Wealthholding and Political Power in
RICHARD LOWE and RANDOLPH CAMPBELL*
HISTORIANS HAVE LONG DISPUTED THE NATURE OF POLITICAL LEADER-
ship in the antebellum South. Their debate hinges on whether or not
politics in the Old South were essentially democratic or aristocratic. The
view of antebellum politics as the province of an elite slaveholding class-
originally associated with critics of the slave system such as John E. Cairnes,
Hinton R. Helper, and northern abolitionists-found forceful expression in
the works of influential historians of the late nineteenth century. James Ford
Rhodes, for example, described the political system of the Old South as a
slaveholding "oligarchy under the republican form." This idea appears
repeatedly in twentieth-century historical literature, sometimes largely by
implication as in the writings of Ulrich B. Phillips, who emphasized slave-
holder-planter dominance in the Old South's economy and society. And at
other times it is stated very explicitly, as in the work of Eugene Genovese,
who wrote that "the planters commanded Southern politics and set the tone
of social life. Theirs was an aristocratic .. . spirit ...."'
The aristocratic interpretation of southern politics has never gained total
acceptance among historians. Two notable scholars who insisted on the
democratic nature of southern political life, Fletcher M. Green and Frank L.
Owsley, published important works on this question in the mid-194os.
Writing in the Journal of Southern History, Green concluded that, "By I86o
the aristocratic planter class had been shorn of its special privileges and
political power. It . . . no longer dominated and controlled the political
order." Furthermore, Green contended that with a few exceptions "the
*Mr. Lowe is assistant professor of history and Mr. Campbell is associate professor of
history at North Texas State University.
1John E. Cairnes, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career & Probable Designs, Being
an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (2nd ed.;
London, I863), 1oI-Io3; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the
Compromise of 1850 . . . (9 vols.; New York, I9oo-1928), I, 345 (first quotation);
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Study of the Supply, Employment
and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York, 19x8) ;
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston, 1929); Eugene D.
Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy & Society of the
Slave South (New York, 1965), 28 (second quotation).
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 79, July 1975 - April, 1976. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101203/. Accessed March 2, 2015.