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The Southern Political Tradition by Michael Perman (review)

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 1, July 2013
pp. 110-111 | 10.1353/swh.2013.0079

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Reviewed by
The Southern Political Tradition. By Michael Perman. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. Pp. 116. Preface, notes, index. ISBN 0807144681. $22.50, paper.)

Based on the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures he delivered in 2007, Michael Perman successfully summarizes in this book the means by which the South has managed to dominate American politics since the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789. Perman acknowledges his debt to Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (1948), but unlike that earlier work, Perman’s book does not use biographical sketches to tell his story. As he argues, “The Southern political tradition does not emerge from the region’s political thought, but from its political practice.”

Perman identifies four major tactics used by the southern political leadership: the one-party paradigm, in which first the Jeffersonian Republicans and then the Democrats marginalized and delegitimized the political opposition through race-baiting, violence, and manipulation of the voting process; what Perman calls the “frontier” defense of slavery and segregation in which southern politicians blocked efforts to alter southern race relations in any way, even to the extent of stonewalling reasonable legislation to curb the crime of lynching; and the “over-representation mechanism,” primarily based on the three-fifths rule in the Constitution, the denial of black voting rights, and the congressional seniority system that allowed white slaveowners and then segregationists to disproportionately influence American governance and suffocate measures for racial justice for almost two hundred years. [End Page 110]

The author masterfully blends pertinent detail with brevity. There’s little here that will be new to scholars familiar with southern political history, but this will serve as a highly readable overview for upper-division students being introduced to the topic. Perman ties topics together well, for instance efficiently outlining consequences of the three-fifths provision for presidential races, the organization of Congressional committees, the appointment of judges, and so on. His writing shows depth but remains approachable.

If there is a flaw, it comes at the end when Perman briskly skims over what has happened in the South politically since the collapse of one-party segregationist rule. Perman describes Southern politics as essentially defensive, with leaders like John Calhoun in the first half of the nineteenth century and Richard Russell in the mid-twentieth century pulling up the drawbridge to isolate Dixie from the changes sweeping the world. Since the rise of a racially conservative Republican Party in the South, however, it could be argued that the region’s political ideology has moved from defense to offense.

In fact, that argument has been made by numerous non-scholarly writers in books like Peter Applebome’s Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture (1997) and Gail Collins’s As Texas Goes . . . How The Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (2012). Perman’s expertise, however, is in politics so he also does not discuss the cultural ways in which the South advanced its political agenda, such as promoting the Civil War “Lost Cause” mythology so brilliantly discussed by Charles Reagan Wilson in Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (1983). Politics takes place outside of the chambers of Congress and state legislatures, but Perman neglects to cover how cultural artifacts like the film Birth of a Nation advanced the South’s political agenda. Nevertheless, The Southern Political Tradition represents an essential guide to the region’s history.

Michael Phillips
Collin College
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