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Frank Lawrence Owsley (January 20, 1890 – October 21, 1955) was an American historian who taught at Vanderbilt University for most of his career, where he specialized in southern history and was a member of the Southern Agrarians.

Life and career[]

Born in rural Alabama, he attended Auburn University for his undergraduate degree. He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago in 1924 under the tutelage of William E. Dodd. Owsley specialized in Southern history, especially the antebellum and Civil War eras.

He argued in his dissertation State Rights and the Confederacy (1925) that the Confederacy "died of states' rights". Owsley held that during the Civil War, key Southern governors resisted the appeals of the Confederate government for soldiers. His book King Cotton Diplomacy (1931) is a study of Confederate diplomacy.

As an active member of the Southern Agrarians group based in Nashville, Owsley contributed "The Irrepressible Conflict" to the manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930). He lashed out at the North for what he alleged were attempts to dominate the South spiritually and economically. In "Scottsboro, the Third Crusade: The Sequel to Abolition and Reconstruction" (the American Review [1933]: 257–85), he criticized northern race reformers as the "grandchildren of abolitionists and reconstructionists." He announced that the South was white man's country and that blacks must accommodate that reality. Serving as president of the Southern Historical Association in 1940, Owsley castigated the North for assuming its people and thinking 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".[citation needed] They studied the historical demography of the South and social mobility and produced a history called Plain Folk of the Old South. Historian Vernon Burton described it as "one of the most influential works on Southern history ever written."[citation needed] The Owsleys culled data from federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. In Plain Folk, they argued that Southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role. The religion, language, and culture of white common people created a democratic "plain folk" society, Owsley argued.

Owsley's work Plain Folk of the Old South (1949) was an answer to opponents' emphasis on the dominance of the planter class' social and political control of the South.[citation needed] Owsley instead depicted a complex social structure in the South, one that featured a large middle class of yeoman farmers, and not just wealthy planters and poor whites. He argued that the South was devoted to republican values generally and was not locked into race and slavery. Owsley believed the Civil War's causes were rooted in both North and South.[citation needed]

In rejecting the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the New South's romantic legends, Owsley sought to uncover a "real" South, what he called the plain folk.[1] He characterized the postwar South as made up of a broad class of yeoman farmers, between poor blacks, many of whom were sharecroppers in a kind of debt bondage, and poor whites at one end, and large plantation owners at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Owsley asserted that the real South was liberal, American, and Jeffersonian, not radical or reactionary.

Critics[citation needed] suggested Owsley was a reactionary defender of the Confederacy. They said he was attempting to rewrite the past to preserve white Southern culture. [Wood (2003)] Critics[citation needed] said he overemphasized the size of the Southern landholding middle class, while excluding the large class of poor white southerners who owned neither land nor slaves. Further, they[citation needed] suggested Owsley's theory assumed too much commonality in shared economic interests united Southern farmers. They believed that he did not fully assess the vast difference between the planters' commercial agriculture and the yeoman's subsistence farming.[citation needed] When the planter Democratic elite regained power in the late 19th century, they passed new constitutions and laws that made voter registration and elections more difficult. These actions effectively disfranchised all blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. Only the elite and some of the yeoman farmers were qualified to vote.

At Vanderbilt University (1920–49), Owsley directed nearly 40 Ph.D. dissertations and was a popular teacher of undergraduates.[citation needed] In 1949 he went to the University of Alabama to build its history program. Reacting to attacks by critics of Southern segregation, Owsley tried to refute what he saw as their misunderstanding of the true South. He regarded the future of American civilization as dependent on the survival of southern regionalism.

The Southern Agrarians in the 20th century espoused values which they saw being overtaken by the industrialism and modernism that had begun to influence the South. According to Owsley, the position of the South vis-à-vis the North was created not by slavery, the dominance of cotton and agriculture, or states' rights, but by the two regions' misunderstanding of each other.[2]


  1. Walter Kirk Wood, "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
  2. Walter Kirk Wood, "Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and the Search for Southern Identity, 1865–1965." Southern Studies (1995) 6(4): 65–77


  • Hyde, Samuel C., Jr. "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition", Journal of Southern History, 71(4), 2005: 803–830. ISSN 0022-4642 Fulltext online in Ebsco.
  • 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
  • Mcwhiney, Grady. "Historians as Southerners", Continuity (1984) (9): 1–31. ISSN 0277-1446
  • Orville Vernon Burton, "Owsley, Frank Lawrence", American National Biography, 2000
  • Swierenga, Robert P. "Quantitative Methods in Rural Landholding", Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1983 13(4): 787–808. ISSN 0022-1953

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[]

  • "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;
  • 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
  • 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[]