Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy

Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy

Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy

Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy


In the late 1860s the U.S. federal government initiated the most abrupt transition from slavery to citizenship in the Americas. The transformation, of course, did not stick, but it did permanently alter the terms of American citizenship and initiated a century long struggle over the place of African Americans in the American polity.

Southern Progressives, crucial in this account, were faced with a significant ideological challenge: how to reconcile their liberal principles with their commitments to racial hierarchy. The ideological work performed by Southern Progressives was instrumental to the establishment of white supremacist institutions in the heart of a putatively liberal democracy and illuminate how combinations of liberal and illiberal principles have affected the history of American political thought.

In this work, Marek Steedman demonstrates how Southern Progressives combined commitments to liberal, even democratic, politics with equally strong commitments to the maintenance of racial hierarchy. He shows that there are systematic features of the traditions of liberal and republican thought, on the one hand, and ideologies of race, on the other, that facilitate their combination. Jim Crow Citizenship relates familiar developments in American state-building, legal development, and political thought to race, thus showing how race intertwines with these developments, often shaping them in decisive fashion.


By 1888 Reconstruction was little more than a painful memory for most southerners, black and white. To black southerners the pain lay in dashed hopes and broken promises, and the raw certainty that most of their white neighbors were unwilling to recognize them as full American citizens. Many, indeed, were prepared to use violence to prevent that outcome. To white southerners Reconstruction taught a different lesson, of the folly and inevitable failure of extending equal political and civil rights to former slaves. Using the language of “redemption,” many white southerners understood the end of Reconstruction and withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877 as an opportunity to reassert their own superiority. Not that many advocated a literal return to antebellum slavery, but the renewal of the South and reconciliation with the Union was in part premised on the reassertion of elite white rule in the region. Many whites in the North were prepared to adopt the southern white version of events, and the lessons they claimed those events taught, accepting the South back into the national fold on terms articulated by white southerners. After all, the War had been about saving the Union, not radical experiments in democracy.

A ghost was thus admitted to the national feasts celebrating reconciliation of North and South, George Washington Cable wrote that year. This was the ghost of an old heresy, an essentially un-American political philosophy creating a civil caste system premised on hereditary privilege. That heresy had been the basis of the old slave system, Cable argued, and had motivated the overthrow of Reconstruction by white southerners. It was a heresy that segregation laws sought to institutionalize. In admitting this ghost to the national table, therefore, the North risked acquiescence to a new system of “public subjugation” only two decades after the abolition of slavery, a system of subjugation that could not be reconciled with the principles of the American republic. Those principles, articulated in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution, had promised a system of free self-government in which all were granted equal civil and political rights. The “uniform government of all by all” was premised, Cable argued, on “common and inalienable” rights, and the full implementation of the implied principle required equal protection of black and white alike in their enjoyment of those rights. These two principles, one defending hereditary privilege and civil caste, the other free . . .

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