A Review of Powell’s “The Accidental City” by Madelein Pierron Patrick

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. Harvard University Press, 2012. Paper, ISBN: 9780674059870. $29.95.

 In The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, Lawrence Powell describes the history of New Orleans, from the personal ambition and political intrigue that led to the founding of the French trading center near the Caribbean Sea in the swampy scrap of land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River up until the War of 1812.  Improvising New Orleans is both a cultural and a political history of the city, but Powell retains as a theme the importance of geography in the development of the city’s landscape, as problems of climate greatly impeded early settlement.  The first few chapters seem semi-biographical, as Powell credits the early population growth and French acceptance of New Orleans as its trading center almost entirely to the ambition of one man, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.

Bienville’s ability to realize his designs for the city of New Orleans derive from his own capabilities as an explorer, his facility in negotiating with the local Indian tribes, the aimless colonial policy of a French government that focused its attention on more profitable colonies elsewhere.  His zealous and sometimes extralegal efforts to establish New Orleans as the primary city of French Louisiana bore fruit; the French crown accepted the location as a fait accompli after Bienville made it the population center of the colony, funneling people in from Mobile, Pensacola, and other towns in the area with promises of lands and slaves.  Had Bienville not built the population without royal approval, Natchez or a location on Bayou Manchac most likely would have been chosen, as they would not have required the constant war with the environment that the denizens of New Orleans had to fight.

Because of the insalubrious climate and the lack of economic prospects (Louisiana grew only indigo and an inferior grade of tobacco) New Orleans struggled to maintain its population, so once the French crown acknowledged New Orleans as its trade center, they populated it largely with forçats, criminals and prostitutes that had been forcibly expelled from France (69).  The importation of slaves from Africa also helped to build the city, in both population and infrastructure, as Africans helped build the levies and drainage canals of the city as well as pioneering a rice economy (73-74).  With the massive importation of slaves that brought important skills, many white craftsmen fled the city along with the indentured servants and forçats that escaped as soon as their contracts or sentences or expired, leaving Louisiana with a black majority (77).  A later creation of a black militia, freed from bondage in order to fight wars with Indians, would lead to New Orleans’ famous caste of gens de couleur libre (free people of color), aided and abetted by the Spanish government’s relaxed manumission laws in the years of colonial rule by Spain (87-88, 282).  This class system served as a unique example of race relations in North America and was vastly important to the culture and development of New Orleans, but Powell may have overstated its importance on a global level when he claims that the races and ethnicities that made up the population “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture” (163).

Though many Americans undoubtedly would object to the notion that no one outside of New Orleans made any original contributions to world culture (whatever that may mean), Powell is not wrong in emphasizing how unusual the culture of the city was.  The Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order, complicated gender relations by helping to educate women until their literacy rate exceeded that of men in the 1760s (163).  White men often neglected to practice their Catholicism, and local blacks filled their pews until New Orleans’s Catholicism was largely black and female (267).  Catholicism further merged with African culture in the creation of New Orleans voudou, further complicating issues of race and religion (265).

Powell concludes his narrative with the years between the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, as the New Orleans elite had to learn to adjust to the rule of a new nation that often rejected their influence and did not understand the nuances of the city’s culture.  His chosen stopping point in the history of New Orleans is one of adjustment; in the years following the War of 1812, New Orleans became consolidated into the antebellum South, though still retaining much of the whimsy and cultural abnormalities that made it unique.

Powell’s biggest flaw is his penchant for overstatement and exaggeration.  Furthermore, his theme and title revolve around the idea that New Orleans was improvised rather than planned, and “solutions to foreseeable problems usually surfaced as afterthoughts” (49-50).  He builds an impressive case for this, but fails to distinguish it from any other developing city.  However, he does give an impressive narrative of the first two hundred years of the city’s history, explaining the most important events and filling in the gaps between, all the while addressing a complicated political and social system.  Though for the most part Powell writes with an easy style that captures the reader’s interest, his attempts to engage the audience at times confuse his narrative, especially during the occasional unexpected divergences from chronological order, which complicate an already complex story.  Inane metaphors and colloquialisms would distract the reader less if they appeared with less frequency.  Within the first five pages, Powell not only refers to New Orleans as “the drain plug in an immense bathtub” but also compares the Mississippi River to “a garden hose that had been turned on high and dropped accidentally on the lawn” (3, 5).  Despite these problems, The Accidental City is a compelling narrative that explains the background of one of America’s most unusual cities.

Madeleine Pierron Patrick                                                             University of Georgia

Madeleine earned her BA at UNC Chapel Hill and is currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia studying disease, stigma, and quarantine.  She is currently writing her MA thesis on patient-activism in the national leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.

Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Book Reviews | 2 Comments

A Review of McCandless’ “Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry” by Benjamin Smith

Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry by Peter McCandless. Cambridge University Press, 2011. Hardback, ISBN: 9781107004153. $90.00

Blending three veins of historiography in a single work, and doing it well, is a task most commendable. Peter McCandless’ Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry artfully accomplishes this miraculous feat in a concise and readable volume of well under three hundred pages. The work is part medical history, part environmental history, and part economic history, but it quickly becomes clear that the elements are inherently intertwined. Focusing primarily on Charleston, South Carolina, McCandless argues convincingly that the lowcountry’s late colonial wealth and health were “intimately connected”(xvi). Indeed, the epidemiological reality of the region during this era, as portrayed by McCandless,underscores the role of disease as a central formative component of southern regional identity.

To be sure, McCandless is not exactly pioneering uncharted ground, for other historians have explored the relationship between the American South and disease. Rather, his contribution lies in his ability to illustrate how disease pervaded the quotidian experience––both social and commercial––of southerners by grounding his analysis in Charleston. Methodologically, this enables McCandless to trace the impact of pestilence temporally against a spatial constant. The work is divided into two parts that together offer crucial insight into how public health policy and public perceptions of disease evolved parallel with the needs of a thriving port city.

Part I, “Talk About Suffering,” is dedicated to showcasing Charlestonians’ public and private perceptions of the diseases most devastating and frequent to the lowcountry, chiefly yellow fever, smallpox, and malaria. McCandless draws heavily on diaries, family letters, and journals, unveilingthe incessant discussion of “fevers, respitory disorders, dysentery, and other excruciating maladies” therein(40).  Through a skillful examination of the personal papers of Henry Laurens and other lowcountry elite, he provides a detailed account of the ruinous effect epidemics often had on commerce.  Because wealthy residents were actively trying to promote economic growth and settlement in the lowcountry, insalubrious conditions were often concealed or misrepresented by resident physicians and the local newspapers.

Part II, “Combating Pestilence,” focuses on exactly that. McCandless demonstrates that Charleston’s doctors were largely clueless when it came to diagnosing and treating cases of yellow fever. To be fair, he asserts that this ignorance was not unique to lowcountry physicians, but spanned North America and the Atlantic world. What was unique to South Carolina, according to McCandless, was the direction it took in the national debate over the contagiousness of yellow fever. Having decided uniformly against its contagiousness, the Medical Society began questioning the effectiveness of quarantining for the disease and eventually advocated for relaxation of said quarantine measures(227). It is here that McCandless furnishes his nuanced indictment of lowcountry elites.  His adroit ability to uncover the reckless lengths to which they went in order to preserve “the economic vitality of the city” is praiseworthy and instructive(83).

For all of its virtues, this book is not without weakness. However, the expected critique leveled at all case studies––that of representativeness––will likely remain sheathed by the usual skeptics because McCandless contextualizes Charleston so firmly in an Atlantic network. That being said, his title is a bit misleading. This is not a book about slavery,though the lowcountry economic system and slave trade play a vital role in the manifestation and perpetuation of disease in the area. McCandless also does not paint a comprehensive picture of the lowcountry, and though Savannah occasionally surfaces throughout the narrative, there is no effort to examine it in any serious way. This is odd because the few offerings McCandless provides indicate that elaboration on Savannah would bolster the foundation of his argument. Lastly, the chapter “Revolutionary Fever,” though interesting, feels a bit obligatory and unnecessary. Omitting this section would not have been detrimental to the overall argument and would have liberated space for further analysis in his other chapters.

Nevertheless, the book’s merits vastly outweigh its shortcomings. That McCandless’ Slavery, Disease, and Suffering offers a refreshing perspective on colonial and early republic America is unequivocal and it indisputably highlights that scholarship pertaining to epidemiological impact on this era is far from complete. His use of contemporary documents and primary sources is masterful, and both students and general readers can appreciate his writing style. With an adjustment to the exorbitant price,this book would make for an invaluable addition to graduate courses covering capitalism, colonial and Revolutionary America, and the history of the Atlantic world.

Benjamin A. Smith                                                                             University of Georgia

Benjamin is a graduate student in History at the University of Georgia, where he is currently developing his M.A. thesis on colonial and early republic South Carolina, slavery, and capitalism.

Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, African Americans, Book Reviews | 1 Comment

A Review of Fleche’s “The Revolution of 1861″ by David Thomson

The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict by Andre M. Fleche. University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 9780807835234. $35.00.

With the sesquicentennial of the war upon us, dozens of scholarly works will emerge detailing the generals, politicians, battles, and home front experiences that shaped the bloodiest war in American history. Still others will discuss in detail the coming of the war and the sectional tensions that proved irreconcilable by the winter of 1860. Yet, far fewer works will detail the larger international framework that the war sprung out of in 1861. With Andre Fleche’s The Revolution of 1861, historians have a strong source that grounds the causes and larger philosophy of the war in its proper international context.  By drawing on the European revolutions of 1848, Fleche demonstrates the larger debates over self-determination, race, class, and labor that pulled North and South apart and resulted in a Civil War.

For the North, the revolutions of 1848 presented the challenge of balancing “liberal principles of freedom with more conservative ideals of order and authority” (60). According to Fleche, the Lincoln administration constantly struggled in the war’s early years with conservative goals of order and restoration of the Union while simultaneously dealing with former European revolutionaries within the Union Army and northern intellectual circles who espoused much more radical ideals targeting the elimination of slavery. Prominent members of Lincoln’s cabinet, such as William Seward, promoted the idea that secession threatened the American nation-state and therefore the heavy hand of the state proved necessary in order to maintain order, and even the future of western nation-states, in the midst of a revolutionary age. Such a position proved difficult for the northern government to maintain as they found themselves moving away from the previous embrace of self-determination and revolution that had defined the early republic.

For Fleche, Confederate intellectuals and government embraced the rights of self-determination as they harkened back to the European nationalist movements of the previous fifteen years as models for their own efforts in combating the aristocratic North. Confederate authorities made countless references to the similarities of the embattled South with the oppressed groups of a variety of European nation-states. Confederate spokesperson stressed self-determination and self-government as essential characteristics of the Confederate struggle and qualities that remained anathema to Union aims. Repeated efforts to tie the Union war effort to Russia’s war on Poland provided further fuel in the Confederate mind that their efforts were in the right.

Yet nationalist discussions in both North and South underwent dramatic shifts following the Emancipation Proclamation and shift of northern war aims to that of ending slavery. Such an act on the part of the Lincoln Administration enabled Union representatives to “recast their diplomatic strategy and bring it in line with traditional republican predilections” (113). Such an act garnered further support among the European working classes while allowing Union forces to promote their revolutionary destiny. Conversely, Confederate spokesmen emphasized the tremendous risk that emancipation posed on the social order within the South and that the institution of slavery actually promoted progressive ideals and prevented socialism and communism from taking root in the United States. Ultimately, however, emancipation harkened back to French Revolution ideology and proved insurmountable in the Confederate nationalist war. For Fleche, the war lost by Confederate armies would also be lost in the realm of public opinion by Confederate diplomats and intellectuals.

Despite the detailed nature of Fleche’s work, there were several points worthy of further inquiry. For instance, Fleche offers fleeting commentary to the providential rhetoric that pervaded American life during this time but quickly moves from that point. This is certainly an area that Fleche could have delved into more detail about as providential and millenialist rhetoric undoubtedly played a role in nationalist discourse. Furthermore, while Fleche does give attention to Roman Catholics in the form of Archbishop John Hughes and Father John Bannon and their roles in nationalist discourse among Irish-Americans, there were even greater opportunities to discuss the nationalist rhetoric among the various Protestant denominations in the Union and Confederacy during the war. Such an examination would afford the opportunity for Fleche to have inserted the voice of some individuals outside the higher intellectual circles who almost certainly discussed nationalist ideals. These minor reservations aside, The Revolution of 1861 offers a wonderful point of departure for future studies of nationalist rhetoric in the Civil War era. As historians continue to discuss the war and its various manifestations, hopefully Fleche’s work will be one of many that will place the war in its proper international context.

David Thomson                                                                                   University of Georgia

David Thomson is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. He is the editor of the forthcoming Faith in Providence: The Life and Letters of Brevet Brigadier General Charles Henry Howard (University of Tennessee Press.)

Posted in 19th Century, Book Reviews, Civil War, Providence | Leave a comment

A Review of Janney’s “Burying the Dead but not the Past” by Angela Esco Elder

Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause by Caroline E. Janney. The University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Paper, ISBN: 9780807872253. $24.95.

“Even if future generations would forget their contributions with the passing of time, the women of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations had been in large part responsible for the making of the Lost Cause” argues Caroline Janney in her well-titled book Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (199).  Now available in paperback, this book restores middle and upper class members of Ladies Memorial Associations to “the historical narrative by exploring their role as the creators and purveyors of Confederate tradition in the post-Civil War South” (2).  Janney focuses on Ladies Memorial Associations in Winchester, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and Richmond, Virginia in her study, relying upon an impressive amount of letters, official minutes, scrapbooks, cemetery records, diaries, memoirs, and periodicals as evidence.  Janney explores mourning activities as a political response to Reconstruction, memory-making as an active project, public spectacles as civic participation, and argues that the Lost Cause began immediately after the war.  Confident in her findings, Janney concludes that Ladies Memorial Associations “were responsible for remaking military defeat into a political, social, and cultural victory for the white South” (3).

Janney’s first chapter provides a solid foundation for the book by exploring the wartime experiences of middle and upper class white women.  She contends that these women seized “a more public and political role for themselves” through their Confederate “patriotism in aid societies, hospitals, and cemeteries” (15).  Sewing, nursing, and mourning brought women together physically and emotionally.  As a result, Janney argues that women “saw this war as their war, too” (22).  Well-chosen quotes support the argument and emphasize the passionate response of women to the conflict.  “Our needles are now our weapons,” exclaimed one Virginia lady, a second begged a nurse “to get her a Yankee Skull to keep her toilette trinkets in,” while a third slept beside “a pile of Yankee bones” so that when she opened her eyes each morning, that would be the first thing she saw (17,28).  The war provided a unifying experience which white women would draw from in their later commemoration efforts.

Chapters two through five trace the development of Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) from 1865 to 1893.  Though the war had concluded, decomposing bodies continued to turn up in fields, roads, and farms in the months that followed Appomattox.  In May of 1865, women in Winchester began to gather the scattered dead and inter them in a single graveyard.  This group of women formed the first LMA, and by the end of 1866, the former-Confederacy contained over seventy similar organizations.  Janney contends that women who “had sewn battle flags, volunteered in hospitals, and snubbed Yankee soldiers” joined LMAs to “continue to express their Confederate patriotism” and “deploy gender in the interest of Confederate politics” (40, 41).  By honoring the soldiers of the Confederate nation, women “claimed a right to mourn their dead” and began “to engage in civic life as never before” (79, 70).  As women, the threat they posed to the US government and southern white patriarchy appeared minimal in the years immediately following the war.  A challenge arose in 1870, however, with the death of Robert E. Lee.  Some “southern white men were not content to simply follow women’s lead” and “competed to control Confederate memory” only to encounter women who “refused to surrender” various memorialization efforts, like the Gettysburg project (106, 107, 132).  As a result, Janney believes LMAs continued to shape public representations of the Confederate past in the renaissance of Confederate memorialization from 1883-1893.

In 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began when white women “involved themselves in contemporary political and social issues of their day by celebrating their Confederate (that is white) heritage” (171).  Chapter six focuses on the rise of the UDC as a formal organization.  Janney argues that while LMAs “did not immediately give way to the Daughters,” they ultimately could “not compete with the Daughters’ ever increasing numbers or national organization structure” (167, 194).  The UDC’s appearance as “a more youthful association” appealed to many young white women while LMA members “continued to reminisce about their role in the 1860s” (169, 181).  After six decades of work, LMAs faded away and the UDC would largely replace them in the historical memory.  In the epilogue, Janney concludes that the “LMAs offer historians a complex and mixed legacy” worthy of scholarly attention and further analysis (197).

Despite all the new information presented, curious readers may close this book with new questions about the role of women in memorialization and the creation of the Lost Cause.  For instance, Janney’s research reveals that LMA members “tended not to be widows” and their mourning was “not of a personal nature” but rather “a bereavement for the loss of the Confederacy, for the death of their cause” (57).  She believes the overwhelming participation by women who “did not lose male relatives in the war” supports her assertions that women truly wanted to “venerate the defeated Confederacy” and participate in the South politically (57, 68).  Janney answers many questions in her thorough book, but never explores why women who experienced the actual grief of losing a husband, son, or other male relative chose not to participate in their local LMA’s activities.  Was it too painful to honor a cause that killed a loved one?  Did mothers of dead sons and wives of dead husbands approve of their neighbors’ memorial activities?  Did the members of LMAs feel that they needed to prove their commitment to the cause, since their families remained intact?  After all, members of LMAs could decorate a grave or organize a monument dedication, but at the end of the ceremony, they returned home to their fathers, brothers, and husbands, many of whom “did not serve in the Confederate military” (56).  While this book is a necessary exploration into the political relationship between LMAs and the Lost Cause, it also reveals that there is work to be done on the emotional and political implications of death and memorialization in the postwar South.  Certainly, Burying the Dead but not the Past is an important opening salvo in that broader conversation.

Angela Esco Elder                                                                           University of Georgia

Angela Esco Elder (M.A., Georgia) is a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia in Athens.  Her research focuses on the lived experience and social capital of Confederate widows.

Posted in 19th Century, Book Reviews, Civil War | Leave a comment

A Review of Carey’s “Sold Down the River” by Katherine E. Rohrer

Sold Down the RiverSold Down the River: Slavery in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley of Alabama and Georgia by Anthony Gene Carey. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 0817317414. $29.95.

Some may lament that works of history are increasingly written with specialized readerships in mind, readerships that welcome long introductions laden in historiography and theory.  Sold Down the River: Slavery in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley of Alabama and Georgia is a (perhaps) welcome break from this trend.  In particular, this book is an highly accessible, cogently written, entertaining, multi-thematic, yet impressively-researched, community study of the institution of slavery—and its Creek, African American and Caucasian participants—in the antebellum lower Chattahoochee River Valley.  Anthony Gene Carey, vice provost for faculty affairs and a professor of history at Appalachian State University, readily acknowledges that he wrote this study with the non-specialist, the local historian and the undergraduate in mind.  In his words, the book has “more of an empirical than a postmodern bent” (6).  As such, it is not surprising that the book lacks an overarching thesis.  Despite this reality, Sold Down the River holds much value for professional historians.  Specifically, the Chattahoochee River Valley—although located geographically in the heart of Dixie—was among the last settled places of the South…and is one of the most understudied.  Scholars will thus find Carey’s contribution a useful counterpoint to works that focus on slavery in other regions within the antebellum South.  Court records, Creek colonial government documents, newspapers, agricultural journals and farming periodicals, letters and diaries, travel accounts, church records, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives are among the primary sources Carey used to support his arguments.  In praise, this study was written overwhelmingly from primary sources; the author carefully avoids drawing conclusions about the Chattahoochee River Valley based on the findings of other scholars for other slaveholding areas.

Sold Down the River begins with a largely chronological chapter on the long Creek involvement with slavery.  In contrast, the remainder of the book is topically arranged.  Carey organizes these chapters around a central argument, in so doing highlighting such themes as the primacy of the interstate slave trade during those years of explosive growth in the Chattahoochee River Valley; the objectification of slaves and the solidification of slavery as a race-based institution; the ways by which profits and paternalism shaped master-slave relationships; slaveholder power versus slave resistance; slaves’ participation in their own marketplace; and the role that evangelical Christianity played for both black and white communities.Although slaveholders are an important component of Carey’s book, Sold Down the River is primarily an account of the slave experience in the lower Chattahoochee River Valley.  Falling in line with much of the literature on the slave experience,Carey adopts a characterization of slaves as both victims and resistors who sought to shape their own African American culture that was a product of syncretism.

What separates this book from the hundreds of others written about the institution of slavery is Carey’s emphasis on the human element.  When at all applicable, Carey incorporates powerful, moving quotes from both black and white sources, and, as a result, readers can begin to conceptualize the slave’s and slaveholder’s motives, ideas, morals and emotions.  Furthermore, and perhaps of particular interest to the lay reader, Sold Down the River provides considerable detail about the day-to-day lives of the Chattahoochee River Valley’s black and white residents.  For example, readers can clearly visualize the extent to which slave housing arrangements forced physical intimacy; the often agonizingly violent and psychologically-damaging nature of slave discipline and slaveholders’ discomfort of viewing their chattel simultaneously as spiritual equals and secular subordinates.

Carey concludes his study with a largely unsatisfying, excessively generalized discussion of the black and white experience during the Civil War and postbellum eras.  Although Carey suggests to readers that they consult Susan Eva O’Donovan’s Becoming Free in the Cotton South for a more nuanced analysis of these years, Carey’s book would have been stronger had he simply ended with southern secession.  Also disappointing are Carey’s sources and analysis, which focus considerably more heavily on slavery in Alabama than they do on the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee.  Nonetheless, while Sold Down the River offers little original insight into the institution of slavery, it does add to our collective understanding of slavery by highlighting a region of the South that to date has received little attention.

Katherine E. Rohrer                                                                           University of Georgia

Katherine is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of History at the University of Georgia.  She is currently completing research for her dissertation which will trace the rise of the urban South between 1830 and 1900.

Posted in 19th Century, African Americans, Book Reviews | Leave a comment

A Review of Flippen’s “Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right” by Ashton Ellett

Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right by J. Brooks Flippen. University of Georgia Press, 2001. Paper, ISBN: 0820337706. $26.95.

Readers expecting http://i43.tower.com/images/mm117452907/jimmy-carter-politics-family-rise-religious-right-j-brooks-flippen-paperback-cover-art.jpgyet another political biography of the thirty-ninth president will be sorely disappointed…or relieved. Instead, J. Brooks Flippen’s newest work is an incredibly thorough account of how the Religious Right, deeming Jimmy Carter’s approach to the “family issues” of abortion, feminism, and homosexuality inadequate and unsatisfactory, spurned the president and the Democrats in favor of the increasingly conservative Republican Party. The book’s tripartite title, therefore, is truly appropriate. No one single figure, group, or movement dominates Flippen’s narrative; rather, he weaves a story of two, co-equal main characters—Jimmy Carter and the Religious Right—whose interactions shape and, in turn, are shaped by the new “politics of family.” Focusing almost exclusively the policies and rhetoric of what we now call social or “wedge” issues, Flippen argues that the Carter presidency was a critical turning point in American politics. Jimmy Carter’s inability to please either end of the political spectrum when it came to these family issues angered prominent conservative Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Robison. Opportunistic Republican operatives in the form of Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich capitalized on this discontent and exploited it for partisan gain. The Democrats’ loss, Flippen contends, was the Republicans’ gain. The effects of this seismic political shift are still evident today.

Carter, though, cannot take all the credit (or blame) for the rise of the Religious Right, but, as Flippen demonstrates, he was an active participant in process that produced this modern political movement. A savvy politician and relative moderate within an increasingly liberal Democratic Party, Jimmy Carter attempted to reconcile his devout Southern Baptist faith with the political realities of the late 1970s. In so doing, Carter sought a middle way between competing extremes on these hot-button social issues. Unfortunately for Carter, he discovered that issues like these “were not easy to finesse” and that activists on both sides were “not open to compromise and moderation” (272-273). Flippen contends that Carter’s Christian faith may have prevented him from embracing prochoice legislation and greater equality for gay and lesbian Americans, but he also opposed most efforts by government to intervene, regulate, and define such “matters of individual morality” (21). Thus, Carter “magnified the politics of family and infuriated the Religious Right” while also managing to alienate liberal Democrats, shatter his tenuous political coalition, and facilitate the Reagan Revolution that has defined American politics since 1980 (19-20).

Based primarily on source material from the Jimmy Carter Library, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and numerous oral histories, Flippen’s book is meticulously well researched. Flippen scoured the pages of seemingly every religious-themed periodical from the time to gain insight into the nascent Religious Right, and he also surveyed the vast literature dedicated to Carter’s presidency.[1] Flippen contributes mightily to not only the literature dedicated to Carter but also the growing historiography of the Religious Right.[2]

Like other scholars, Flippen locates the origin of the so-called profamily movement in the aftermath of the rights revolutions of the 1960s that spawned the feminist, homosexual, and abortions rights campaigns that came to symbolize the growing cultural liberalism in American society, but a cohesive alliance between Christian conservatives and the GOP had not yet developed by the time of Carter’s first presidential campaign in 1976. Carter proved adept at playing both sides of the issues while on the campaign trail. He would emphasize his Southern Baptist faith while among conservative Christians, and then underscore his firm commitment to the separation of church and state when speaking to more liberal audiences. According to Flippen, Carter did not lie or otherwise mislead voters because he firmly believed both sets of principles (61-62). For example, Carter affirmed his belief that homosexuality was a sin during a controversial interview with Playboy, but he also refused to condemn gays and lesbians.[3] His statements infuriated gay and lesbian activists while his decision to offer an interview to Playboy at all distressed evangelicals (99-100). Although Carter managed to win the evangelical vote, the Playboy gaffe proved indicative of the troubles that would beset him during his term.

From there, Flippen offers a blow-by-blow coverage of the Carter administration’s handling (and mishandling) of contentious social issues. Carter discovered early on that the problem with playing all sides in politics is that everyone expects results. Carter disappointed liberals when he appointed a Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare who opposed federal funding for abortion procedures and his failure to appoint any prominent evangelicals irked conservatives (120). Carter also snubbed invitations from various conservative groups, and he even drew criticism for his choice of a secular-themed White House Christmas card. Carter’s continued support of the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment and formation of the Department of Education especially galled conservative evangelicals (119, 152-53, 174, 200, 203).

As reelection loomed, Carter realized that in trying to please everyone, he had pleased practically no one. Liberal activists, frustrated by Carter’s moderate domestic and standoffish attitude, looked for an alternative candidate. Enter Ted Kennedy: liberal champion and scion of America’s most famous political family (203, 236, 245). Kennedy, though, proved to be a lackadaisical campaigner unable to build support beyond his liberal base, but his primary challenge succeeded in branding Carter “more conservative than he was” and weakening him before the general election (265). Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan secured the GOP nomination. With the party’s conservative wing replete with evangelical conservatives mobilized by the likes of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, the Religious Right had arrived (227). Reagan and his conservative allies pushed the party further to the right on social issues than ever before. Gone was the ambivalence towards issues like abortion as the conservative platform committee included a strong prolife plank that embraced the Hyde Amendment and even contemplated an antiabortion litmus test for federal judicial appointees (278). Indeed, Ronald Reagan had endorsed the Religious Right and vice versa. Carter lost to Reagan in November.

Christian conservatives, though, cannot take full credit for defeating Jimmy Carter and sparking the Reagan Revolution. The United States’ economy remained in shambles throughout Carter’s term. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the humiliating Iran Hostage Crisis also undermined the Carter’s historic Camp David Accords and the subsequent success of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (316). Nevertheless the exodus of conservative evangelicals from Carter to Reagan—especially in the South—was hard to ignore. But was their mass defection a game changer? Probably not. Did Ronald Reagan’s election usher in a new era of complete Christian domination of American politics? Certainly not. Flippen proclaims, “Having arrived in its political Canaan, the Religious Right found no paradise but a struggle that in many ways demonstrated the movement’s own limits” (321). Certainly, the Religious Right found much to like about the Reagan social agenda, but the movement’s leaders often felt disrespected and ignored. The grassroots Christian Right, though, maintained a close affinity with Ronald Reagan and the GOP, and that alliance remains firm (330, 338).

The “family issues” that emerged during the Carter years have continued to define the social policies of the major parties. Flippen admits that abortion, feminism, education, and homosexual rights would likely have emerged as major issues at the local, state, and federal levels regardless of whether or not Jimmy Carter had occupied the Oval Office. He maintains, however, that “by following his faith in addressing the emerging issues of the day, by seeking common ground on the matter of family and all that it entailed, the moral issues of feminism and sexuality that divided religions and resisted compromise, Carter ensured the movement’s momentum” (349).

But how critical a role did Carter actually play in the rise of the Religious Right? It is hard to believe that the Religious Right would have looked and acted much different had Jimmy Carter lost the Democratic nomination to Mo Udall in 1976 or Ted Kennedy in 1980. Carter’s fickle brand of moderation certainly irked Carter’s supporters, but conservative evangelicals invoked caricatures of the most Democratic Party’s most liberal, ardent supports of sociocultural liberalism to excite its base—Jimmy Carter was neither. More likely than not, Jimmy Carter just happened to occupy the White House when these new social issues emerged and coalesced with widespread dissatisfaction with Democrats’ handling of the economy and foreign policy. After all, Republicans picked up twelve seats in 1980 to control the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1954. This included winning seats in states like Alabama and Georgia where Republicans had won election to the U.S. Senate since the end of Reconstruction. Clearly the conservative wave extended well beyond the evangelical backlash against Carter.

Furthermore, Flippen’s assertion that Jimmy Carter “eschewed politics [and] relied on his own moral compass” to address controversial issues is dubious. Carter’s political strategy was apparent in his successful campaign for Georgia governor in 1970. One need only substitute the issue of race for abortion and homosexuality and the similarities become evident. That year, Carter waged a heated primary campaign against popular ex-governor Carl Sanders that was rife with both implicit and explicit appeals to racial intolerance. From his strong support of “law and order,” opposition to “forced busing,” and promise to cooperate with Alabama Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Carter actively courted the rural, and all-too-often, racist white vote. Carter also appeared to take both sides of divisive issues. For instance, Carter announced his opposition to so-called “segregation academies,” but he saw no problem with new private schools established by wealthy parents.[4] Some observers, though, saw little distinction between the two. Indeed, his tone on racial issues depended in large part on whether he was speaking in Atlanta or in South Georgia. When it came to campaign strategy, Carter and his political advisers likely reasoned that if it wasn’t broke there was little need to fix it. That is, of course, until it didn’t work.

These criticisms aside, Flippen’s book is extremely thorough, thoughtful, and well-written piece of work. Without a doubt, Carter’s term in office was a major turning point in American political history. Whether or not that is because of Jimmy Carter or in spite of him will remain a matter of debate. Students and scholars of modern American politics and society will certainly benefit from Flippen’s exhaustive work and his insight into the interplay of faith and politics during the Carter years. Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right is certainly a welcome addition to the story of an oft-misunderstood person and presidency.

Ashton Ellett                                                                                    University of Georgia

Ashton Ellett is a graduate student in History at the University of Georgia where he studies modern southern politics and society. His dissertation will examine the intersection of politics, race, and economic boosterism in the development of the Georgia Republican Party since World War II. When he is not reading, writing, or thinking about politics, Ashton enjoys spending quality time with his wife Jessica and his two orange cats, Sophie and General Sterling Price.


[1] For scholarly works exploring Jimmy Carter’s political career and presidency see, Peter G. Bourne, Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-presidency (New York: Scribner, 1997); Gary M. Fink, Prelude to the Presidency: The Political Character and Legislative Leadership Style of Governor Jimmy Carter (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); Fink and Hugh D. Graham, eds. The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post-New Deal Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Betty Glad, Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980); Garland A. Haas, Jimmy Carter and the Politics of Frustration (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992); Erwin C. Hargrove, Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Burton I. Kaufman and Scott Kaufman, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr., 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); Timothy Stanley, Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010); Julian E. Zelizer, Jimmy Carter (New York: Times Books, 2010).    

[2] For examinations of the Religious Right in modern American politics see, Randall Balmer, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); Ruth Mary Brown, For a Christian Nation: A History of the Religious Right (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002); Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Walter H. Capps, The New Religious Right: Piety, Patriotism, and Politics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990); E.J. Dionne, Jr. and John J. Diiulio, eds. What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); Simon S. Hall and Dennis E. Owen, The New Religious Right in America (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1982); Allan J. Lictman, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the Conservative Movement (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008); William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996); Matthew C. Moen, The Christian Right and Congress (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989) and The Transformation of the Christian Right (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992); Justin Watson, The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Dreams of Recognition (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999); Robert E. Webber, The Moral Majority: Right or Wrong? (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1981); Clyde Wilcox, God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in 20th-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) and Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000); Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[3] Robert Scheer, “The Playboy Interview: Jimmy Carter,” Playboy 23, no. 11 (1976): 63-86.

[4] See, “Carter Hits ‘Segregation Academies,’” Macon Telegraph, July 28, 1970, p. 3

Posted in 20th Century, Book Reviews, Southern Politics | 1 Comment

Brief Notes on the Southern Historian and the Bow Tie

MCH

Brief Notes on the
Southern Historian and the Bow Tie

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Anyone who has attended the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in recent years can honestly—though perhaps begrudgingly, depending on whom you ask—testify to the endurance and maybe even the resurgence of the bow tie. Decades old purveyors such as Brooks Brothers, along with regional upstarts like Collared Greens, Southern Proper, and High Cotton are all pushing the bow tie hard as a staple of southern chic; so the Tartans, the Tattersalls, the Jockey Stripes, the Argyle Sutherlands, and the Booker Woolies are likely here to stay. To some of us, that’s good news. (This is Bowtied & Fried, after all.) But even at Bowtied & Fried we are well aware that the bow tie means different things to different people. And, we understand that all of those things aren’t very good. So here are some thoughts on the southern historian and the bow tie moving forward.

On one hand, to non-historians (historian here referring mainly to those of the southern variety), the first mention or sight of the bow tie probably calls to mind a collage of random imagery: stodgy old men asking for Grey Poupon, Orville Redenbacher peddling movie theater-style cholesterol in a string of 1980s TV commercials, jeremiads from a youthful Tucker Carlson, or even the antics of Pee Wee Herman. Ranging from silly to creepy, these ruminations aren’t particularly flattering, but they’re also not rooted much in the way of historical context (I.e., Orville Redenbacher might have been obnoxious, but he probably wasn’t/isn’t emblematic of longstanding socio-economic injustice).

On the other hand, some historians, especially African American and female historians who came of scholarly age in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, look suspiciously—and understandably so—at the bow tie as a symbol of less egalitarian times in the academic kingdom. To these historians, the bow tie conjures up memories of outmoded, anti-Civil Rights scholars like E. Merton Coulter, of an unhealthy anatomical and racial homogeneity within the profession, and of overt discrimination, stemming from sex or race or both, within the field of Southern History. Now to be sure, there are and always have been exceptions. For our money, Jim Cobb and the late Bert Wyatt-Brown (who was so pleased to note that RCP and I were “bow tie men”) deservedly seem to hover above any such connotation.

And things seem to be moving more in the direction of these exceptions. A few doctoral students (myself, JHW, and RCP included) from the University of Georgia wear bow ties to the Southern. Typical reactions include compliments and queries about how to tie them (but the art of the bow tie is another story for another time). In Mobile, someone even asked for a photo—of just the bow ties. For the most part, though, no one seems to give them a second thought.

Now on one or two occasions, another historian (albeit a very close friend and a wonderful scholar) has asked if we “know what wearing the bow tie says about us to other people?” My half-joking reply is usually something akin to “the three of us are changing that.” But after taking a look around the book fair—the epicenter of all *daytime* interaction at the Southern—that explanation may actually be closer to the mark than a humorous delivery would imply. Why is that? Because the majority of historians sporting bow ties in Mobile were age 30 or younger. A sizable number of them were actually graduate students. Thoughtful enough to be conscious of the cultural baggage that still travels with the bow tie, but too young to have actually perpetrated any of it. This doesn’t mean they ignore the past because it didn’t involve them or that they’re insensitive to why the bow tie has the potential to make people feel uncomfortable. It means that they understand the back story of the bow tie in Southern History and more importantly they understand why knowing that back story is a necessary step in moving forward and beyond it.

In other words, much the same way that Southern History is being refitted geographically and thematically to remain viable in the future, a new generation of southern historians is slowly but surely recalibrating the bow tie for use in the twenty-first century. And that should be good news to more than just some of us.

- MCH

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