SAMPLE BOOK REVIEW
Stan B. Davis HST 538
HST 538 -- American South April 5, 1992
Origins of The New South: Alabama. 1860-1885. By Jonathan M.
Wiener. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978. Pp.
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
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
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
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.
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
Journal of American History,
Volume 66 (December 1979): 659-660.
Journal of Southern History,
Volume 45 ( Feb-Nov 1979): 448-449.