Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861–1908 (review)
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Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861–1908. By Gregory P. Downs. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 346. $39.95 cloth)

In the recent decades, historians have emphasized the gendered dimensions of the dichotomy of independence and dependence to better understand the nineteenth-century South. Drawing inspiration from studies of Latin American “clientelism,” Gregory P. Downs offers a novel assessment of these two concepts in late-nineteenth-century political culture. Downs replaces clientelism with “patronalism” to frame and interpret the political rhetoric shaping the relationships between southern patrons and clients in this era. Similar to clientelism, he defines patronalism as a relationship between politicians and citizens-as-subjects, who appealed to their leaders for aid and benefits in exchange for political fidelity. Downs distinguishes between the two concepts by noting that while the former was a reality, Southerners perceived that the latter was. Downs chooses North Carolina to illustrate this pattern, citing its history as “a central place for Confederate state expansion, Union contraband camps, military Reconstruction, Redemption, opposition to civil service, Populism, [End Page 119] Progressivism, prohibition, and segregation” (p. 8).

During the Civil War, white and black North Carolinians imagined others as their protectors and providers. For African Americans, President Abraham Lincoln became their deliverer, a “biblical saint, savior, and a good king, a necessary patron in a world where rights seemed not abstract but embodied in particular leaders” (p. 44). For whites, the state government that asked them to make sacrifices in the name of the Confederacy became the source of relief during hard times. These claims persisted during Reconstruction, with African Americans appealing first to the Freedmen’s Bureau and then to civilian and military officials for aid and protection. Contrary to previous studies of the era, Declarations of Dependence reveals that dependence or patronalism was, in fact, a source of black freedoms rather than proof of its loss. Observing the persistence of patronalism after the collapse of Republican rule in North Carolina, Downs encourages scholars to revise the traditional Reconstruction narrative that ends with Redemption.

Downs writes, “Patronalism survived because it helped politicians manage a racial system that was hierarchical but not yet exclusionary, defend themselves against reformers, and explain interventionist but geographically narrow state actions in prohibition, fence laws, and railroad subsidies” (p. 132). His analysis of the political culture of the 1880s and 1890s centers on citizens’ appeals to patrons for relief, employment, and evangelical Populist reforms, and consequently this section of the book lacks the focus of the earlier chapters. However, Downs clearly illustrates that patrons preserved their hold over dependents by giving the appearance that the right to beg was the true source of power, rather than the resulting aid, thus permitting them to deny the appeals of clients without endangering their own power. Downs argues that patronalism met its demise in the Progressive Era; he defines North Carolina Progressivism as the management of state affairs on behalf of the “people.” In the context of this argument, the white-supremacy campaign of 1898 depended upon the creation of “a distant, imagined (white) community” that united disparate interests across the Tarheel State (p. 187). [End Page 120]

Perhaps the qualities that made North Carolina the ideal candidate to test Downs’s theory make it exceptional in the South, but Declarations of Dependence ultimately offers an analysis of postbellum politics sure to inspire scholars to reconsider the meaning of independence and dependence in political cultures elsewhere in the region during this era.

J. Vincent Lowery

J. Vincent Lowery is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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