I wanted to give a rundown of the Sunday morning session that I attended, as well as summarize my experience at this year’s Southern.
After visiting the book exhibit to score some deeply discounted books, I wandered over to the panel on antebellum southern politics. Ron Formisano presided, while he and Michael F. Holt, one of my favorite historians, commented. The panelists were Christopher J. Olsen (who was unable to attend), Frank Towers, and Kirsten E. Wood.
Wood read Olsen’s paper, which dealt with defining the right to vote. His paper argued that local election officials had substantial discretion when it came to challenging voters’ suffrage rights on election day and often did so on the basis of race, class, residency, and masculinity. For example, mothers were often crucial in supporting a son, especially if he were single, if his race or residency were questioned. I and other audience members chuckled at his claim that laundry was often used to establish residency. I enjoyed the humor in Olsen’s paper and wish he had been able to attend.
Towers’ paper addressed the importance of political networks in antebellum politics, especially when it came to galvanizing non-slave owners’ support for pro-slavery policies and politicians. He described the process by which political networks were created and the importance of newspapers in bolstering those networks. Towers concluded by arguing that political networks were able to exert more influence over smaller and less geographically dense electorates, which benefited pro-slavery politicians of the South.
Wood, who contributed an essay to the volume on Jacksonian and antebellum social history that I edited several years ago, discussed the role of taverns as centers of political activities and networking. Her tentative conclusion, based on the research that she has completed so far, suggests that in the Upper South, debates about economic and commercial development were somehow influenced by their taking place in taverns.
The comments by Holt and Formisano were pointed, but collegial. Holt opened by acknowledging that he disagreed with the panelists’ contentions on certain points. For example, he argued that since testimony about challenges to voting qualifications were made after the fact, was it race, class, residency, and masculinity that drove the challenges, as Olsen argued, or simple partisanship? Regarding Towers’ paper, Holt noted that his paper did not address southern Whigs, who obviously used political networks in similar ways. Finally, he was skeptical of Wood’s claim about taverns encouraging Jacksonian support of government activism. (In her defense, Wood pointed out that she had removed the sentence making that claim from a later draft of the presentation.) Formisano admitted that many of his comments echoed Holt’s, so he kept them short.
In thinking back to previous Southerns, I would rank this one at the top in terms of the quality of the sessions that I attended. Matt Mason’s paper on the Maine doughfaces on Friday morning was well-done. Friday afternoon’s panel on the state of the field of southern history was excellent. The publishing panel on Saturday morning was enlightening and made me less pessimistic about the future of the book.
Add to these sessions the late nights chatting with, and losing money to, Jim Broussard, Gene Smith, John Belohlavek, and others, evenings laughing with fellow faculty and students from Cumberland University, and experiencing the vibrancy of the city of Charlotte, I came away rejuvenated.