The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 73, July 1969 - April, 1970

Southwestern Historical Quarterly

The People in Power: Courthouse and Statehouse in the Lower South,
1850-186o. By Ralph A. Wooster. (Knoxville: The University
of Tennessee Press, 1969. Pp. xi+ 189. Appendices, bibliographic
essay, index. $6.95.)
The antebellum South was a predominantly rural area whose peo-
ple often lived in relative isolation. If government directly affected
them, it was usually state or local government rather than the federal
administration. For this reason, Ralph Wooster has attempted to
show "what the various state and county offices were on the eve
of the Civil War, how they evolved, and who filled them." Regrettably,
he chose to omit any discussion of town and city government. Cities
contained less than to per cent of the South's population, but they
were centers of political activity and, therefore, represented a vital
part of the administrative structure.
Aside from this omission the book is solid. Effectively using printed
records and manuscript census returns, Wooster presents an analysis
of legislative, administrative, and judicial offices and a composite biog-
raphy of office-holders. This approach mainly confirms established
views. Few readers will be surprised to learn that legislators of the
lower South were "middle-aged planters, farmers, or lawyers, holders
of property, including slaves, who were born in the slaveholding states
and usually in the lower South" (p. 27), or that most governors "were
prominent political and social leaders in their states" (p. 54) . Wooster's
survey of the property holdings of legislators also makes it clear, as
some state studies have, that the Whigs, whose holdings differed little
from those of Democrats, were not a class party.
Wooster is at his best in his discussion of participation in govern-
ment, which became more democratic at all levels in the late ante-
bellum period. States reduced or eliminated property qualifications
for voters and office-holders; more positions were made elective; and
a high rate of rotation in office brought many people into public
administration, particularly in the counties. Slaveholders dominated
at all levels, but they governed with the consent of virtually all adult
white males. "Here," says Wooster, "was nineteenth-century democracy
in action" (p. io6). His conclusion seems valid, but he fails to explain
why two states, Louisiana and South Carolina, resisted the trend
toward democracy while others, notably Alabama and Mississippi,
willingly accepted popular rule. What persuaded neighboring states,


Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 73, July 1969 - April, 1970. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. Accessed December 26, 2014.