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The Persisting South

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975
The Persistent Tradition in New South Politics. By George Brown Tindall. Louisiana State University Press. $4.95.

GEORGE B. Tindall’s new book, “The Persistent Tradition in New South Politics,” is a provocative collection of essays which illuminates some of the vital changes in the New South during the past 50 years. The volume is an outgrowth of the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History presented at Louisiana State University in the spring of 1973.

Tindall is Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among his many works are the encyclopedic survey, “The Emergence of the New South, 1913—1945” (Volume X of a “History of the South” published by Louisiana State University Press) and another perceptive book of essays, “The Disruption of the Solid South.” Tindall’s name on any volume in Southern history makes the work worthy of a close reading.

“A thread of continuity,” Tindall writes, “ran through the transition from Bourbonism to progressivism in the New South.” He suggests that one might see “a process of dialectic” operating whereby the Bourbons offered the thesis, the Populists set up an antithesis and the Progressives developed a synthesis which ruled Southern politics for more than 50 years. The Bourbons’ “ultimate success” was “the reconciliation of tradition with innovation.” They gave life to a New South but retained “the vision of a traditional organic community.” The Populists offered another vision but were vanquished ‘by the determined Bourbons who were not selective about the means they used. The remarkable part of Tindall’s thesis is that the Progressives, while adopting certain Populist ideas of a more active government, were “the legitimate heirs of the Bourbons.” Their synthesis contained that same “persistent tradition of community in the South” which had meant so much to the Bourbons.

In his analysis, Tindall emphasizes how historians, especially recent ones, have viewed the Bourbons, the Populists and the Progressives. He is especially successful in summarizing interpretations and relating them to previous views and to the principal topic.

Historians seem to be continually discovering watersheds. The South, Tindall points out, may have crossed a major watershed in its politics, economics and society during the past two decades; however, the past century has witnessed a succession of “New Souths.” Tindall notes that “continuities in history are seldom, if ever, completely broken.” Tradition asserts itself again and again.

The Bourbons of the post-bellum era were able to preserve much of the past but adopted just enough of the new to frustrate their opponents and preserve their world. The New South theorists envisioned a Janus-faced South which venerated the Lost Cause and simultaneously moved toward industrial development and agricultural diversification. This society would require stability as a pre-condition of growth. The prophets of the New South, therefore, preached reconciliation among all interests in the South as well as between the North and the South. As Tindall interprets the Bourbons’ achievement, “the Bourbons kept alive the vision of an organic traditional community with its personal relationships, its class distinctions, [and] its habits of deference to the squirearchy.” They kept this sense of community as “a living reality” even when their accommodation of the new and the old was challenged by the Populists.

The word “Populist,” Tindall acknowledges, is probably the most overworked term in our political lexicon. Yet in the politics of the 1890’s “Populist” stood for a set of definite proposals, “a checklist of reforms to come.” Southerners moved into the Populist Party much more slowly than Westerners because of the issue of white supremacy. The Democratic Party was the white man’s party. To oppose its candidates was racial apostasy. Tindall notes that liberal historians, adopting the Populism of the 1890’s as a Lost Cause, have found its vindication in 20th century progressive reforms. He, however, sees Populism’s most valuable contribution as the acceptance of the view that “government should play a more positive role in righting wrongs, in dealing with the evils of society.”

The essence of Populism lay in its “truly radical if amorphous critique of the existing society.” Society’s basic problem was that the producing classes were unjustly denied the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The Populists saw a society in the America of the 1890’s which contained “a fundamental antagonism between producers and parasites.” Such a world-view differed sharply from the Bourbons’ vision of a traditional community “governed by its natural leaders, where each person found his place and where no real conflict of interest could exist.” Southern Populism presented a genuine menace to the Southern power structure. Not only was its world-view different, but it posited a different system of politics, a biracial coalition of the producing classes. The fear that such a coalition might succeed accounts for the Bourbons’ ferocious response. The Southern elite mounted a comprehensive and successful defense of their society. As Tindall puts it, “The collapse of Populism brought in its train disfranchisement and the triumph of the Solid South, free at last from the threat of rebellion.”

During the past decade historians have offered so many definitions of Progressivism that even their fellow historians are often mystified. Tindall is to be congratulated for guiding the general reader through this maze of scholarship. The Southern Progressives, in Tindall’s view, were businessmen and others who promoted reform “along the lines of efficiency and rationalization.” What distinguished Southern Progressivism was that “the bureaucratic mentality remained more subject to the traditional mentality than elsewhere.” Public services were expanded and became the responsibility of permanent agencies. A “new elite of talent and achievement,” as Tindall describes the professional experts, emerged. Yet they would not become dominant in the tradition-oriented Southern society.

Tindall concludes that the Progressives’ reforms served the goals of the Bourbon elite. Education would bring an orderly, prosperous civilization. Disfranchisement would eliminate from the electorate undesirables whatever their color. Thus “good government. . . by the better class” would prevail. The new policies of voter registration were consistent with the Progressive urge to rationalize procedures. As Raymond H. Pulley has demonstrated for Virginia, “the consequence of disfranchisement” was “to stabilize and secure the Solid South.” Yet this one-party system led to a fragmentation of the political process into factions. Such a factional system generally rewards elites.

The traditional structure of Southern politics continued intact until the national Democratic Party adopted the political necessities of the New Deal. Since the 1930’s many of the old landmarks have fallen, e. g., one-party politics and Jim Crow system of race relations. Tindall sees the rise of a two-party system in the South as indicative of “a more structured framework than in the past.” Greater participation and vigorous party competition seem to open Southern politics to a new range of possibilities. “No doubt,” Tindall concludes, “there will be some surprises ahead. One of them may be the persistence of tradition . . . of the old sense of community if not of the old habits of deference.”

“The Persistent Tradition in New South Politics” is another valuable contribution to Southern history by Professor Tindall. His incisive analysis will surely lead to other interpretations and much debate. However, he has ably accomplished the task of the historian: to render the past more intelligible.


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