The politics of White grievance has long been intertwined with resistance to federal authority. In our era, for example, Donald Trump has simultaneously stoked racial resentment and fear of a “deep state” in Washington that purportedly undermines the prerogatives and ambitions of Trump and his MAGA followers.
Earlier this month, I spoke via email with Cowie, who holds the James G. Stahlman chair in history at Vanderbilt University, about his research in Barbour County, Alabama, and the long history of White grievance and assaults on federal authority. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Francis Wilkinson: The title of your book, Freedom’s Dominion, conjoins freedom and domination. Can you unpack that two-word powder keg?
Jefferson Cowie: It is an explosive combination. In this nation, freedom is sovereign. More importantly, freedom is an ideological underpinning of domination. My argument, detailed in the intricate local politics of one Alabama county, is that the freedom to oppress is a core element of the American creed.
Settlers demanded their freedom to take land, slaveholders demanded their freedom to enslave, secessionists proclaimed their freedom from “federal tyranny.” Later generations of segregationists demanded the freedoms offered by White supremacy. Political fights over the boundaries of this dark dimension of freedom — battles over local, state and federal authority— gave birth to a belligerent resistance to federal power that further defined American freedom and its purview.
Vast stretches of American land, the fertile lands of freedom, were inhabited by other people, and subsequently worked, in many cases, by enslaved human beings. As a result, White freedom was not just the freedom to own land, but the freedom to steal it. It was not just freedom to labor, but the freedom to own others’ labor.
Wilkinson: You employ a concise phrase — “racialized anti-statism” — to describe the multi-century backlash to federal efforts to restrain White power and, specifically, White aggression. How did White supremacy become a vector of anti-government ideology?
Cowie: When federal authorities stepped in, even tepidly, on the side of Indigenous land ownership or Black political rights, they kicked up a hornet’s nest of White resistance to “federal tyranny.” I call this form of resistance to federal authority “racialized anti-statism.”
White people prioritized local citizenship and resisted federal power because they believed themselves most free and most powerful at the local and state levels. Non-White people, in contrast, sought federal citizenship. Their rights depended on federal protection from the ravages of local White freedoms.
Wilkinson: To me, the most surprising character in your book is President Andrew Jackson. His Indian removal policies look, to us, barbaric. Yet you portray Jackson not only trying to manage an orderly mass migration, but also working to restrain local Whites from waging a war of extermination. Remarkably, “Indian killer” Jackson emerges as a moderating force in this narrative. Why is it that the federal government, which is at the farthest remove from these conflicts, is invariably more protective of Indigenous and Black rights than local Whites are?
Cowie: The Andrew Jackson story blew my socks off. The man known for waging wars for land dispossession, the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears and other horrors actually sent federal marshals and troops to remove White intruders from lands of the Creek Nation. He tried to protect, at least at first, a privatization scheme to give the Creek people a shot at economic and cultural survival.
I think the Jackson section demonstrates a couple points. First, while this president was responsible for some truly awful things, the White masses and elite speculators pouring into Creek land were far more ruthless. Second, when Jackson proved unable to restrain the land-hungry Whites, he told the Indians that they were citizens of the state of Alabama and washed his hands of the problem. States’ rights philosophy was his ultimate weapon. Third, even though White people got just about everything they wanted out of Jackson, they went mad with paranoia, rumors, martyrdom and violence when they didn’t get absolutely everything. Local Whites’ refusal to honor federal agreements ultimately drove Indians to initiate a final, desperate war against the intruders.
Distance, resources, training and the imperative to manage competing constituencies make a federal perspective more encompassing. Federal authorities were willing to restrain local Whites’ freedom to dominate others for the sake of the whole body politic. Local White leaders, in contrast, mobilized to seize whatever they believed to be theirs alone, fighting the feds along the way. States’ rights arguments were deployed, then and after, as excuses for White power.
Wilkinson: In colonial New England, there was no slaveocracy. Yet native communities were destroyed just the same. Nationwide, European settlers swept away all who resisted their expansion, eventually with the help of federal troops. What is unique about the “racialized anti-statism” that emerged in the South and parts of the West?
Cowie: The freedom to dominate is rooted deeply in the Western tradition. Place that reality on a landscape of settler colonialism, then add large-scale chattel slavery and export commodity production, and we get a much more virulent form of this version of freedom.
From the nation’s start, White freedom and White democracy meant expansion. The Declaration of Independence criticizes King George III for restraining westward expansion beyond the Appalachian crest. When colonial or federal authorities tried to halt that expansion (in part due to fear of endless Indian wars), the seeds of racialized anti-statism were planted.
Wilkinson: When you move the narrative forward to the 20th century you find an ideal spokesman for that kind of anti-statism in Alabama Governor George Wallace. Can you describe the alchemy by which he transformed racial aggression into anti-Washingtonism?
Cowie: George Wallace went from being just another feisty local pol to becoming a viable gubernatorial candidate when he found that fighting the feds delivered political rewards. He took on the federal government after Congress passed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He won acclaim for refusing to turn over local voting records to investigators in the US Department of Justice. From then on, the main theme of his political career —as governor and through numerous presidential runs — was fighting against federal tyranny.
When Wallace gave his famous “Segregation Forever” speech at his 1963 inaugural address, he mentioned segregation just a few times while invoking “freedom” two dozen times. Already casting his eyes nationally, he knew that freedom from federal authority, especially regarding civil rights for Blacks, would resonate in every state. When he said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty,” people knew what he meant.
Wilkinson: Reconstruction yielded to Jim Crow. The 1960s Civil Rights movement produced a reaction of White grievance. Barack Obama’s presidency presaged Donald Trump’s MAGA. Every advance of Black power has produced a backlash. What elements of the past seemed most alive, contemporary, to you while you were writing this book?
Cowie: Reconstruction did not “yield” to Jim Crow. Reconstruction in Barbour County, Alabama, ended in 1874 in a hail of bullets, dead bodies and burned ballot boxes. White citizens, from ruffians to the county’s “finest,” seized political control in a bloody coup after federal authorities stopped upholding Black political rights.
Similar past events resonate in today’s democratic crises. After passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s key lieutenant, Hosea Williams, was trying to figure out why some counties experienced spikes in Black voter registration while others didn’t. He realized that the difference was not the quality of the local movement, local leadership or any other local variable. It was simply whether or not federal registrars were present on the ground to ensure that the law was followed. The lesson is simple: Every aspect of voting needs to be overseen, preferably run, by independent federal authority. Period.
Taking minority rights seriously in the US means leveraging federal power. All the themes in this book — land dispossession, Reconstruction, convict leasing, lynching, fair employment practices and modern civil and voting rights — hinged on federal authority vaulting over local control, local demands and local freedom. When local White people lament federal tyranny, it usually means someone else’s rights are actually being safeguarded.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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