What Does Woodward’s Origins of the New South Have to Say to the Twenty-First Century Reader?

c vann woodward imdb

Less than a decade after C. Vann Woodward’s epic tome, Origins of the New South (1951), had been published, the author was already lamenting the passing of the geographic/political/economic unit he had dedicated his life to studying. In “The Search for Southern Identity,” an article originally published in 1958 in the Virginia Quarterly Review and reprinted in The Burden of Southern History, Woodward explained that every identifiable marker of southern distinctiveness—“the one-horse farmer, one-crop agriculture, one-party politics, the sharecropper, the poll tax, the white primary, the Jim Crow car, the lynching bee”—had been either destroyed or were “on their way towards vanishing.” A “Bulldozer Revolution,” Woodward’s iconic phrase, had obliterated a world defined by racial segregation, a predominantly rural population, and a dominant farming economy. In its place, a new landscape had emerged, where grand metropolises like Atlanta thrived, suburban housing developments were built on top of a previously agricultural countryside, and African Americans were more likely to live in southern city centers than on Black Belt plantations.

Segregation, what Woodward described as the South’s second “Peculiar Institution,” was under assault. Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Crisis, and the Birmingham Bus Boycott all gave the impression that it was only a matter of time before racial apartheid fell. Without such signifiers, Woodward suggested, the South was undergoing a process of nationalization, losing its regional peculiarities as it came to increasingly resemble the rest of the country. Lacking any material grounds for distinguishing Southernness, Woodward offered the rather shaky foundation of “historical experience” to serve as the basis of regional identity.

Silent Majority Lassiter

Recent scholarship has affirmed many of Woodward’s early insights. In The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Matthew Lassiter argued that the post-World War II suburbanization of the South resulted in a regional convergence with the rest of the nation. The fall of Jim Crow and the emergence of two-party politics allowed the burgeoning suburbs of places like Atlanta and Charlotte to emerge as the primary foci of southern politics, as they were, Lassiter contends, throughout the nation. Protective of the racial and class privileges conferred by suburban settings, southern homeowners zealously opposed school busing programs, urban annexation, and more equitable tax structures. These political positions had clear parallels in northern and western communities, such as Boston, Detroit, and Oakland. Building off of findings in his groundbreaking study, Lassiter, along with co-editor Joseph Crespino, recently released a book tellingly titled The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. In this provocative volume, Lassiter and Crespino took this claim even further, suggesting that southern distinctiveness may have always been more fiction than fact, a useful myth that has allowed Americans to protect a supposedly pristine progressive national self-image.

Origins of the New South cover

If we presume that there is much truth to these claims (and I believe there is), how does this change the intellectual standing of Origins of the New South? Woodward’s masterpiece struck a chord in the early 1950s largely because it depicted the historical beginnings of a political system—the Solid Democratic South—that was still in operation. This epic of southern history did away with romantic, warped, and self-serving renderings that lauded the folly of Reconstruction, the glory of Redemption, and the success of New South boosterism. But after a half century of historical revisionism, Woodward’s iconoclastic findings have become mainstream, making Origins all the more groundbreaking, if less pertinent to our contemporary situation.

In this piece, I would like to shift the traditional focus regarding Woodward’s place in American historiography. I would argue that while Origins may have less to tell us about the contemporary South (if there is such a thing), it ultimately remains a model for scholars of political economy and the history of capitalism. Consistent with the ethos of ToM’s Dog Days Series, I base this claim not on comprehensive analysis, but rather on the inspiration I have drawn from Origins. Nor do I claim overt originality, since many scholars have pointed to Origins’s materialist, economic perspective, some even going so far as to label it a “Beardian analysis.”[1] My goal here is to sketch some of my broadest observations about Origins and what I have learned, and therefore how others can still benefit, from Woodward’s masterpiece.

I have always thought that Woodward’s vivid portrayal of the “New South” is less the story of a particular region than of an economic system. Economic actors (planters, industrialists, yeoman, sharecroppers, textile workers, and railroad barons) dominate the action, and it is their competition to gain control of economic policy that drives the historical narrative. Political parties and institutions serve primarily as vehicles for economic agendas. (Take for example the Populists’ political demands: “abolition of the national banking system, the enlargement of currency in circulation, and a system of commodity credit such as that of the subtreasury plan…government ownership and operation of railroads and telegraph and telephone systems of the country.” (250)) The term region implies to much uniformity and cohesion for the landscape Woodward portrayed; a stitched together economic network which encompassed mountainous terrain inhabited by small landholders, deep rich Delta soil that produced even deeper economic poverty for sharecroppers and tenants, bustling and oppressive cotton mills towns, and mining regions known as much for violent labor unrest as coal production.

Identity, experience, and geography did not unify these disparate parts. Each zone was defined by its relationship to the other economic areas, as well as their shared engagement with national and international networks of finance, trade, and industry. Indeed, what made the South a “colonial economy” in Woodward’s eyes was its political and economic subordination to the industrialists and financiers of the East, a position it shared with the extractive economy of the West. (Ch. 11) This could be viewed as either a sort of regional division of labor, or an inequitable economic system where certain areas and sectors achieved dominance over others. The end game of Woodward’s historical drama, the creation of the Solid Democratic South and Jim Crow Regime has always struck me as the imposition of an artificial regional political apparatus on a fractious, rambunctious economic world.

Woodward understood that economic development and capitalist transformations were at the heart of political processes. Rather than a campaign to “Redeem” the Old planter South, Woodward argued that business leaders overthrew Radical Reconstruction in concert with those who had a “middle-class, industrial, and capitalistic outlook.” (20) These heirs to antebellum Whiggery aimed not to restore the Ancien Régime, but rather to build a new capitalist order where local elites would partner with northern corporate titans to exploit the rich natural resources of the region. Though no longer in the driver’s seat, southern planters ultimately chose to align themselves with their industrialist counterparts, realizing that they could benefit from the new system by doubling as merchants, while also gaining powerful allies in their efforts to beat back “any insurgency of the lower-class whites” and former slaves. (21)

Woodward had an almost intuitive understanding of what scholars (myself included) voguishly refer to as “political economy.” In the most simplistic depiction, Origins offers a historical dialectic where political policies produced economic effects, which in turn gave rise to new political formations making countervailing economic demands. There are no free markets or autonomously operating capitalist forces in Origins, but a set of manmade institutions, laws, and structures that governed southern economic life. Woodward highlights these points in his discussion on postwar retrenchment policies. Redeemers instituted retrenchment in order to lower taxes and shrink state debts. However, the way they went about this reflected a clear bias. As Woodward argued, “the systems of taxation…were generally deplorable,” defined by a “regressive” poll tax, inequitable property tax structures, and “assessment and valuation laws” which “encouraged dishonesty.” But while clearly disadvantageous to working class southerners and small property holders, the policies “favored…railroads, utilities, and insurance companies” who “were granted valuable franchises that escaped taxation.” (60) Social services and educational institutions suffered while business interests thrived. In the jargon of our own time, “austerity” was not an impartial correction undertaken by responsible public officials in order to reestablish market equilibrium and fiscal responsibility, but rather the bald manifestation of power politics.

But the economic impact of these elite capitalist measures did not go unchallenged. The political rancor of the Mountain South (or upcountry), African Americans, and the white working class often resulted in full-fledged insurrection against New South boosterism. In the 1880s, for example, the Greenback-Labor movement formed a “People’s Anti-Bourbon” party in Alabama which, according to Woodward, “denounced the New Democratic Conservative party for its favoritism to railroads, banks, insurance companies, and other corporate interests, its inhumane convict labor system, its inefficient and unfair common-school system, and for its ‘right rule’” (84) These charges were part of the larger “[s]truggles over taxation, interest rates, and lien law,” that Woodward argued “divided Southern whites.” (85) Nearly all of these same grievances would help to spark the Populist Movement of the 1890s, the most powerful threat to the conservative planter-industrialist coalition. (235-264)

What has always impressed me about the book is Origins’ depiction of the “New South” as an economic battleground. In an age where politicians and economists attempt to sell the public on competing snake oil policies (as though there were a “correct” path to economic growth), Woodward understood that economic development was never neutral. All measures produced winners—in most cases northern capitalists and their southern lickspittles—and losers—yeomen farmers, former slaves, the environment, etc. Having been designed to do so, economic policies could have achieved nothing else. Likewise, political means were intricately linked to economic ends, and vice versa. For example, when “agrarian debtors” pressed southern legislatures to “repudiate state bonds” and replace railroad “subsidization” with “regulation,” their understanding of rational political policy was indistinguishable from their own economic suffering. (47-48) The denunciations of these measures that inevitably came from southern business sympathizers, who argued that they would destroy the South’s ability to lure eastern investment, reflected a different political rationality altogether, but one equally colored by economic interests.

And yet, Woodward was never so naïve as to believe that economic interests were easily measurable or quantifiable. For Woodward, economic interests could not be gauged by per capita income, real wages, or other clunky yardsticks. They were only discernible when one grasped the complex matrix of economic, social, cultural and political issues that composed a specific group’s larger ideology. Woodward criticized the term “Solid South,” noting that it implied a “solidarity” that “has long been exaggerated.” (75) Different groups of southerners (white and black) had distinct economic interests, and specific ways of conceptualizing said interests. Woodward was far too subtle a thinker to make the mistake of many scholars who quickly assert the “irrational” behavior of historical actors (often paired with the cliché “voting against ones interests”) with little to no systematic examination of their economic philosophies.

For Woodward, individual and group interests were defined by their position within the larger economic system, which was itself in a state of flux. The Mountain South was only distinguishable in its economic relationship to the Black Belt, as well as the yeomanry’s political opposition to the planter-industrialist elite. Similarly, upcountry antagonism towards African Americans only made sense within an economic and political world where capitalist transformations had placed both groups in competition for access to land and jobs, and where white farmers believed that black votes sustained patrician power. As Woodward argues, many Populists ultimately concluded that a browbeaten African American electorate represented the fulcrum of conservative political power. Here one can see the complex intertwining of economic, political, and legal issues that composed their “interests.” Downtrodden white farmers, according to Woodward, came to view African Americans, who shared their economic predicament, as an impediment to their larger initiative to dislodge conservative rule. A completely unintuitive conclusion that one could only come to with a firm grasp of the entire economic system. Woodward did not ignore racism, but rather recognized that it was indecipherable without economic context. Barbara Fields makes this point poignantly when discussing Origins’ portrayal of black Southerners, arguing that “Woodward knew better than to…discuss Afro Americans as subject apart from the subjects of land, agriculture, and rural unrest; industrial development and political economy; class warfare, class alliances, and politics; and literature, the sciences, and the arts…”[2]

Origins is also attuned to the disparate political realities birthed by economic development. By and large, Woodward concludes that southern industrialization was a failed project that never really lived up to expectations. However, the New South’s political reach outstretched its economic grasp. As Woodward argued, Populists in the 1890s confronted a staunch “Gospel of Progress” that defied statistical refutation. Industrial development then, as now, was more of a belief system than economic condition. There was enough visual evidence in the steel mills of Birmingham or the cotton factories of the eastern seaboard to reaffirm already deeply engrained beliefs. Similarly, the entire project was steeped in the imagery of Bourbonism and the rhetoric of the Lost Cause, making it that much more difficult to combat. These preconceptions could only be challenged by countervailing intellectual weaponry, which is exactly what Populists offered. (251) Scholars of political economy would be wise to heed this approach, recognizing the economic development campaigns may have a profound impact on political sensibilities even when objective outcomes fail to meet expectations. In the same regard, elite driven economic projects that fail to pass muster inevitably produce discontent and opposing political visions.

In an interesting way, I have actually gained a greater appreciation for Origins of the New South as I have come to consider myself less a southern historian, and more a scholar of political economy and the history of capitalism. This is, of course, merely a personal observation and not a knock on the field itself. What I now see in Origins is an elegant approach to political economy, a sophisticated effort to grapple with a wide variety of economic actors and their competing interests. It is a tour de force, a model for any scholar looking to engage in systematic analysis of a particular nation, region, state, or local community. Woodward always took seriously the idea that economic interests are a core element of power politics, without engaging in oversimplification or reductionism. He recognized that materialist motivations always needed to be examined as psychological phenomena (not objective markers), which required in-depth investigation and rigorous analysis. Ultimately, I think there is much to be learned from C. Vann Woodward and Origins of the New South, even if one concludes that the book has outlived the region it so poignantly depicted.

Keith Orejel is a doctoral candidate in American History at Columbia University. He is in the final stages of writing his dissertation, “Factories in the Fallows: The Political Economy of America’s Rural Heartland.” His work explores the relationship between capitalist development and political mobilization in rural and small-town communities after World War II. While challenging the notion of southern distinctiveness in regards to rural and small-town developments, his dissertation takes an entirely Woodwardian approach to political economy. He can be contacted at kdo2106@columbia.edu. 


 [1] Sheldon Hackney, “Origins of the New South in Retrospect,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 38, No.2 (May, 1972) 191-216, quote on 196. Reflecting on the Origins of the New South has produced somewhat of a cottage industry. John Boles and Bethany L. Johnson, ed. Origins of the New South: Fifty Years Later: The Continuing Influence of a Historical Classic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003).

[2] Barbara J. Fields, “Origins of the New South and the Negro Question,” in Origins of the New South: Fifty Years Later, 811-824, quote on 811.