A prize-winning historian chronicles a sinister idea of freedom: white Americans’ freedom to oppress others and their fight against the government that got in their way.
American freedom is typically associated with the fight of the oppressed for a better world. But for centuries, whenever the federal government intervened on behalf of nonwhite people, many white Americans fought back in the name of freedom—their freedom to dominate others.
In Freedom’s Dominion, historian Jefferson Cowie traces this complex saga by focusing on a quintessentially American place: Barbour County, Alabama, the ancestral home of political firebrand George Wallace. In a land shaped by settler colonialism and chattel slavery, white people weaponized freedom to seize Native lands, champion secession, overthrow Reconstruction, question the New Deal, and fight against the civil rights movement.
A riveting history of the long-running clash between white people and federal authority, this book radically shifts our understanding of what freedom means in America.
About the Author
Jefferson Cowie holds the James G. Stahlman chair in history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of three books, including Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and his work has appeared in numerous outlets including Time, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and Politico. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Important, deeply affecting—and regrettably relevant… essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and the rabid loathing of government…White men did all this in Barbour County, by design and without relent, and Cowie’s account of their acts is unsparing. His narrative is immersive; his characters are vividly rendered.” —New York Times Book Review
“Outstanding and urgent...a remarkable achievement.” —The New Republic
“[G]ripping and haunting…Cowie’s meticulous accumulation of detail and candid assessments…make for distressing yet essential reading. This is history at its most vital.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A powerful history showing that White supremacist ideas of freedom are deeply embedded in American politics.” —Kirkus
"Jefferson Cowie has a knack for publishing instant classics: books that change historians' conversations. This is his most extraordinary yet. With eloquence and with brilliance, he delves deep into the annals of a specific place, Barbour County, Alabama, in order to excavate the foundations of America's darkest and most enduring story: how 'freedom' became a national alibi for cruelty, inequity, and reaction. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to start over and absorb it all over again." —Rick Perlstein, author of Reaganland
“Jefferson Cowie has given us a deep history of the long war on the federal government—especially when it came to policies advancing class and race equality, of the evolution of White grievance politics, and of a new way of thinking about the psychic structure of American Exceptionalism. With eloquent, precise prose, Cowie clears away the cobwebs to reveal a national malady long in the making.”—Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The End of the Myth
“A fascinating book, Freedom’s Dominion takes us to the states’-rights stronghold of Barbour County, Alabama. Barbour was the birthplace of Governor George Wallace, whose infamous defense of segregation described integration as tyranny, segregation as freedom, and equal access to the ballot as a threat to individual rights. Wallace’s views illustrate the confounding interdependence of ideas about freedom and oppression in American politics—as does Barbour County’s long history of state-building rooted in antiblack violence, white supremacist rule, and Indian land dispossession. Freedom’s Dominion offers a searing account of that history that leaves one wondering whether American freedom can ever be disentangled from the causes it has supported.”—Mia Bay, author of Traveling Black
“Jefferson Cowie’s Freedom’s Dominion is a magisterial narrative history of white grievance politics. Cowie reveals the origins of these often hypocritical and confounding perspectives, in which those who stole, enslaved, and segregated would themselves claim to be victims of federal overreach, even as they oppressed so many others. Cowie’s terrific book explains the Southern roots of that racialized ideology and reveals how one of the most influential segregationist rhetoricians of the 1960s helped repackage this powerful form of regional white identity politics for the rest of the nation.” —William Sturkey, author of Hattiesburg
“Freedom’s Dominion covers centuries of American history in Eufala, Alabama, from the violence of settler colonialism through the ascent of arch-segregationist George Wallace, the region’s most famous native son. Jefferson Cowie is interested in how people in power—almost always white men—used claims of freedom to dominate and enslave others, and how they articulated domination as resistance to a tyrannical federal government. This history has urgent implications for how we understand white supremacist and anti-government politics today.” —Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home