The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877–1933 by Edward O. Frantz (review)
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The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877–1933. By Edward O. Frantz. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. Pp. xii, 295. $69.95 cloth; $26.95 paper)

The memory of Abraham Lincoln’s April 1865 visit to Richmond by turns haunted and teased his Republican successors. Republicans had won the White House without southern electoral votes, and they would keep the White House without its support for the next twenty years (and for most of the next fifty), but the Grand Old Party’s electoral life would have been so much easier if only there had been a two-party South.

Selling the party of emancipation to an audience of slaveholders was no minor undertaking. In six chronologically arranged chapters and an epilogue, Frantz offers a very original take on how Republicans traveled (metaphorically) from being the party of emancipation to the party most deeply suspicious of civil rights claims, and he does this by looking at travel (literally).

Presidential travel was still relatively uncommon when Frantz’s study begins, thus presidential tours were necessarily occasions of great moment and intrigue. That the presidents were visiting the conquered South just added to the mystique and glamour of the undertaking. The only appropriate analog for these presidential perambulations was the Elizabethan “royal progress”: the president, many members of his cabinet, and a retinue of civilian and military aides, and a host of journalists, ventured out into the country via train, for weeks at a time. It really did involve the wholesale transport of the executive branch, and local communities scaled their greetings accordingly. Southerners seemed especially eager to make a good show, and the shows were enthusiastic, extravagant, and memorable.

Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison treaded softly, but firmly, and although southerners welcomed them, they reciprocated with no concessions. As the century dragged on, however, and as white southerners slowly whittled away at African Americans’ postemancipation gains, Republicans sensed an uptick in their fortunes. Such was the [End Page 126] backdrop for William McKinley’s two southern tours, which effectively telegraphed Republicans’ abandonment of Lincoln’s emancipationist legacy. His 1898 tour, Frantz observes, “proved a fitting capstone to the Republican rite” as McKinley’s visit celebrated a victory over Spain (p. 83); his 1901 tour, a victory lap of sorts, served to announce a new tack in presidential appointments. Conspicuously, McKinley indicated a willingness to abandon traditional practice in patronage appointments. By installing Democrats in federal patronage positions, he would more tangibly than any previous postwar president embrace the fears, attitudes, and concerns of southern whites and reject the needs and ignore the plight of southern blacks.

McKinley’s material concessions, however, were not enough. Theodore Roosevelt and then William Howard Taft made their own heralded sojourns and attempted their own revisions to the “new” southern policy. Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge played their part as well, yet none cracked the solid South. Not until 1928, when Democrats did their part to soften southern support by nominating a Catholic candidate, Al Smith, was a GOP nominee able to win several states in the South. Thus, Herbert Hoover broke through, winning over 50 percent of the popular vote in four southern states and achieving solid pluralities in two more.

When Hayes departed from Washington on the first southern tour, neither he nor his aides could have imagined it would take sixty years to first claim southern electoral votes or that it would require roughly another forty years to first achieve governing pluralities. Given the growing attention paid to twentieth-century conservatism, scholars so inclined will want to give Frantz’s book careful heed. He has uncovered and animated three generations’ worth of political machinery without which twentieth-century conservatism could not reach full flower, thus providing a unique and intriguing origins story for the modern Republican Party. [End Page 127]

R. Volney Riser

R. VOLNEY RISER is an associate professor of history at the University of West Alabama and editor of the Alabama Review.

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