Thursday, September 21, 2023

Freedom's Dominion - A Review

 Jefferson Cowie, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, (NY: Basic Books, 2022), 416 pages

Freedom means different things to different people, a matter Professor Cowie explores in his latest work of history. Our Constitution defines a government that wants us to obey the rules and accept the restrictions on freedom that democracy creates, but it does not define freedom. Freedom’s Dominion explores how some Americans have exploited the term freedom to justify their social and political views. 

Cowie’s introductory discussion applies freedom as it continues to be used and distorted in the American south to justify their racial views and their efforts to maintain an authoritarian social hierarchy. The introduction establishes the theme for the four episodes of southern history with the emphasis on how they played out in the town of Eufaula, Alabama. The first period follows five years after 1832 when the federal government signed the Treaty of Cusseta with the Creek Indians. The second period covers the years of reconstruction after the civil war while the third period covers the south after reconstruction ends, and the federal government withdrawals from the south. This third section continues into the 1950’s, but ends with the rise and career of George Wallace and the civil rights protests, the subject of section four.

Down in Alabama in 1832 southern whites would not accept the terms of the Treaty of Cusseta, which awarded the Creek Indians land in Alabama for a reservation. Southern whites invaded the reservation lands and settled them as their own. When the Federal Government attempted to fulfill their obligations and protect Indian land, southern whites decided an oppressive federal government denied them their freedom as they defined it.

In all four episodes southern whites declare states rights as justification for doing as they please and overrule federal government attempts to apply equal treatment before the law written into the U.S. Constitution. The white south came close to exterminating the Creek Indians, which the federal government resisted, but without matching southern violence with enough might to prevail. Instead, the remnants of the Creek nation were forcibly removed to Oklahoma territory.

The second episode covers reconstruction and the efforts of the federal government to protect the freed slaves from the determination of the white south to deny their rights and keep them as subordinate cheap labor. Again, the south claims freedom allows them to do as they please while the federal government has to resort to military occupation and be constantly ready to match southern violence in the name of constitutional government.  This second episode wears down the resistance of the north and sets the stage for the third episode and the failure of the federal government to protect the black community from 1877 until 1961. Chapters in this third section narrate the history of schemes to coerce and terrorize blacks into submission.

The schemes include arresting blacks on false claims to exploit them as prison labor. How to rig elections and destroy democracy is another chapter, followed by lynching blacks in the next chapter.  

On lynching, Cowie writes “Largely unexplored in the varying explanations of American lynching is something fundamental: the continuity of the underlying idea of freedom. Reframing the most heinous aspects of American violence as part of the most cherished set of principles in American life is neither obvious nor easy to accept.” Impossible to accept for most of us, but he reviews others who have puzzled over it and written books about it. In one, the author suggests lynching “arose precisely out of an ideology of the sense of what rights accrued to someone possessing democratic freedom.” Cowie reviews others writing on lynching: Ida B. Wells, Jacquelyn, Dowd Hall, and describes the tepid efforts of Presidents that worried too much about votes to take a principled stand.

Part III continues into the great depression and the New Deal that finds southern whites working in the textile mills for a pittance while blacks remain impoverished as tenant farmers. White supremacy reigns but only the white elite have political and economic power, which they use to assure political dominance and cheap labor. WWII finds racial discrimination in war productions jobs and a weak response by the Roosevelt administration to bring equal rights for blacks.

The book’s fourth part covers the rise of George Wallace as a resident of Eufaula, a state legislator, state judge, governor of Alabama and presidential candidate. Readers get a sense for Wallace from some of his aphorisms: “Moderation [is] political suicide,” [Voters]’d rather be against something than for something.” And “[A] certain amount of pain must be expected and tolerated; opponents must be dispatched without mercy; and fighters must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to win.”

Winning for Wallace meant appealing to the racial bigotry of southern whites, slightly disguised as freedom from “oppressive” federal government efforts to guarantee the civil and political rights in the U.S. Constitution. Cowie tracts the political career of George Wallace narrating his opposition to voting rights, civil rights, racial equality, integrated schools, and his campaigns platforms for the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.

A twelve-page conclusion ends the book, where the last paragraph calls for a commitment for the federal government to defend civil and political rights at the local, state and federal levels. Good history has a theme to go with the narrative and Cowie does this extremely well in Freedom’s Dominion. He comes back to freedom as practiced in the south from 1832 to the present. Since neither blacks nor anyone else give up civil rights through deception, southern politics requires violence, or the threat of violence, for whites to sustain their prerogatives. All four eras define freedom that includes white violence used in defiance of a consistently timid federal government.

The book is well organized, reads easily and provides useable documentation to pursue selected topics. It connects directly to current Republicans that define freedom and patriotism as it suits their authoritarian aims. Those who believe in equality and freedom may react with incredulous disbelief at the southern notions of freedom, but unfortunately it qualifies as current events.


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