Jefferson Cowie, "Freedom's Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power" (Basic Books, 2022)


"History recalls Wallace’s inaugural address as a set piece in the larger drama of defending Southern segregation, which it was. But the speech was about something even more profound, more enduring, even more virulent than segregation. Aside from his infamous “Segregation Forever” slogan, Wallace mentioned “segregation” only one other time that afternoon. In contrast, he invoked “freedom” twenty-five times in his speech—more than Martin Luther King Jr. would use the term later that year in his “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington. “Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us,” Wallace told his audience, “and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.” Those rattling shackles of oppression were forged by the enemy of the people of his beloved Barbour County: the federal government."

– Jefferson Cowie, Freedom's Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (Basic Books, 2022).

Professor Cowie titles his latest book’s introduction ‘George Wallace and American Freedom’, which frames part of the historical narrative within which he reexamines one of our most celebrated values within the purview of local history. But as The New York Times review of the book in December by author Jeff Shesol articulately summarized:

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.’

This book is an engrossing read and check this from Shesol’s review about Wallace and his attraction:

‘Racism was central to his appeal, yet its common note was grievance; the common enemies were elites, the press and the federal government. “Being a Southerner is no longer geographic,” he declared in 1964, during the first of his four runs for the White House. “It’s a philosophy and an attitude.” That attitude, we know, is pervasive now — a primal, animating principle of conservative politics. We hear it in conspiracy theories about the “deep state”; we see it in the actions of Republican officials like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who built a case for his re-election in 2022 by banning — in the name of “individual freedom” — classroom discussions of gender, sexuality and systemic racism.’

Some of Professor Cowie’s other books mentioned in this interview:

  • Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor (1999) received the 2000 Phillip Taft Prize for the Best Book in Labor History in 2000
  • Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010) awarded the Francis Parkman Prize for the Best Book in American History in 2011
  • The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (2016)

Professor Cowie’s work in social and political history focuses on how class, inequality, and labor shape American politics and culture. Formerly at Cornell, he is currently the James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.

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