure.” But I’m not sure the Democrats are prepared to go there. And I’m not sure that if they were that they would get a positive response, because the cultural dimensions of politics run so deep.
It’s hard to be optimistic. I think that one of the problems that we don’t talk about is the capture of the Democratic Party by a sort of — God help me, I’m going to use the term — liberal elite. And that is the kind of development and NIMBY-ism and other stuff that doesn’t always serve blue-collar people. But I essentially answered your question in The Great Exception, which is that the time in which the working class had institutional position embeddedness and was loosely unified under a single party, the Democratic Party, was a one-off.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree that’s an important book, although I think that’s a very pessimistic conclusion. I want to, at the end, turn to two of the criticisms that have come up about the book. One of them was by David Beito, who’s an emeritus professor at the University of Alabama, in Reason, where he basically accused you of using wordplay around this term “freedom.” And he wrote that “even if most white Southerners genuinely believed they were champions of ‘freedom,’ that doesn’t make it true, any more than it would be truthful to conclude that Stalinists were legitimately advancing their purported principles of ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’ when they defended the purge trials of the 1930s.” How would you respond?
Jefferson Cowie: I’ve thought about this a lot. So let’s take your Stalinist example. Communism is what communism does. And the actual workings of communism, as was known in the twentieth century, was a hellscape, right? And I’m not going to sit around and say, “Yeah, but what Marx really said, what Lenin really said…” I can make that argument, but I’m not going to make that argument about the Soviet Union, beyond maybe Bukharin or some other hidden possibility of the Soviet revolution. Freedom is as it is practiced.
So there’s just a hint of the linguistic turn in this, nested in what I’d like to think is still a political economy. And that basically says that if this is what people say freedom is, then that’s what freedom is. And this is what annoyed me about… So I went in and read all — not all, but a chunk — of the political theory on liberty and freedom, and the differences between liberty and freedom in this Anglo-American philosophy. And I was like, this is not what people are saying. This is not how they’re using it. And so I’m enough of a pragmatist to say that what they’re saying, and what they’re doing defines freedom.
Geoff Kabaservice: So let me raise the other question, which in a way was more of a meta-critique from George Packer, writing in The Atlantic. He calls your book “a gem of the new fatalism.” Now, what does he mean by “the new fatalism”?
Jefferson Cowie: That’s the name of my new rock band, by the way.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like it. He writes that “American culture — movies and museums, fiction and journalism — is consumed with the most terrible subjects of the country’s history… This mode of analysis doesn’t just revise our understanding of American history, illuminating the areas of darkness that most people don’t know and perhaps would rather not. It also draws a straight line from past to present. … Cruelty, inequity, and oppression endure in the American character not only as elements of a complex whole but as its very essence. Any more ambiguous view — one that sees the United States as a flawed experiment marked by slow, fitful progress — is an illusion, and a dangerous one.” Again, your reaction?
Jefferson Cowie: I am so happy you brought up the Packer review. I was looking forward to George’s review and I was very disappointed in it, not because I didn’t think he had something to say, not that I didn’t think that was a decent argument for a great deal of work that’s out there. But I think he got me confused with other people. I actually think that that is a valid argument, but not necessarily for Freedom’s Dominion.
Because the four sections all work quite differently. I think freedom operates differently and there’s a lot of change over time. There’s a lot of tension. It’s not just “America is this hegemonic, racist block of imperialism.” It’s there for sure. But this is actually, I think, more hopeful than some of the other books I’ve written because I have an answer.
And the answer came when I was looking at the civil rights section of this book, when Hosea Williams, who’s the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s sort of lieutenant in running the campaign for voter registration after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he’s looking at everything. He can’t figure out why some counties have good voter registration drives and others don’t. He’s like, “This one has good leadership, but it has low numbers. And this one is just a really oppressive place, but it has good voter registration numbers. What’s going on?” And finally he figures out that the ones that have good voter registration numbers are the ones that have federal registrars. Under the Voting Rights Act, they got the federal registrars. So organizing matters, and leadership matters, and whether you’re with SNCC or SCLC and all that matter. But what really, really matters is whether there’s federal authority on the ground. And that shapes values and practices and all sorts of things.
So my critique of Packer is: I don’t think you’re quite taking my argument as seriously as you should, and you were looking for a nail to hit with your particular hammer.
Geoff Kabaservice: Part of the problem that Packer has with historical works in this “new fatalism” is that some of them do posit that nothing has changed. I remember when I was a grad student in the ‘90s and I would sit around in classes and people would say, “Brown v. Board of Education had no effect. African Americans are worse off today than they were in the early 1950s.”
Jefferson Cowie: “Women are worse off,” yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I would just sit there thinking to myself, “I’m not going to get a job in this profession.” But you clearly go out of your way to say that that is not the case, that there has been progress.
Jefferson Cowie: Absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: And one of the reasons that your work really resonated with me personally is that a few years ago I took several months out, almost as a kind of exercise, to write a history of women in the single town of Corning, New York, in upstate New York.
Jefferson Cowie: Why Corning?
Geoff Kabaservice: Amo Houghton, who had been sort of the resident head of the Corning Glass Works as well as a moderate Republican congressman for nine terms, really wanted there to be a history of this kind. And I had to write it in four months. So let’s not say that this is an exercise on anything like the level of your work. But I found it fascinating because if you just dip that proverbial bucket into the sea of stories, you come up with all kinds of things.
So I found out about the Iroquois Queen Catherine Montour, who was a great leader; Jemima Wilkinson, who was this sort of genderless prophet known as the Public Universal Friend… There was Suckerville Mandy, the local equivalent of Calamity Jane, but also Margaret Sanger, the champion of birth control, Katharine Hepburn, the actress, and her suffragette mother and aunts…
Jefferson Cowie: That whole central New York strip is full of figures, both civil rights and women’s rights figures, from Seneca Falls down to Corning.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. It’s what Whitney Cross called The Burned-Over District, with all of these kinds of nineteenth-century radicalisms of various political and religious kinds. And I really found that by digging down into this local history, you would come through the sedimentary layers of American history that you would find in many other places: women active around prohibition, around suffrage, social organizations of all kinds, a gradual movement toward equality of condition and opportunity with men.
And a passage that really struck me from your book was where you said that “The untold dirt-level fights that never became part of history in the civil rights movement — in unfamous, unfilmed, unknown places like Barbour County — are where the majority of people experienced, or failed to experience, the Black freedom struggle.” And the optimism in your book is contained in those unsung fights for civil rights, some of which succeeded at least partially, not just in Barbour County but all over the Southern Black Belt. And that does give hope for the future.
Jefferson Cowie: And you do everybody a disservice if you call a mixed bag a failure. And that’s what the people in your grad seminar were doing, right? And I’ve got to get up in the morning, man, and I can’t just get up in the morning and not believe that this place has some redemptive capacity. So yeah, I’m definitely of the… But I’ll tell you, times are hard, and I was seriously challenged emotionally. I wrote a chapter called “Lynching as an Act of Freedom.” I mean, wrap your head around that. And I write from a position of tremendous privilege as an endowed chair and a fellow at Stanford and blah, blah, blah. But my God, it was such a daily gut punch to look at that stuff and to read that stuff.
Geoff Kabaservice:You mentioned the Eufaula Daily Times editor William Dorsey Jelks, who was writing pro-lynching editorials…
Jefferson Cowie: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And this guy becomes governor.
Jefferson Cowie: He becomes governor. One of the many.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. Well, as kind of a concluding note, you did give a shout-out in your acknowledgments to the Drive-by Truckers, and they have that song “The Three Great Alabama Icons” about George Wallace along with Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. And it concludes that George Wallace is actually in Hell despite having done something to try to redeem himself with Black voters. But fortunately for him, the Devil is also a Southerner.
Jefferson Cowie: Yeah. “The Devil has a George Wallace bumper sticker…”
Geoff Kabaservice: So I just really want to congratulate you, Jefferson Cowie, on your book Freedom’s Dominion. Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize, and good luck with your next project, which I will eagerly await.
Jefferson Cowie: Thank you, sir. Thank you for having me on. It was a good time, as usual.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s been a pleasure. And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.