- Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908
In Declarations of Dependence, Gregory P. Downs joins the ranks of younger scholars shaking up southern and Reconstruction history. Based [End Page 291] on extensive work in North Carolina sources, Downs argues that in the stress and anarchy of the Civil War and Reconstruction years, individuals began to beg for favors from their political leaders and public officials, developing a vernacular vocabulary of dependence that marked popular politics up to the 1890s and beyond. He describes a personalistic or what he calls "patronal" politics, undermining the long-held assumption that nineteenth-century politics was marked by laissez-faire ideology and a fiercely independent citizenry. Downs is interested in how Americans "treated dependence not as an insult but a strategy, a tool to mediate politics for their own benefit" (2). He is careful to explain that the "dependence" he describes was less a matter of fact than a fictive and even fantastic set of attitudes, because governors were never able to satisfy even a fraction of the petitioners' requests. Yet the inadequacies of the response only served to reinforce petitioners' belief that government help would be dispensed idiosyncratically, by authorities whose power, though potentially vast, was neither stable nor reliable. Downs even breaks through conventional regional and chronological boundaries to suggest that patronal relationships characterized politics in the postbellum North as well and were part of a "global transformation of state authority" (13).
Downs begins his story by telling of the Civil War letters that poured in petitioning the North Carolina governor for help controlling slaves, for exemptions from military service, for food and money. Governor Zebulon Vance's pose as the "soldier's friend" encouraged these correspondents' hopes, and while Vance in practice often passed the buck by referring the needy to Jefferson Davis, his petitioners honed a vocabulary of pathetic appeal based on personal relationships and neediness. Subsequently the Freedmen's Bureau and the Radical Reconstruction government fielded appeals for assistance from African Americans who learned to look to government as a powerful but erratic help against the depredations of die-hard Confederates. Again, the failure to deliver seems not to have undermined the petitioners' faith that the government was their "only friend." After Redemption, white southerners continued to plead for help from patrons in the form of government jobs, and African Americans, although marginalized, still gained some small share of the favors dispensed, or at least the right to plead for them. Especially intriguing is Downs's argument that the free silver mania as it spread from the Populists into the Democratic Party in the early 1890s owed much of its virulence to fantastic rumors about a literal gift of money from the government to individuals, rumors that seemed plausible to people whose hopes had been conditioned by patronalism. He concludes that patronalism was finally killed off by Progressivism, which [End Page 292] replaced individual petitioners with an abstract, statistically described populace to be dealt with through rules, not favors.
Declarations of Dependence tackles major questions and deserves to be widely read, but it is not without problems. Downs never really acknowledges the slippage between his sources and his thesis. He examines the letters that flowed into the offices of North Carolina's governors and other authorities begging for help and argues they "demonstrate that many, many people acted as if they had a right to depend on government for food, shelter, even love in the allegedly laissez-faire nineteenth century" (2). But should these letter writers, even if "many, many," be taken as representative of the population at large? Wouldn't these writers be precisely those individuals who believed in the efficacy of begging, while more independent-minded individuals would simply not have written? If self-selection biases the sources, to what extent does that undermine Downs's thesis about popular politics as a whole?
Then there is the question of what these begging letters really...