Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Alabama: Contextual Readings

As the documents we will be transcribing for the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Alabama project are almost entirely made up of petitions and requests related to the criminal justice system, one of our readings from this week was Edward Ayers’ Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. In Chapter 1, Ayers explains that violence was a prominent part of everyday life in the nineteenth century South. Despite many theories about why this was the case, however, “these explanations seem to mistake the symptom for the disease.”1 Instead, Ayers suggests that historians “should look at the South and its violence on its own terms”—a methodology which quickly reveals that Southerners committed frequent acts of violence “for honor’s sake.”2

Ayers defines honor as “a system of values within which you have exactly as much worth as others confer upon you.”3 In the South, “white men among all classes believed themselves ‘honorable’ men and acted on that belief.”4 This created a culture within which “manners” and “ritualized evidence of respect” were critical to maintaining order—and wherever these were not in practice, violence was apt to breakout.5

Of particular importance to our work with the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Alabama project is the impact Southern honor culture had on the justice system. Ayers states that in the South, “The formal written law never attained the weight it assumed in the North.”6 Instead, they preferred “personal rather than impersonal justice when honor was at stake.”7 Despite this preference, Ayers notes that “Honor…did not render [the state] powerless.”8 Instead, he insists that a functioning legal system existed alongside the system of honor—complete with all the same inefficiencies and injustices seen across America at the time.9 What was distinctive about nineteenth century Southern justice system was the prevailing sense that the law was “in danger of becoming too strong, of subverting American liberties.”10 Thus, as we go through Governor Moore’s papers, we should anticipate examples of a wide array of cultural forces from honor culture to concerns about loss of liberty.

While the Ayers readings provided us with context on Southern justice and violence, our other readings from this week provided us with context about the political geography of Alabama in the years during which Andrew B. Moore was governor. In the first chapter of Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South Michael W. Fitzgerald describes the late antebellum era in Alabama as dominated by “overlapping patterns of class and regional division.”11 Fitzgerald’s analysis of mid-ninetieth century politics will help us identify and interpret instances of those conflicts within Moore’s papers.

Fitzgerald’s work also helps us understand Moore himself within his political context. In her brief Encyclopedia of Alabama biography of Moore, historian Leah Rawls Atkins writes that despite being elected as the “moderate, non-secessionist choice,” Moore is remembered “as the governor who took Alabama out of the Union.”12 This ironic turn of events makes much more sense when put into the context of state politics at the time.

As a conservative Democrat who doubted the viability of secession, Moore was historically aligned with the non-elite white Alabamians in northern and mountain regions of the state. However, like many of these constituents, he came to see secession as the only politically viable option after John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s election.13 Even though many of the historically Democratic strongholds in Alabama sent delegates to the January 1861 state secession convention with a unionist mandate, many of these delegates voted in favor of secession. Fitzgerald argues that this occurred because of the “pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to their kinsmen, to their society, and the slaveholding order” and the realization that they “faced political irrelevance” if they voted against secession.14 This understanding of Moore’s political identity and the forces at play within his political sphere contextualize his papers for us as we begin transcribing them.

  1. Edward Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 12. ↩︎
  2. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 12. ↩︎
  3. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 13. ↩︎
  4. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 13. ↩︎
  5. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 19. ↩︎
  6. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 23. ↩︎
  7. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 23. ↩︎
  8. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 31. ↩︎
  9. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 33. ↩︎
  10. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 33. ↩︎
  11. Michael W. Fitzgerald, Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017), 13. ↩︎
  12. Leah Rawls Atkins, “Andrew B. Moore (1857-61),” Encyclopedia of Alabama, last updated September 30, 2014, accessed March 9, 2021, ↩︎
  13. Atkins, “Andrew B. Moore.” ↩︎
  14. Fitzgerald, Reconstruction in Alabama, 20. ↩︎

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *