- Reviewed by
One important task in reviewing any book is determining the extent to which the author has met the goals established for the work. Some authors make grandiose promises but deliver little in terms of their work's utility. Such shortcomings, however, are not the case with Edwin Bridges's highly useful Alabama: The Making of an American State. Not only has Bridges met the objectives he set for this sweeping history of Alabama, he does so in a manner that is exceedingly interesting, deeply compelling, and highly informative, particularly for readers not familiar with Alabama's past. Bridges's leading goal, as he notes in the opening pages, is to offer a "big picture overview … [and a] general history of the state [to be read] as an introduction" to Alabama's rich and diverse history (xiii). He has succeeded splendidly; and he shows profound good judgment in condensing so much information into one highly readable volume. The University of Alabama Press and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission likewise [End Page 161] deserve commendation for their support of this work. In addition to a well-written, coherent narrative, this volume includes hundreds of high quality, fully captioned illustrations that tell the state's history in pictures. Many of the images depict the state's stunning natural beauty and add considerably to the book's aesthetic appeal.
Bridges served as the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History for three decades and is eminently qualified to author this work. Though it is not an academic study or one meant to replace academic works—such as the standard college-level textbook Alabama: History of a Deep South State (2010)—it is evident throughout the narrative that Bridges draws heavily from the writings of the most productive Alabama historians who have published various topics on the state's history over the last half century. In that regard, this work well reflects the most recent interpretations of a history that quite often is difficult to write.
Bridges contends that though Alabama has hardly been a "model" state, its history reflects American history in general, particularly when one considers dominant themes such as territorial expansion, sectionalism, race, and class. Bridges takes the reader through Alabama's often tempestuous past—a story in which racism and class division literally defines so much of Alabama's heritage. Yet, the author artfully weaves together the story of a state that to a considerable extent has come to terms with its past, with its public image, and with its legacy.
The book covers every major topic in Alabama history, some more substantively than others. It opens with the various Native American cultures that thrived in the Gulf region from the prehistoric era and centers on the Indians' spiritual relationship with the land. When European explorers introduced a range of diseases from which the Native Americans had no immunity, the Indian population plummeted. Bridges's leading theme regarding the colonial era through statehood is the multinational and multicultural aspects of the Gulf region. He then details the white population's insatiable [End Page 162] demand for more and more Indian lands and how the Creeks subsequently engaged in a disastrous war from which they never recovered. Beginning with the end of the Creek War in 1814 and continuing throughout the next four decades, tens of thousands of settlers poured into the territory and quickly established farms and plantations.
One chapter is devoted to antebellum Alabama and chronicles the state's rise to economic prominence through the cultivation of upland variety cotton. Of course, this prosperity was possible only through the widespread use of slave labor, and by the 1830s—during the so-called "flush times" of Alabama history—the institution of slavery had become interlaced with virtually every aspect of antebellum Alabama. Class issues likewise permeated this era with Alabama's majority yeoman farmers often pitted against Black Belt planters. When abolitionism and the free soil movement threatened slavery, radical white Alabamians parlayed fears of...