Alabama: The History of a Deep South State

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

TWENTY
Politics, Education, and the "Splendid Little War"

LOOKING back on the administration of Joseph F. Johnston--chosen as Alabama's thirtieth civilian governor in 1896--historians have almost unanimously seen his years as the stepping-stones of transition that bind the Populist revolt to the later Progressive period. Johnston took the reformers' issues, especially the demand for free silver, and used them to appeal to Populists and Jeffersonians and lure them back into the Democratic party. Put more generically, he sought the support of north Alabama voters. Johnston's background as a Birmingham industrialist, businessman, and banker seemed to be an irresistible link to a progressive future.

Even so, matters were more complicated than the simple transition school of thought suggests. Johnston worked hard to take the splintered factions of Alabama political life and assemble them in a new coalition. The old ruling combination was the constantly reassessed but mutually beneficial alliance of Black Belt planters and Birmingham coal and iron capitalists. The planters' influence came in their organizational control of the Democratic party, while their power rested on the ability to win any state election by manipulating the black vote. The industrialists usually played a quieter role in the coalition (but with great rewards) in part because they lacked either a real or manufactured constituency that could guarantee success at the polls.

Johnston lost his bid for the governorship in 1894 to the conservative alliance. In 1896 he defeated Richard H. Clarke of Mobile, who had Black Belt support, and went on to win the general election. He had produced his own constituency, if only temporarily, and it marked a shift from south to north, from planter to businessman. While accurately reflecting the realities of economic power, the combination was unstable, and it failed to last in the face of racial politics.

There was ambivalence, a constant tension of conflicting aims and interests in the record of the Johnston years. His business orientation and relationships were clear. As his private secretary Johnston named Chappell Cory, the former secretary of the Birmingham Commercial

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