Author Interview--Kenneth H. Wheeler (Modern Cronies) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Kenneth H. Wheeler to talk about his new book Modern Cronies: Southern Industrialism from Gold Rush to Convict Labor, 1829-1894, published by the University of Georgia Press in May 2021.

Part 1

You raise the issue of convict lease and I want to actually explore this a bit more. I recently had some interviews with scholars of the Civil War West who indicated that other regions also experiment with the system before the usually assumed start in the South. Why have scholars not realized that convict lease had already existed before the Civil War?

KHW: The key distinction, I would say, is between convict labor and the leasing of convicts.  Georgia, for example, had a state penitentiary in the antebellum period that had workshops where prisoners produced rolling stock for the Western & Atlantic railroad.  Prisoner labor kept costs low and could even teach prisoners marketable skills.  All the work, though, happened at the penitentiary; prisoners were working directly for the state.  In 1866, when faced with the question of whether to rebuild their destroyed prison, legislators authorized convict leasing, including lease to private entities, and issued the first contract in 1868.  Immediately, this opened up new avenues for cronyism.

I did find it interesting that many of the leased convicts after the war were put into rather hazardous workplaces, like mining. It seems like a death sentence to be put into the convict lease system--were there no concerns or limits? Or did the racism of the era just look at the convict as inferior and expendable?

KHW: Convict leasing was controversial but lasted for decades in the post-bellum United States, in part because the lessees were so politically connected--Joseph E. Brown leased convicts while he was a U.S. Senator.  As scholars such as Alex Lichtenstein and Matthew Mancini, and more recently Talitha LeFlouria, have demonstrated vividly, being a convict leased to a mine, railroad, or factory could be extremely dangerous and sometimes deadly.  Most convicts who were leased were black men, but some were white men, others were women and even young teenage boys.  For Joe Brown and his partners, working convicts in coal mines in Dade County, Georgia, the place was so remote and inaccessible it was effectively impossible to inspect the camp and interview convicts without prior notice because visitors had to be taken by company train up onto the mountain.  Journalists sometimes exposed conditions at these camps, and government bodies sometimes launched investigations, but the fight to end convict labor arrangements took a long time to achieve results.

Let's change to Brown, as you mention, he is an important character for the book and he seems like a very pragmatic individual--how would you describe him and his survival mentality?

KHW: Joseph E. Brown was highly intelligent and ambitious.  He inspired confidence, which is one reason he became governor of Georgia at the age of 36, in 1857.  Other people saw enormous potential in him, and my book spends time explaining the Baptist network of men who mentored him, sent him to study law at Yale, and facilitated his rise.  Brown could be severe, even cruel, and was certainly demanding of others.  He also knew, though, how to adapt to circumstances.  Though he railed against banks early in his political career, after the Confederate bid for independence had been crushed, Brown went to work as a bank lobbyist.  Even more significantly, the former Confederate governor became a secret informant to the U.S. Treasury Department in exchange for money.  Brown switched parties and became a Republican in the late 1860s, then switched back to the Democratic Party when it suited him.  Brown was not without scruples, but I would argue that the Civil War experience changed the way he saw the world and he responded accordingly.

Brown is such a fascinating historical character, but how does his background also influence his action during the war, as well as wartime experiences influence his post-war actions, I am specifically thinking about his independent-mindedness and at times outright defiance of Confederate authorities?

KHW: Decades ago, historians debated whether the planter class was displaced by the Civil War, or whether it was these same planters and their sons who ran the South in the postbellum period.  My book demonstrates that even before the Civil War, a new class began running Georgia.  When voters elected Brown governor in 1857, he brought with him a set of industrially-minded men from the Etowah Valley who ran key departments and state utilities.

By 1861, Brown had years of experience as governor and some grand visions about his own importance--when Georgia seceded in January 1861, it did so as the Republic of Georgia, an independent state.  There was not yet a Confederate States of America for them to join.  And even within the Confederacy, Georgia was a large state, a central and crucial state.  Brown was an exceptional administrator and he resented efforts of the Confederate government in Richmond to, for example, take over the running of the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

After the Civil War, Brown utilized all of his experiences.  He basically wrote the law providing the terms for the lease of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which he had already overseen for eight years, and then promptly headed the group that won the lease of the railroad for twenty years.  His long acquaintance with gold mining, copper mining, and iron making integrated with his control of the railroad as he created substantial mining operations of coal, iron ore, and manganese, ran iron furnaces, and leased convicts from the state he used to govern.

This answer really makes me think. We obviously highlight the crucial role of slavery in bringing about secession, but we also have such industrial-minded leaders like Brown who support secession--I guess my follow up question, could secession and war have been avoided if this group had been more powerful or was slavery just so deeply ingrained in Southern society?

KHW: Brown and his peers supported slavery reflexively and unconditionally, and the labor of enslaved people was utilized in almost every industrial function I describe in Modern Cronies.  In my research, the only glimmer of a question about the practicality or morality of slavery came from the diary of Elizabeth Grisham Brown, the wife of Joseph, who wrote without additional comment in 1853 that she had just finished reading Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Joseph E. Brown, as I describe in the book, parroted the boilerplate of the time about the docility and inferiority of black people, and he defended racial slavery as part of God's providence.  Having industrialists in charge did not change the trajectory of slavery in American history.

Implicitly you are raising an important question with your book regarding the Southern History division of Old and New South. You seem to indicate that there is a significant continuity between these two eras and that industrial developments starts sooner than expected. Do you think we need to challenge this division?

KHW: We all agree, I suspect, that periodization can be very helpful, but can also obscure continuities and connections.  Most historians are aware that the antebellum South, though not nearly as industrialized as several northern states, was in comparison to the rest of the world highly industrialized.  In Modern Cronies, I avoided a silo approach of studying a single industry.  Rather, I show how the Southern gold rush led to expanded iron manufacture and a demand for railroads.  The gold rush led to a collection of expertise that came from and shifted into a variety of industrial sectors of the economy.  The interplay of these people, the feedback loops and synthetic activities that integrated different segments of the economy and governmental power into a much greater whole is still not well understood, but I hope this book explains some of the interconnections by elucidating the relationships and networks of key people and telling in a new way the development of nineteenth-century Georgia and the southeastern United States.