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The Subject Matter

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Table of Contents 
  •   Opening credits 
  •  Historical Perspectives on Populism 
  •  Tom Watson, the Embodiment of the Populist Movement 
  •  Woodward and Military History 
  •  Research Leads to Deeper Questions 
  •  The Myth of the New South 
  •  Taking Apart the Myth 
  •  The Second Reconstruction 
  •  A Uniquely Southern Experience 
  •  American Civilization by Its Interpreters 
  •  The Subject Matter  
  •  C. Vann Woodward 
  •  The years of the Great Depression, the 1930s, seem to me to be a perfectly natural and in many ways an ideal time in which to write about Southern populace and Southern populism, about the 1890s, unemployment, strikes, agricultural distress, industrial slumps, about social protest and political radicalism. 
  •  One lived and breathed all of these phenomena in the 1930s. They were the meat and potatoes of one's daily intellectual fare, as rough as it was. It as, I believe, a great deal easier, in fact, to understand and appreciate the 1890s in the 1930s than it was, than it is, in the affluent 1960s. One had only to look around him to grasp, to understand what the populists and their contemporaries were up against. 
  •  For we were watching a sort of replay of the same historical drama played by a new set of actors. The lines that they spoke were often the same, even though the situations differed in particulars and the denouement of the play was entirely rewritten. The only handicap to guard against lay in confusing the two and in identifying anachronistically the one with the other.  
  •   If the historian happened to be a New Deal supporter, the subject of the populist movement had a peculiar fascination and a special congeniality. It was more than a matter, I think, of certain economic and monetary policies the two movements had in common. It was more than their antagonism to the business community, their common appeal to farmer, to laborer, and their common faith in the common man.  
  •  In addition to al these things, the two movements, in the South at any rate, were mainly concerned with agricultural distress and depression, and they had in common a political star of desperation, emergency, and urgency. These circumstances combined to encourage, perhaps, a charitable disposition toward the populists and their ideas on the part of the liberal-minded historian in the 1930s. 
  •  Recent critics would have it that this attitude was rather overindulgent and perhaps inclined to wink at grave faults in populism. Impressed by the weakness that the common man subsequent showed for racism, fascism, McCarthyism, critics in the 1950s took a drastic revisionary look at the populists and many of them blamed the populists for some of the most retrograde, fascistic, paranoidal, and darkly irrational tendencies and characteristics of American political life. 
  •  It is encouraging to me, however, to find that recent monographs published lately discredit the derogatory revisionism of the recent writers on populism and tend to restore the reputation of the movement for basic sanity and political health, even though they concede the derangement of certain individual leaders. 
  •  I think that I was particularly fortunate in hitting upon Tom Watson as a subject for a biography as a way of treating populism, for Watson illustrated vividly both the best and the worst tendencies of the moment and of his people. He was the supreme example of the radical wing of the movement and was its foremost leader in the South and for some time in the nation as a whole.  
  •  On the one hand he stands for the superb and inspired courage of the populist revolt against the Southern one party conformity, the white supremacy racism. And on the other hand he stands for the impact that frustration and defeat had upon personality and principle, and the degrading extremes to which this reaction could go.  
  •  He embodied in his own career the fateful racist reaction that occurred in the country around the turn of the century. He illustrates the transition from populism to progressivism in the South and in the country in many ways and the way in which white supremacy became identified with and reconciled to progressive politics in the twentieth century. 
  •  Other events at home and abroad in the 1930s lent Watson's post-populist career a peculiar relevance to current events. This was the hey-day of Southern demagoguery. Huey Long was making his bid for mass support at home and Adolf Hitler was riding a wave of anti-semitism abroad.  
  •  These events evoke historical echoes in Tom Watson's plunge into the abyss of political degradation. They were painfully reflected in his campaign of cynical exploitation of race prejudice against the negro, a development all the more striking in view of his racial liberalism in the days of the Populist Movement. 
  •  Watson's anti-catholic crusade sounded new depths of religious demagoguery. His part in arousing the mob that drove the governor of Georgia from the state and lynched Leo Frank was the most frightening of anti-semitism in the history of the South. 
  •  Packed with irony and crowded with paradox, the story of Tom Watson touched the heights and the depths of regional history and the Southern style of politics. 
  •  Chance not only plays a part in history but sometimes in the life of the historian as well. The Second World War put a temporary end to the writing of Southern history and suddenly turned me into the field that had never before attracted me, the subject of military history.  
  •  As a naval officer assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, I found myself suddenly thrust into history in the making and compelled by order to write history while it was hot, very hot in fact.  As it turned out in the course of events I wrote more military history than anything else, but most of it was printed anonymously and classified confidential. It is probably just as well for the author's reputation.  
  •  The only part publicly released was the history of the Battle for Leyte Gulf. Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval engagement of the war and in many ways probably the largest as well as the last of its kind in history. The book on Leyte, written under considerable pressure and without full sources left something to be desired as history, but the experience of writing it and working it out was invaluable in the education of a historian. It taught a new respect for the disciplined ordering of events and facts, the value of precise information in explaining events.  
  •  The pathetic plight of Admiral Halsey, where he was caught unexpectedly in the wrong place, and the great irony of his missed opportunity as well as the near triumph of the hopelessly outnumbered Japanese fleet taught that highly developed technology has not eliminated the role of human personality or, for that matter, chance in history. 
  •  Returning to my study and to Southern history after the war, I soon found myself deeply engaged in another book that I never intended to write, though this time the subject lay close to the heart of my basic historical interests. This was a book on the compromise of 1877, entitled Reunion and Reaction. It was an unexpected byproduct on the period starting with the date of 1877. 
  •  It would never have been written but for the larger undertaking which necessitated a wide ranging program of research and many sources, and sources that turned up essential evidence, partly by chance. I had recognized at the start that the compromise was a still unsolved problem of history, but it is very doubtful that the puzzle would have yielded to direct attack. The task of assembling the widely scattered pieces of the puzzle would have put too much of a strain on my fund of patience and my general run of luck. 
  •  The solution depended on relating such far-flung and apparently unrelated elements as Louisiana levies, the rivalry and Pennsylvania and California railroad builders, the civic ambitions of St. Louis and San Diego and several other widely separated cities, and sundry under-the-table deals and arrangements between carpetbaggers and redeemers in the South. 
  •  Indispensable clues to the puzzle turned up in the search for something else entirely and in sources having no apparent bearing on the subject at hand. It was annoying, it was distracting, but it took on the fascination of a detective story that would not permit sleep until it was solved. 
  •  Then I tried unsuccessfully to get it off my mind by writing and article, then two articles, none of which were published, and finally gave up and wrote a full length book. Actually it turned out to be great fun, more than I can remember in almost any other work. The emphasis on economic motivation is less fashionable these days than it was then and will doubtless be called in question eventually, but I think the investigation yielded some durable result.  
  •  The big task remained still to be done and it had already taken many years of research. This was the task of writing a revisionary history of the New South and the period of 36 years following Reconstruction. It was plain to me from the outset that this would not only be a task of revisionism but to a considerable extent of iconoclasm, and I admit that the prospect was not wholly uncongenial to my temperament.  
  •  I had grown up with the New South myth. It had originated long before my time and it still held sway pretty generally among the laity and the academics alike. Basic tenets of the New South myth were that the South had been snatched from the ruins of reconstruction and the control of degraded negroes and unscrupulous carpetbaggers by the conservative redeemers. 
  •  The new rulers, the redeemers, according to the myth, had restored sanity and normalcy and white supremacy. They had cleaned up political corruption and graft, established hight standards of political morality, reduced taxes and public expenditures. They had allied the South with the better elements in the North, made the negro happy with his segregated and humble lot, and persuade the rest of the country that the South knew best how to handle the race problem and the negro.  
  •  An essential part of the myth was that the South was prosperous, that it was growing more so, that it was pulling out of the depressed, underdeveloped, raw material, and colonial style economy rather by its bootstraps. The myth was that industrialization would be accomplished by attracting investment capital from the North, mainly, by the right kinds of publicity and propaganda, by low wages, by a firm hand against labor unions, by low taxes or tax exemptions, and other friendly laws for business enterprise. 
  •  Furthermore, so it was held, it was perfectly possible for the South to make the great leap forward into industrialization without abandoning allegiance to hallowed values of the old regime, including attachments to the Lost Cause, to doctrinaire states' rights, and the old social order. And in addition it was perfectly feasible, so it was held, to reconcile segregation and the old race system with progressive politics and economics in the twentieth century. 
  •  The Great Depression and subsequent events seem to me to have already destroyed the foundations of the New South myth and it only remained to pull down the superstructure that was largely unsupported. If nothing else, the president's commission report of 1938 revealed that the South was the nation's economic problem #1. 
  •  The South was a retarded, backward, colonial economy engaged in producing mineral and agricultural raw materials for shipment to the industrial economies of the world, including our own Northeast.  It was an economy of privation and underconsumption, of low wages and low income, whose citizens could not accumulate savings to provide the necessary investment capital to get their industry going, to get their economy of the ground. 
  •  Furthermore, this backward economy did not produce sufficient purchasing power, consumer power, to support an industrialized economy, even if the South could build one. Furthermore, the New South order and law and social system, segregated and subordinated, humiliated a large minority, deprived it of adequate education and training, and made this element, the negro element, a drag on progress rather than a contribution to progress. 
  •  It was already impossible to conceal the negro's discontent with the myth of racial harmony and it was increasingly difficult to reconcile segregation and progressivism in the New Deal. The New South theory had appearances simply failed to work out as it promised. It had not produced prosperity, it had not produced racial harmony, and the miraculous reconciliation of past and present that it was supposed to produce.  
  •  Historical research into the foundations of the New South revealed the large amount of pretense, of sham, that went into the making of the myth and that still supported it. The redeemer regime proved to be ridden with graft, with political ties with the same business elements that had supported the carpetbaggers in the Reconstruction period. 
  •  The redeemers had reduced public expenditures, to be sure, but largely at the expense of public services and particularly public schools, and too often they had put the difference in their own pocket. 
  •  For all their allegiance to traditional values of the old order, they were often the willing and eager servants of business adventures and irresponsible investors who were seeking gain and the exploitation of Southern resources. Their political ties in the Democratic Party reflected their economic associations and their personal interests. The new economy was not one of indigenous and valid industrial development and healthy growth but one of colonial dependency to the benefit of outside interests. 
  •  The combination of freight rate differentials, the basing point price system, the Pittsburgh Plus, the Birmingham Differential, together with cheap labor and the ban on labor organization, spelled out economic stagnation, privation, and unfulfilled potentialities. 
  •  The myth of paternalistic responsibility for the negro's welfare held up little better under cross-examination. The conservative rulers did hold off the aggression of worst fanatics for at least a couple of decades, for the most part. They did not welcome segregation and they did permit the negro some semblance of political participation in the two decades following Reconstruction, the use of the ballot particularly, though the leaders, the redeemers often used the negro vote to quell radical white opposition. 
  •  In the quest for justice and the struggle for elementary economic opportunity, however, the negro derived weak and unreliable support from the redeemer paternalist. Their lot was to become worse rather than better in the early twentieth century, but it was bad enough under the late nineteenth century conservatives. 
  •  Another New South legend that crumbled under close investigation was the legend of white solidarity, political solidarity. The fact was that the whites could not even agree on the one issue that was supposed to keep them solidly united, the race question. From the very start of redemption, as soon as they ousted the carpetbaggers, the whites divided politically.  
  •  In the 70s and the 80s the insurgents called themselves often independents, greenbackers, laborites, the most successful one of them, the readjusters. All of them were in rebellion against some aspect of the New South order, its unfulfilled promises, its disappointments, and most of them were willing to solicit negro or Republican support in that revolt. 
  •  The populists in the 90s followed this tradition of revolt and after that the frustrated rebels took it out in hate campaigns against minorities. 
  •  Now admittedly this is a pretty harsh and unrelieved picture of the New South era and of its rulers. [It] may in future perspective appear that this picture is too harsh, but I am not ready to take anything back, at least not yet.  
  •  In the 1950s, by the early 1950s, the movement that I have called the Second Reconstruction was well under way. By that I mean the movement of the last decade before the realization of long-promised rights, civil rights, and opportunities for the negroes. 
  •  It seemed to me that the historian had something to contribute to the problems of the Second Reconstruction in the way of perspective. After all, we had been through much of this before. As in the earlier instance, ethical idealism, reminiscent of the abolitionists, played a considerable part in launching this movement, but as in the earlier instance also, events, happenings, chance took over. 
  •  Among them, foreign pressures, the influence of a Great War, among many others, as the Civil War influenced the first Reconstruction. One significant difference this time was that the Supreme Court, which has previously acted as a break, this time took the lead in abolishing segregation, peculiar institution #2. The radical phase began with the Supreme Court Decision of May 17, 1954. 
  •  It was shortly after this that I undertook a historical treatment of segregation and the strange career of Jim Crow. The main point that I tried to make was really quite simple but has been misunderstood. My point was the relative recency of the full-blown segregation system in the South. The hopes expressed at the time for the success of the movement were perhaps rather optimistic. 
  •  Returning after a year abroad I was struck by the changed outlook and, in a revised of the book, added a chapter somewhat modifying my original hopes. But for the long run I am still hopeful that the Second Reconstruction will prove more successful and enduring in positive results than the first.  
  •  In essays published over the years and assembled in a book recently, I have sought from time to time to suggest the enduring values of Southern history. I believe that the South has had a rather fuller experience of history than the rest of the country, a fuller share of the darker and more tragic experiences at any rate. 
  •  Perhaps it is a more typical encounter with history, more typical of the common experience of mankind than our fellow Americans had had. Once we have mastered our own myths by which we have tried to conceal from ourselves the truth of our history, we might thereby build up a useful immunity to the great national myths. 
  •  We share those myths. To be sure we are American and have been a long time before we are Southern, but I think because of our experience we should have immunity to some of the myths, such as the myth of success and innocence and invincibility. 
  •  American Civilization by Its Interpreters 
  •  The Subject Matter 
  •  C. Vann Woodward 
  •  Project Director - Joe B. Frantz 
  •  Television Director - David O'Keefe 
  •  Assistant Director - Mike Pengra 
  •  Art, Set, and Titles - Lyle Hendricks 
  •  Produced by Radio/Television, The University of Texas 
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Title:The Subject Matter
Description:Having discussed in an earlier lecture how he as an historian came to terms with his environment, Professor Woodward here outlines the considerations that led him to select the specific subjects of investigation that have concerned him in his professional career. Most of his work has been done on his native South, and Woodward explains that the subjects he has chosen to investigate have resulted from a desire to clear sway the myths and legends that have given an unreal and misleading picture of that section and its history. For example, Woodward relates that a desire to understand the real nature of the tensions and extremes of Southern politics led him to an early study of the Southern populist and demagogue, Tom Watson. Later Woodward undertook to explore more fully how the South had become what it was in a massive study of the emergence a distinctive Southern system after 1877. An indication of the scope of this work is the fact that Professor Woodward found it necesaary to write a separate book on the compromise of 1877 in order to set the stage for his larger study. More recently he has done a brief study of segregation in order to place the issue of race relations into clearer perspective. Throughout his lecture Professor Woodward emphasizes the value of a deeper understanding of Southern history for a more accurate and useful knowledge of our national history. [Synopsis from "The History of American Civilization By Its Interpreters; A Student Guide to the Television Series" by James A. Bonar, Roger E. Willson, and The University of the State of New York]
Country:United States
Date:circa 1962-12-06
CreatorWoodward, C. Vann (lecturer)
Source:KLRU-TEMP Video Collection
Contributor:Radio/Television, The University of Texas (producer)
Frantz, Joe B. (project director)
O’Keefe, David (television director)
Pengra, Mike (assistant director)
Hendricks, Lyle (art, set, and titles)
Rights:Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Original Format:2 inch videotape