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A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power
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An "important, deeply affecting—and regrettably relevant" (New York Times) chronicle of a sinister idea of freedom: white Americans’ freedom to oppress others and their fight against the government that got in their way.
American freedom is typically associated with the fight of the oppressed for a better world. But for centuries, whenever the federal government intervened on behalf of nonwhite people, many white Americans fought back in the name of freedom—their freedom to dominate others.
In Freedom’s Dominion, historian Jefferson Cowie traces this complex saga by focusing on a quintessentially American place: Barbour County, Alabama, the ancestral home of political firebrand George Wallace. In a land shaped by settler colonialism and chattel slavery, white people weaponized freedom to seize Native lands, champion secession, overthrow Reconstruction, question the New Deal, and fight against the civil rights movement. A riveting history of the long-running clash between white people and federal authority, this book radically shifts our understanding of what freedom means in America.
George Wallace campaigns before his hometown crowd in 1958. Wallace amplified a message of freedom as white resistance to federal power that defined the politics of his native Barbour County—and much of the nation—since the 1830s.
George Wallace and American Freedom
George wallace, ever proud and defiant, tightened his fighter’s frame as he assumed the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy over a century earlier. Chin forward, chest puffed out, the new governor stood high on the rostrum, flanked by undulating waves of red, white, and blue bunting. A Confederate flag adorned the podium before him. When he began to speak, Wallace’s lips curled around his famous cocksure Southern drawl, his vowels gliding and stretching toward some secret past. The new governor seemed to transcend time—a man as much from the nineteenth century as from the Space Age. January 14, 1963, was the coldest day in almost any Alabamian’s lifetime, and the fog of the governor’s breath rose into the winter air. The man who would go on to become the firebrand of the modern conservative movement seemed to breathe history and exhale ghosts.1
The new governor began his infamous inaugural with an homage to the specifics of place. Thanking the “home folks” of his native Barbour County for giving “an anxious country boy” a chance, he called out no fewer than twenty-five locations in that county on the banks of the Chattahoochee River—Haigler’s Mill, Spring Hill, Baxter’s Station, Horns Crossroads, Baker Hill, Eufaula, and his own birthplace, Clio (pronounced here with a long i, as in “Ohio”). Like his audience, Wallace understood history in terms of place as well as time: settings of rich soil, old churches, familiar streets, sharecropper shacks, opulent mansions, and buried ancestors. Such places of enduring independence and eternal innocence, Wallace would argue, needed to be defended from the ominous storm of federal forces forever gathering just over the horizon.
Wallace’s angry finger jabbed at legions of imaginary enemies before him. The audience hung on every word. His well-trained boxer’s fists flew. The crowd roared. As Wallace moved on from his tribute to Barbour County, the register of his voice changed. It became louder, less dignified, even forced. Then came words that split the frozen Alabama air like fire: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Each syllable, written by a Klansman no less, got its due. That one race-baiting line shot around the country and riveted the nation’s attention. It remains the most famous sentence of George Wallace’s life.
History recalls Wallace’s inaugural address as a set piece in the larger drama of defending Southern segregation, which it was. But the speech was about something even more profound, more enduring, even more virulent than segregation. Aside from his infamous “Segregation Forever” slogan, Wallace mentioned “segregation” only one other time that afternoon. In contrast, he invoked “freedom” twenty-five times in his 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. “Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us,” Wallace told his audience, “and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.” Those rattling shackles of oppression were forged by the enemy of the people of his beloved Barbour County: the federal government.
After the inaugural, the crowd dispersed down Montgomery’s capitol hill. Many in attendance still had white carnations pinned on their lapels to proclaim their resistance to integration. As they spilled down toward Dexter Avenue, there on the corner, in plain sight from the governor’s office window, stood the sturdy redbrick Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached until 1959. In the dark, wood-paneled basement of that house of worship, King and his many allies planned parts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott after NAACP activist Rosa Parks’s strategic refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955. By Wallace’s inaugural, King had decamped for Atlanta to build his growing national campaign for civil rights. Yet Wallace, too, was building up a national presence, hell-bent on combating the very same federally ensured equality that King and his allies sought. Except what King believed to be the path to freedom, Wallace believed to be a wall of federal tyranny. The new governor tapped into something fierce. “Wallacism,” King explained on national television later that spring, “is bigger than Wallace.”2
During the fight over the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Wallace’s criticism of federal overreach became even more enflamed: the legislation was an “act of tyranny,” the “assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty,” an assertion of government overreach with “more power than claimed by King George III, more power than Hitler, Mussolini, or Khrushchev ever had.” By promoting national laws to end racial segregation, the “federal force-cult,” Wallace claimed, was trying to push the white South “back into bondage.”3
George Wallace, famous as a defender of segregation, believed himself to be a fighter for freedom. From the American Revolution to the ongoing civil rights struggle, Americans have come to associate the concept of freedom with the fight of the oppressed for a better life and a better world. Few ideas are as central to the American mythos. It is easy to ignore or dismiss Wallace’s call for freedom as little more than ideological window dressing for his racism. The real story, however, is far deeper and more complex. Even superficial familiarity with American political discourse reveals that this word, freedom, is as vague as it is ubiquitous, as contested as it is omnipresent, as reflexive as it is inescapable, as oppressive as it is liberating. What the world heard that cold January day was a politician in a long history of local politicians, one with a preternatural capacity to channel the currents of Southern—and national—history into the nation’s most cherished ideal.4
Americans, Wallace believed, would forever continue the fight of their Jeffersonian ancestors against centralized tyranny. “We intend,” he declared at the inaugural, “quite simply, to practice the free heritage as bequeathed to us as sons of free fathers.” He tapped into what one historian has called an obsessive “fear of an imminent loss of freedom” displayed throughout Southern, and American, history. Wallace’s words are hard to differentiate from generations of similar calls to protect local ideas of American freedom. Patriotically rooted in the United States’ revolution against colonial monarchy, these cries subsequently turned against the US government itself. An 1851 issue of the Montgomery Advertiser, for instance, found white slaveholding Alabamians to be “the most oppressed, insulted and plundered of all” in their struggle against federal power. Protecting their freedom to enslave others meant they had to fight tirelessly for “the maintenance and perpetuation of those great principles of civil liberty transmitted to us by a glorious and venerated ancestry.”5
Since federal authority often proved to be an essential, if often fallible, means of redress for nonwhite people, generations of leaders like Wallace saw federal authority as a threat to their social order. Wallace therefore spent his career repeating an enduring and widespread American promise to keep federal power at bay. His brand of freedom was not just ideological residue of the revolutionary generation, but a means to maintain local white political and economic power. Freedom from what whites deplored as federal “tyranny,” therefore, ironically provided license to practice actual tyranny in countless places like Barbour County. From the theft of Native lands to the suppression of modern civil rights movements, conflict between federal power and local autonomy forged a peculiar ideology of white freedom: an ever-evolving freedom to dominate others.
This book is about the idea and practice of a specific kind of freedom in the very place George Wallace elegized in his speech—Barbour County, Alabama, and its main town, Eufaula. A place of grand, tree-lined boulevards, enormous antebellum-style mansions, once bustling commerce, and a dizzyingly rich political history, the town once sat high upon on a bluff above the Chattahoochee River, an elevation submerged, since the 1960s, by a federal dam. The serpentine waters of the river, marking the divide between Alabama and Georgia, flow down to Apalachicola Bay, carrying cotton to the great ports of the world. Here the stately homes in the southeast corner of Alabama are known by the names of deceased locals who made their fortunes as cotton planters and merchants—and controllers of local politics—who found themselves in constant battle with federal authorities to obtain their land and maintain their political and economic power. From the once famous bluff, the town dissolves westward into the enormous spreading plains of plantation cotton, grown in the rich black soil of the northern part of the county. The southern half of the county, below the famous region known as the Black Belt, hosts the poverty and hardscrabble lands that gave birth to George Wallace.
Stories of this obscure place of “surpassing charm,” once hidden behind veils of Spanish moss or beneath thick oak boughs bending to the weight of history, reveal a microhistory of the largest and most central conflict in American political history: that over the meaning of American freedom. A close examination of Barbour County reveals how a racialized, domineering version of American freedom evolved through two centuries of local battles with federal authorities. A focus on a single place allows for a full exploration of why and how appeals to American freedom so often serve as an ideological motor for practices of domination of other people’s land, labor, and political power. The dramas here, small and large, illustrate how racialized anti-statism became a core aspect of American freedom.6
Historians have long recognized the oppressive tensions that gave birth to American freedom but have rarely addressed the grinding persistence of the problem. They have observed the comingled contradictions between freedom and slavery, noted the paradox of those claiming freedom for themselves but oppressing others, and puzzled at the contradictory tensions in American ideologies, but rarely have they recognized that oppression and freedom are not opposites. In the United States, freedom and oppression are mutually constructed, interdependent, and difficult to separate. As African American historian Nathan Irvin Huggins put it, “Slavery and freedom, white and black, are joined at the hip.” From the founding fathers of whom Wallace spoke, to his own day and down to ours, land dispossession, slavery, power, and oppression do not stand in contrast to freedom—they are expressions of it.7
Where did this idea of American freedom as freedom to dominate come from? Turning back thousands of years, we can see how ancient ideas of political freedom emerged in slave societies. In ancient Athens, as the classicist Moses Finley put it some years ago, we saw the “advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery.” Without a large body of people to whom freedom was denied, the historical sociologist Orlando Patterson argues, there was little need for the concept of what became Europe’s most cherished value. Freedom, argues Patterson, was founded not “upon a rock of human virtue but upon the degraded time fill of man’s vilest inhumanity to man”—the capacity to enslave.8
Patterson sees the structure of Western freedom as having three notes that compose a single cultural chord. The first note is the most obvious: freedom as the absence of constraint on one’s latitude to act. We might consider this the realm of individual liberty, the type of absence of constraint that is cherished by Americans and the most romantic version in ideology and practice. The second note is “civic freedom”—the ability to participate in the governance of one’s community. We call this democracy. We are civically free to the degree that we share in the decisions of the political community.
The third, and most ominous, note in Patterson’s chord is an idea of freedom that means not simply the absence of slavery but the power to enslave. Patterson explains that an individual engaging in freedom as an expression of his—and only in recent decades has it been anything but his—singular sovereignty “has the power to restrict the freedom of others or to empower others with the capacity to do as they please with others beneath them.” Such a framework begins to explain why cries for American freedom so often exist in an uncomfortable embrace with concentration of power, racial bigotry, religious intolerance, misogyny, land hunger, violence, and a belligerent form of gun rights. By recognizing discrimination, white supremacy, economic power, and the capacity for violence as dimensions of what “freedom” has always meant, we gain a fresh perspective on central problems of American ideology and practice. A core dimension of freedom is an expression of power.9
The ancient concept of freedom became something more specific, more virulent, in the United States through interactions with Indigenous lands and African labor. If we can step away from gauzy, almost religious, celebrations of the nation’s founding, some distinctive problems in American history become salient. The United States was born at a unique confluence of two streams of global history: settler colonialism and chattel slavery. In global history, there are settler colonial societies and there are slave societies, but few societies are both. Even fewer are founded on a premise so deeply wedded to the combined ancient republican values of freedom and democratic governance. At its heart, this book offers a long historical answer to the short question posed by the eighteenth-century English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”10
Americans celebrate their independence from British colonial rule as the fountainhead of their freedom, yet they proceeded to use their freedom to seize the continent and replace the existing people with both themselves and human beings stolen from Africa. After the expulsion of Indigenous people of the South was underway, Choctaw leader Levi Colbert asked if the “spirit of liberality and equality which distinguishes the United States from all the Empires” was merely “jealousy and defence of their own particular rights, an unwillingness to be oppressed themselves?” The answer to his question reveals a foundational American irony. Independence from colonial rule has often meant not an absence of tyranny, but the opposite: the right to practice tyranny in the name of the universal philosophical category—freedom.11
By design, the US Constitution limits federal authority to very specific levers of action. Seen by many at the time as having gone too far in centralizing power and undermining local democracy, the Constitution was created amid widespread paranoia about conspiracy, corruption, and political “enslavement” to tyranny. In Jeffersonian democracy, government was to be small, local, and participatory, a source of vigilance against the abhorrent tendencies of political corruption, centralization, and aristocracy. The real source of what legal scholars call “police power”—the ability to regulate and enforce behavior in the name of the welfare of the people—rests officially with the various states. The federal government is therefore consciously designed, and popularly understood, to be a thing of restraint, while state and local governments are given broad latitude of action. Most key political questions have historically been left to the states, and some of the most dramatic episodes in political history, as George Wallace knew from his time in Barbour County, occur when federal power threatened the autonomy of local and state authority.12
Crucial to understanding how freedom works in the American context is grasping what James Madison called the “compound republic.” A productive tension, he believed, was built into the American system in which local, state, and federal arenas form an integral, political whole. What scholars flippantly call “the state” is really a messy geopolitical clash over order, rights, and freedoms. James Bryce, the nineteenth-century analyst of the American state, described the compound republic as being “like a great factory wherein two sets of machinery are at work, their revolving wheels apparently intermixed, their bands crossing each other, yet each set doing its own work without touching or hampering the other.” Yet the set of machines did not simply touch but crashed, their gears grinding and gnashing, the belts flying off, and, in the case of the Civil War, the spinning energies of the flywheels violently smashing into each other. Freedom’s Dominion is not so much a community study of Barbour County as it is a close analysis of those conflicting kinetic energies of the compound republic as they unfold in one place over time.13
If a political entity has legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, its coercive powers are accepted—or at least tolerated. Citizens grant authority to ruling powers to maintain civil order, to provide for the well-being of the people, to regulate social and economic behavior, and to defend against outsiders. Faith in a government’s legitimacy and reciprocal obligations between state and citizen emerge alongside other bonds of social cohesion, such as tradition, ideology, shared experience, ethnic purity, or others. In the case of the American compound republic, where Washington’s power was designed to be limited, such bonds often find strongest expression at local and state levels of government in opposition to federal authority.
As Wallace exclaimed so fervently, when the federal government opposed visions of local white sovereignty, it grew to become an enemy—even the enemy—of “the people.” Federal power became the looming usurper, the illegitimate actor, the violator of white American freedom. The federal government rarely took an unambiguous stand for minority citizenship, but frequently it stepped in just enough to whip white elites into a frenzy of racialized anti-statism that spread rapidly and wildly under the banner of freedom. When rare victories for nonwhite peoples happened, they often required tremendous interventions by federal authority that did, arguably, break with the limits enshrined in constitutional tradition that men like George Wallace were trying to defend.
Even the hint of federal authorities mustering their forces could breed zealotry and violence. Should federal power even minimally imperil local capacity to, for example, appropriate Indigenous lands, exploit chattel slavery, or otherwise reorder labor and race relations, it posed a direct threat to local (white) autonomy. Federal authority, when it meddles in local affairs, is cast as an illegitimate source of coercive power that must be resisted—sometimes with deadly force. More often than not, federal power was egregiously positioned against the interests of nonwhite people, except when it was not, and then invocations of white freedom grew ever more strident. The local struggle against the illegitimacy of federal power then took the form of a dynamic racialized anti-statism: an ever-evolving catalyst in the political chemistry of American freedom.
In many histories of local resistance to racial reform, the idea of “white supremacy” is deployed to explain the prevailing state of affairs, the motives of the local powerbrokers, as well as deep historical roots and present-day echoes alike. Freedom’s Dominion seeks a more specific and grounded explanation given that the overt use of the phrase “white supremacy” was not popularly adopted until well after the Civil War. The Barbour County story shows the deeper and more continuous and evolving ideological and rhetorical underpinnings of white domination. Those defending racism, land appropriation, and enslavement portrayed themselves, and even understood their own actions, as part of a long history of freedom. This is also why they were quick to pick up the fight of their ancestors against federal authorities who dared interfere in the practice of their birthright of freedom, the most American of creeds.
The heroes of this tale are the actors on the ground who battled to achieve better lives for themselves and their families—and a more just union for all. The protagonist, however, is a body much maligned on both the left and the right: the federal government. Often it was the only hope there was for those seeking to preserve their land, to win the vote, to avoid being lynched, or ultimately to gain their civil rights. Not surprisingly, this protagonist turns out to be clay-footed, two-faced, weak-kneed, and often ineffectual. For local movements for democracy to win and flourish, however, required the backing of the federal government—often including the use of force. The terrible fact is that what some feared and still denounce as “bayonet rule” is what others simply called citizenship. The argument here is that defending the civil and economic rights of all people cannot be left to local enforcement. “A government without force,” argues the Reconstruction historian Gregory P. Downs, “means a people without rights.”14
Freedom’s Dominion is a story of rough continuity, recurring conflict, and ideological regeneration across time in one place. In Barbour County, freedom served as an ideological scaffolding that supported most every form of domination discussed in this book—Indian land dispossession and removal, mob political violence, lynching, convict labor, Jim Crow, resistance to school integration, and the fight against voting rights. Whether popular wisdom emphasized the social, political, or economic dimensions of white freedom, the patriarchal masculinity inherent in what Patterson calls the “freedom to limit the freedom of others” remained constant and powerful. It still does. To explore the varied expressions of freedom within this broad continuity, this book focuses on four periods of racialized anti-statism and conflict with federal power. Each unfolds as an epic unto itself—with theft, riots, killings, political intrigue, corruption, and war.15
In the first period, federal troops attempted to remove illegal white intruders from Creek Indian land that had been guaranteed by a federal treaty in the 1830s. From the very birth of Barbour County, the federal government’s attempt to prevent white settlers from invading the Creek Nation made it the literal enemy of white settlers’ freedom to access land: the core of the Jeffersonian ideal. Preventing the theft of Native lands seemed to contradict much of the essence of Jacksonian-era politics—even if those protections were designed to rein in and control white freedom in the strategic interest of promoting a long-term strategy of land dispossession. The federal defense of Native American rights against white intruders, argued one speculator at the time, struck “at the very root of the tree of Liberty” by subverting the interests of the states and the rights of “the people.” Within the compound republic, a vigorous alliance emerged between the newly created county and the young state of Alabama; together they squared off against the federal government. The result was talk of nullification, secession, and even civil war in the name of preserving the freedom to dominate local lands.16
The story then shifts to Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s, when US troops backed the right of African Americans to vote in one of the most important stories of federal intervention in US history. It took unprecedented military, legal, and political reach for the federal government to ensure the rights of freedmen through laws and amendments that could not have passed outside of the wartime emergency and extraordinary postwar political opportunities. Reconstruction did work when it worked, but it failed when the political and military power necessary to back the rights of the freed people wavered. The subsequent white assault on the federal guarantee of Black voting in Barbour County was understood as fighting the “flagrant and dangerous invasion of the ancient conservative principles of personal liberty and free government.” The result was the bloody “redemption,” as white Southerners called it, of their freedom in the form of a murderous coup against Black voters.17
The third section begins after Reconstruction, with federal power in repose. Here the consequences of federal inaction become glaring, and this book reinterprets themes like convict leasing, lynching, the Jim Crow state constitution, and labor relations within the framework of a local white sovereignty largely unconstrained by federal power. Here was the highpoint of overt claims of white supremacy in some of its most naked and least contested forms. Access to white power, though hardly economic resources, was redistributed from the plantation elite to all white people in the Jim Crow era. With the coming of the New Deal, however, Southerners willingly accepted monies from the new federal bureaucracy but kept a watchful eye on incursions into the Southern racial order. The growth of the federal government lay the groundwork for white Southerners’ later abandonment of the Democratic Party as it attempted to protect the citizenship of African American people. The governor from Barbour County in the 1940s, for instance, fought fair employment practices for African Americans, proclaiming, “When the government at Washington, thru*
- “Important, deeply affecting—and regrettably relevant… essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and the rabid loathing of government…White men did all this in Barbour County, by design and without relent, and Cowie’s account of their acts is unsparing. His narrative is immersive; his characters are vividly rendered.” —New York Times Book Review
- “Outstanding and urgent...a remarkable achievement.” —The New Republic
- “A gem...Synthesizing brilliant research in fluent prose, and writing with an indignation that’s all the more damning for being understated.” —George Packer, Atlantic
- "A convincing case."—Eric Foner, London Review of Books
- “[G]ripping and haunting…Cowie’s meticulous accumulation of detail and candid assessments…make for distressing yet essential reading. This is history at its most vital.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- “A powerful history showing that White supremacist ideas of freedom are deeply embedded in American politics.” —Kirkus
"Jefferson Cowie has a knack for publishing instant classics: books that change historians' conversations. This is his most extraordinary yet. With eloquence and with brilliance, he delves deep into the annals of a specific place, Barbour County, Alabama, in order to excavate the foundations of America's darkest and most enduring story: how 'freedom' became a national alibi for cruelty, inequity, and reaction. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to start over and absorb it all over again."
—Rick Perlstein, author of Reaganland
- “Jefferson Cowie has given us a deep history of the long war on the federal government—especially when it came to policies advancing class and race equality, of the evolution of White grievance politics, and of a new way of thinking about the psychic structure of American Exceptionalism. With eloquent, precise prose, Cowie clears away the cobwebs to reveal a national malady long in the making.”—Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The End of the Myth
- “A fascinating book, Freedom’s Dominion takes us to the states’-rights stronghold of Barbour County, Alabama. Barbour was the birthplace of Governor George Wallace, whose infamous defense of segregation described integration as tyranny, segregation as freedom, and equal access to the ballot as a threat to individual rights. Wallace’s views illustrate the confounding interdependence of ideas about freedom and oppression in American politics—as does Barbour County’s long history of state-building rooted in antiblack violence, white supremacist rule, and Indian land dispossession. Freedom’s Dominion offers a searing account of that history that leaves one wondering whether American freedom can ever be disentangled from the causes it has supported.”—Mia Bay, author of Traveling Black
“Jefferson Cowie’s Freedom’s Dominion is a magisterial narrative history of white grievance politics. Cowie reveals the origins of these often hypocritical and confounding perspectives, in which those who stole, enslaved, and segregated would themselves claim to be victims of federal overreach, even as they oppressed so many others. Cowie’s terrific book explains the Southern roots of that racialized ideology and reveals how one of the most influential segregationist rhetoricians of the 1960s helped repackage this powerful form of regional white identity politics for the rest of the nation.”
—William Sturkey, author of Hattiesburg
“Freedom’s Dominion covers centuries of American history in Eufaula, Alabama, from the violence of settler colonialism through the ascent of arch-segregationist George Wallace, the region’s most famous native son. Jefferson Cowie is interested in how people in power—almost always white men—used claims of freedom to dominate and enslave others, and how they articulated domination as resistance to a tyrannical federal government. This history has urgent implications for how we understand white supremacist and anti-government politics today.”
—Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home
- On Sale
- Nov 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Basic Books