Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeomen Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
By Bess Beatty
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 14-16
When Frank Owsley completed his study, The Plain Folk of the Old South, in 1949, he considered the title “The Forgotten Man of the Old South,” but rejected it as too flamboyant. Three decades later this rejected title, enlarged to include the Forgotten Woman, would still be appropriate for a work on the white yeomen farm families who made up the majority of nineteenth-century Southerners. Southern image makers have generally continued to relegate the Southern common folk “either to obscurity or to oblivion” while they focus on the white elite, on blacks, and even on the bottom rail of white society, “the poor white trash.” As a result, Southern history remains distorted, and a large number of Southern people remain estranged from their past. Although most historians accept Owsley’s contention that “the core of the [Southern] social structure was a massive body of plain folk who were neither rich nor very poor,” they have rarely given this group in depth attention. There are hopeful signs, however, that the forgotten people of Southern history are beginning to find their historians. Steven Hahn’s The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeomen Farmers and the Transformation of the
Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 joins a small but significant list of Southern studies that focus on the region’s plain folk.
Historians of Populism have given considerable attention to the issues yeomen farmers confronted and to the leaders who mobilized their protest. For the most part, however, the many good studies of Southern Populism have paid little attention to the activities and reponses of the average members of this group. When “we turn to the thousands of Southern rural folks,” Hahn explains, “the shadows rapidly steal forth.” Lifting the shadows in fraught with enormous difficulty. Yet, as Hahn notes, more written sources exist for the yeomanry than is usually acknowledged or consulted by historians. Hahn’s extensive and skillful use of a wide variety of available sources–including newspapers, letters, census returns, tax reports and various other government records–enables him to to substantiate abundantly the general story he tells. Despite Hahn’s efforts in the libraries and archives, much of the feel and sense of the yeoman culture still comes up missing in The Roots of Southern Populism. A couple of months spend living in or travelling through Georgia’s Upper Piedmont, talking with descendants of the late nineteenth century farmer folk, listening to their stories and music, looking at their family photographs and heirlooms, might have enriched and deepened Hahn’s work. Faulkner’s Flem Snopes is not enough of a substitute for the Georgia yeomanry. Neither are the written views of Floyd County planter John Dent, who appears under several guises, a large enough representation of the typical planter assessment of the times. Yet in fairness, The Roots of Southern Populism, is not intended as a study of folk culture.
Although his subjects are agrarian rather than industrial workers, Hahn’s story is strikingly similar to the recent work in American “new labor history” which has been so influenced by Edward P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Hahn does, in fact, challenge the common view that agrarian rebellion is of a nature fundamentally different from industrial. Hahn’s Georgia yeomen, like their industrial counterparts, tried to retain autonomy and to resist the encroachments of capitalism–in their case commercial agriculture–by clinging to precapitalistic norms and prerogatives.
Establishing the cultural and economic roots of Populism over a forty year period forces Hahn to confront one of the most perplexing questions of Southern historiography: If, according to conventional wisdom, “Southern yeomen were touchy and isolated individualists,” how could they have been lured by the Populist vision of a cooperative common” wealth? In his penetrating analysis of the multi-faceted nature of yeomen independence, Hahn offers a significant new perspective on the question. Although he agrees with the traditional contention that yeomen economic organization based on the household and fee-simple landownership “fostered the bourgeois traits of individualism, acquisitiveness and deep adherence to private property”–traits that meshed well with the emerging ethic of laissez-faire economics–he also argues that “strong countervailing tendencies” existed. In direct contrast to the laissez-faire ethic, a “preindustrial republicanism” convinced many of the Upcountry ;yeomen that the state should control productive resources and actively defend petty producers. Further more, Hahn contends, yeomen independence also “hinged on social ties, on ‘habits of mutuality’ among producers, that impart to their culture a communal, prebourgeois quality whose equalitarian proclivities sharply distinguished it from that of the planters.” As a result of his careful analysis of the meaning and limits of independence in the economic and social lives of the Georgia yeomen, Hahn concludes that Populism was not an aberration in Southern Upcountry life but a product of a deeply embedded world view.
Before the war, class conflict resulting from distinctive planter and yeomen world views was latent, muted by planter efforts to unite their region in the growing struggle with the rest of the country. The yeomen enjoyed a large measure of autonomy; popular laws and customs, such as the homestead exemption and access to common lands, were protected. But the social fabric which sustained yeomen autonomy began to unravel under the strains of war. War-time privations combined with Confederate taxation and impressment policy made the yeomen increasingly resentful and generated “growing class antagonisms,” which were further exacerbated by severe economic dislocations in the wake of Confederate defeat. Hahn rightly argues that transformations in the lives of the Upcountry yeomen “during this period elucidate the larger meaning of the Civil War itself.”
Central to the economic change which these people confronted was the transformation of the Georgia Up-
country from an area of subsistence agriculture on the periphery of the cotton economy to the mainstream of commercial agriculture. In a period of such widespread destruction and rapid change, these farmers could no longer opt for the “safety of diversification.” They rapidly lost their self-sufficiency as they were forced to plant cotton, the only crop on which they could receive credit. As a result, the Upcountry, previously “the domain of yeomen freeholders,” fast became ” a territory of the disposed.” Merchants, protected by lien laws, replaced the communal prebourgeois network of exchange characteristic of antebellum Upcountry society. “By the 1880s,” Hahn finds, “an elite deriving surpluses from both land and commerce held the economic reins in the upcountry.” Increasingly the “republicanism of petty producers” was arrayed against “the values of the free market.”
The inevitable postbellum class conflict took on a uniquely Southern tone because of simultaneous racial conflict. Hahn offer important, but sometimes contradictory, analysis of the old question concerning how much coming together there actually was between the South’s poor black and poor white farmers. Georgia Republicans, he asserts, had a chance after the war to build a biracial coalition, but they failed to do so. However, Hahn presents so much evidence of deep-seated yeomen racism that he undermines his own argument. He is more persuasive in claiming that the Southern yeomen viewed blacks, both in slavery and freedom, “as symbols of a condition they most feared–abject and perpetual dependence–and as a group whose strict subordination provided essential safeguards for their way of life.”
But racism was not sufficient to keep the yeomen loyal to elitist Democracy. By the 1870s election returns revealed “emerging divisions between town and countryside and between rich and poor farmers.” The issue that most polarized Upcountry white society was the question of grazing rights which, Hahn claims, “revealed the cultural, as well as economic, dimensions of political struggles, and . . . paved the road to Populism.” Since colonial days both law and custom had required that crops be fenced so that farmers could allow their animals to graze on open lands. To small landholding farmers as well as to tenants, the right was an essential prerequisite for self-sufficiency. In the post-war world, when a new elite pushed for laws requiring the fencing of stock, the yeomen, still informed by a preindustrial ideology of republicanism, fought, not only for “local custom,” but also for what they perceived as their “natural right.” It was the struggle over grazing rights, Hahn contends, that first aroused the upcountry yeomen; “the appearance of the Southern Farmers Alliance and then the People’s party promised to transform defensiveness into a humane and progressive force.”
Hahn successfully challenges most historians of Southern Populism with his compelling argument that the appeal of Populism to Upcountry Georgia yeomen farmers was more than a factor of their increasing impoverishment; the movement also offered a vehicle to restore “a producers commonwealth” which had been overwhelmed by the encroachments of the free market. To the yeomen who joined the Populist revolt, the party’s goals were “a vision informed by historical experience.”
For myriad reasons Populism quickly failed. One important reason, according to Hahn, was the two-sided nature of the yeomen sense of mutuality which made this cooperation possible. He argues that the “very networks and norms of the household economy partially disguised class distinctions and probably discouraged reliance or. supralocal, unfamiliar, and more formalized organizational’ structures.” This meant that, art least in the Georgia Upcountry, Populism rested on “a tenuous foundation.” But to Hahn, as to Lawrence Goodwyn, author of Democratic Promise, the most important book on American Populism, the rapid failure of Populism should not be construed to minimize its historical importance and ideological legacy. What Goodwyn describes as “the largest democratic mass movement in American history” is to Hahn “a watershed in the history of industrializing America.”
Steven Hahn’s book is excellent history, but it is more than that; it is also an excellent study of the interaction of the powerful and the powerless. The descendants of these Upcountry yeomen know little of their ancestral legacy of cooperative republican and rebellion. Goodwyn has written that “more often than not, the triumph of the received culture is so subtle it is not apparent to its victims. Content with what they can see, they have lost the capacity to imagine what they can no longer see. Ideas about freedom get obscured in this way.” The importance of Hahn’s book is as current as it is historical.
Bess Beatty is assistant professor of history at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia.