The Other Lost Cause

The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century by Carl N. Degler Harper and Row, 392 pps., $10

LEGEND HAS IT that the American South is a monolith. It had all begun by 1861, the story goes. Since the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession of 11 states and the formation of the Confederacy, Southern men and women have worshipped different heroes, anchored their beginnings to different battles and spun their folklore around a different war for independence. Their history began not in the spirit of 1976, but in the intransigence of the 1860s; not in Massachusetts Bay, but deep in the Delta of Mississippi or the Piedmont of South Carolina; not in the cradle of liberty, but in the curse of slavery. Whatever may have divided Southerners, the legend says, they shared these roots--along with the impenetrable bond of their supremely unAmerican experience: Defeat.

So much for the legend. How then to explain why almost half of the voting Southerners in 1860 opposed secession? Why 54,000 whites in the 11 confederate states enlisted in the union fighting forces? How it happened that native Southern whites headed some of the most progressive Reconstruction governments? Or the remaining army of counterexamples to the South-as-monolith theory that Carl Degler unearths, catalogs and classifies in The Other South?

Degler's survey of dissent in the nineteenth-century South relentlessly portrays native white Southerners who opposed slavery, supported the Union, became Republicans during Reconstruction, rejected the Democratic Party in the 1880s and joined the Populists in the 1890s. He makes his case for a peculiar but ongoing tradition of efforts to change the South from within, linking the dissenters across the chasm of war and emancipation. (For example, Degler ties the Southern populists more to the scalawags of the 1870s than to their contemporaries, the rebellious populist farmers in Kansas or South Dakota.) Degler's 'other Southerners' people the ranks of a doubly lost cause--no less continuous than the Cause itself, he claims.

From the outset, the author asserts that "there is a South--a region that is different from the rest of the nation." He proposes "not to suggest that there were narrow escapes or near misses, that things might have been different, [but] to illustrate concretely something that is often forgotten in thinking about the American South ... Always there have been diversities and divergences within its history and among its people, not only between the races, but among the whites as well."

The proposal is modest but Degler's study penetrates sections of the South's nineteenth century social fabric. Degler shows that race subordinated class interests even among dissenters, that realism rather than moralism set the cadence of Southern reform rhetoric, that Union sentiment in the South was more often "cautious, conservative and realistic" than egalitarian. And so he concludes logically that Southern dissenters still "wore the stamp of their region. They were Southerners too."


BUT NONE OF THIS is news. Degler finds most of his other Southerners in secondary sources, although he has explored many of the manuscript collections at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and state archives. The newness lies in the united presentation of these dissenting figures. Even here, though, Degler's book is burdened by some of the same assumptions that he disputes when they appear in the Southern legend. A study of all dissent in the South across 100 years of history must become overly general or excessively descriptive, skipping crucial questions that apply within specific time periods and stressing those that create unity out of the upheavals of the nineteenth century South.

Degler shows clearly that any Southern opposition to slavery before the War--like the insurgency of the Southern Populists, who forged a brief political alliance between poor whites and blacks--was fragile. Appeals to white supremacy could and did tap lurking Southern white fears that interracial cooperation could lead directly to amalgamation. So in the broad sense, class interests were less controlling than race. But a large slice of the other Southerners whom Degler depicts as opposing slavery and secession have business class interests more in concert with rising Northern industrialism than with languishing Southern agrarianism. From Degler's portraits, Cassius Marcellus Clay of Kentucky, Hinton Rowan Helper (author of The Impending Crisis of the South, 1857) and Daniel Goodloe of North Carolina and Henry Ruffner of Virginia--citizens of the antebellum Other South--preached the same gospel of economic development that Henry Grady and the New South spokesmen would advance in the 1880s. In both cases, class interest in an industrial economy obviously overleapt Southern interest in slavery. But the connections between the Clays and the Gradys--unexplored origins of the New South, perhaps--can get only nominal attention in such a study.

Given the breadth of his sample, Degler has little time to explore his subjects' intellectual evolutions. Yet these, too, seem basic to his thesis that the Southern environment bred a peculiar type of reformer. He mentions in passing that many of them, although native to the region, studied outside the South. James Madison Wells, a wealthy Louisiana planter who became a radical Republican when the War began, attended a Cincinnati law school, and there are some Yale men among the dissenters. Were they stranded from the South's social and intellectual confines after their leaves of absence? Degler also gives examples of slaveholding white Southerners who began to oppose slavery because of what they saw as its inherent horrors--the lashings, the separation of slave families. If these Southerners comprise a significant sample, they challenge one thesis of Time on the Cross, a new and highly controversial econometric study of Southern slavery, which maintains that cruelty or breaking up of families were exceptions to a generally humane rule of Southern slavery.

Now that historians are moving closer to quantification as a basis for studying past movements, Degler's subject matter puts him at a disadvantage. While he may march through studies of Southern dissent predating the Nullification crisis of the 1830s and continuing until around 1900, he cannot take a census of the Other South. Like the "Southern liberals" in the 1940s and 50s, the majority of nineteenth century dissenting Southerners were silent and they had few spokesmen in the raging debates of their times. Those who left records of their views--writers, newspaper editors, business leaders or politicians--had some access to established channels of power. As such, they had some interest in the society that they criticized and their positions may show a conservative side of the spectrum of Southern dissent. Degler's sample moves further to the right because of his decision to study only those Southerners who remained in the South throughout the War. (Only a few whom he mentions--Andrew Johnson among them--refused to fight with the Confederacy). George Washington Cable, one of the South's most vigorous advocates of black civil rights during and after Reconstruction, rates only a brief mention, because he finally left his native Louisiana in 1885. Furthermore, Degler's Other South is a white South, and although he touches on tenuous interracial alliances, no voice of the black South is heard. While the Other America referred to the poor and deprived groups of the United States, the Other South is often wealthy and established--albeit moderately discontented.

BECAUSE OF the scattered, incomplete nature of the material Degler treats, his study often reads like a scrapbook of Southern dissent. Even so, some of the vignettes point toward larger questions that warrant exploration. For instance, the frequent tendency of Southern blacks as well as whites during Reconstruction to follow native-born leaders (scalawags) instead of the Northern carpetbaggers, and the daily examples of cooperation between the races during the Reconstruction period.

The Other South is neither creative nor exhaustive, but it opens a relatively unexplored chapter in the Southern and American experiences--one that deserves more attention, as Degler shows. For the present time, though, William Faulkner remains the unrivalled social historian of the Other South, the South and their various causes. And at least until some future historian discovers enough original manuscripts, diaries or records to fill in the history of the dissenting South, the wisdom of Yoknapatawpha will endure.