The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

The Dixie frame of mind: Ralph McGill

All sorts of sub-Mason-Dixon dead-tree goodness seems to be lurking, long un- (or never) read, that tumble out with the Hari Krishna-like incantation of Strommmmm! Strommmmm!...

While my flipping has taken me barely half-way, an interim note on Ralph McGill's The South and the Southerner (2nd Ed 1963) seems warranted.

It's a memoir of the old liberal - his childhood in the historically fertile soil of Eastern Tennessee, covering the 1922 US Senate re-election bid of Kenneth McKellar [1] - tool of Edward Crump, the boss of Memphis and Shelby County - interspersed with historical notes (on the likes of James K Vardaman, Tom Watson and 'Pitchfork Ben' Tillman.)

(There's also an episode (p63ff) where he spent a summer as a student on a roofing gang under the supervision of a Negro called Charlie White; his handling in the prose is pretty Disneyfied. But I'd be loathe to jump to conclusions on its veracity merely on account of natural cynicism (and recalled nausea from seeing such relationships handled with treacle-laden sermonising on the small screen).)

On the historical side, and new to me, was the William and Mary College professor, Thomas Roderick Dew (p113), whose Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature 1831-2 is supposed to have given respectability and order to the case for slavery [2].

Around that time, there was a deal of agitation in the Old Dominion on the slavery question - the debate starting in November 1831 in the Legislature following the Nat Turner revolt at Southampton, on a petition from the Quakers for an investigation with a view to eventual emancipation; much anti-slavery sentiment was expressed, but, of course, nothing came of it.

Except that the Dew paper was the basis, it seems, on which Southerners increasingly started to argue for slavery as a positive good.

Vardaman ('The Great White Chief'), when he eventually became US Senator (by popular election, it seems, in advance of the requirement of the Seventeenth Amendment) in 1913, allowed himself to echo the childishly hubristic (but, in the circumstances, perfectly understandable) Civil War-era phrase of the Negro [4]:
The bottom rail is on top

He opposed the War, and had the misfortune to come up for re-election in 1918.

He also sketches the (evidently sad) story of Tom Watson (Thomas E Watson, nicknamed 'Tom Tom'), the Populist from Georgia whose US House seat (GA-10) was stolen from him by the Party of Treason, after a single term, in 1892, and his re-election bid so crassly cheated on that the winning candidate asked for a re-run, apparently (p124).

From a guy who canned the nigger-baiting to which the likes of fellow Populists such as Tillman were addicted, and achieved a certain amount of success in uniting the races behind a common programme - who even spoke out about lynching - those stolen elections (McGill psychoanalyses) turned Watson's head, and he became all too regular on the race issue.

It takes a little comprehending that McGill was born only four years before Strom Thurmond.

(Strom's father was Tillman's right hand man. According to McGill (p119), Tillman controlled South Carolina politics till he died in 1918.

Tillman and Strom presumably met - what other famous names are within six degrees of separation from Strom, through that line, I wonder.

McGill says of Tillman that
His state has never ceased to produce semi-reincarnations of him.
Was he thinking of Strom?)

  1. This one, not this one.

  2. For reasons passing my understanding, there seems to be no text online. There is the text of a petition headed
    A. P. Upshur et al., Northampton County, to Virginia Legislature, 1831
    among a slew of petitions from around 1830 to Southern legislatures on the slavery question reprinted here. Links to 80 odd years of such petitions (running almost up to 1864) here: the site reprints The Southern Debate over Slavery (Ed Loren Schweninger).

  3. McGill, nodding Homerically, says 1912. Apparently, some 29 states anticipated the 17th Amendment.

  4. Another Ken Burns recollection.

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