Jefferson Cowie: A Long History of White Grievance Aimed at the Federal GovernmentHistorians in the News
tags: racism, White Supremacy, reactionary politics
The politics of White grievance has long been intertwined with resistance to federal authority. In our era, for example, Donald Trump has simultaneously stoked racial resentment and fear of a “deep state” in Washington that purportedly undermines the prerogatives and ambitions of Trump and his MAGA followers.
In a powerful new book, historian Jefferson Cowie tracks the pairing of racial domination and anti-federal politics deep into 19th-century America. Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power is a riveting tale of how the imperative to dominate American Indian lands and American Black lives fueled an anti-Washington politics that remains alive and kicking today. It likewise shows the government in Washington repeatedly trying, yet failing, to restrain the land and power grabs of local White citizens.
Earlier this month, I spoke via email with Cowie, who holds the James G. Stahlman chair in history at Vanderbilt University, about his research in Barbour County, Alabama, and the long history of White grievance and assaults on federal authority. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Francis Wilkinson: The title of your book, Freedom’s Dominion, conjoins freedom and domination. Can you unpack that two-word powder keg?
Jefferson Cowie: It is an explosive combination. In this nation, freedom is sovereign. More importantly, freedom is an ideological underpinning of domination. My argument, detailed in the intricate local politics of one Alabama county, is that the freedom to oppress is a core element of the American creed.
Settlers demanded their freedom to take land, slaveholders demanded their freedom to enslave, secessionists proclaimed their freedom from “federal tyranny.” Later generations of segregationists demanded the freedoms offered by White supremacy. Political fights over the boundaries of this dark dimension of freedom — battles over local, state and federal authority— gave birth to a belligerent resistance to federal power that further defined American freedom and its purview.
Vast stretches of American land, the fertile lands of freedom, were inhabited by other people, and subsequently worked, in many cases, by enslaved human beings. As a result, White freedom was not just the freedom to own land, but the freedom to steal it. It was not just freedom to labor, but the freedom to own others’ labor.
Wilkinson: You employ a concise phrase — “racialized anti-statism” — to describe the multi-century backlash to federal efforts to restrain White power and, specifically, White aggression. How did White supremacy become a vector of anti-government ideology?
Cowie: When federal authorities stepped in, even tepidly, on the side of Indigenous land ownership or Black political rights, they kicked up a hornet’s nest of White resistance to “federal tyranny.” I call this form of resistance to federal authority “racialized anti-statism.”
White people prioritized local citizenship and resisted federal power because they believed themselves most free and most powerful at the local and state levels. Non-White people, in contrast, sought federal citizenship. Their rights depended on federal protection from the ravages of local White freedoms.