Alabama: The History of a Deep South State

By William Warren Rogers; Robert David Ward et al. | Go to book overview

SIXTEEN
The Bourbon Oligarchy and the New Old South

POWER groups seek to control government in order to shape a culture that protects their interests and recognizes their superior position. This was a major theme of Reconstruction as Republicans and Democrats fought their political battles. The Republican party dabbled with a new order for the South--most clearly seen in its efforts to make the black man a full-fledged participant in Southern society. The Democrats obstructed that program and tried to gain power for themselves.

Even equality at the ballot box does not guarantee a government of pure democracy. The many vote and the few rule with greater or lesser degrees of responsibility. Without strong offsetting social canons, laws and policies tend to conform to the weight of wealth, the power of prestige, and on rare occasions, the influence of intellect. Because the radical program left the majority of blacks in the status of less-than- independent wage earners and then of sharecroppers, it perpetuated economic control in a planter class. To a further extent the Republicans failed to protect fully the right to vote and to ensure fair elections. These defeats doomed their political reforms to failure.

It was hardly surprising, and perhaps even natural, that the catastrophic Southern defeat in the Civil War was rapidly reinterpreted as a victorious triumph of spirit and principle. Southern orators, novelists, and historians almost immediately began to construct a story of happy slaves and kindly masters and to explain how this social Eden was destroyed by rabid abolitionists and radical reconstructionists. The extremes of this view--John Witherspoon DuBose's historical treatment of Reconstruction in Alabama is a good example--portrayed Southern leaders as wise, humane, and brave in contrast to the self-serving and dishonest "aliens" who corrupted Southern life and society with their democratic views of equality for blacks and whites.

The myth of the Lost Cause opened with a picture of the beneficent life that slavery had brought. Next, the myth created an uncritical gospel of heroic sacrifice by Confederate soldiers and composed a litany of the indignities suffered under the "invading army." The triumphal climax

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