Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Morris on Dupre, _Transforming the Cotton Frontier_ (fwd)

Expand Messages
  • H-Net Reviews
    ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SHEAR@h-net.msu.edu (March, 1999) Daniel S. Dupre. _Transforming the Cotton Frontier: Madison County, Alabama,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 23, 1999
    • 0 Attachment
      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-SHEAR@... (March, 1999)

      Daniel S. Dupre. _Transforming the Cotton Frontier: Madison
      County, Alabama, 1800-1840_. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
      University Press, 1997. xii + 269 pp. Bibliographical references
      and index. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8071-2193-2.

      Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Chris Morris <morris@...>, University of
      Texas at Arlington

      _Transforming the Cotton Frontier_ is a familiar story in a unique
      setting. In the decades after the ratification of the Constitution,
      people around the country debated the relationship between liberty
      on one hand and order on the other. Would the liberty of free white
      men undermine male order within households? Slave holder authority
      in southern communities? The system of deference that had
      structured politics for decades? Would it alter the relationship
      between debtors and creditors, freeing the former from the burdens
      of bad business decisions and downturns in the market, and weakening
      the ability of the latter to collect on debts? There was probably
      no place in all of society in the early republic, no relationship
      between two people, that was not understood in terms of liberty and
      order, and that was not therefore connected to the Revolution and
      the promise of the new nation. Madison County, Alabama, was no
      exception.

      Making excellent use of local newspapers--Madison County had two
      newspapers throughout the 1820s, something incredible for such a
      newly settled place--Daniel S. Dupre traces the development of two
      competing political ideologies, one emphasizing liberty, another
      stressing the need for order, both of which set the stage for the
      party system of the next decade. The squatters and planters,
      merchants and professionals who settled the county in the first two
      decades of the century benefited initially from high cotton prices
      and an abundance of inexpensive land. But in 1819 cotton prices
      fell, suddenly, confronting Madison's residents with something they
      had never expected: scarcity--of land, markets, credit, cash,
      opportunity. Economic depression raised the stakes in the debate
      between liberty and order.

      During the early years, people debated the need for orderly
      settlement upon the land and for proper title to it versus the
      liberty of squatters to possess undeveloped land where they found
      it, regardless of who actually owned it. But so long as everyone
      prospered, there was no need to push for one side or the other.
      Free access to abundant resources encouraged an orderly process of
      settlement and development. Everything changed with the onset of
      economic depression. As everyone scrambled to hold onto what was
      theirs, the county split. Merchants, bankers, professionals, and
      planters unencumbered by mortgages stressed the need for orderly
      payment of debts, collection of taxes, removal of squatters, and
      government-assisted economic development. Squatters, indebted
      farmers, and landless laborers sought debt relief, restrictions on
      land speculation, and a government responsive to their concerns. It
      was the story of early national and Jacksonian America compressed
      into a few years: An apparent abundance of resources and
      opportunity postponed the making of tough decisions about
      development and the role of government in the economy. Sudden
      collapse forced decisions that in the context of hard times were
      passionately contested and especially bitter to swallow. And when
      it was over, politics were completely reorganized.

      I know of no other study quite like this one. It begins at the end
      of the so-called first party period and ends at the beginning of the
      so-called second party period. Dupre views the 1820s as an
      important political moment in its own right, not merely as epilogue
      to the Revolution or prologue for the Age of Jackson. This
      distinguishes the book from those of other scholars--Lacy Ford,
      Harry Watson, and Mills Thornton, for example--who have covered
      similar territory but with an eye more to the politics of later
      years.

      The first two chapters cover the initial period of settlement, of
      economic boom and sudden bust. Despite the legal chaos of the Yazoo
      land fraud and the Supreme Court decision in Fletcher v. Peck
      (1810), which frustrated title holders for years, settlement was
      orderly and peaceful, albeit rapid. Families arrived, many from
      Georgia, often via Tennessee, plopped themselves down and
      immediately went to work clearing and planting. They secured basic
      necessities first, and then looked to planting cotton. Already by
      1809 there were 353 households in Madison County. Most were
      squatters, few owning more than five slaves. Squatters did not
      immediately worry about proper title to the land they worked. But
      the government land sales following the Supreme Court decision
      brought new sorts of people to Madison County, planters and
      speculators who invested thousands of dollars in thousands of acres,
      and who needed the security of proper title and of government. So
      long as opportunity and land remained abundant, emerging class
      divisions sparked no immediate conflict. The most heated political
      issue in the county during the early years concerned the name of the
      new town. The squatters eventually won, and the town became known
      as Huntsville, in honor of its founder. The losers, a group of
      speculators, had preferred the pretentious name of Twickenham, in
      honor of English writer Alexander Pope.

      The panic of 1819 changed the tone of political debate by increasing
      the stakes. Teetering on the edge of financial ruin, Madisonites,
      squatters, planters, and speculators alike debated the role of
      government in maintaining order during economic crisis. Two
      positions emerged: Creditors, mostly bankers and merchants,
      advocated minimal government intervention in the economic crisis,
      that they might use existing laws and courts to uphold contracts and
      win satisfaction from debtors in an orderly fashion. Debtors,
      mostly farmers, sought government intervention in the form of debt
      relief, currency reform and land reform, so that good family men
      might keep their homes, provide for their wives and children, and
      maintain a stable social order. Both positions represented
      essentially conservative reactions to the panic of 1819. In "a
      natural world that had gone inexplicably awry" (p. 60), men of good
      character were failing, while men of questionable character were
      succeeding. Creditors, of course, did not question their moral
      standing and saw no need to alter the political and legal order.
      Debtors, however, could only account for their failings in terms of
      a faulty system in need of amendment to maintain "Standards of
      behavior that traditionally could be relied on in climbing the
      ladder of success," as Dupre argues (p. 60). Tempers flared in the
      debate. Riots erupted in nearby Franklin County.

      In Madison County, debate over economic development and social order
      tended to pit the merchants and bankers in Huntsville against
      farmers in the surrounding countryside. Planters as a group are
      harder to pin down; they could side with farmers or with merchants.
      Before the panic, bank interest rates were restricted. Private
      rates, however, were not. Bank directors often took advantage of
      these circumstances to borrow at low interest from their banks and
      lend at high interest to farmers, who accepted the terms in the
      heady days of the cotton boom. After the panic set in, debtors
      questioned not their judgment, but the character of their creditors.
      Unscrupulous, aristocratic speculators were ruining them, and in the
      process undermining the values and the virtuous citizenry upon which
      the republic rested. However, landowners, as bankers were quick to
      point out, had accepted high interest loans on property purchased at
      inflated prices because they were in a tremendous hurry to enter the
      game of cotton planting. Their own greed had gotten the better of
      them. Foreclosures on indebted landowners were to be regretted, but
      were hardly cause for restricting the liberties of bankers who knew
      how to win a profit.

      In a terrific chapter on land settlement and economic development,
      Dupre untangles the many interests that competed for government
      assistance. Farmers who had purchased land from the federal
      government before the panic of 1819 afterward asked if they might
      relinquish unimproved acres to the federal government as a way of
      reducing their debt. But farmers also wanted the government to hold
      relinquished acres in reserve until they could afford to repurchase
      them. At the very least they wanted preemption rights, rights of
      first refusal should the land ever be put up for auction. In 1821
      the government agreed to accept relinquished land as a form of debt
      relief, in part because there was widespread consensus that the plan
      was needed. However, the matter of preemption rights remained
      unresolved. Merchants, bankers, and unencumbered landowners
      approved of relinquishment, although they wanted the land sold, with
      no preemption rights granted to former owners. Prospering farmers
      and planters saw this as an opportunity to add acreage to their
      estates. A group of businessmen interested in constructing a canal
      around a forty-mile stretch of shoals in the Tennessee River, which
      would open Madison County and its town of Huntsville to steamboat
      traffic, saw this as an opportunity to raise much needed capital.
      They asked that relinquished land be auctioned and the proceeds
      invested in the canal. Where one stood on the question of land
      relinquishment and preemption rights depended not only on whether
      one was a debtor or creditor, farmer or merchant, but on whether one
      lived upstream of downstream of the shoals, on whether one favored a
      canal or a rail road or a turnpike, on one's position on state
      chartered development companies and on the relationship between
      government and business in general.

      And yet at bottom there was consensus: All sought access to the
      market. For some, that meant first securing title to their land.
      Once in possession of clear title, then one could worry about
      getting cotton around the shoals and off to market. For others,
      however, overcoming transportation problems was a higher priority.
      The debate was not really over whether there ought to be economic
      development. No one expressed fears of an encroaching market on a
      subsistence way of life. After all, nearly everyone, debtors and
      creditors, had cast their lot in for the market during the boom
      years. They were not about to turn back. Instead, people debated
      how limited capital ought to be pooled and in whose interests it
      ought to be invested. From one perspective indebted landowners
      could seem disorderly, while from another perspective canal
      investors could appear bent on snatching liberty away from
      independent farmers. And so consensus appeared elusive. No wonder
      politicians were deeply confused, frequently switching positions on
      the various issues. In the end, relinquished land was sold, but not
      until 1829, and with preemption rights given to original owners.

      In a chapter on moral reform, Dupre details another debate cast in
      terms of order and liberty. The temperate sought to bring order to
      their community by restricting drinking and drunkenness. Drinkers,
      naturally, resented the infringement on their liberty. James G.
      Birney, the future abolitionist, played a prominent role in these
      debates. His leadership in the local Bible and tract societies,
      Sunday school, and temperance society helped win him election as
      mayor, an office he used to close down dram shops and enforce
      Sabbatarian restrictions. But Birney always pressed too hard to win
      much political success, although that did not deter him. His
      commitment to self control and moral order led him down the path to
      abolitionism, a journey that would require his leaving Madison
      County and the South. Birney was exceptional, but instructive
      nevertheless because he viewed slavery in terms of moral order.

      Debates over moral order spilled over into public discussions of
      electioneering, barbecues, and drink treating. As some saw it,
      politicians who pandered to voters gave up their autonomy to
      mobocracy. Likewise, voters who sold themselves to politicians who
      plied them with liquor and stuffed them with slow-cooked beef and
      pork sacrificed their own liberty. Once again, liberty and order
      seemed at odds. Dupre makes an interesting point: Whereas in
      George Washington's Virginia, drink treating had symbolically turned
      the social order upside down, thus actually reinforcing the
      authority of the gentry, in 1820s Madison County, Alabama, barbecues
      and treating increasingly represented the actual social order, not
      its inversion. And this is precisely why some found these events so
      threatening. They indicated the waning of deference, and perhaps
      even an excess of democracy.

      More than anything else, slavery defined the limits of liberty and
      demonstrated the need for order. Fittingly, Dupre ends his study
      with a discussion of the peculiar institution. Of particular
      concern to Madison County leaders were the actions of whites.
      Slaves were seen as largely passive. Careless masters threatened
      social disorder by letting their slaves wander into town on Sundays
      to carouse with free blacks and lower class whites and to buy liquor
      from unscrupulous shopkeepers. However, to restrict the actions of
      "passive" slaves was to curtail the liberties of whites who owned
      and fraternized with them. Only the threat of abolitionism finally
      forged the consensus that had so long eluded the white residents of
      Madison County. There was, after all, a danger in too much liberty.
      There was, after all, a need for order. In the summer of 1835, word
      spread across the South of a massive slave insurrection planned in
      Mississippi, led by criminal and abolitionist whites. It was news
      Madison County whites had feared, but in a sense also expected.
      That there was surely no substance to the rumors of insurrection did
      not matter, in Madison County, Alabama, anymore than in Madison
      County, Mississippi, where the rumors first surfaced. Whites
      responded by closing ranks and blaming any disorder on slaves and
      abolitionists in general. Unlike their Mississippi counterparts,
      Alabamians refrained from accusing and lynching local suspects. But
      the event altered history in Madison County nonetheless. No longer
      did liberty and order seem incompatible. Indeed, the freedom of
      white southern men depended on the order of slavery. The threat to
      order and liberty, it now seemed clear, came not from anyone in
      Madison County, but from fanatics abroad.

      As Madisonites turned their eyes and their fears outward and
      northward, the local issues that divided them seemed far less
      serious. Questions concerning economic development, credit, debt,
      banks, internal improvements, morality, and electioneering would
      continue to be subjects of debate. And residents would continue to
      oppose one another in the coming decade as they lined up for or
      against Jackson's Democracy. But the stakes never seemed quite so
      high. Such issues never divided the community again as they had
      before, because the whites dared not let themselves divide. Debates
      between Whigs and Democrats, therefore, were muted, by a national
      party structure that minimized local conflict by further drawing
      Madisonites outward, and by an emerging sectionalism touched off by
      abolitionism and the insurrection scare.

      At his best, Dupre demonstrates both the apparent contradiction of
      liberty and order and the subtle ways they were really
      interdependent. There are moments, however, when he seems to
      believe the newspapers he has read. For example, he describes the
      dram shop controversy as a cultural conflict. That is certainly how
      Birney and his followers understood matters. One was free to invest
      one's money in hotels and paved streets, or spend it on whiskey.
      And the choice one made determined whether one perceived a threat to
      liberty from drunken brawlers or from temperance reformers. But I
      suspect all of this had less to do with culture and more to do with
      how much money one had. Similarly, the controversy over
      electioneering seems not to have cut very deeply. Over a thousand
      people signed a petition against barbecues, but people still flocked
      to them. I am reminded of current debates over negative campaign
      ads, to which everyone objects but everyone responds. Such debates
      can easily be taken too much at face value.

      I do not get any sense of emerging conflicting political ideologies
      in Madison County. Instead, personal ambitions, friendships,
      enemies, wealth holding, place of residence, and who knows how many
      other variables in the mix seem to have shaped voter positions on a
      given issue. And underneath was consensus, one very apparent during
      the insurrection scare. Consensus, I suspect, did not emerge after
      years of bitter debate; it was probably there all along. It only
      took the right event fully to reveal it.

      Of course, how can one know whether political conflict during the
      1820s was deeply divisive? How can one know whether the later
      debates between Whigs and Democrats were more superficial, more
      "routine," to use Dupre's word? I doubt if answers will be found in
      the columns of newspaper editors, who were in the business of
      overdramatizing and polarizing politics. Dupre makes no use of
      election data, if any was even available to him. At the very least,
      a conclusion that politics was different in the later two-party
      period would seem to require some investigation of that later
      period. Yet, the book ends abruptly, just before the parties are
      formed in Madison County.

      Dupre's deconstruction of political debate between opposing
      newspapers is superb. He has a sharp eye for subtle shadings and
      shifts in discourse. Moreover, the book makes a fine case for
      taking the 1820s seriously in its own right and not simply as
      prologue for the second party period. The connections between
      voting behavior and political discourse, and their change over time,
      are very difficult to discern. Conclusions based on them must be
      tentative.

      Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
      may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
      is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
      please contact H-Net@....
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.