Power  /  Book Review

The Little Man’s Big Friends

A new book seeks to explain why many Americans, especially but not exclusively in the South, have understood freedom as an entitlement for white people.

Cowie focuses on four eras in the history of a place most readers won’t have heard of: Barbour County, located in south-eastern Alabama. It might seem counterintuitive to pick a county located in the pre-Civil War cotton kingdom, later the site of rigid racial segregation, to epitomise the evolution of American freedom. Some readers will recoil from the idea that the US is Barbour County writ large: why not choose New York City or a county in California to illustrate the dream of individual mobility and economic opportunity? What about somewhere in the Midwestern ‘heartland’, where American values – family, religion and hard work – supposedly flourish? But, for Cowie, Barbour’s history exemplifies the rise of the idea of freedom as a white prerogative. It’s also the birthplace of George Wallace, one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century, who struck electoral gold by claiming that an alliance of the federal government and the civil rights movement was undermining the freedom of whites. Cowie uses Barbour to describe the way a ‘racialised, domineering version of American freedom’ became increasingly linked to ‘anti-statism’, hostility to federal intervention in local affairs.

Fear of an autocratic central state goes back at least as far as the revolutionary era. After the US Constitution was adopted, significantly strengthening the existing national government, a considerable number of Americans, known as Anti-Federalists, warned of impending tyranny. To mollify them, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, protecting Americans’ essential liberties against abuses of national power. Initially, no clear connection existed between freedom, whiteness and fear of centralised authority. (A large majority of the presidents and Supreme Court justices between the Revolution and Civil War were, after all, Southern slaveholders or, as opponents called them, ‘Northern men with Southern principles’; the national government did not pose a threat to Southern interests.) Cowie identifies conflicts in the 1830s between the Creek nation, whose lands included most of Barbour County, and a small army of white settlers in the region, as a key development in the definition of freedom as racialised anti-statism. Local and state governments aided and abetted the intruders, but at first officials in Washington sided with the Native Americans, who had signed treaties with the federal government that ceded much of their land but guaranteed ownership of the rest in perpetuity. Even President Andrew Jackson, whose career, Cowie writes, revealed a ‘merciless hostility’ to the Native American population, insisted that states’ rights must yield to national authority and treaties must be obeyed. Jackson threatened to dispatch troops to Alabama to drive out whites who had illegally settled on Creek land.