When Freedom Meant the Freedom to Oppress Others

FREEDOM’S DOMINION: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, by Jefferson Cowie

Americans, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked shortly after the Civil War, were “fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.” It might not have surprised him, then, had he been alive in 1963, that George C. Wallace, the newly elected governor of Alabama, invoked freedom in nearly every passage of his inaugural address. That speech, made infamous by its call for “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever,” was focused, principally and relentlessly, on Wallace’s idea of freedom. “I have been taught that freedom meant freedom from any threat or fear of government,” he proclaimed. As for the Black citizens of Alabama, they were “free,” too — free to live and toil and teach and learn within their “separate racial station.”

The Wallace inauguration serves as an overture, a thunderous rehearsal of themes, in the opening pages of “Freedom’s Dominion,” Jefferson Cowie’s important, deeply affecting — and regrettably relevant — new book. Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, traces Wallace’s repressive creed to his birthplace, Barbour County, in Alabama’s southeastern corner, where the cry of “freedom” was heard from successive generations of settlers, slaveholders, secessionists and lynch mobs through the 19th and 20th centuries. The same cry echoes today in the rallies and online invective of the right; though Cowie keeps his focus on the past, his book sheds stark light on the present. It is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and the rabid loathing of government.

“Freedom’s Dominion” is local history, but in the way that Gettysburg was a local battle or the Montgomery bus boycott was a local protest. The book recounts four peak periods in the conflict between white Alabamians and the federal government: the wild rush, in the early 19th century, to seize and settle lands that belonged to the Creek Nation; Reconstruction; the reassertion of white supremacy under Jim Crow; and the attempts of Wallace and others to nullify the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout, as Cowie reveals, white Southerners portrayed the oppression of Black people and Native Americans not as a repudiation of freedom, but its precondition, its very foundation. Thus were white men, in the words of the scholar Orlando Patterson, whom Cowie quotes, “free to brutalize.” Thus were they free “to plunder and lay waste and call it peace, to rape and humiliate, to invade, conquer, uproot and degrade.”

White men did all this in Barbour County, by design and without relent, and Cowie’s account of their acts is unsparing. His narrative is immersive; his characters are vividly rendered, whether familiar figures like Andrew Jackson or mostly forgotten magnates like J.W. Comer, a plantation owner who became, in the late 19th century, the architect of a vast, sadistic and extremely lucrative system of convict labor. The federal government is a character here, too — sometimes in a central role, sometimes remote to the point of irrelevance, and all too often feckless in the defense of a more inclusive, affirmative model of freedom.

The pattern of federal engagement and withdrawal took hold in the early 1830s, when President Jackson resolved to bring order to the settlement of Alabama. The surge of whites westward into the new state had become, Cowie writes, “one of the fiercest tides of human migration in human history,” but even this puts it mildly. “Alabama Fever” was a wholesale invasion. Creek homes and crops were burned; Creek families were swindled, beaten, driven out, killed. Jackson, whose own inhumanity toward Native Americans is well established, was an unlikely defender of their rights. And land, as Jacksonians understood it, was the bedrock of opportunity — another white entitlement, like freedom itself.

Yet the chaos in Alabama offended Jackson’s sense of discipline and made a mockery of his treaties with the Creeks. Beginning in 1832, and in fits and starts over the following year, federal troops looked to turn back or at least contain the white wave. Instead, their presence touched off a series of violent reprisals, created a cast of martyrs and folk heroes, and gave rise to the mythology of white victimization. Self-rule and local authority — rhetorical wrapping for this will to power — had become articles of faith, fervid as any religious belief. Alabama, a historian of the state wrote in 1839, had been “wrought and consecrated through a bitter sacrament of blood.”

“Freedom’s Dominion” returns to the region more than three decades later, during the “radical” phase of Reconstruction. Following the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, the federal presence in the South was finally robust. So was the spirit of local defiance. In post-bellum Barbour County, Cowie writes, “peace only prevailed for freed people when federal troops were in town” — and then only barely. When Grant stepped up the enforcement of voting rights, whites in Eufaula, Barbour County’s largest town, massacred Black citizens and engaged in furious efforts to manipulate or overturn elections. As in the 1830s, the federal government showed little stamina for the struggle. Republican losses in 1874 augured another retreat, this time for the better part of a century. In the vacuum, Cowie explains, emerged “the neoslavery of convict leasing, the vigilante justice of lynching, the degradation and debt of sharecropping and the official disenfranchisement of Blacks” under Jim Crow.

When George Wallace struts onto the stage in the book’s closing act, he seems at first a parochial figure: unrefined, unrepentant, inveighing against “ungodly government” and the persecution of whites. He carries the freight of his forebears with belligerent pride. But Wallace, as Cowie makes clear, had bigger ambitions. Instinctively, he knew that his brand of politics had an audience anywhere that white Americans were under strain and looking for someone to blame. Wallace became the sneering face of the backlash against the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, against any law or court ruling or social program that aimed to include Black Americans more fully in our national life. Racism was central to his appeal, yet its common note was grievance; the common enemies were elites, the press and the federal government. “Being a Southerner is no longer geographic,” he declared in 1964, during the first of his four runs for the White House. “It’s a philosophy and an attitude.”

That attitude, we know, is pervasive now — a primal, animating principle of conservative politics. We hear it in conspiracy theories about the “deep state”; we see it in the actions of Republican officials like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who built a case for his re-election in 2022 by banning — in the name of “individual freedom” — classroom discussions of gender, sexuality and systemic racism. In explaining how we got here, “Freedom’s Dominion” emphasizes race above economics, but this seems fitting. The fixation on the free market, so long a defining feature of the Republican Party, has loosened its hold; taxes and regulations do not boil the blood as they once did. In their place is a stew of resentments as raw as any since George Wallace stirred the pot. “Freedom is here to stay!” DeSantis exulted in November, after winning by a wide margin. Cowie’s book shows that this is no mere boast.

Jeff Shesol is the author, most recently, of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War.”

FREEDOM’S DOMINION: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power | By Jefferson Cowie | Illustrated | 497 pp. | Basic Books | $35

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