Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Road to Redemption, Southern Politics, 1869-1879, An Overview on Michael Perman’s Book

I am rereading Michael Perman’s The Road to Redemption for the second time and taking notes more copiously than when I read it the first time. After a bit, I might even read it a third time to pick up more that I might have missed—or points I failed to give enough thought to originally, and I’m sure I’ll always use it for reference.
The book was published in 1984 so it’s over thirty years old and probably familiar to many of you, so please feel free to add comments below. Professor Perman has now been retired a number of years from Chair of the History Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), a position he had yet to attain when he wrote this book. He is British, having arrived in the United States for his graduate studies back in the mid-sixties. He earned his masters in history at UIC and his doctorate at the University of Chicago (1969). His area of expertise is Reconstruction and Southern politics and Road to Redemption is a detailed breakdown of both covering the years 1869-1879.
What I especially like about the work is the emphasis Professor Perman places on the politics of the Democratic Party, vice the popular narrative to recast the malfeasance and tyranny of Republican rule in the South during this period as a noble failure. (Professor Perman may be unprejudiced, but he’s a proper historian. I’m a Southerner, sure of her roots and neither a proper historian nor unprejudiced). And the book is about politics, after all, not an anachronistic judgment of right and wrong vis-à-vis the new-found (since the 1960s), and patently faux and unfair mainstream depiction of the South’s, having been brought to heel for its great sin of slavery, now giving birth to a new evil, racism, held in place by white terror and the ideology of white supremacy during a Reconstruction Period inserted into the long existing pure democracy framed by our ancestors and practiced by the superior North from the git-go. Yes, that is sarcasm you’re reading.
The Republican Party, of course, is addressed in the book; we couldn’t have had Reconstruction without it. In fact, we couldn’t have had...oh, never mind.

Political faction weighs heavy in Road to Redemption. I imagine one of the things that draws a historian interested in political parties to the South during this period is the clear-cut divisions within the parties themselves (Republican, Radical vs Scalawag; Democrat, New Departurist vs Bourbon; and shoot, I guess you might even say the old-line Whigs had loose factions, leaning either toward the unprincipled Republican Party, spawn of Northern Whigs, or leaning to the Democrats who still gave credence to the Constitution and the Republic [this is Charlsie’s analysis of the  Whigs, not Perman’s].
Perman applies Austin Ranney’s terms of “competitive” (promise voters anything, seducing as many as you can into supporting you) and “expressive” (believe in something and “don’t you potential voters even think of joining us if you don’t believe in it, too”) found in Ranney’s Curing the Mischiefs of Faction. These are clearly marked, in both Southern parties of the day, and Professor Perman identifies the factions as such and explains the why of the schisms. His study covers the entire South in general (each state had its own quirks) and makes reference to parallel events in the North as they affected the parties in the South (and vice versa).
More than anything, Road... is a study of the Democratic Party and its struggle for legitimacy in an altered nation where its own principles burdened its revival. This frustration led to its sometime fusion with the Southern Republicans (Scalawags) in an effort to thwart the Radicals’ quest for power (but not necessarily the Radical agenda) and its dalliance with the New Departure which advocated acceptance of Reconstruction and the amendments to the Constitution [that desecrated federalism and formally ended the Founders’ Republic—the brackets being indicative of me, not Perman]; and the subsequent rise of the Bourbon faction that eschewed fusion and New Departure politics and went on to “redeem” the South, or what was left of it. The book has a rich bibliography and copious notes, which may or may not be appreciated by us prejudiced history lovers. Me, I like them.
It is not my purpose here to complete a synopsis of the book; those details I anticipate folding into the narrative of future posts on Reconstruction. This particular post is a reference point, an anchor, so to speak. Professor Perman’s being a Brit among the teachers up in those Yankee educational institutions is an anchor of sorts, too. I’m comfortable with him. His objective is to explain Southern politics, not to judge them. Further, he appears untainted by the mainstream anti-Southern/drunk-on-democracy agenda rewriting “who we are as a nation.” Nor does he come across as pro-Southern. He comes across as a man with an interest in a period (Reconstruction) and a subject (politics) to which he’s devoted a great deal of study and acquired abundant knowledge.
Thanks for reading,

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