Recently I finished reading the book The Oratory of Southern Demagogues which was published by LSU and contains a series of several essays of the so called “demagogues” of the South. The book is done by several authors and contains 9 chapters, one on each of the “Southern demagogues”. The book mainly deals with their oratory styles over their actual life’s. While their careers and especially personalities are mentioned, their oratory is the focus point of the book. The book also highlights maybe two elections of each or struggles one of the men had. Example being Eugene Talmadge’s 1946 race for the governorship and his defense of the White Primary.
The “Demagogues” in the book include Jeff Davis, James Vardaman, Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, Cole Belase, Cotton Ed Smith, Theodore Bilbo, Huey Long and finally Eugene Talmadge. The book really does a good job highlighting them as populist outsiders that came out of the post-war-post-reconstruction period in the South’s history. I say post Reconstruction because it’s important to make note that the time was its own era of the South. While, some of the men were active in politics during reconstruction, especially Ben Tillman who led a Redshirt squad in the restoration of home rule in South Carolina, none of the men attain any higher office during the Reconstruction period. Yet, all had to deal with the fall out of the Civil War and the death of slavery. This means the problems of a mix race society. All 9 men, of varying degrees, sided with the poor White Southerners over the blacks or upper-class. They had no shame in this fact. James Vardaman for example sided with the poor White Mississippi over the wealthier Delta planters, the same can be said for his political son Bilbo. Jeff Davis, not to be confused with the CSA President, sided with the hill folk and rednecks of Arkansas over the Little Rock business elite which had ties to the wealthy North East. Tom Watson was a leading populist in 1880s and would join the Democratic Party only to radicalize it from within during the 1910s. These men were all serious in their fights against the political establishment of their time and would raise hell to make sure the little man was heard. This shouldn’t make one think of them as some Bernie styled Socialists, but as true Populists. Keep in mind even Long hated actual Socialists and commies, Watson hated even more so.
Another important factor in the book is the sectional tension that boiled below the service at this time. These men all grew up in the years immediately before, during or directly after the War of Northern Aggression and Reconstruction. This made them all wise on the Yankee Question. Many, especially Vardaman, Watson and Talmadge, made multiple degrading remarks on the Yankee people. They knew full well that Yankees were a different people with some like Watson basically being a Southern Nationalist who openly wanted to see the South rise again. This however did not blind them to realties of the time. Ben Tillman is noted throughout the book as reaching out to the Northerners and even Western people on the race question and having mass success in doing so. Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, while being the most conversional racial realist in America of the 1910’s, was listened to and even clapped to by the audiences of the nation on his numerous speaking tours. His speeches on “The Negro Question” gained him hundreds of followers nationwide, his speaking tours were legendary. Like the rest of the Southern statesmen he was a master of oratory, with a tongue that could cut like a sword. From Davis to Talmadge they all knew how to win over a crowd of their fellow Southern men.
The book never really makes the connection, but I consider the “demagogues” listed in the book to really be the political successors of the Fire-eaters of the 1850s. Both groups of statesmen were outsiders and outside the mainstream of their time yet managed to win over the hearts and minds of the Southern people. The Alabama Secessionist Yancey is probably the best example of the eloquent yet powerful speaking Southerner who fought to preserve the South. Like Yancey, these 9 statesmen were mavericks who would sometimes break ranks with Democratic Party if they thought it was undermining their beliefs. Tom Watson and Talmadge are both examples of this mindset, especially Watson who was renown for his ability to control the Democratic Party, in Georgia, that he so often despised. The book reveals how these men were able to further pull the Democratic Party in Dixie away from the river of corruption and materialism that flowed through the North. They reminded the Southern people to keep their heads up and hold the upper-class and blacks accountable. They gave hope and pride back to a defeated and downtrodden Southland. A Southland that only a few decades before had been utterly destroyed by Yankee pilfers, ruffians and thieves. These statesmen became the embodiments of the average Southerners righteous anger and grievances with the system. Whether it was discontent with Yankee war mongering abroad or their fury at the planters for sheltering and favoring their black workers over White ones. Unlike todays politicians the “Southern Demagogues” enforced their will on the system and made the plutocrats and moneybags bend their collective knees. I don’t think these men were prefect, but they are certainly better than what we got now. There’s much to learn from reading about these nine heroic statesmen and how they reached the Southern People. I’d certainly recommend our people read this book, despite the book’s obvious leftist overtones. Anyone interested in public office should definably give the book a read.