Race, Region and Nationalism in the Long Progressive Era

Essays by Mark Elliott (UNC-Greensboro)

and Mark Summers (University of Kentucky)

Introduced by the editors of the JGAPE

The new SHGAPE.org website provides an accessible venue for the circulation of more material than can feasibly fit into the pages of the printed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  In this feature, Mark Elliott (UNC-Greensboro) and Mark Summers (University of Kentucky) put two books into conversation with one another and with sweeping themes in the study of U.S. history.  Both find much to admire in Stephen Kantrowitz’s More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) and Natalie Ring’s The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930. (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2012).  Together these books offer, in Summer’s words, an “intriguing challenge to our assumptions about how far the North accommodated itself to the white Southern ethos, as the price of sectional reunion.”  Elliott similarly observes that reading the two books together suggests that “Historians teaching and writing about the long ‘Progressive Era’ should find ways to integrate the period of Reconstruction into narratives that touch upon issues of nationalism and regionalism, as well as African-American history.”

Stephen Kantrowitz. More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: Penguin Press, 2012. Pp. iv, 514. Illust., maps, bibliog.,  index. ISBN 978-1-59420-342-8.

Natalie J. Ring. The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 334.  Illust., bibliog., index. ISBN-13: 978-08203-2903-1.


 Mark Wahlgren Summers , University of Kentucky

“The South, the poor South! What will become of her?” John C. Calhoun muttered as he lay dying in 1850.  War and Reconstruction would answer that question, at least, in the pat version of history slathered on high school students. In fact, as two excellent books show, the answers were as diverse as the participants’ point of view.  As Natalie J. Ring’s The Problem South shows, many a reformer asked the same question, with varying answers, three generations later.  For Stephen Kantrowitz in More than Freedom, the question only emphasized the larger one of the place of black Americans in a largely white society, north as well as south, a question that African Americans did more to answer than Calhoun in his wildest nightmares could have imagined.

More than Freedom brings up some of the most familiar names in the antislavery struggle: John A. Andrew, Charles L. Remond, Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. But to them, Kantrowitz adds others far less well-known, opinion-shapers and activists in Boston’s black community, and reminders that African Americans did more than swell a procession and start a scene or two: George T. Downing, Lewis Hayden, Robert Morris, John S. Rock, and William Cooper Nell.  The shape of his book, its chronological beginning- and end-points coincide closely with the active careers of these men.

Using the trove of sources that makes Boston an easier place to study the politically-active black community than Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or New York, Kantrowitz  shows that black community leaders did more than follow the Garrisons and Sumners. They helped set the agenda. Their intervention could force Henry Clay into issuing several letters defending his liberality as a master.  Their militancy guaranteed that alleged fugitive slaves would not be sent south without a fight and the clash of arms.  Unfamiliar names led unfamiliar fights: the drive to integrate Boston’s public schools or give the support to the Smith segregated school that city authorities had failed to provide, the effort to have the Supreme Court to extend the right of a nonwhite to act as attorney before it, the push for admission to the state militia. For the “colored citizens,” the fight against prejudice at home went along with the battle against the peculiar institution down South.  Embracing the American revolutionary legacy and claiming an honored place in it, invoking Crispus Attucks as the exemplar of the need to resist, they sought more than a token legal equality.  They sought to change the hearts and minds of white America, until it no longer would define worth by distinctions of race.

More than Freedom is more than a fresh addition to our knowledge of nineteenth century America.  It offers a reminder that the sectional conflict had more actors than history’s celebrities, the much-quoted and occasionally elected Great Men.   There are other perspectives, other agents of change, less honored, and definitions of equality far more comprehensive than those hardened into statutory law. Not just the South, but the North fell short of what black Bostonians had hoped for, and the struggle outlasted any of those who engaged in it.

But seeing events from a fresh vantage-point has disadvantages, too.  Necessarily, the terrible events of sectional conflict, war and Reconstruction look different, distant, from the watchtowers of black Boston, even where they touch on the lives of those ready to die on fugitive slaves’ behalf and in the war to save the Union.  Properly, Kantrowitz sees them through his subjects’ eyes, but readers should be wary of confusing their truth with the whole truth.  Based on what they see on the printed page, they too may see the Fourteenth Amendment as “a grievously missed opportunity to establish political equality” (p. 323); they, too, may think the Fifteenth Amendment “a great improvement on the Fourteenth Amendment.” (p. 327).  Considering the later, broad applications and multiple uses  of the Fourteenth Amendment and the ease with which the Fifteenth was evaded within months of its adoption, are these conclusions that most constitutional scholars, or, for that matter, most freedpeople a generation later, would have come to?  That “grievously missed opportunity” was nothing of the kind.  Not even Thaddeus Stevens, the epitome of radical idealism long before Tommy Lee Jones bathed him in Hollywood glory, would insert Negro suffrage in the proposed amendment – even, as originally projected, with a ten year probationary period before it went into effect.  He knew – everybody but Sumner knew – that it would put ratification out of reach.  No amendment could go into the Constitution without at least a few slave states passing it.  An equal suffrage amendment would have lost every one of them and just about every northern one east of the Hudson – not to mention Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Live amendments were what the designers aimed for; dead ones were of no account.

The same might be said of the “abandonment” of the South Carolina and Louisiana governments that ended Reconstruction in 1877. How can readers help but feel the same sense of betrayal that Boston’s colored citizens did, from Kantrowitz’s brief framing of events?  From the eyes of policy-makers in Washington, the situation looked very different.  By the time Hayes took office, it was no longer a question of keeping either state in Republican hands. Their “governments” had purchase no further than the doorsteps of the custom-house. They no longer could collect taxes or enforce their will against self-proclaimed Democratic governors, backed by white militia. No decree from the White House could do more than give Governors Daniel Chamberlain and Marshall Packard more than a token existence at the price of renewed butcheries beyond city limits, where White Leagues and Red Shirts had all the money and most of the guns.  Nothing but intervention with massive military force unseen since 1865 could recreate governments widely acknowledged as utterly corrupt; and with a Democratic House to block appropriations, the president had no army to intervene with.  His decision to liquidate a doomed commitment looks far more defensible to us than it did to the black community in Boston.

Read differently, the accomplishments of the activists in More than Freedom, give a glimpse into a more consoling picture of Gilded Age America than Kantrowitz’s readers may come away with. Reconstruction clearly meant something for the North.  If electing black lawmakers fell short of bringing the kind of brotherhood of man that civil rights crusaders had hoped for after the Civil War, the lasting accomplishments of the Haydens, Nells, and Morrises were more than anyone in 1830  — even 1860 — could have expected. In fact, the retreat from Reconstruction in the South proved to be a less complete defeat for African-Americans in the Union states.  So in the 1880s, when the Supreme Court overturned federal protections for equal accommodations in the Civil Rights cases, a number of northern states  put laws on their books to preserve rights that Congress no longer had the power to protect.  More astonishingly, Democratic governors stood among those proposing or signing such laws.  For their party at least, the raw demagoguery of white supremacy that had been so prevalent before 1870, had become muted.  It could never go all the way back to the days when campaign parades showed off young women riding under banners beseeching their men-folk to save them from Negro equality.

Kantrowitz’s book invites historians to re-examine the forces for change in the nineteenth century North, as well as the scope of that change.  Natalie J. Ring’s The Problem South may afford an equally intriguing challenge to our assumptions about how far the North accommodated itself to the white Southern ethos, as the price of sectional reunion.  Her stimulating examination does not, in fact, cover the period from 1880 to 1930 so much as the two decades of the Progressive Era, in which reformers, newly conscious of government’s powers to uplift and improve, and inclined to draw parallels between America’s colonial possessions and the third-world conditions all too visible closer to home, came to treat the South as half-devil and half-child.  All that H. L. Mencken, in his 1920 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart” had to add to the critique was a flair for language and a sneer for emphasis. Astutely, Ring sees the connections between national expansion and the growing sense of the South as a foreign country, its “little white brothers” as needing in outside help as the Philippines’ “little brown brothers.”  Even more helpfully, she recognizes that the issues that mattered went beyond race to the misery of mill-hands and the pervasiveness of pellagra, and that every effort to remake the South only reemphasized its place in public discourse as a place apart.

In no way does Ring use her evidence to alter the picture that David Blight has given of how reconciliation worked, with white Union veterans surrendering any commitment, even any memory, of the causes of emancipation and human equality as part of what the war had been about, as the price of joining hands with their southern brethren.  Readers, however, may draw the connections better.   It seemed very clear that, at least by 1900, quite a few northerners saw Southerners not as fellow-Americans so much as aliens, or at least Americans failing to measure up to the standards  expected of everywhere else.   Language of being one people might spangle a get-together on the fourth of July or prevent untoward homicide where veterans of both sides got together; it may not have stretched much further than that.  Indeed, as other scholars are finding, the definitions of what the war meant that that Union and Confederate veterans spoke outside each other’s presence was considerably more implacable.   They were ready to favor reconciliation, but it must be on their own terms and no others.  Union soldiers were not always ready to pretend that freeing the slaves had nothing to do with the reason they deserved the nation’s gratitude; and Confederates would perish in the last ditch before they christened the War of Northern Aggression what their enemies knew it to be: the Great Rebellion.

The truth was that even in the Gilded Age, the North’s celebrations of a New South stood on the unspoken premise that it was getting better because it was growing more northern. The corollary never lay far out of mind that it would not do for white southerners to stay all that southern.  The leisured gentleman in fiction lounged alongside the slouching, shiftless barefoot poor white.   Any performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had the gentle, genteel St. Clair lolling on stage, just a few scenes away from the pathological Legree.   Even as Gilded Age literature set belles and gentlemen dancing in a wistful Old South world, quite a different picture of the South made its appearance in characters like Basil Tarrant in Henry James’s The Bostonians, in the yahoos in the river-towns along Huckleberry Finn’s Mississippi, or the spoiled, murderous aristocrat Thomas Driscoll in Puddin’head Wilson’s Missouri.  Humor magazines made Kentucky a by-word for casual violence, and the press, when it referred to a “quiet election day in Kentucky” meant that no more than five people had been knifed or shot to death.

The war’s legacy, as Kantrowitz’s book showed and as Ring’s can lead us to infer, was never fully paid out. Reconstruction ‘s end brought an incomplete break among a people in which what the war meant and what it had resolved remained contested territory.  But assuming that Ring’s premise is right, and that the sense of the South as a separate, benighted Other took on new life after 1893, scholars might do well to ponder why.  The quest for empire certainly helped it along. So did a national media for which social problems and not just partisan politics became legitimate fodder for readers. But might there not have been another, more obvious and largely overlooked in Ring’s book? Is it not possible that the sense of the South as Other came out of the South itself?

Lost Cause sentiment, folklore glowing with moonlight and scented with magnolias, the mythology of the Old South, all were symptoms of a larger movement across the defeated ex-Confederate states to define themselves as special, different – even foreign.  Not by chance did the first Southern state add the Confederate flag to its own in 1879; not incidentally did the battle flag appear on two other states’ banners after 1890.  The white conservative South was determined to make sure that future generations defined themselves by the Rebel war experience, and no other. That desire grew as the Civil War soldiers aged and looked to their long-term legacies. By the 1890s, as Joel Williamson has shown, a new, more visceral racism, more sharply distinguished than before from the garden variety found in the North, had taken hold in the cotton belt. In terms of lynch law, segregation, statutory definitions of whiteness, election laws, the South was making itself far more distinctively separate all the time.  Candidates found that a grey coat covered a multitude of sins, and even for those like Jeff Davis of Arkansas, a toddler during the war, it could dazzle the eye of constituents better even than Joseph’s coat of many colors.

Politically, too, the South became more separate by the 1890s than before.  The so-called Solid South did exist in presidential elections, but state contests remained closer at least some places through the 1880s. In North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, Democrats sometimes lost, and only fraud seems to have saved Alabama and Arkansas to them in a bad year.  As for the House, Republicans could not carry it without a handful of southern seats. That was one reason why Thomas Brackett Reed crushed the “disappearing quorum” in 1890: without it, his party could not count in the Republican contenders from the former slave states and firm up a majority.  But with the 1894 debacle, the Democratic candidates were slaughtered in so wholesale a fashion that a Republican majority could get along perfectly well without a single member below the snow-line.  The levers of power that made southern statesmen eminent lay beyond their grasp until 1911. There would be no Georgian in the Speaker’s chair, no Rebel brigadiers commanding the committees in either chamber. By 1896, the South stood further on the outskirts than at any time since Reconstruction, and as far as having any significance to the great issues of the day, enjoyed an unprecedented irrelevance.  No longer needed to be acted with, the South could only become a section acted on.   Perhaps the only ways left to entitle it to public attention were as an abject figure or as an object lesson.

It is not simply the South that seemed a foreign land; to southerners, the North seemed more one, as well.  Historians should feel right at home, in a sense. Every topic, until it is covered, seems like undiscovered territory, until writers like Ring and Kantrowitz open them up.. If, as one playwright reminded us, the past is indeed a foreign country, we should feel grateful for such useful guides as these two authors, and for their care in making sure that we see those sites hitherto not marked on the scholars’ maps.



Mark Elliott, UNC at Greensboro

Recent syntheses of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era tend to combine both eras into a “long Progressive Era” (to borrow Rebecca Edwards’s phrase) that stretches roughly from the 1870s to the 1920s.[1]  Both of these books help us to rethink how citizenship and nationalism were being reshaped in this period.  One question raised when considering them together is whether or not Reconstruction ought to be integrated into the narrative of a “long Progressive Era.”

One of the unifying themes of the literature on the post-Civil War Era is the emergence of a newly-defined nationalism.  In an era of extreme nationalism in which the unifications of Italy and Germany set Europe on the path toward a catastrophic war, the United States experienced its own re-born nationalism in the wake of the Civil War.  Living with the aftermath of this bloody fratricidal conflict only heightened the importance of fostering national unity and “indivisibility”— as Francis Bellamy put it in his 1892 “Pledge of Allegiance”— for the reformers of the long Progressive Era.  Even in its most bellicose and militaristic manifestations as described by Jackson Lears in his recent synthesis Rebirth of A Nation, this was an anxiety-ridden nationalism in which the memory of secession and national disintegration lurked just beneath the surface.

Although centrifugal social forces persisted, nationalization dominated on many fronts.  A few of those nationalizing forces included the following:  economic consolidation under the management of powerful national corporations; the growing cultural hegemony of middle-class Protestant culture centered in Northeastern cities; the increasing power of the national government in facilitating economic and territorial expansion; and the increasing  responsibility of state and national governmental to protect the welfare of workers, soldiers, women, children and the environment.  Together, these developments reinforced a nationalism that identified “Americans” with prosperity, modernity, technological advancement, industriousness, moral progress, education, and many other “progressive” virtues all supported by the freedoms fostered by a benevolent national government.

Using the heightened nationalism of this period as a framework to compare Ring and Kantrowitz’s books, one is struck by the way regionalism and race posed intertwined “problems” for those American reformers who anxiously sought a consolidated nationhood.  Ring picks up her story in the post-Reconstruction period when “New South” boosters predicted the rapid transformation of the region into an industrialized society on the Northern model—with extensive urbanization, an advanced transportation infrastructure, and an educated citizenry.  Implicitly, these Southern leaders who hoped to seize control of their region’s future in the aftermath of Reconstruction accepted the industrialized North as the norm which, Ring observes, became a double-edged sword as doubters and critics of the New South continually used the Norrthern yardstick to measure the “progress” of the South and consistently found it wanting.  A discourse of Southern “backwardness” flourished in the decades that followed as various observers and experts debated the peculiarities and deficiencies of the Southern climate, geography, health, disease rates, poverty, agriculture, cotton economy, public education, and race relations.  Always these debates served to intensify the often-exaggerated perception of regional difference between the South and the rest of the country.  Ring muses that the national definition of the United States as a beacon of enlightenment and progress almost depended upon the counterpoint of Southern backwardness.

Ring relies upon post-colonial theory to argue that the “Problem South” discourse resembled the same “Orientalizing” discourses that other empires developed about their colonial regions.  The conditions of the South often drew comparison to those in the Philippines or Puerto Rico for its climate and diseases, India or China for its agricultural production, or South Africa for its racial strife.   The “othering” of the South came from these comparisons and, if sociological investigations did not literally make the South into a colonial region, they did cause philanthropists and missionaries to consider it as a domestic laboratory to develop solutions for the rest of the globe.  Ring also shows that the imperial international outcry to uplift and “civilize” so-called backward peoples added urgency to the “problem” of the South, which could be seen as a domestic embarrassment that hurt the nation’s prestige abroad and undermined its credibility as a “civilizer” to the rest of the world.

Steven Kantrowitz focuses on another group of American citizens who were marginalized and deemed a “problem” in the long Progressive Era.  In his study of Boston’s black leadership from 1829-1889, Kantrowitz provides a fascinating comparative perspective on some of the issues raised in Ring’s analysis.  His study reminds us that, before the South had to face the post-emancipation dilemma of setting the terms of black citizenship, the Northern states did.  During the antebellum era, every Northern state had to confront the demands of its free black population—former slaves and their descendants—for full civic inclusion.  None succeeded better than Boston’s black community, which achieved an impressive degree of civic equality (though still far from social inclusion) in Massachusetts prior to the Civil War.   Moreover, black Boston served as a base in the national struggle against slavery, providing resources and leadership whose educational and professional accomplishments clearly demonstrated blacks’ capacity for success on American terms.  By the time emancipation arrived, the black leaders of Boston were primed to lead the project of Reconstruction, leaving home to establish churches, schools and Masonic lodges in the South, serve as missionaries and State political leaders, and even find positions of influence in Washington, DC.  Their hard-won, fragile standing as equal citizens in Boston would now be extended to the rest of the nation, especially as the model for the freedmen of the South.   For them, the struggle of Reconstruction would be not only the struggle to enhance their own civic inclusion, but also establish themselves as a national norm:  assimilated, middle-class black Americans, worthy of inclusion and embraced as members of a newly-defined, inclusive national citizenship.

Of course, the high hopes of Reconstruction ended in grave disappointment.  Instead of winning greater acceptance, black Bostonians found themselves spurned at home in the outcries against “racial amalgamation” and “social equality” with whites that characterized the backlash against Reconstruction.  Mere civic equality could still feel cold and friendless, as white abolitionist allies died off or deserted blacks, and social exclusion appeared to deepen.  “The generation that came of age calling themselves ‘colored citizens’ achieved much of what they had hoped,’ Kantrowitz writes, “but it turned out not to mean quite what they had imagined” (397).  Black churches, Masonic lodges, and State militia remained segregated in Massachusetts.  Symbolically, when budget cuts led to the reduction of the State militia in 1876, the State eliminated the only remaining black units, including the prestigious Shaw Guards who had carried on the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts.  Kantrowitz concludes with a discussion of the “failure of memory” in which the magnificent 1897 Shaw Memorial could proudly display the abolitionist heritage of Boston, hailing the end of slavery and celebrating the heroism of black soldiers in overthrowing it like the perfect ending to a sentimental novel, but at the same time white Bostonians could forget black citizens in the present, like the disbanded Shaw Guards whose dismissal restored Massachusetts to a white-only militia.

One of the ironies that becomes evident when comparing Ring’s and Kantrowitz’s histories is that the exaggerated memory of white support for abolitionism and tolerance for black civic equality became one of the central measures by which the North judged the South.  As Ring shows, the persistence of “racial antagonism” that characterized the South and caused the downfall of Reconstruction came to stand as a central synecdoche for the developmental disorders of the entire region.  Lynching, racial violence, and the Ku Klux Klan were all symptoms of ignorance, savagery, tyranny, and other baneful legacies of slavery.  As long as the South continued to exhibit unrestrained brutality toward blacks, it could never be fully incorporated into the modern, progressive, democratic, free, and just United States of America.  And yet, Ring’s catch-22 meant that, while the South’s backwardness remained a source of anxiety that continually sparked renewed designs to “modernize” the South, the very “backwardness” of its racial oppression allowed the North to ignore its own racial injustices which could be minimized or dismissed by comparison.  The Jim Crow South was simultaneously a national disgrace and a source of false national pride as Americans outside of the South could count their blessings and recall their noble crusade against slavery.

Reconstruction is doubtless a pivotal moment in any discussion about region, race and nationalism after the Civil War.  But somehow the Reconstruction period has a way of falling between the cracks since it is both the ending of one narrative—Kantrowitz’s arc from the abolitionist era to the settlement of the post-emancipation social order—and the beginning of another—the emergence of the Jim Crow South.  It is easiest, and most common, to attach the history of Reconstruction to a narrative about slavery and black citizenship, but Natalie Ring’s study of the “problem South” reminds us that Reconstruction was also a project of modernization and nationalization.  While antislavery writers from Frederick Law Olmstead to Hinton Helper diagnosed the many perceived deficiencies of the South (flowing out of slavery) long before Reconstruction, the military defeat and occupation of the South provided an opportunity to redress these problems and remake the South along Northern lines.  It meant industrial development, railroads, schools, upward mobility for poor whites as well as the protection of citizen’s rights by an interventionist national government.  In other words, all of the same trends that characterized the long Progressive Era in the nation were evident in a wholesale attempt to “modernize” the South following the Civil War.  Long after efforts at Reconstruction were abandoned, many Northern, and some Southern, progressives continued to imagine new schemes to “modernize’ the South, but the memories of the “horrors” of Reconstruction hampered any serious thought of national intervention into the region until the New Deal.

By fiercely resisting the efforts to “nationalize” the region during Reconstruction, the white South ultimately condemned itself to be stigmatized as the national “other.”  Stereotyped as backward, ignorant, savage, and diseased in public discourse, the South failed the test of national achievement and greatness.  But black citizens suffered greater stigmatization still.  The evils of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, imprisonment, and prejudice in the South were coupled with the cold indifference of the Northern public to mistreatment and de facto exclusion and segregation suffered outside the South.  All of this can be traced to the dynamics set in motion in the 1860s and 70s.  Historians teaching and writing about the long “Progressive Era” should find ways to integrate the period of Reconstruction into narratives that touch upon issues of nationalism and regionalism, as well as African-American history.  The construction of a new nationalism after the Civil War began with the ending of slavery and the national project of Reconstruction.  Both of these books do much to deepen our understanding of how the thwarting of Reconstruction had ramifications not only for the South, or African Americans nationally, but for the nation as a whole.

[1]Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits:  Americans in the “Gilded Age”:  1865-1905 Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2011).   Edwards herself suggests 1865-1932 as the true periodization, which may be too expansive,  but I will argue for the inclusion of Reconstruction at least on some themes.  See also: Jackson Lears, Rebirth of Nation:  The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920  (HarperCollins, 2009); and Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement America,1870-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2003).