The New South Creed and the Limits of Radicalism: Augusta, Georgia, before the 1890s

Article excerpt

IDEA OF A "NEW SOUTH" WAS PERHAPS THE PREEMINENT INTELLECTUAL innovation of the post-Civil War era. The eastern states of the former Confederacy, and particularly Georgia, were home to numerous apostles of this vision, none more vociferous and aggressive than Henry Grady of Atlanta. From his post as editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Grady popularized the idea of a New South--one that welcomed investment and encouraged business enterprise--as the harbinger of industrial development and commercial wealth. Grady claimed that new manufacturing and increased exploitation of the region's abundant natural resources would bring prosperity to all southerners, black and white. Moreover, as historian Paul Gaston has noted, this New South posited a "vital connection" between farming and industrial growth. Creation of smaller, diversified farms to replace the antebellum pattern of large cotton plantations was central to this vision. A "renovated agricultural system" was to be "infused with the values of business enterprise" instead of the plantation ideals that supposedly characterized the slave South. Pursuing new market crops and keeping the profits at home would generate the investment capital necessary for southerners to build manufacturing enterprises comparable to those of the industrial North. Here was a grand design for implementing a new era of prosperity in the defeated South, one freed from the dead hand of plantation agriculture and slavery.(1)

Tragically, the dream of a New South was stillborn. Rather than the actual harbinger of prosperity, the New South quickly became the credo of an oppressive ruling elite that was content to exploit the impoverished southern masses. Rejecting the new creed as little more than empty rhetoric, large numbers of rural southerners embraced an apparent ideological alternative beginning in the late 1880s, first under the banner of the Farmers' Alliance and later under that of the People' s Party. Uniting middling-to-poor farmers and the dispossessed, these "agrarian rebels" coupled deep hostility toward the laissez-faire capitalist vision of New South partisans with sensitivity toward the economic struggles of southerners, both white and black, in pursuit of a more humane society. Reflecting the cultural traditions and interests of the dominant rural South, the insurgents seemed poised to sweep the Redeemer politicians aligned with the Democratic Party from power during the early 1890s. In response, however, Democrats shamelessly employed fraud, violence, and intimidation to crush the potent agrarian coalition. By the turn of the century, the Democratic Party ruled a "Solid South" noted for poverty, vicious exploitation, and racial oppression.(2)

The idea of an increasingly prosperous New South became the intellectual dogma of triumphant Democrats across the South for generations. It bears remembering, however, that this vision originated as a revolutionary alternative to the ideology of the plantation South. As Paul Gaston reminded us over a generation ago in his classic analysis of the New South creed, the ideal of a New South served a vital enabling function for those living in the postwar era. It delineated a path that led from the devastation of war to a prosperous future. This vision was a complex intellectual constellation of assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, values, ideas, perceptions, judgments, ideals, and prejudices enabling individuals to understand the world around them and their place in it. Accurate or not, it was sufficiently coherent and comprehensive to allow men and women to understand intuitively the workings of society. Moreover, the New South vision was an inclusive one, promising greater prosperity and freedom for all southerners, black and white, rich and poor. Like other successful ideologies, it was sufficiently vague and ambiguous to appeal to large numbers of people with diverse interests. Indeed, the allure of a New South was so powerful among those of the postwar generation that, by the late 1880s, it "was on the verge of achieving the hegemony once enjoyed by the creed of the Old South. …