Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A Tale of Two Courthouses: Civic Space, Political Power, and Capitalist Development in a New South Community, 1843-1940

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A Tale of Two Courthouses: Civic Space, Political Power, and Capitalist Development in a New South Community, 1843-1940

Article excerpt

In 1971, residents of Union County, North Carolina, began a debate that would last well over a decade about the fate of an old courthouse that had served as the local government headquarters since the mid-1880s. The building now stood abandoned, replaced by a modern office tower located nearby that to some local residents represented progress and a welcome break from the past. They wished to raze the old courthouse and put up a parking garage in its place. But others, mostly older residents, argued that the courthouse ought to be preserved and put to new uses, perhaps as a community cultural center or a history museum. The building reminded them of a past that belonged to them and their ancestors, a past they did not wish to repudiate. After some years, the various participants in this discussion came to an agreement. The old courthouse would be saved, but most of the building would serve as office space for an ever growing corps of county bureaucrats. Today the restored courthouse stands at the center of the business district in Monroe, the county seat, a little prettier and certainly cleaner than ever before. Yet the court does not meet there, and deeds and other records remain in the new building. The old courthouse has been downgraded to overflow office space. (1) What then was the point of renovating at great expense this badly deteriorated building? As a compromise set in brick and mortar, the old courthouse now says to all who view it that a certain past will be remembered here and respected, the history of a group of developers who brought the community from the ruins of slavery to the beginnings of industrialization. It also tells local residents that the descendants of those leaders continue to wield power enough to have this memory enshrined at taxpayers' expense.

The use of public space is an aspect of wielding power that political historians have seldom explored. They have typically written about individual politicians or their parties, or of the collective behavior of voters, often seeming to assume that politics is mainly a matter of speeches, pamphlets, elections, and lawmaking. More recently, however, Mary Ryan has written about contests for control of various public spaces as an indicator of the spread of democratic politics in nineteenth century America. She sees parades and public spectacles that took place in streets and plazas and parks as emblematic of the increased access, if not to the machinery of government, at least to public debates over how power at all levels of government should be wielded. (2) There were, however, other civic spaces where political power was not contested but exercised from above. Consider, for example, the public armories described by Robert Fogelson which served as centers for organizing the repression of strikers in the late n ineteenth century. (3) Or think of prisons first built in America during the nineteenth century which, although promising to reform the soul, delivered mainly a strict discipline to the body. (4) Public spaces then may have been contested in the nineteenth century, but ultimately mast of them came under the control of government officials who sometimes put those places to very un-democratic uses.

Yet there was more to civic space in nineteenth century America than its use as a site for political conflict or a means to dominance. Specifically, public places shaped and formed ideas. The symbols of the national government--the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court Building--come immediately to mind, and on a smaller scale every state had its elaborate capitol building and every county its court house. These government buildings each told a story with a moral, a story intended to persuade those who viewed the buildings of the legitimacy of officials who controlled those public spaces. There was, for example, no palace in the style of Louis XIV in Washington, D.C., the clear implication being that there can be no monarch in the United States. …

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