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Dollars for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Rye Jewell, Katherine Rye
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.Net (December 2018)

Katherine Rye Jewell, Dollars for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xvii + 317 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-17402-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

In Dollars for Dixie, Katherine Rye Jewell traces the evolving ideological position of southern business towards economic policy from the 1930s through the 1960s, largely through the perspective of the Southern States Industrial Council (SSIC), a lobbying group founded in 1933. Jewell is Associate Professor of History at Fitchburg University, having completed her Ph.D. at Boston University in 2010, under the direction of Louis Ferleger and Bruce Schulman. As the Preface explains, Jewell acquired her interest in southern industrial history while growing up in Lebanon, Tennessee — whose woolen textile mills had employed generations of her family — with encouragement from her undergraduate teacher at Vanderbilt, David Carlton.

In the 1930s, SSIC rhetoric emphasized a distinctive southern regional economic identity, namely a poor, developing region whose prospects depended on maintaining low wages. This stance was often at odds with business interests elsewhere in the country. Indeed, the SSIC was founded by John Edgerton, president of the Lebanon Woolen Mill, barely two years after he had been ousted as leader of the National Association of Manufactures. The organization initially favored working from within the National Recovery Administration, supporting greater representation for southerners in crafting NRA codes. But the SSIC became increasingly hostile to the New Deal after 1935, with the demise of the NRA and passage of the National Labor Relations Act (better known as the Wagner Act). As Jewell recounts, southern rhetoric supporting mill-village paternalism during this period generated some “strange congruencies” between industrial interests and the anti-modern Agrarians, such as Donald Davidson (p. 71). Despite these efforts, the SSIC basically lost this battle with passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The defeat reflected the political isolation of the South, but also the fact that wage legislation and other New Deal measures actually had strong support from working-class white southerners — as Jewell accurately reports, citing studies by Robert Fleck and Andrew Seltzer (pp. 91, 141, 150).

The postwar era brought new thinking and new leadership to the SSIC, particularly from Director of Public Relations Thurman Sensing. Jewell describes four key issues that contributed to the “ideological recasting” of the South as a “free enterprise zone” (p. 243): the proposal for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission; the “rebranding” of regional identity in terms of “moral and spiritual values” rather than special economic interests (pp. 217-222); opposition to labor unions, intensified by the CIO’s campaign known as “Operation Dixie”; and the effort to recapture the national Democratic Party in 1944 and 1948. The transition from regional to universal rhetoric is Jewell’s central theme, justifying the book’s claim (exemplified by the subtitle) as a contribution to understanding the “transformation of conservatism in the twentieth century.” Nonetheless, the SSIC remained a regional organization, and the book makes clear at several points that a deeper source of regional political unity was race. For example: “The complicating fact [in shedding sectionalist language] was that racial solidarity remained the strongest link between anti-New Deal manufacturers and their representatives in Congress” (p. 210). And later: “The southern manufacturers’ litmus test of support segregation meant they could not turn to prominent Republicans, as much as they admired many, such as Robert Taft of Ohio” (p. 234).

The omnipresence of race in the South is by no means denied or minimized, but it is not the book’s central theme. To this reviewer, one of the most interesting subthemes is that southern employers strongly and persistently opposed any outside interference with their racial practices. Anyone harboring the illusion that southern business interests secretly favored Civil Rights reforms, but were reluctant to support them in public, will learn otherwise in this book. A representative statement appears in this letter to Senator Lister Hill from a Birmingham car dealer: “I certainly do not want to have to employ colored employees for jobs that can be much more efficiently filled by white people…neither do my employees want to be associated with the colored employees” (p. 208).

A tempting historical synthesis would be that the Civil Rights Revolution, by sweeping race from the South’s political agenda (or at least appearing to) opened the door to the spread of conservative political ideology across regional boundaries. That is not, however, the author’s chosen direction. She stresses instead that by shifting its rhetoric away from regional themes, “the SSIC, with the cooperation of southern cultural traditionalists and industrialists, facilitated the nationalization of the modern conservative movement and helped bring the South into conversation about a conservative realignment” (p. 244). No doubt there is truth in this formulation, but is it accurate to write that “by the 1950s, the SSIC’s invocation of free enterprise became consistent and coherent, without the compromises of past policy battles” (p. 245)? As recounted in later chapters, the SSIC became vehemently protectionist from the 1950s onward, reflecting the interests of old-line regional industries — indeed Jewell describes it as “largely a single-issue interest group” (p. 267) — but alienating large national and multinational corporations, most of whom declined to renew support for the group. The name change to the United States Business and Industrial Council in the early 1970s may have been of symbolic importance, but it did not save the organization from the political sidelines.

Economic historians might prefer a more quantitative approach to the topic, tracking SSIC membership and donations over time and relating these to the group’s policy positions. The book presents two suggestive figures on donations (pp. 125, 182), but this line of study is not pursued in depth. Using more traditional archival methods, however, Katherine Rye Jewell has added a thoughtful and perceptive contribution to the emerging literature on the rise of American conservatism in the twentieth century.

Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History Emeritus at Stanford University. The paperback edition of his book Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South was issued by Harvard University Press in 2018.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII