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The South’s Lost Leadership

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Although Southern literature now boasts many figures that command national attention, the level of Southern political leadership remains low. The Sahara of the Bozart has become a fertile and productive field, but the dreary, waste of Southern politics is still without human vegetation of more than local significance. There is no crop of public men below the Potomac to compare with the Glasgows, the Cabells, the Paul Greens, and with many others whose accomplishments have filled the Southern literary granaries.

During the Revolution and for nearly fifty years thereafter, the South furnished political leadership for the nation. Four of the first five Presidents were Virginians, and seven of the fifteen men who occupied the White House before 1860 were Southerners. The political history of that early period is studded with the names of men from the South whose minds and talents shone in the cabinet and in Congress. But since that time we have become progressively less prolific until today the sterility of Southern politics is more notable that the productivity of Southern literature. No Southerner has occupied the White House since Andrew Johnson. Candidates for the presidency and the vice-presidency, with a single exception in the case of Senator Robinson, have been drawn from other sections of the country for three quarters of a century. Southern men could not have been expected during this period to distinguish themselves in the cabinet, for the very good reason that, save for the eight years under Wilson, they have been favored with but few important administrative appointments. But in Congress, where they have had opportunities to develop leadership, they have made but little use of their advantages. The South has committee chairmanships, to be sure, when the legislative majorities are Democratic, but the great names in the Congressional hierarchy of today are not Southern names. Norris, Walsh of Montana, La Follette, Couzens, Borah—these are now the shining figures in the Senate, and the only Southern name to be mentioned in the same breath, now that Underwood is gone, is that of Carter Glass. In the House, the South is indeed on a level with the rest of the country, but it is a level of mediocrity, to which the representatives of every section are held in a legislative body so large as to make efficiency dependent on gag rule. The fact that the South measures up to the average in that quarter is hardly a cause for congratulation.

Of popular leaders capable of appealing to the mind and heart of the nation on great issues, the South has produced none since Jackson. Bryan, Roosevelt, Wilson, La Follette, Smith were all products of the North or the West. Wilson was Southern born, and his boyhood years were spent below the Mason and Dixon line. But after he arrived at manhood, the only Southern influence with which he came into intimate contact was the University, of Virginia law school. With this exception, his mature experience and training for political leadership were of the North. The South can not claim him as its own exclusive product. In the field of intellectual leadership, the story is the same. The great minds of American politics in recent years have been Wilson, Hughes, and Root. These men from another section have carried on the tradition the South began when it gave Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall to the nation.

The decline in the quality of Southern leadership may, be partly attributed to the blighting effect of the one-party system. It is quite generally recognized that the South’s Democratic solidarity has helped to prevent the nomination of Southern men for the presidency and vice-presidency. But that is not the only injury resulting from long adherence to a single political faith. With no second party worthy of the name until last year’s presidential election, the Southern States have been for generations deprived of the stimulating influence of well-organized political conflict. Democratic primaries have developed a measure of controversy, but primary contests have usually been between machine and anti-machine candidates, and those in the latter group have too often been too unwilling to offend the machine to press their issues with the utmost vigor. Even in cases where the disposition to attack has been clearly in evidence, the organization for effective political action has often been lacking. The primary has saved Southern politics from complete stagnation, with which this region was threatened under the convention system, but even so there has been all too little of the real, well-organized political fighting to be seen in States where the two-party system obtains. As a result, the opportunities for developing first-rate political leadership have been relatively restricted.

It is not intended to suggest in making this point that the South has suffered more from serious public abuses under the one-party system than have other sections. The Southern Democratic party has maintained reasonable standards of decency in its conduct of public affairs. If the Ferguson administration in Texas was productive of some distressing incidents, they were no worse than those which occurred in Illinois under Small nor were they, as bad as those which disgraced Indiana under McCray. The South has indeed elevated many mountebanks to office, but they have as a rule kept within the law. That is more than can be said for some of the products of the two-party system in the North and East. The consideration to be noted here is that the one-party system, even though decently administered, has tended to prevent the development of the superior types of leadership that are often seen in States where well-organized political controversy is the rule.

In recent years, many tendencies have been working toward the disestablishment of the one-party system in the South and, conversely, toward the rise of the two-party system. With the decline in the proportion of Negro population, the spread of education in the Negro race, and the growing disinclination of white Republican leaders in the South to affiliate closely with Negro voters, the racial arguments on which the one-party system was founded have lost much of their force. The infiltration of Republican voters from the North, the growth of Southern industry with its attendant demand for increased tariff protection, the conviction that the South might command more favorable treatment at Washington if its electoral vote were more in doubt—these and other influences have conspired to increase the Republican vote and to re-establish the bipartisan system, especially in the States of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

The presidential campaign of 1928 imparted a new impetus to these tendencies by detaching large numbers of former Democrats from their party connections. The conditions under which the separation occurred cannot be regarded without misgiving. Most of the bolters left the Democratic party chiefly because of their fears of the Roman church. Such an inspiration reflects no credit on them or on the region in which they live. Nevertheless, positive gains may, accrue from this manifestation of party independence. Some of those who left the Democratic fold rather than vote for a Catholic will affiliate permanently with the Republican group, which will acquire a new numerical dignity and a greater ability to challenge Democratic supremacy, in local and general elections. In the ensuing political conflicts, there will be a more abundant opportunity to develop higher types of leadership in the Southern States.

But the restoration of the two-party system may be a slow process, and even if it were to be completed immediately, it would fall far short of giving the South the prestige this section enjoyed in national affairs a century ago. There are other factors besides conflict which enter into the equation of political leadership. Among them an important place must be accorded to population. Southern men were in the ascendancy at Washington during the early stages of our national history partly because they represented populous States and a populous section. Virginia, which gave the nation four of its first five Presidents, topped the list of States in the first three censuses. North Carolina was the fourth State in population until 1830. The South, exclusive of the border States, had thirty-eight per cent, of the total population in 1790 and thirty-four per cent, in 1810. This was a much larger proportion than the twenty-five per cent, which the South, minus the border States, has today.

With leadership in population went also leadership in the electoral vote. The presence of a large number of slaves operated to reduce Southern representation in the House, but even so, the Southern electoral vote was much larger in proportion than it is today. Virginia, the mother of presidents, owed her preeminence in this line partly to this circumstance. In the first, second, and third presidential elections, Virginia cast twenty-one electoral votes. Massachusetts was far behind with only sixteen, while Pennsylvania and New York had fourteen and twelve respectively. At that time there were only one hundred thirty-two electoral votes. Virginia with its twenty-one controlled nearly one-sixth of the whole. New York with ten per cent, of the entire electoral vote today is in a far less favorable position.

Lack of population is hardly a bar to the development of first-rate political ability, but it does tend to prevent the exercise of national leadership. Other things being equal, the man from a populous State with a large vote in Congress and in the electoral college will command the attention of the parties and the nation more readily than a man from a State having only a small number of voters. A conspicuously, successful public man in New York with its forty-five electoral votes has a better chance to become a national figure than a man of the same ability in Nebraska with only eight places in the electoral college. Especially in the choice of presidential candidates is the element of population important. The South’s handicap on this score is a serious impediment in the way of its ambition once more to furnish the parties with standard bearers for the national campaigns.

At the present rate it will be many years before this handicap is removed. While the South is experiencing a more rapid industrial and commercial development than in former years, its population does not seem to be keeping pace with the growth of industry. In point of fact, the estimates furnished the House in connection with the reapportionment bill indicate that Southern States will lose five Representatives in Congress and gain only four on the returns from the 1930 census. If this forecast is correct, there is no immediate prospect that the South will become numerically more important in the national legislature or in the electoral college.

Numerical inferiority is not, however, an insurmountable obstacle to leadership in Congress or in the cabinet. The great bar to the development of such leadership in the South is not the sparsity of population, nor even the one-party system, but rather the lack of a cause. The West has produced leaders like Borah, La Follette, Norris and Bryan largely because of its enthusiasm for a cause. For forty years, the West has devoted its undivided political attention and its enthusiasm to the restoration and development of agriculture. Whatever one may think of some of the policies that have been advanced in the service of the farming industry, it is evident that the zeal for its welfare has furnished the motive power for one of the most formidable political movements of the time and the inspiration for some of the most impressive and unselfish public leaders.

There was a time when the South was also enthusiastic over political causes. During the Revolutionary era this section was deeply moved by its devotion to the new concepts of political and economic liberty on which our revolt against the mother country rested. Fifty years later, it was equally aroused in the defense of an economic system threatened with destruction through abolitionist agitation. But since Appomattox, the South has centered its political devotion on causes which seem incapable of developing first-class thinking and first-class leadership.

Chief among the South’s political preoccupations has been the maintenance of white supremacy, a local rather than a national issue. It is not the purpose here to dogmatize about the race issue. It is one of those great and perplexing social enigmas that call for earnest questioning rather than for positive assertion. But one conclusion stands out clearly in the controversial maze surrounding this difficult problem. It is that white supremacy is not a cause upon which to rear an enduring structure of national political leadership. Consider for a moment, the men who have been during the past thirty years the principal champions of white supremacy: Vardaman of Mississippi, Blease of South Carolina, Jeff Davis of Arkansas. The exploits and the preachments of these men are matters intelligent Southerners would prefer to forget. Yet their names are more closely I identified than any others with the issue upon which the South has rested its long political solidarity. If these be the fruits of racial agitation — and there is no reason to believe it can produce better—the South cannot expect to regain its lost leadership while continuing to harp on this issue to the exclusion of all others. The more quickly we displace a major issue so fraught with possibilities of obscurantism, the sooner shall we be able to evolve a straight-thinking, straight-acting type of leadership.

After white supremacy, the South’s chief concern in recent years has been prohibition. For a time, it seemed that the warfare on the liquor traffic might prove the political touchstone to bring out the highest qualities of Southern leadership. For a few decades, the South yielded to prohibition a more intense devotion than any other large section. Southern States and Southern public men took the lead in suggesting the Eighteenth Amendment and this whole region was enthusiastic in its early insistence on the sanctity of that enactment. But the hope that prohibition would raise up a higher type of Southern leadership has been disappointed. The dry cause would seem to have developed agitators rather than leaders. Its principal non-clerical spokesmen in the South are the offensive Upshaw of Georgia and the inoffensive Sheppard of Texas. Neither of these men appeal to the imagination of the South or of any other section. Nor does the experience of the remainder of the nation encourage the expectation that future prohibition leaders will be of a higher type. There would seem to be something narrowing, restrictive in the association with the clerical minds that really direct the prohibitory movement. All of those who come into intimate contact with it, Senator Borah alone excepted, suffer a diminution of their intellectual capacities. Even Senator Borah was led in the last presidential campaign to adopt some expedients and to advance some arguments which his more sincere friends and admirers might well have preferred that he leave alone.

A third major interest of the South in recent years has been its antagonism to the Catholic church. The extent and the intensity of this antagonism it is no longer possible to doubt. A conviction so strong as to throw five of the Southern States into the Republican column in a presidential election is manifestly as powerful as it is malignant.

But the leadership of the anti-Catholic movement is another story. Southern anti-Catholicism’s finest offering to the nation is Tom Heflin. The voters of Alabama seem to hold Heflin in enduring affection, but he is hardly a figure to carry on the tradition of Southern statesmanship initiated by Washington and Jefferson and carried on by Calhoun and Jefferson Davis. A more ridiculous fellow than this tilter at papal windmills it would be difficult to find.

These are the matters in which the South has exhibited the greatest interest in the past few decades. If none of them contains the makings of a cause to fire the imagination of Southern leaders, it would seem that the South is condemned to a long period of mediocrity in its public men. The immediate prospect, it must be admitted, is not promising. But the case is not altogether hopeless. Southern life and Southern industry are undergoing a series of transformations. Out of the processes of change, new issues may arise to enlist the sympathies of the Southern people and create a new moral fervor in the hearts of Southern leaders. Industrial expansion, with its tendency toward the concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a small group, brings in its train inevitable issues as to the regulation of commerce and banking, the wages and working conditions of labor, the distribution of tariff privileges, and the conservation of natural resources, including water power. The South, because of its retarded economic development, has felt the impact of but few of these issues. They will press more and more into the foreground of political discussion as the Southern States join the march of industrial progress. With their emergence the opportunities for developing a great and appealing cause will multiply.

A corresponding development may be expected to occur in the agricultural field. Up to the present time, Southern agriculture, from which the bulk of the South’s income is derived, has been sluggish in its reactions to its own necessities. Southern farmers have suffered reverses similar to those which have driven the farmers of the corn and wheat belts to desperate political revolt. Yet in the South the agrarian movement has led to nothing more than a few mild and by no means unanimous manifestations. Farmers of the lower South were more or less united in the drive to secure a Federally-operated fertilizer plant at Muscle Shoals. The movement in favor of the McNary-Haugen bill drew support from many quarters, especially in the lower cotton belt. But with these exceptions, Southern agriculture has not sought to use its energies for political ends after the manner of agriculture in the upper Mississippi basin. Now that the spread of public education and the extension of the farm demonstration system are bringing enlightenment to an increasing number of Southern farmers, this lethargy may be expected to disappear. Southern industry has already begun to play a more aggressive role, and it would not be surprising to find Southern agriculture becoming equally vocal in the presentation of its political demands. The change may easily bring to the front new issues of general appeal susceptible of development into causes.

In the distant background there is also the possibility that the sentiment of Southern white people with reference to the Negro may change in such a way as to promote the development of a cause out of the movement now plainly discernible in the South to remove some of the disabilities under which the Negro labors. The time is by no means ripe for the use of political agencies in furtherance of this movement. At the present juncture, the identification of the Negro’s cause with any partisan group would tend to injure rather than improve his status. But should such an identification become practicable and desirable at some future time, the ensuing discussion would exercise a powerful and stimulating influence on Southern political leadership. Agitation in behalf of a race oppressed by slavery once produced a Lincoln in the North. A sincere effort to free the same race from other burdensome handicaps would hardly be sterile in the South. Perhaps the fact that the great bulk of America’s Negro population resides south of the Potomac may prevent the Negro’s cause from ever becoming an object of national political concern. Nevertheless the possibilities for public leadership of the South’s awakening conscience on race relationships are not to be disregarded.

It is to be noted that the three causes in which the South has been interested in the recent past have all been negative in character. The South has been anti-Negro, anti-liquor and anti-Catholic. These negative causes serve the purpose of the politician desirous only of getting into office and staying there. Men are more disposed to vote against what they hate than in favor of what they like. It is only when politics abandons the easy role of negation and essays the more difficult task of affirmation that a great leadership can be developed. The South of Jefferson’s day affirmed the independence of the Colonies and the rights of the individual and the State as against the central government. The antebellum South propounded an affirmative constitutional theory in defense of the slavery system. If in its industrial and agricultural expansion, or in its progress toward a better inter-racial understanding, the present-day South also finds a positive and worthwhile end toward which to direct its political energies, neither the absence of a well-organized two-party system nor inferiority in numbers will prevent it from regaining some share of its lost leadership.


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