Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908

Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908

Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908

Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908

Synopsis

In this highly original study, Gregory Downs argues that the most American of wars, the Civil War, created a seemingly un-American popular politics, rooted not in independence but in voluntary claims of dependence. Through an examination of the pleas and petitions of ordinary North Carolinians, Declarations of Dependence contends that the Civil War redirected, not destroyed, claims of dependence by exposing North Carolinians to the expansive but unsystematic power of Union and Confederate governments, and by loosening the legal ties that bound them to husbands, fathers, and masters.
Faced with anarchy during the long reconstruction of government authority, people turned fervently to the government for protection and sustenance, pleading in fantastic, intimate ways for attention. This personalistic, or what Downs calls patronal, politics allowed for appeals from subordinate groups like freed blacks and poor whites, and also bound people emotionally to newly expanding postwar states. Downs's argument rewrites the history of the relationship between Americans and their governments, showing the deep roots of dependence, the complex impact of the Civil War upon popular politics, and the powerful role of Progressivism and segregation in submerging a politics of dependence that--in new form--rose again in the New Deal and persists today.

Excerpt

The Civil War transformed the relationship between the American people and their government. As war shifted the boundaries between the political and the personal, women and men pressed previously private, intimate needs onto states they embodied into patrons they could beg for favors. In the process, democracy and wartime exigency turned dependence from a personal condition into a political style. In strange and seemingly un-American ways, the war sparked a revolution not just in what the American state could do but in what people believed it could do. In the decades following the attack on Fort Sumter, people spoke of politics not just through classic American languages of independence and autonomy but also through a vernacular vocabulary of dependence. The popular politics that flowered from the dialogue between crowd and politician was a calculated, often selfish, frequently extravagant set of appeals. This politics emerged from the particular circumstances of the Civil War and Reconstruction, flourished through the 1880s and 1890s, and was seemingly, if not completely, buried by progressive rationalization and disenfranchisement at the turn of the century.

The development of a politics of dependence—what I call an American patronalism—undermines several basic American myths: that political history can be told largely through the centrality and contested expansion of citizenship rights, that Americans deeply resist relationships of dependence, that the United States possessed a weak government, and that its people, by and large, expected nothing more, at least not before the New Deal. Much of American political history might be summed up in the observation of South . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.