Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building

By Szymanski, Ann-Marie | The Journal of Southern History, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building


Szymanski, Ann-Marie, The Journal of Southern History


BEGINNING IN THE 1940s, STUDENTS OF SOUTHERN REFORM MOVEMENTS generally argued that southern Progressivism was a regional by-product of the Populist revolt and its disruptive impact on the southern political system. In some of these accounts, the agrarian radicalism of the 1890s exerted a strong influence on the development of Progressivism; in others, Progressivism emerged as a mild alternative to Populism, achieving prominence after the decline of the farmers' movement. (1) In still other narratives, revisionist scholars have maintained that the South's reform efforts after 1900 are best understood as an outgrowth of the region's conservative political traditions. Though varied, most of these chronicles concur with Dewey W. Grantham's assertion that "southern progressivism was largely an indigenous phenomenon." (2)

Conversely, recent scholars often emphasize the role of the northern-based, national Progressive movement in shaping its "less advanced" southern counterpart. For example, Paul Harvey argues that southern religious Progressives borrowed organizational models and reform ideas from the North, only to find "that the tradition of localism in southern life presented a major obstacle to their visions." Likewise, George H. Gilliam suggests that national experts from regulatory, trade, and industry associations provided invaluable assistance to the inexperienced officials of Virginia's State Corporation Commission, who needed informed analyses of detailed statistical and financial information to regulate railroad rates effectively. Meanwhile, other scholars contend that the southern movement for the improvement of public schoolhouses grew out of northern efforts to improve public education in the South, and that the region's Progressive women "looked to the North" for female models of progress, such as Hull House. (3)

The most sweeping statement of this theme is William A. Link's The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930, which underscores the critical importance of northern-based national reformers, experts, and patrons in stimulating several southern reform campaigns and state-building efforts after 1900. Drawing on both his own research and that of like-minded scholars, Link argues that the South's crusades for the enactment and implementation of prohibition, education reform, hookworm eradication, child labor laws, and woman suffrage would not have occurred in the absence of these national influences. Hampered by a culture that valued localism and community power, southern reform efforts promoted coercive state action after outside pressure groups had actively encouraged such interventionist policies in the region. For example, Link maintains that the National Child Labor Committee propelled the South's drive for state child labor laws and factory inspections; similarly, in his view, northern philanthropists played a crucial role in orchestrating southern school reform and expanding the educational bureaucracy. In short, Link implies that southern Progressivism was heavily reliant on national leaders, resources, and strategies but that it contributed little to the development of reform and state-building elsewhere in the nation. (4)

Through an examination of the prohibition movement, this study argues that Link and other scholars have overestimated the unique character of the South while underestimating the impact of southern Progressivism on national reform campaigns and state-building efforts after 1900. (5) Specifically, this article will demonstrate that southern reformers were fully capable of devising governmental solutions to perceived problems and of providing policy templates for the more "enlightened" regions of the country. Above all, it will suggest that southern parochialism--far from being a deterrent to centralized policies--also served as a catalyst for these policies.

Before considering national Progressivism's influence on the South and vice versa, one should consider the suitability of prohibition as an appropriate case for this exercise. …

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