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116 5 Woodward’s Losers Disappearing Democrats in Southern Political History Patrick G. Williams The intellectual must not be alienated from the sources of revolt. —C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (2008) In probing Woodward’s “The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual,” Patrick Williams challenges a basically one-dimensional understanding of southern Democrats. He argues that we have a much fuller understanding of the “losers,” the Populists and the Radical Republicans, than we do of southern Democrats. We have been satisfied too easily with explanations that force, fraud, and racism played the major role in the Democrats’ ability to solidify their control during an era when significant challenges arose in the form of third-party movements. He argues that scholars would be wise to examine the “dollars-and-cents” appeal the Democrats had for most white voters. Woodward is, in part and perhaps unwittingly, responsible for this scholarly oversight. Writing in a time when he and others were “spooked” by McCarthy-era excesses, Woodward was searching for a usable past and focusing on the rebels in southern politics, but the work he inspired was largely empty of any systematic examination of their opponents’ multifaceted appeal. The debate over the nature of the Democrats of the late nineteenth century focused mainly on whether they were new men of the middle class, as Woodward would have it, or the old agrarians in new guise. Even here, there was little penetrating analysis of their white constituency. As Williams argues, however, these Democrats appealed to a wide spectrum of voters long before disenfranchisement statutes were passed. Rather than accepting racism, patriarchy, and stolen votes as the sole explanations for their success, scholars should understand that struggling small property owners had a profoundly different understanding of their economic interests and the role of government than they do. Specifically, Williams cites the example of Virginia Democrats who lost control when they departed from the party’s low-tax doctrine. Rather than using 117 Woodward’s Losers history to understand the present, Williams suggests that we draw on more nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the new conservatism of the late twentieth century in reconsidering the Redeemer Democrats of the previous century. • Through three editions, C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History remained committed to the idea of southern distinctiveness—even as it had to surrender the first edition’s notions of America’s exceptionalism. In identifying constituents of that distinctiveness, Woodward listed “oneparty politics” alongside “the one-horse farmer, one-crop agriculture . . . the sharecropper, the poll tax, the white primary, the Jim Crow car, the lynching bee.”1 But it is only a passing mention—which seems odd. Surely, the South shouldered few burdens weightier than the one-party rule of Democrats , unmatched elsewhere in the nation in either longevity or reach. The party’s lawmakers could be held directly responsible for several other of the items on Woodward’s list of distinctive things and, at the very least, tolerated most of the rest. Yet even though this one-party rule endured (albeit fraying at the edges) as the first edition went to press in 1960, Democrats are otherwise not much in evidence in The Burden of Southern History—except perhaps in the bruises and bullet wounds they left upon the body of southern Populism. Populism is the species of southern politics that is given spirited and lengthy attention in Burden, in one of its most cited essays, “The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual.” If, as James C. Cobb suggests in chapter 1 of this volume, The Burden of Southern History “managed to move southern racial practices toward the periphery,” the “therapist of the public mind” here left another noisome complex largely untreated. It would be foolishness to suggest that this imbalance characterized Woodward’s work more generally. Origins of the New South’s earlier treatment of the generation of Democrats who “redeemed” the South from Reconstruction rule was so wickedly revisionist as to shape study of the party for decades to come.2 Still, the short shrift that Burden gives Democrats as compared to Populists does suggest something of Woodward’s legacy in the twenty-first century. “The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual” spoke up for Populism in an era when Populists were out of fashion in the academy. It spoke up for southerners within that movement in an era when the South was generally associated in the public mind with reaction. It spoke up for 118 Patrick G. Williams rebels in...


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