Frank Owsley

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Frank Lawrence Owsley (January 20, 1890—October 21, 1955) was an American historian of the South, a pioneer in quantitative historiography and member of the Nashville agrarians. He was a leading conservative historian of the Old South.

Life and career

Born in rural Alabama, he attended Auburn University and took his PhD in history at the University of Chicago in 1924 with Professor William E. Dodd. His dissertation was published as State Rights and the Confederacy (1925).

Owsley specialized in Southern history, especially the ante-bellum and Civil War eras. His most important book, King Cotton Diplomacy (1931), remains the major study of Confederate diplomacy.

As an active member of the Southern Agrarians group based in Nashville, Owsley contributed "The Irrepressible Conflict," to the famous manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930). He lashed out at the North for attempts to dominate the South spiritually and economically. In "Scottsboro, the Third Crusade: The Sequel to Abolition and Reconstruction,",[1] he criticized northern race reformers as the "grandchildren of abolitionists and reconstructionists," he announced that the South was white man's country and that African-Americans must accommodate to that reality. Serving as president of the Southern Historical Association in 1940, Owsley castigated the North for assuming it represented the entire nation and for violating what he called "the comity of section."

After 1940 Owsley and his wife Harriet pioneered what came to be called the "new social history." They were leaders in the use of quantification and manuscript censuses, helping create the study of the historical demography of the South, and the study of social mobility. Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South, says Vernon Burton, is, one of the most influential works on southern history ever written. Using their own newly invented codes they turned into data bases the manuscript federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. Plain Folk argued that southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role in it. The religion, language, and culture of these common people created a democratic "plain folk" society. Critics say he overemphasized the size of the southern landholding middle class while excluding the large class of poor landless and slaveless white southerners. Owsley assumed that shared economic interests united southern farmers without considering the vast difference inherent in the planters' commercial agriculture versus the yeomen's subsistence life style.

At Vanderbilt University (1920–49), Owsley directed nearly 40 PhD dissertations and was a popular teacher of undergraduates. In 1949 he went to the University of Alabama to build its history program.

Reacting to multiple attacks upon the South by hostile northerners, liberals, modernizers, neoabolitionist historians, civil rights activists, and left wing writers, Owsley tried to refute their misunderstanding of the true South. He regarded the future of American civilization as dependent on the survival of southern regionalism. Owsley's masterpiece, Plain Folk of the Old South (1949), was an answer to neobolitionists' emphasis on the Slave Power of dominant aristocrats who controlled the South and violated republican norms. Owsley instead depicts a complex social structure in the South, one featuring a large middle class of yeoman farmers and not just wealthy planters and poor whites. He argues that the South was devoted to republican values generally and was not locked into race and slavery. Owsley felt the Civil War's causes were rooted in both North and South. A few critics reacted by branded him something he never was: an absolute racist and reactionary defender of the Confederacy who was attempting to rewrite the past in an effort to preserve Southern culture. In fact he rejected the Confederate Lost Cause and the New South school's romantic legends, and he sought to uncovered a "real" South, the plain folk.[2] In depicting Southern society as a broad class of yeoman farmers who stood and worked between the slaves and poor whites at one end and the large planters at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Owsley asserted that the real South was liberal, American, and Jeffersonian, not radical or reactionary. It reflected the best of republican principles (though Owlsey did not use the word "republicanism.") Agrarianism in the 20th century was a response to the industrialism and modernism that had infiltrated the South. According to Owsley, the position of the South vis-à-vis the North was created not by slavery, cotton, or states' rights, but by the two regions' misunderstanding of each other.[3]


  • Hyde, Samuel C., Jr. "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition." Journal of Southern History 2005 71(4): 803-830. Issn: 0022-4642 Fulltext online in Ebsco. Uses newer statistical techniques and basically agrees with Owsley.
  • Fred Arthur Bailey, "Plain Folk and Apology: Frank L. Owsley's Defense of the South," Perspectives on the American South: An Annual Review of Society, Politics, and Culture, a hostile view from the left.
  • Mcwhiney, Grady. "Historians as Southerners." Continuity (1984) (9): 1-31. Issn: 0277-1446
  • Orville Vernon Burton. "Owsley, Frank Lawrence"; American National Biography Online 2000.
  • Swierenga, Robert P. "Quantitative Methods in Rural Landholding." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1983 13(4): 787-808, explains Owsley's methodological innovations. in JSTOR
  • Wood, W. Kirk. "The Misinterpretation of Frank L. Owsley: Thomas J. Pressly and the Myth of a Neo-confederate Revival, 1930-1962." Southern Studies (2003) 10(3-4): 39-67. Issn: 0735-8342
  • Wood, Walter Kirk. "Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and the Search for Southern Identity, 1865-1965." Southern Studies (1995) 6(4): 65-77. Issn: 0735-8342

Primary Sources

  • Owsley, Harriet Chappell and Owsley, Frank Lawrence. Frank Lawrence Owsley, Historian of the Old South. A Memoir with Letters and Writings of Frank Owsley (1990).

Books and articles by Owsley

  • State Rights and the Confederacy (1925).
  • "Local Defense and the Downfall of the Confederacy," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11 (Mar. 1925): 492-525, in JSTOR
  • "The Confederacy and King Cotton: A Study in Economic Coercion," North Carolina Historical Review 6 (Oct. 1929): 371-97
  • King Cotton Diplomacy (1931),
  • with Harriet C. Owsley, "The Economic Basis of Society in the Late Ante-Bellum South," Journal of Southern History 6 (Feb. 1940): 24-25, in JSTOR
  • Frank L. Owsley and Harriet C. Owsley. "The Economic Structure of Rural Tennessee, 1850-1860," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (May, 1942), pp. 161–182 in jstor
  • with Harriet C. Owsley, "The Pattern of Migration and Settlement on the Southern Frontier," Journal of Southern History 11 (May 1945): 147-76 in JSTOR.

See also


  1. Published in the American Review [1933]: 257-85
  2. Wood (2003)
  3. Wood 1995