The New South is one of the more misunderstood periods in American history. The contemporary narrative generally describes the period and its leaders as dense political hacks riding the coattails of Northern business elites. They were “wannabe” statesmen whose political ideology was singularly tied to race. This perspective is clouded by present conditions and our own short-sighted infatuation with racial politics. Historians often miss the complexity and deep-rooted origins of Southern political thought in this period, of its Jeffersonian origins and ties to the old republicans of the founding generation. There was more to these men than the plight and status of Southern blacks.
No one better exemplifies this than Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. He was one of the dominant political figures of his day, a man of the Deep South who had a real shot at the presidency in 1912 before a pseudo-Southerner, Woodrow Wilson, grabbed the nomination. Underwood was a throwback to the Democrat Party of Grover Cleveland and by default the politics of the early republic. He served his State in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate for over twenty years and led an effort to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and eliminate it from the Democrat Party in the 1920s. His opposition to the Klan led him to decline running for re-election in 1926. His opponent, future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, not only had Klan support, he was a Klan member.
After Underwood retired, he authored Drifting Sands of Party Politics in 1928, a partly autobiographical sketch of his time in Congress. Underwood railed against what he saw as unnecessary expansion of the general government, particularly in foreign policy and in executive power. He was also no fan of legislating “morality,” a key component of the social gospel arm of the progressive movement. In each case, Underwood relied on a substantially old republican approach to the powers of the general government.
In 1927 Underwood penned an opinion piece for the New York Times that offered a summary of his political philosophy. Titled “The Vanishing Republic of Our Fathers,” Underwood’s op-ed cautioned the American public that American imperialism and executive overreach were destroying the Constitution. This piece could have been written in 2016.
He began by recounting his early years in government as a Cleveland Democrat:
So far as our people at home were concerned they possessed real States’ rights. The affairs of government that most nearly entered into the homes of American citizenship were controlled and dominated by the force and impact of the State Governments and not by national control. It is true that in some places the border line had been crossed, but except in the realm of taxation and in the violation of revenue laws the citizen hardly realized that the Federal Government affected his life or his business affairs in time of peace.
Underwood contended the turning point was the Spanish American War of 1898. As in our day, foreign policy and war had a dramatic effect on the powers of the central government. This was truly a Jeffersonian position, one born in the notion that the United States should avoid what Jefferson called entangling alliances and foster peace with all nations. War always strengthened the powers of the executive branch and by default those of the central authority. This strain of thought dominated American foreign policy until the late nineteenth century. It was only then that the United States was conquered by Spain, as the famed libertarian sociologist William Graham Sumner sarcastically wrote.
Underwood said it just as well: “The door of the Republic we had inherited from our fathers was closed and the gateway to international ambitions and centralized government at Washington had been opened. It was just the beginning.”
He of course ignored the effect Lincoln’s war on the South had on the powers of the executive branch, but nevertheless, Underwood understood that the general government was past the point of no return, and congress was as much to blame as the president.
“When the Constitution of the United States was written,” Underwood wrote, “at least a majority of those who adopted it were jealous of strong executive control and endeavored to place the great power of the government under the control of the Congress of the United States….It was then expected that we would have a government of law, made and controlled by the representatives of the people and not a government controlled and regulated by commissions to whom the Congress had delegated the great powers originally vested in it by the Constitution.”
Underwood then rattled off several constitutionally dubious boards and commissions–including the Federal Reserve–that undermined the original intent of the Constitution and the separation of powers. He concluded that this “concentration of all these powers in Washington, placed in the hands of men appointed by the head of the nation, has destroyed the simple government of law that was contemplated in the beginning and has brought us to a complicated bureaucracy that every day is becoming more and more oppressive to the vast majority of American people.”
He wrote he was often asked what had changed in the general government between 1895 and 1927. His response was troubling:
The new Government to which we have fallen heir is not content alone with surrendering the powers delegated to the representatives of the people to commissions holding them under longer terms of office, but we have progressed in the line of interference with American independence and American rights to the extent that the Government has attempted to exercise the taxing power delegated to it to raise revenue for the purpose of regulating the affairs of human life.
The best and most prescient portion of the piece, however, was its conclusion, one that featured both a quote from Jefferson and a firm understanding of real federalism:
It may be said that we cannot regulate the business affairs of the nation except by Federal control, that the regulation must be uniform and nationwide. I do not concur in this sentiment. There are good local laws in Maine that require the householder to clean the snow off his front sidewalk in the Winter months. Such a law would be both foolish and oppressive in Alabama, where the sun always cleans the snow from the sidewalk a few hours after it falls. So it is with business. What may be sensible regulation in one State may be unnecessary or oppressive in another.
With regard to local self-government we cannot repeat too often what Thomas Jefferson so well said in the young days of the Republic:
“Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single Government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and over-look all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens and the same circumstances, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public servants to corruption, plunder and waste….What an augmentation of the field for jobbing, speculating, plundering, office building and office hunting would be produced by an assumption of all the State parent into the hands of the general Government.”
These words are prophetic. They are as true today as they were the day they were first uttered more than a hundred years ago.
Many important events have come and gone in the kaleidoscope of time within the last three decades—victories in war and peace, great advancement in science, learning and art—but I doubt whether there has been any happening in the era beginning with the advent of the material control and centralization of power—just as the war with Spain was begun and which seems to still be with us—that has so adversely affected the lives, happiness and liberties of the American people as the surrender by the Congress of a government of law and the inauguration of a bureaucratic government in its place.
From here where do we go? No man can predict. Has the era spent its force and will the pendulum swing back, or shall we go on until we have a republic only in name that promulgates its rules and regulations to please the fancy and desire of the chosen few who are to constitute the governing class for the future?
Clearly, the pendulum never swung back. The political class is now above the law–see Hillary Clinton–and the wisdom of Jefferson has been replaced with nationalism of Hamilton. Underwood was fighting a losing battle in 1927, but at least he was aware of the catastrophic transformations taking place in government in the early twentieth century. If he recoiled at a billion dollar Congress, imagine what he would say about the four trillion dollar variety with layers of bureaucracy, unelected “tsars,” regulatory agencies, taxation, and sycophantic government sponsored and supported industries?
Underwood was a dinosaur in his own time, a relic of an age when statesmen led and understood the principles of American government, and when the South had a prominent role in the direction of public policy. Perhaps if Underwood wrote this piece today, he would cite these lines from Jefferson:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance….In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people….
To quote Underwood, “From here where do we go?”