Stan B. Davis                                                                                                                                                                                     HST 538
HST 538 -- American South                                                                                                                                                   April 5, 1992

Social Origins of The New South: Alabama. 1860-1885.  By Jonathan M. Wiener.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.  Pp. xiv, 247.

          Jonathan Wiener's book looks at the relationships between classes and races in the western black belt and hill regions of Alabama through the Civil War and Reconstruction and the beginnings of the agrarian revolt.  Wiener examines three major aspects of the South; land and labor, the merchant challenge to planter control, and the relationship between planters and industrial development, by viewing what happened in western Alabama. Though he does not contend that ten counties in two regions of Alabama are representative of the entire section, similar circumstances throughout the South produced similar results. The author utilizes Marxist ideology, emphasizing class consciousness as the source of conflict. Thus the Civil War and Reconstruction become a bourgeois revolution by northern businessmen, urban workers, and small farmers against the pre-industrial South.
       Social Origins of the New South challenges C. Vann Woodward's earlier thesis in Origins of the New South that the power of the southern planter elite was broken by the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Instead Wiener asserts that the planter class maintained political, economic, and social hegemony and controlled the development of the "New South."  Using the ideas of his mentor, Barrington Moore, Wiener saw the planter class as able to assert enough power to force the South on the "Prussian Road" to modernization, basing development on control of the economically depressed, ex-slave labor force.  Southern development therefore differed dramatically from that of the North because of the continued domination of the planter class.
          Wiener expounded on a central theme of southern history that land equated to wealth. The planter elite was able to maintain its ownership of the land because the bourgois revolution of Reconstruction did not extend to redistribution of wealth by breaking up the plantations and giving the freedmen "forty acres and a mule."  His concept of persistence uses a sample of the 236 wealthiest families and using census records traces their ability to remain in the elite through the two decades from 1850 through 1870.  Wiener found that the number dropping out in the decade of the Civil War and Reconstruction was not significantly different than the Antebellum period.  Thus while planters lost wealth through the emancipation of slaves, many were able to retain their plantations and economic control of the region.
          The challenge to planter dominance came from three groups; freedmen, merchants, and industrialists. It was this class and group conflict and the compromises, victories, and defeats that shaped the course of development of the South. The initial conflict was that between the emancipated slaves who represented the majority of the region's agricultural labor supply and their former masters who retained control of the land.  Planters wanted to retain most of the old plantation system using gang labor under close supervision, while freedmen wanted land of their own with minimal contact with their former oppressors. The planters enlisted the Freedman's Bureau and planter dominated state legislatures to control black labor.  The Freedman's Bureau supported the yearly contracts the planters favored and often supported them in labor disputes over the former slaves they were supposed to be aiding.  State legislatures passed "black codes" that required blacks to work or return to virtual slavery.  Blacks retaliated by withholding labor from the planters, preferring subsistence farming if they were able to obtain land.  The compromise, sharecropping, left the planter in control of the land, avoiding redistribution, and gave the freedmen a degree of autonomy but no economic base.  Thus the planter elite survived with an altered plantation system and their traditional power intact. 
          The merchant class challenged the planters for control of black labor through loans backed by crop liens.  Merchants providing goods to the freedmen would have controlled any and all surplus produced if their right to first lien had been allowed to stand.  Planters retaliated with political power.  The planter dominated Alabama legislature, in 1871, made the landlord's lien superior to all others.  Other laws further restricted black transactions with merchants like the 1874 law prohibiting transactions after dark.  This law was supposed to prevent the sale of stolen goods but in reality it restricted the blacks to using the planter's store as the only one available after working all day.  Wiener asserts and his statistical analysis supports the thesis that planters forced merchants out of the "black belt" and into the hill country where they could deal with white yeomen farmers. The merchants' lien right without planter competition allowed them to gain control of Alabama's hill country at the expense of the small white farmer who had dominated there.
          The third challenge according to Wiener's view came from industry.  Industry represented an alternative source of employment for black labor and threatened the planters' agricultural labor pool.  Using their established political and economic power the planter elite controlled industrial development, channeling it to manufacturing that would complement, not challenge, agriculture. Thus southern cotton mills using predominately female labor appeared but produced only cheap plain cloth that could be sold in the region.  The planter class used their political influence to oppose state support for immigration of white factory laborers, to stimulate industrial growth and expansion, or the development of an independent industrial class. Wiener cites the case of Birmingham, the major industrial center of the region, whose growth was stifled by an alliance of southern planters and northern businessmen worried about the potential competition of southern industry.
          The victory of the planter class in each of these struggles for control, Wiener concluded, caused the South's movement down the "Prussian Road."  This path delayed the region's growth, keeping it essentially a third world agricultural colony. The South remained stagnant and growth toward a modern diversified capitalist economy was delayed until the twentieth century when outside forces intervened.
          Reviewers were generally favorable to Jonathan Wiener's book seeing in it a revision of the contention advanced by C. Vann Woodward and others that the New South was the particular domain of a rising new class, the middle-class entrepreneur.  But James Tice Moore reviewing in The Journal of Southern History also notes several weaknesses.  Wiener takes his data from five adjoining counties in the "black belt" region of Alabama and by inference implies it holds true for the entire plantation region of the state if not the entire region.  Moore praises Wiener's economic analysis but is less enthused about his treatment of the political and intellectual aspects of the place and period. Wiener's treatment of the New South creed, the Populist Revolt, and the Progressive Movement are not as well stated as his economic thesis.
          Tennant McWilliams is also divided in his review of Wiener. Writing in The Journal of American History, McWilliams praises much but questions the use of the western Alabama counties arguing that they were not typical of the state because being the furthest West they were the last settled.  Did Wiener really challenge Woodward's thesis or did he concentrate on agriculture rather than business?  Finally McWilliams questions Wiener's concentration on class struggle.  Wiener following the Marxist school has relied on a class-base analysis that may not be valid.
          J. Morgan Kousser likewise has some problems with Social Origins of the New South.  Kousser who reviewed in The American Historical Review also questions Wiener's use of statistical data, particularly his parameters for persistence in the planter elite.  Labor laws certainly favored the planter class but Wiener does not show that the laws were enforced consistently or at all.  Finally, Kousser argues that conflict over development may not necessarily indicate class warfare but simply a clash between varying capitalist interest groups.
          Wiener's thesis rests on the so called persistence of a planter elite in the five counties studied. This persistence needs to be compared to other areas to be really meaningful.  Accepting Wiener's statistics on persistence does not prove the existence of an enduring planter elite that controlled the South politically and economically, and continued to do so despite the Civil War, Reconstruction, and a persistent agricultural depression.  While planters obviously had many common interests Wiener offers no proof that they constituted an exclusive class with conscious opposition to merchants or industrialists. In contrast he does admit to cross-over between the planter and merchant groups.  Wiener's Marxian view is too rigid based entirely on class antagonism and ignoring the importance of racism providing an alliance of all white men against the freedmen regardless of class.  Any view of southern development that ignores the power of racism is flawed. Social Origins of the New South is an interesting work on one aspect of development in one small portion of the South, not a definitive work on the topic.

Reviews Consulted:
Journal of American History, Volume 66 (December 1979): 659-660.
Journal of Southern History, Volume 45 ( Feb-Nov 1979): 448-449.

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