In the years after the Civil War, the South faced the challenge of redefining itself. After the initial steps made during Reconstruction, the South eventually embraced the development of a more diversified economy than the cotton-dependent antebellum period. This period is the subject of C. Vann Woodward's classic work, which chronicles the emergence of the region at the end of the 19th century.
Woodward argues that the "New" South constituted a sharp break in Southern history. In the years after Reconstruction, a group of pro-business elites (which Woodward terms "Redeemers") took power in the states of the South. These governments were run frugally, with an eye towards minimizing the tax burden on businessmen and property holders. Their policies in office were designed to maximize the benefits for their class, providing extensive economic breaks for railroads, industries, and insurance companies which succeeded in developing the region's economy. Success came at the expense of educational and social programs, which, starved of funds, failed to provide for the needs of the populace. The result was a region of great poverty, run for the benefit of financiers in the North and a small group of men within the South.
Such iron control was bound to be contested by disadvantaged groups, and Woodward spends several chapters discussing these challenges. The first came during the years immediately after Reconstruction, when the Redeemers struggled for the reins of government with groups seeking social improvements. Reformers won in a few states (most notably in Virginia), but the waning of Northern interest - and with it, federal aid - made theirs a losing struggle. The next challenge came in the 1890s with the rise of Populism, the culmination of the agrarian revolt that began with the Farmers' Alliance movement of the previous decades. While the Populists scored some notable political victories, as Woodward puts it "[i]t was pretty clear by 1892 that the controlling forces in America would be no more reconciled to a Populist South than they had been to a planter-Confederate South or a Carpetbagger-freedman South."
Close on the heels of Populism, however, was Progressivism. Though drawing to some extent on Populism, Progressivism was primarily an urban movement comprised of the middle class, particularly small businessmen. They joined with the remnants of the agrarian protestors to decry the monopolistic economic control of the region by a few (deemed "foreign") capitalist elites. Though the old Redeemer regime succeeded in blunting much of their effort, the Southern progressives did succeed in getting Woodrow Wilson elected to the presidency - the first Southerner to occupy the White House since Andrew Johnson and a powerful symbol of the South's success in returning to the national political scene.
Written over half a century ago, Woodward's book is still the starting point for understanding the modern South, shaping the way we think of the subject as few other books have. Though modified and supplemented by subsequent studies, it still informs how we view the era and how it shaped the country in which we live. As such, it remains indispensable reading for students of American history, as well as those seeking a better understanding of our nation today.