The Freedom to Dominate

The Freedom to Dominate

When we view federal authority as a bulwark for civil rights against local tyranny, we miss what the U.S. government has done to sustain white freedom both domestically and abroad.

Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power
by Jefferson Cowie
Basic Books, 2022, 512 pp.

Last summer, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville stirred controversy by insisting that white nationalists were not racists but simply loyal American citizens like any other. In an interview on Alabama public radio about his opposition to the Pentagon’s personnel policies, among them efforts to prevent white supremacists from serving in the armed forces, Tuberville claimed that the people the Biden administration maligned as “white nationalists” were simply “Americans” who “don’t believe in [Biden’s] agenda.” Designating them as unfit for service, he argued, is a form of federal overreach—intruding in matters of identity and conscience over which the federal government has no rightful authority, and sowing weakness and division in the “strong, hard-nosed, killing machine” that is the U.S. military. “We cannot start putting rules in there for one type, one group and make different factions in the military,” he said, “because that is the most important institution in the United States of America.” Despite the efforts of his staff to convey that he had simply been misunderstood, Tuberville doubled down in a later interview: targeting white nationalists was part of a partisan, un-American agenda—an agenda that threatened to drive “most white people in this country out of the military.”

Tuberville’s statement wasn’t a mistake; it was a tell. In positioning white nationalism as both part of the American mainstream and a product of freedom—a freedom unjustly curtailed by state power—he revealed the intimate connections between freedom, domination, and whiteness that have long shaped political life in the United States. This entanglement has produced a notion of freedom that does not entail the absence of constraint nor self-rule, but instead white racial entitlement to seize and dominate the land, labor, and bodies of others—“ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” as W.E.B. Du Bois succinctly put it in 1920. It is the same entanglement that enabled the authors of the Declaration of Independence to conjoin their “self-evident truths” to a complaint against “the merciless Indian Savages” whose lands they desired to seize without royal restraint, or to agitate for freedom from a tyranny they likened to slavery while nevertheless reserving the right to tyrannize and enslave.

This “white freedom” is the subject of Jefferson Cowie’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history, Freedom’s Dominion. Cowie is in good company in exploring freedom not as domination’s opposite but its companion. His fellow-travelers include not only Du Bois but scholars such as Edmund S. Morgan, Barbara J. Fields, Orlando Patterson, Aziz Rana, Lisa Lowe, Elisabeth Anker, and Tyler Stovall. Cowie’s approach, however, is distinct: unlike Patterson’s hemispheric conceptual history or Stovall’s comparison of French and American iterations, Cowie’s is a fine-grained local history. His book provides a detailed account of the development of white freedom in one location—Barbour County, in the southeast corner of Tuberville’s state of Alabama—over the course of 200 years. By situating the story in a single county, Cowie demonstrates how freedom operates not merely as a racial entitlement to conquer and oppress but as “racialized anti-statism,” the freedom to dominate without federal interference. This is a history, in other words, of the racial logic of appeals to state’s rights against federal power.

Cowie’s story unfolds over four eras: the Jacksonian era, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the New Deal, and the modern civil rights movement. It begins in the town of Eufaula in the 1830s, amid a dispute over the meaning of the Indian Removal Act and a clash between federal troops and white intruders—a “crazy quilt of competing interests among affluent speculators, on-the-make-settlers, and poor roughs” who had seized unceded Muscogee Creek territory. Each group “saw land as central to their liberty, and federal authority and Indian rights as antagonistic to their goals.” Ironically, it fell to President Andrew Jackson—the architect of removal, and a man who owed his political career to his reputation both as an “Indian killer” and a man of the (white) people—to defend the Creek. Less out of concern for Indigenous rights than in defense of a federal prerogative to oversee a legal settler-colonial conquest, Jackson’s attorney general, Roger Taney, asserted national authority over all land within the Creek Nation, while the military made preparations to invade, including a blockade of the ports integral to the cotton trade.

Ultimately, however, the Jackson administration balked, lacking the will to enforce its own authority, let alone Creek treaty rights. When the Creek rebelled in 1836 against their continued subjection to theft and violence, the federal government finally sent in its troops—not to aid the Creek but in defense of speculators and settlers. Tens of thousands of Creeks were pushed out of their lands and forcibly marched west in what would become known as the Creek Trail of Tears. It was not settlers and “poor roughs” who took their place but speculators and plantation owners—imperial masters of the Cotton Kingdom. Expulsion was the price, as Cowie writes, for making “this section of Alabama a central player in the global cotton market,” and for transforming Barbour County into an important site of the U.S. slavocracy.

During the crisis of the Civil War and Reconstruction, federal authority promised to remake this slavocracy into a multiracial democracy for the first time. Breaking the political and economic power of the planter class and securing the newly established constitutional rights of freedmen required the kind of power—“sustained by the force of federal bayonets operating in ‘boldly extraconstitutional’ ways”—whose absence had spelled doom for the Alabama Creek Nation. As in the 1830s, however, the show of federal force did not last: along with a severe economic crisis, the backlash of white citizens, especially white elites—who saw any increase in Black freedom as an equal or greater threat to their own—proved too politically costly. When the federal government again retreated from Barbour County, it provided the room white freedom needed to rise again, this time in the form of “the neoslavery of convict leasing, the vigilante justice of lynching, the degradation and debt of sharecropping, and the official disenfranchisement of Blacks under a new state constitution.”

It is not until the civil rights era, sometimes known as the Second Reconstruction, that federal power returned to combat this political order. The final section of Freedom’s Dominion attends to the tireless efforts of Black activists to pressure the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations to enforce citizenship rights granted both by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and by the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordering school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” By the mid-1960s, with the often reluctant support of federal authorities, democracy appeared to be triumphing over white freedom. Yet the course of the Second Reconstruction in some ways echoed the first: in the face of increased national intervention on behalf of Black citizenship rights, white citizens perceived their own loss of freedom and rallied to its defense. Through the rise of George Wallace—born in Barbour County in 1919—Cowie details not just the rebirth of racialized anti-statism but its nationalization. While the civil rights movement won the core legal battles over federally mandated rights, Wallace’s white freedom may have won the political war: through him, the white freedom that had been the hallmark of civic life in Barbour County became the county’s “greatest export,” animating the white flight and suburbanization that marked the “Southernization of America” through the 1970s and ’80s.

Cowie tracks the movement of federal power in response to the backlash it provokes—sometimes enforcing rights and restraining white dominion; at other times in retreat, enabling the violence of white dominion to reign supreme. But there are limitations to his effort to tell the story of white freedom as the story of Barbour County. Indigenous peoples’ last stand for freedom, in the book, is a desperate appeal to a federal government that fails to deliver on its promises of protection and treaty enforcement. Yet it would be extremely misleading to depict the violent assault on Indigenous sovereignty, rights, and land as one defined by local white power that might have been restrained but for the absence of federal authority. For Cowie white freedom is at its most virulent and despotic when federal power is absent or “in repose”—when the local triumphs over the national. He fails to register what other histories on the subject, such as Stovall’s White Freedom or Rana’s The Two Faces of American Freedom, plainly demonstrate: white freedom is also a federal imperial investment.

Cowie treats Roger Taney’s decision to declare federal authority over the Creek Nation as a surprising deviation from the reputation he would later cement as a champion of white freedom; as chief justice of the Supreme Court, he authored the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision. Yet Taney’s Alabama declaration reinforced rather than substantively challenged the racial prerogative he would defend in both Dred Scott and in an earlier Supreme Court decision, United States v. Rogers (1846). In Rogers, Taney radically revised an entire treaty history to suit white freedom’s purposes. “The native tribes who were found on this continent at the time of its discovery,” he stated, “have never been acknowledged or treated as independent nations by the European governments, nor regarded as the owners of the territories they respectively occupied.” Instead, Taney claimed, European governments had “divided and parceled out” the land as terra nullius, and its native inhabitants were “continually held to be, and treated as, subject to [European] dominion and control.” This was but one of a series of decisions of the Taney court enshrining the legal and political principle that the Indigenous man had no sovereign rights that a white man was bound to respect.

Freedom’s Dominion’s successes as a history of Barbour County are thus among the sources of its inadequacies as a history of white freedom. The conflict between federal power and local control is not always one between federal enforcement of citizenship rights and reactionary, local white despotism. Much more often, it has been a conflict over the proper locus of authority for determining what white freedom requires. To see that broader context, we need a different lens—and perhaps a different narrative altogether.

Cowie is no doubt correct that the enforcement of basic citizenship rights requires a willingness to wield coercive state power. He likewise readily admits that, as the guarantor of freedom from domination or freedom to participate in democratic self-governance, the federal government has (at best) a mixed track record. Though it has often been “the only hope there was for those seeking to preserve their land, to win the vote, to avoid being lynched, or ultimately to gain their civil rights,” it has also been “clay-footed, two-faced, weak-kneed, and often ineffectual.” The federal government is thus the “protagonist” but not the “hero” of his story. The latter role falls to those Black, Indigenous, and white citizens who fought on behalf of multiracial democracy.

Yet it is a strange story whose heroes play such a minor role, and who appear mostly as victims and petitioners: testifying to the depraved violence of unchecked white power and pleading for a federal intervention that rarely arrives and almost never marshals the force required. Until the Second Reconstruction, these heroes are scarcely agents at all; once they take center stage, they are agents only to the extent that they serve as advocates for federal power.

There are constraints imposed by a commitment to local history: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s voter registration projects in Eufaula and Clayton play a central role, whereas the Alabama-based Lowndes County Freedom Organization—one of the birthplaces of Black Power—does not. Still, Freedom’s Dominion gives readers little sense of what freedom might have meant for those who had to make “a life upon the horns of the white man’s dilemma,” as Ralph Ellison once put it. What’s missing, in other words, is a critique of what federal power most often pursued: a full-throated championing of white freedom both domestically and abroad.

If one such missed opportunity in the book lies in Indigenous struggles against federal authority, another is the long Black freedom struggle’s confrontation with ties between the U.S. nation-state and European imperialism. It is this confrontation that animates Du Bois’s 1935 work Black Reconstruction in America—a text, inexplicably missing from Cowie’s references, that anticipates his understanding of white freedom as racialized anti-statism but also goes far beyond it. In an early chapter of that work, Du Bois names white freedom as the force that “transformed the world,” turning “democracy back to Roman Imperialism and Fascism” as it pursued “slavery as a way to freedom—the freedom of blacks, the freedom of whites; white freedom as the goal of the world and black slavery as the path thereto. Up with the white world, down with the black!” The choice of the word “world” is neither incidental nor metaphorical: in the next paragraph, Du Bois situates the abandonment of Radical Reconstruction in a global order of whiteness: “The colored world went down before England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy and America” as a “new slavery arose,” and the “upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars for profit based on color caste.” For Du Bois, the United States was not just a part of a broader racial-colonial order; it was an innovator, devising new technologies to sustain a violent form of freedom.

By the 1960s, this critique became central to Black radicals’ engagement with the Vietnam War. As Jack O’Dell, editor of the journal Freedomways, argued in a 1964 essay, the Indigenous genocide of the nineteenth century paved the road to imperial warfare in Vietnam, the same way that chattel slavery charted the course to the brutal policing of the “ghetto.” Together, he argued, they were the “major conjunctive highways” of U.S. political life, mapping out a geography of white imperial violence that connected the killing fields of overseas counterinsurgency to those of domestic urban pacification. It was also a geography of freedom’s dominion: a freedom that required conquest of native lands and a “free world” that demanded Vietnamese bloodshed and ecocide; a freedom built on the stolen labor of stolen peoples and a freedom from crime and disorder secured through police power. O’Dell’s analysis thus demanded a counter-narrative of freedom that looked beyond federal power—beyond the guarantees of national citizenship to the visions of a new world and transnational solidarities forged by white freedom’s global victims. 

In April 1975, the USS Barbour County—named for the Alabama county as well as another in West Virginia—set sail from the California coast alongside its sister ship, the USS Tuscaloosa. Both were bound for Vietnam on a mission to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese allies from Saigon just before its fall, the last official mission of the U.S. military—Tuberville’s “strong, hard-nosed, killing machine”—in a war it had arguably lost years before. Both ships had recently made other voyages to the western Pacific, moving marines and materiel between Pearl Harbor, Guam, Okinawa, and Subic Bay in the Philippines, the military outposts of America’s informal empire.

No less than settler conquest, chattel slavery, or lynching, the colonization of these places had long been understood through the logic of white freedom. The conquest of the Philippines was required, Theodore Roosevelt had argued at the turn of the century, in order to secure “the greatness of the Nation—the greatness of the race.” It was also necessary for establishing a form of liberty that, for inferior races, could only come through colonial tutelage. Fifty years later, Filipino personnel deployed to Vietnam in service of U.S. counterinsurgency as part of the aptly named “Freedom Company” might have recognized similar justifications for this newest war: imperial violence was necessary for securing freedom for Americans, but also for non-white subjects who were presumed incapable of securing it for themselves. These wars mobilized nonwhite subjects of empire, from Filipinos to African Americans, as expendable and embodied propaganda for a democratic freedom they were forcibly denied.

This is what’s missing from Freedom’s Dominion—the imperial transit of white American freedom. It is perhaps unfair to demand from Cowie a global history when he explicitly set out to provide a local one. But the global and the local are not so much distinct scales of analysis as they are vantage points. The problem is not that Freedom’s Dominion tells a local story of white freedom, but rather all that Cowie sets aside as irrelevant for telling it.

Erin R. Pineda is Phyllis C. Rappaport ’68 New Century Term Professor of Government at Smith College and author of Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (2021).