Monday, November 21, 2022

Jefferson Cowie's "Freedom's Dominion"

Jefferson Cowie holds the James G. Stahlman chair in history at Vanderbilt University. His books including Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and his work has appeared in numerous outlets including Time, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and Politico.

Cowie applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Freedom's Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, and reported the following:
The American idea of freedom is a complicated, and at times, surprisingly oppressive, idea. By studying one county in the American South, Freedom’s Dominion looks at how it was used as an ideological weapon to steal, to oppress, to dominate—and to fight federal authority whenever it got in the way. A reader opening Freedom’s Dominion to page 99 would be immediately immersed in a narrative detour into the economic foundations of the idea, a pre-historic development I call an “ancient curse.”

That page begins by tracing a prehistoric shoreline that cut across the American South and directly through Barbour County. When the waters receded, they left behind what would be known as the “Black Belt” for the color of the rich soil it left behind. For planters and speculators in the cotton economy, that buried shoreline created one of the great economic opportunities in world history: the foundation for the cotton slave economy that fed the mills of the bourgeoning industrial centers of the world.

Yet that ancient brew created not just opportunity, but what modern economists call a “resource curse.” In cultures with one major resource—be it oil, diamonds, cotton, or any other commodity—the politics and culture of that society wrap themselves around that commodity, strangling out other economic opportunities and political ideas. In such societies, the answer to any problem tends to be more exploitation of the same resource at all costs. In this case, the idea of freedom also got wrapped around that the fight for cotton land and labor.

The Page 99 Test works since it shows how this county was trapped in that ancient curse, and how, in the name of freedom, settlers pushed Indigenous people off their land; enslaved African people to work it; and resisted federal authority whenever it got in their way. In the case of the deep South, freedom meant the freedom to dominate Indigenous land and African labor in the southern frontier, a region Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to be the “Empire of Liberty.”

The limits of the Page 99 Test are also made clear. By focusing on the ancient foundation of the cotton curse, the test misses the heart of the book: the political dramas of the long history of local resistance to federal power that stretches from Indian dispossession in the 1830s to the modern civil rights era of the 1960s and beyond.
Visit Jefferson Cowie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue