Vol. 31 No. 3 (March 2021) pp. 60-64

FRAMING THE SOLID SOUTH: THE STATE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS OF SECESSION, RECONSTRUCTION, AND REDEMPTION, 1860-1902, by Paul E. Herron. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. 376pp. Paperback $26.95. ISBN 978-0-7006-2436-2.

Reviewed by David Ferkaluk, Department of Political Science, University at Albany, State University of New York. Email:

When one hears the term “Solid South,” it might bring to mind certain historical figures, such as George Wallace; it might bring to mind certain historical movements or infamous institutions, such as the Civil Rights movement, or Jim Crow. Traditionally, “Solid South” referred to the political bloc of white Democrats that ruled the South for the better part of a century (p. 14). However, Paul Herron employs the term differently in his new book, FRAMING THE SOLID SOUTH: THE STATE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS OF SECESSION, RECONSTRUCTION, AND REDEMPTION, 1860-1902. By “Solid South,” he means a “consolidation of political purpose and destiny against other regions and the federal government, along with the dominance of conservative ideals” (p.15). His definition permits him to make two simultaneous arguments. His first and more explicit argument states that the infamous, monolithic identity of the South took decades to establish, originating in the state conventions following secession, on the eve of the Civil War (pp. 5, 8).

His second argument is less explicit, given its generality regarding the importance of state constitutional conventions (SCCs). Essentially, SCCs offer an opportunity for states to establish and adopt a political culture and rules of the political game which, at least in the case of southern states, stood in contradistinction to the political culture and rules established by the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (p. 17). With an American Political Development (APD) lens, Herron traces the origin and development of the southern institutional political identity that would subsequently dominate Southern politics for several decades into the twentieth century.

Herron’s book is wonderfully transparent and clear in terms of his argument, structure, approach, and methods. He divides his book into four parts: Antebellum SCCs, Secession SCCs, Reconstruction SCCs, and (what he labels) Redemption SCCs. As noted, his argument revolves around the incremental solidification of Southern political identity over roughly a 40-year span via the mechanism of multiple SCCs. By expressly highlighting the institutional and ideological development of southern political identity (p. 20), Herron employs an APD-style of approach, defending it as a useful lens for his project. This lens functions as an optimal guide to answer the research question he posits early on, namely uncovering the causes and consequences of state constitutional revision in the South from 1860-1902 (p.12).

He further outlines his methods to triangulate his analysis. His methods comprise comparative historical analysis (namely of southern and non-southern SCCs), process tracing, and textual analysis of both the state constitutions and their respective convention debates (pp. 20-23). In addition to the notes from [*61] constitutional conventions, Herron also consults newspaper accounts, memoirs, and other records when convention notes were lacking (p. 20). The resulting mixture offers a compelling narrative analysis of robust depth that is simultaneously intriguing and enlightening. In short, Herron vivifies nineteenth-century SCCs, an oft-overlooked area in the study of constitutional development (p. 17).

In the first chapter, Herron examines the constitutional development of Southern states from the nation’s birth in 1776 up to the South’s secession in 1860, juxtaposing the language of the various southern state constitutions against each other and other non-southern state constitutions. Prior to secession, the South possessed no monolithic identity which united the region, though a pattern of unity began to emerge in the early 19th century as slavery arose as a paramount issue when the nation began its westward expansion. Slavery thus profoundly impacted the laws and state constitutional development in the South (pp. 32, 44-46). To insulate themselves, southern states included structural assurances (e.g. rigid amendment processes) combined with textual provisions in their constitutions that explicitly protected slavery (pp. 55, 59). The results of these conventions produced an eye-opening paradox (not original to Herron’s analysis) that he spotlights: democratization (i.e. universal white male suffrage) in the South was made possible only through the preservation of slavery (pp. 46, 68). The inclusion of slavery in southern state constitutions ensured its permanence in southern society (pp. 68-9). With the election of Lincoln in 1860, the eleven southern states that would become the Confederacy embarked on a number of constitutional revisions (44 to be precise) that would not cease until 1902 (p. 11).

A minor issue with the first chapter concerns Herron’s lack of division of the antebellum era. Process tracing as a method requires examining every step to uncover the causal mechanisms behind a certain outcome. It also necessitates that an author effectively demarcate an origin for the phenomenon under investigation. For Herron, the starting point for Southern unity is clearly 1860 with secession (p. 8). Herron justifies his preferred demarcation by arguing that “Secession marked a critical juncture in American constitutional development” (p. 69). However, as noted previously, Herron suggests that a political identity was already forming in the South which coalesced around the issue of preserving slavery (pp. 46, 67-68). Thus, an ambiguity appears to emerge regarding when the South began to unify. Despite placing the origin in 1860, his evidence suggests a potential origin in the 1850s.

Moreover, Herron early on seems to stress the importance of the Missouri Compromise as a point that began a sectional divide between North and South (pp. 2-3). Given its importance, one wonders why Herron does not bifurcate the antebellum era into more manageable pieces, with a pre- and post-Missouri Compromise lens, especially since he understands slavery’s profound impact on state constitutions (pp. 24, 32). Indeed, he partitions the Reconstruction Era (see below), which comprises a 5-year timespan (a highly consequential one, no less). Yet an era stretching from 1776-1860 receives no special periodization and remains undivided. Admittedly, Herron’s book focuses on the years 1860-1902 and the data/sources available determines what gets attention (p. 20). Hence, the antebellum era is not of primary concern. Still, given the importance of slavery [*61] and its subsequent impact on the constitutional conventions, this portion of the book could use slightly more development.

Part 2, which includes Chapters 2-3, examines the secession period. It primarily concerns understanding the mechanism whereby the southern states seceded (p. 69). More specifically, Chapter 2 examines how the secessionist SCCs usurped the roles of governors and legislatures by uniting the South as a political and military unit (p.70). Within the scope of a single year (1860-1861), several southern states convened to deliberate on secession. Beginning with Chapter 2, Herron’s argument begins to pick up steam. He presents the secessionist movement as more of an elitist movement than a popular one. Much of the dissolution with the Union occurred primarily at the behest of extremist political elites, and not via popular vote (pp. 74-76, 82-83). The elitist push for secession becomes readily clear as the framers of the Confederate Constitution sought to preserve plantation slavery for their new nation (p. 99). Revision to southern state constitutions remained a secondary consequence of secession (p. 93). Still, nearly every southern state revised its constitution in some fashion as a result of secession.

Chapter 3 investigates the Confederate Constitution. Ironically, the Confederate Constitution established a form of government that repudiated states’ rights despite purportedly being founded upon that very notion. Indeed, Herron quickly points out that the Confederacy centralized political authority to preserve slavery, which necessitated denying states the power to decide the issue for themselves (pp. 99, 106, 109, 119). The Confederacy afforded more power to the presidency (such as a line-item veto) that might have spooked the Founders (pp. 113-114), not to mention the Confederate Constitution’s restriction on the power of its Congress (pp. 115-116). All of these measures included by the Confederate framers reinforce Herron’s earlier point of slavery’s profound impact on the development of state constitutions (p. 32).

Part 3 of the book comprises Chapters 4-5 and examines presidential reconstruction (of Lincoln and Johnson) and Congressional Reconstruction respectively. Herron attempts to justify his division between presidential and Congressional reconstruction, arguing for the significance of both (p. 125). However, he readily identifies the fecklessness and failure of presidential reconstruction’s impact on constitutional revisions (pp. 121, 133-38, 144, 153-54). After highlighting the low impact of presidential reconstruction, Herron then admits in Chapter 5 that Congressional Reconstruction “was in some ways the most consequential wave of southern state constitution making from 1860 to the turn of the century” (p. 183). If such is the case, it remains puzzling that Herron would devote nearly as much attention (i.e. page space) to presidential reconstruction efforts as to Congressional Reconstruction. Understandably, his method of process-tracing requires examining every step of constitutional development, “even those that failed” and “served as a bridge between secession and Radical Reconstruction” (p. 153). Still, the flow of Herron’s argument suggests that if he shortened his chapter on presidential reconstruction by several pages, his argument would remain unaltered.

In Chapter 5, Herron spotlights a latent tension that emerged as a result of Congressional Reconstruction: popular sovereignty versus federal supremacy. Following in the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, many state [*63] constitutions included provisions for the people to alter or abolish their state governments. However, after the war, all of the former Confederate States incorporated a new federal supremacy clause which was beyond the requirements of the Reconstruction acts (pp. 158-159). Such clauses, in addition to the Reconstruction Amendments, further angered white southern Democrats who would fuel and lead the subsequent Redemption SCCs in the 1870s (p. 162). This chapter (along with Chapter 3) gets to the heart of Herron’s investigation, namely what constituted the causal mechanisms—the impetus behind the constitutional revisions of the southern states in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, what made Congressional Reconstruction most consequential for southern SCCs was the amount of federal control Congress exercised over the process of state constitution making. The exclusion of white conservative southerners, in conjunction with the military overwatch of the 14th Amendment’s adoption, and the enfranchisement of former slaves combined to embitter the South against the North, resulting in a reaction that slowly morphed into an effort for southern “redemption,” and ended with the effective disenfranchisement of all freedmen and their descendants (pp. 182-183).

The political reaction took the form of the Redemption constitutional conventions. They comprised the last set of SCCs Herron investigates. From 1870-1902, the South underwent a rebirth via their respective SCCs, and the new South that emerged as a result would endure for several decades (p. 187). Herron divides the Redemption Era into three parts: reaction, retrenchment, and resistance. With each time period, the South incrementally regained control over the sovereignty it lost during Reconstruction. The key to regaining control was through constitutional conventions (p. 195). Following the withdrawal of federal troops and the political defeat of Republicans in the South, several former Confederate states called for constitutional conventions to rectify their “illegitimate” constitutions formed during Reconstruction (pp. 196-98, 225). The delegates of the SCCs found a variety of ways to push back against national authority and became more brazen over time in their opposition to the federal supremacy clauses in their state constitutions with many southern states removing the clause altogether (pp. 210-213).

These changes notwithstanding, what truly distinguished the Redemption SCCs in the South and solidified them into a political unit was the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Disenfranchisement of former slaves functions as the keystone for what unified the Solid South, (pp. 218, 225), with motivations being both partisan and racial. More particularly, Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional convention set the standard for subsequent constitutional revisions (e.g. in SC, AL, and VA) that would pose a direct challenge to the 15th Amendment (pp. 218, 220-221). The Republicans stood for slavery’s abolition and having lost the political war on slavery, southern Democrats retrenched themselves into a party of white supremacy. Through the many constitutional conventions of 1860-1902, the South managed to forge a long-lasting institutional and politically partisan identity built upon a racial hierarchy (pp.13, 240).

Herron’s book presents an eye-opening look into the emergence of the “Solid South.” He employs his methods appropriately and carefully traces the constitutional development of the South’s political identity. Aside from my minor [*64] criticisms noted above, Herron’s FRAMING THE SOLID SOUTH stands as a strong testament of analysis and deepens our understanding of Southern politics.

Explaining the emergence of a political identity via constitutional conventions certainly possesses limitations. For instance, he cannot use the southern SCCs to fully explain the South’s cultural development. However, Herron recognizes these innate limits when he says that “…these conventions matter [because] they helped construct a politically cohesive region” (pp. 12-13). In other words, the southern SCCs, as a viable political mechanism, contributed to the solidification of the South’s political identity. With his confession up front, Herron understands what his methods can explain and what they cannot. Thus, Herron works well within the restraints his methods impose, and he does not stretch them beyond their explicative capabilities. Truly, Herron’s book offers a novel explanation for the rise of the Solid South in the post-Reconstruction era and advances the burgeoning field of American Political Development as a result. In short, Herron’s FRAMING THE SOLID SOUTH should be on the bookshelf of every lover of Southern politics.

© Copyright 2021 by author, David Ferkaluk.