Frank Lawrence Owsley

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Frank Lawrence Owsley (January 20, 1890 – October 21, 1956) was an American historian who taught at Vanderbilt University for most of his career, where he specialized in southern history and was a member of the Southern Agrarians. He is best known for his study of Confederate diplomacy based on the false myth of "King Cotton" and especially his quantitative social history of the middling folk—the "plain people" of the Old South.

Life and career[edit]

Born in rural Alabama, he attended Auburn University for his undergraduate degree. He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago in 1924 under the tutelage of William E. Dodd. He taught at Vanderbilt University. Owsley specialized in Southern history, especially the antebellum and Civil War eras.[1]

Confederacy[edit]

He argued in his dissertation State Rights and the Confederacy (1925) that the Confederacy "died of states' rights". Owsley held that during the Civil War, key Southern governors resisted the appeals of the Confederate government for soldiers. His book King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign relations of the Confederate States of America (1931) is the basic study of Confederate diplomacy. It emphasizes that Southerners before the war had a profound belief in the power of King Cotton to rule the industrial economy, so that Britain and France would enter the war on behalf of the Confederacy to get that cotton. The belief was not based on knowledge of Europe and failed in practice.

Southern Agrarians[edit]

As an active member of the Southern Agrarians group based in Nashville, Owsley contributed "The Irrepressible Conflict" to the manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930). In this work, he described "half-savage blacks . . . some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism."[2] He lashed out at the North for what he alleged were attempts to dominate the South spiritually and economically. In "Scottsboro, the Third Crusade: The Sequel to Abolition and Reconstruction" (the American Review [1933]: 257–85), he criticized northern race reformers as the "grandchildren of abolitionists and reconstructionists." He announced that the South was white man's country and that blacks must accommodate that reality. Serving as president of the Southern Historical Association in 1940, Owsley castigated the North for assuming its people and thinking represented the entire nation, and for violating what he called "the comity of section".[3]

Owsley agreed with the other Southern Agrarians of the 1930s in espousing values which they saw being overtaken by the industrialism and modernism that had begun to influence the South. According to Owsley, the position of the South vis-à-vis the North was created not by slavery, the dominance of cotton and agriculture, or states' rights, but by the two regions' misunderstanding of each other.[4]

Plain Folk of the Old South[edit]

After 1940, Owsley and his wife Harriet pioneered what came to be called the "new social history". They studied the historical demography of the South and social mobility and produced a history called Plain Folk of the Old South. Historian Vernon Burton described it as "one of the most influential works on Southern history ever written."[5] The Owsleys culled data from federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. In Plain Folk, they argued that Southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role. The religion, language, and culture of white common people created a democratic "plain folk" society, Owsley argued.[6]


Owsley's work Plain Folk of the Old South (1949) was an answer to liberal historians emphasis on the dominance of the planter class' social and political control of the South. He regarded the future of American civilization as dependent on the survival of southern regionalism and agrarian values. Owsley's Plain Folk instead depicts a complex social structure in the South, one featuring a large middle class of yeoman farmers and not just wealthy planters and poor whites. He argues that the South was devoted to republican values generally and was not locked into race and slavery. Owsley believed the Civil War's causes were rooted in both North and South.[7]

In rejecting the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the New South's romantic legends, Owsley sought to uncover a "real" South, what he called the plain folk.[8] He characterized the postwar South as made up of a broad class of yeoman farmers, between poor blacks, many of whom were sharecroppers in a kind of debt bondage, and poor whites at one end, and large plantation owners at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Owsley asserted that the real South was liberal, American, and Jeffersonian, not radical or reactionary.

Critics suggested Owsley was a reactionary defender of the Confederacy. They said he was attempting to rewrite the past to preserve white Southern culture.[9] They said he overemphasized the size of the Southern landholding middle class, while excluding the large class of poor white southerners who owned neither land nor slaves. Further, they suggested Owsley's theory assumed too much commonality in shared economic interests united Southern farmers. Critics believed that he did not fully assess the vast difference between the planters' commercial agriculture and the yeoman's subsistence farming.[10]

Vanderbilt[edit]

At Vanderbilt University (1920–49), Owsley directed nearly 40 Ph.D. dissertations and was a popular teacher of undergraduates. In 1949 he went to the University of Alabama to build its history program. Reacting to attacks by critics of Southern segregation, Owsley tried to refute what he saw as their misunderstanding of the true South. He regarded the future of American civilization as dependent on the survival of southern regionalism.[11]


Owsley serve as the chairman of the history department of the University of Alabama, 1951-54. Afterward, he was a guest lecturer at several universities. In 1956, Owsley embarked on a journey to Europe in the Summer of 1956, on a Fulbright Scholarship, to research in British and French archives, a task which he did not live to complete.[12]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Burton (2000)
  2. ^ Frank L. Owsley. "The Irrepressible Conflict," in I'll Take My Stand (Nashville, 1930), 62
  3. ^ Burton (2000)
  4. ^ Walter Kirk Wood, "Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and the Search for Southern Identity, 1865–1965." Southern Studies (1995) 6(4): 65–77
  5. ^ Burton (2000)
  6. ^ Burton (2000)
  7. ^ Burton (2000)
  8. ^ Walter Kirk Wood, "The Misinterpretation of Frank L. Owsley: Thomas J. Pressly and the Myth of a Neo-confederate Revival, 1930–1962." Southern Studies (2003) 10(3–4): 39–67
  9. ^ Wood (2003)
  10. ^ Hyde (2005)
  11. ^ Burton (2000)
  12. ^ Owsley, Frank. King Cotton Diplomacy. University of Chicago Press. 1931 & 1959. (in Memorial Forward by William C. Brinkley, Tulane University)
  • Bailey, Fred Arthur. "Plain Folk and Apology: Frank L. Owsley's Defense of the South", Perspectives on the American South: An Annual Review of Society, Politics, and Culture (1988) pp 101–14
  • Hyde, Samuel C., Jr. "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition", Journal of Southern History, 71(4), 2005: 803–830. ISSN 0022-4642 Fulltext online in Ebsco.
  • Mcwhiney, Grady. "Historians as Southerners", Continuity (1984) (9): 1–31. ISSN 0277-1446
  • Orville Vernon Burton, "Owsley, Frank Lawrence", American National Biography, 2000
  • Swierenga, Robert P. "Quantitative Methods in Rural Landholding", Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1983 13(4): 787–808. in JSTOR
  • Wood, Walter Kirk. "Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and the Search for Southern Identity, 1865–1965." Southern Studies (1995) 6(4): 65–77

Primary sources[edit]

  • Owsley, Harriet Chappell and Owsley, Frank Lawrence. Frank Lawrence Owsley, Historian of the Old South. A Memoir with Letters and Writings of Frank Owsley (1990).

Books and articles by Owsley[edit]

  • "Local Defense and the Overthrow of the Confederacy", Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11 (Mar. 1925): 492–525, in JSTOR
  • "The Confederacy and King Cotton: A Study in Economic Coercion", North Carolina Historical Review 6 (Oct. 1929): 371–97;
  • with Harriet C. Owsley, "The Economic Basis of Society in the Late Ante-Bellum South", Journal of Southern History 6 (Feb. 1940): 24–25, in JSTOR
  • with Harriet C. Owsley, "The Pattern of Migration and Settlement on the Southern Frontier", Journal of Southern History 11 (May 1945): 147–76 in JSTOR

See also[edit]