The Political Economy of the New South: Retrospects and Prospects

By Woodman, Harold D. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Political Economy of the New South: Retrospects and Prospects


Woodman, Harold D., The Journal of Southern History


A CONFERENCE TO EVALUATE AND ASSESS THE INFLUENCE OF C. VANN Woodward's Origins of the New South a half century after its publication is certainly remarkable. (1) Few historical studies have the staying power that would justify such a conference, especially in these days of almost instant revisionism. Ordinarily, fifty-year-old books, if not completely forgotten and ignored in new scholarship, are mentioned as documents that illustrate the views of the time they were written but are now obsolete. Rarely are they considered to be important interpretive contributions to the problems being studied.

The career of Origins has been quite different. Over the years, many scholars have argued that the book's basic interpretive thrust remained viable even in the face of revisionist efforts. After surveying the scholarship on issues raised by Origins in the twenty years since its publication, Sheldon Hackney declared that the book had "survived relatively untarnished"; a decade later J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson announced that Hackney's assessment still remained valid. Woodward also offered his own assessment. His 1986 memoir, Thinking Back, is a sensitive and insightful discussion of his career and scholarship in which he gives recognition to his critics--at least some of them--in the form of both modifying (somewhat) and clarifying his positions, but in a usually convincing, if sometimes slippery, manner that leaves the basic structure of his work intact. (2)

The staying power of Origins is revealed in another way in the bibliographies and historiographical essays dealing with all aspects of the period 1877 to 1913. (3) These surveys do not show that all of Woodward's interpretations stand undisputed or unscathed, but they do demonstrate how much of the literature deals with the same questions he asked a half century ago--even when the answers sometimes, but certainly not always, differ. Moreover, even when more recent work poses new problems or suggests new approaches, Woodward, as Edward L. Ayers put it in his splendid study, "was never far from my mind." Indeed, one rarely comes across a book or essay concerning the post-Reconstruction South where the author fails to indicate how his or her interpretation fits into the literature and arguments that stem from Woodward's work. (4) In sum, Woodward's 1951 study turned our view of the post-Reconstruction South in a different direction, and now, fifty years later, that direction remains dominant.

Because Origins has had this remarkable staying power and because it has already been the subject of so many evaluations and assessments, a new and original appraisal becomes difficult, a difficulty compounded by my specific assignment here. My task in this discussion is to consider Woodward's treatment of economic, agricultural, and legal matters. This is obviously a major assignment that includes almost everything in Origins, because these matters, given Woodward's clearly articulated Beardian approach, are at the core of his analysis here and in much of his other work as well. (5) (I cannot resist noting that there is a certain irony--very appropriate at a Woodward conference--in the fact that Charles Beard is one of those historians who, unfortunately, in my view, seems to have been revised out of existence and is seldom read these days. But his seemingly faded interpretation is very alive at the heart of Woodward's analysis. Beard's economic interpretation is not without problems, but it is far less crudely reductive than some of his critics have contended and, in any case, far less crudely reductive than the work of some of the still widely read "cliometricians." But that's obiter dicta, as a lawyer might say.)

Like Beard, Woodward saw class conflict and the clash of economic interests as central to American history. He was particularly drawn to Charles and Mary Beard, who in their textbook emphasized the industrial-agricultural antagonism that had divided North and South and led to the Civil War, resulting in what they called the "Second American Revolution": the victory of the industrialists and the destruction of southern agrarianism based upon slavery.

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