JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

20th Century Alabama
The Triumph of Bourbonism

By Dr. Hardy Jackson
JSU Professor of History

Reprinted from the Mobile Register

During the past year, Alabama’s government has taken quite a beating.

First the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University evaluated the performance of all state governments and ranked Alabama’s dead last. Then folks at Governing magazine named our state legislature the worst in the nation. According to these sources, if you are looking for inefficiency, go to Montgomery.

But not everyone agrees. Some among us feel those who govern are doing a fine job. Why? Because they are holding to the principles enshrined in our 1901 constitution.

That document, as you probably know, was written by wealthy, propertied, politically powerful Bourbon Democrats in an effort to secure and perpetuate their control of the state. Their success at doing this is downright remarkable.

Those first Bourbons wanted to find a way to control Alabama's financial resources and guarantee that no state money would be spent on things that did not benefit Bourbons. So they created a system that kept taxes low, especially on themselves, and kept government small and centralized.

It all fit together beautifully. Without money the state could do little for ordinary Alabamians, which was fine with the Bourbons. They preferred to keep what they had and let schools go under-funded, roads stay rutted, and health care remain pitiful. Besides, an uneducated, unhealthy, disconnected electorate was unlikely to challenge Bourbon authority.

Then, just to make sure things went as they wanted, our Bourbons took the vote from blacks and many poor whites, and arranged the system so that even local legislation had to go through Montgomery for approval -- and they controlled Montgomery.

Put plainly, our Bourbons created a government that was cheap, inequitable, and inadequate. And those who benefited looked down from their Birmingham boardrooms and out from the "big houses" in the Black Belt and smiled.

During the next few years Bourbons tinkered with the document a bit, amended it a few times, but did nothing to alter its fundamental principles -- low taxes, minimal social services, centralized government and, to keep the "rednecks" happy, white supremacy.

But change was in the wind. During the second decade of the century a new group of politicians appeared. Although they rose from the same class as the Bourbons, they were a more progressive group. Stung by critics of the South in general, and Alabama in particular, they began looking for ways to improve the image of a state whose principle characteristics seem to be poverty, provincialism and pellagra.

Boldly they commissioned a New York foundation to study conditions here, and when its report revealed our woeful record in education, health, and human welfare, these reformers set out to do something about it. Our Bourbons rose to oppose them.

The report had concluded that most of our problems could be traced back to our inadequate and unfair tax structure, which did not provide the resources necessary to improve the quality of life for the poor and the powerless. Yet that tax structure was the heart of the Bourbon plan, and the new generation of Bourbons who controlled those resources weren't about to give them up. To their way of thinking the reformers wanted to change the best feature of the system. So they fought them all the way, and in the end, were able to beat back most challenges.

Luck was critical to this Bourbon victory. Just as it seemed the reformers might carry the day, the Great Depression descended on the state. In the crisis that followed the reform coalition collapsed. Arguing that now was the time for frugality, Alabama’s proprietary interests were able to reestablish control over the Legislature and return the state to the principles outlined in 1901.

Our Bourbons were happy, but not for long. The New Deal's activist government, with all sorts of federal intrusions, scared them. In the past these Democrats, under the banner of state rights, had fought successfully against congressional legislation that might infringe on a state’s right to keep its people poor, ill, and ignorant. Now Washington was offering poverty-stricken Alabamians relief through the New Deal’s numerous alphabet agencies, and poverty-stricken Alabamians were taking it.

For the Bourbons, this presented a problem. Threatened by the New Deal’s pro-union position, by undertakings such as TVA, and by agricultural programs that might undermine a planter’s control of his labor force, conservatives worked to thwart or take over the agencies created to administer the legislation. They were remarkably successful. While we should not ignore how much Washington did to improve conditions in the state, the degree to which Bourbons dictated where federal money went and what federal agencies did should not be forgotten.

They also dictated what was done by the state. Although the Depression emergency forced legislators to pass moderate tax reforms, these measures made little difference when it came to who was running things here. Alabama’s Legislature remained firmly under the control of conservative Democrats who looked like, thought like, acted like, and voted like their Bourbon ancestors. Although during the 1930s the constitution was amended 25 more times, those amendments did little to change the foundation on which the edifice was raised.

Meanwhile the war came, and with it an end to the Depression. For the first time in memory there were jobs, paychecks, and money in the bank. Alabama attitudes were shifting. During the Depression Alabama’s poor and Alabama’s middle class found themselves in the same boat. After the war, Alabama's middle class began to expand and in its expansion it began to distance itself from the class it left behind. This explains, as much as anything else, why populist efforts by the likes of Big Jim Folsom ultimately failed. Folsom was trying to do something for the common man at the very time many common men were trying to break free from that class and rise above their raising.

This also helps to explain why the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education was viewed with such horror by white Alabamians. The idea that education might no longer be used to keep blacks at the bottom threatened our aspiring bourgeoisie. Now, just like the Bourbons, other whites had cause to denounce federal power.

As this middle class rose, traditional Bourbons moved to meet them, and in the process Bourbonism took on a new look. A review of the amendments to the constitution, that sacred text of Bourbonism, suggests what was happening. Between 1945 and 1960 the document was altered more than100 times, with no small number of the amendments relating to local taxation, social services (especially health care), public works, infrastructure improvements, and education.

These amendments, and many that came after them, co-opted interests that might have opposed the Bourbons, brought them into the fold, gave them a stake in the system, and earmarked for them a piece of the pie. And as more of these interests came under the Bourbon's "big tent," less was heard of constitutional revision and tax reform. Those co-opted became just as self-seeking, narrowly focused, and proprietary as any Bourbon. Pretty soon it was hard to tell the old from the new.

Of course, the Bourbons had another issue on their side -- race. As champions of white supremacy for most of the century, they easily presented themselves as defenders of the status quo. So, the reasoning followed, to unseat them would unseat white Alabama's staunchest defenders. Which explains to some degree why George Wallace, despite his populist tendencies, was never much more than an irritant to the Bourbon establishment.

Although during the Wallace era there were some changes to the tax code, increases were usually offset by exemptions and limitations that kept levies low and the state starved for funds. Ironically, had it not been for money flowing down from Washington, Alabama's ranking in education, health, and welfare would have been much lower than it was -- if that were possible.

Having broadened their base to include the upper middle class, Bourbons had one remaining problem -- the Democratic Party. As black voters became part of the electorate, they naturally gravitated to the party they believed most responsible for their liberation and most concerned with their rights. Thus Alabama’s Democratic Party, the party of white supremacy, economic conservativism, and social inactivitism, found itself having to find a place for the very people it had spent most of the century trying to exclude.

Some Democrats couldn’t do it and got out. Finding others of their ilk who had left long ago, these bolters made the Republican party both a creditable challenge to the Democrats and heir to some of that party’s most cherished traditions ­ including low taxes, governmental parsimony, and proprietary rule.

As a result, at the end of the century Alabama has two parties, and Bourbons dominate both.

You don't have to go far to find examples of contemporary Bourbon power -- the lid bill, current use tax, tort reform (Bourbons on both sides there), and the franchise tax compromise are just a few.

Everything is still run from Montgomery, the state is littered with under-funded and defanged regulatory bodies, the tax burden is inequitably spread, and more than 90% of what money we do raise is "earmarked" for special interests and special projects. The list seems to go on and on.

The secret to Bourbon success is our constitution.

Despite 661 amendments, that document is still doing what it was designed to do -- let Alabama Bourbons keep what they have, and let the rest of the state go to hell in a hand-basket.

And despite all the talk about constitutional reform, until Alabama's modern Bourbons join the movement, it is not going to happen.Oh, we might see some editing that would shorten the document and clean up its fuzzy language. We might even see a measure of home rule granted to counties. But until those who benefit from the current tax structure are willing to give up their exemptions and earmarks for the good of the state as a whole, not much is going to change.

At a recent meeting of the Alabama Press Association a leading advocate of constitutional reform put his finger on the problem. Our Bourbons, he admitted, are not going to support change because they "have it the way they want it."

Looking back, it seems to me that they always have.

Harvey H. Jackson III is professor and head of the Department of History and Foreign Languages at Jacksonville State University. This article is taken from a presentation he made recently to the Alabama Press Association.


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