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Review: When Freedom Meant the Freedom to Oppress

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

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.

Read entire article at New York Times