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Reviews111 Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent. By Gregg Cantrell. University of Illinois Press, 1993. 361 pp. Cloth, $47.50. Reviewed by Paul D. Escott, who teaches history at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1800-1900 and coauthor ofA History of African Americans in North Carolina. The content of this well-researched book is not exactly what many readers will expect. Kenneth Rayner, a prominent and well-connected North Carolina politician in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, fathered an illegitimate son by one of his slaves in 1850. That child, John B. Rayner, became prominent among Texas Populists in the 1890s. Both the title and dust jacket suggest that this book will explore the links between the two men and use their lives to study the southern social system and the amount of dissent it tolerated. Despite Cantrell's attempt to give attention to these subjects, the book remains a more nanow and conventional political history of two separate individuals, who apparently had few, if any, ties between them aside from their genes. Kenneth Rayner certainly had an intriguing political career. Long popular among the voters of Hertford County, he married the fabulously wealthy Susan Polk in 1842 and thereafter lived much of the time in Raleigh while developing a large plantation in Arkansas. After serving in Congress and the state general assembly, he declined the Whig Party's nomination for governor in 1848 and refused to support Winfield Scott, the party's nominee for president in 1852. By 1854 he had become a Know-Nothing and worked hard to keep sectionalism out of that party's national councils. In the 1856 presidential election he offended many southerners by actively supporting a plan of cooperation between Know-Nothings and Republicans in Pennsylvania. In 1860 he supported the Democrats' nominee for governor in North Carolina but favored cooperation with moderates, even Republicans, to preserve the Union. After Lincoln's election, however, he became an ardent secessionist but then pursued an "irrational" course, shifting from a strong supporter of the war to an advocate of peace who participated in a plan "to inaugurate a counter-revolution ." After the war he allied himself with Andrew Johnson and William Holden and became a Republican in 1869. Although not always a reliable supporter of his new party, he won appointment to the Alabama claims court in 1874 and ended his career with seven years of service as solicitor of the Treasury Department. Cantrell acknowledges at several points that ambition may have influenced Kenneth Rayner's chequered political career but makes a good case for the proposition that he clung to a political philosophy characteristic of the early Republic. Believing that "the survival of the Republic depended upon a virtuous and intelligent citizenry who would choose enlightened and disinterested leaders," Rayner always watched for signs of corruption , respected the Constitution, and remained too independent for the party and sectional politics of the 1850s. Imbued with the nationalistic vision of Henry Clay, he was not tied inflexibly to sectional interests and favored positive government as long as it flowed from the legislative bodies rather than from "corruption-prone executive branches." A "Revolutionary-era worldview" seemed to considerably influence the actions of this ambitious and sometimes mercurial man. Cantrell asserts that "adherence to older notions of republicanism brought both Rayners into conflict with the dominant political parties of their eras" and "made them dissenters." Unfortunately, there seems to be little or no evidence that John B. Rayner 112Southern Cultures absorbed any political philosophy from his father or even had anything beyond the most tenuous contact with him. During Reconstruction Kenneth Rayner modified his views on education for African Americans and probably did something to help John obtain a few years of schooling at St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute. From that point forward , however, the two men never saw each other and certainly had no political discussions . Although Cantrell sees interesting parallels "between Whiggery, Know-Nothingism, and Populism," there is no evidence that John B. Rayner shared his father's political values or was consciously following in his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 111-112
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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