John Augustus Hendrix McLane envisioned a wholesale political revolution. He aimed to overthrow the politics of racial and sectional animosities, animated by raw memories of the Civil War, and replace it with a new political alignment organized around a class appeal. In the 1882 election, and for more than a decade after, McLane cultivated a coalition of the economically oppressed. In his idealized vision, working people of all races and regions would unite to dethrone the monopolies, bankers, and lawyers who composed the economic elite. These intrepid efforts are important evidence that, in one historian’s words, “the South is not and never has been a monolith.” The winding and daring, though failed political career of Hendrix McLane reflected the promise and peril of an interracial, populist challenge to South Carolina’s all-powerful conservative Democratic regime. It was fundamentally about the possibility of dissent in the circumscribed politics of the post- Reconstruction South.
Reviving McLane’s story elucidates the swirling currents of history and memory that shaped Southern politics in the Gilded Age. McLane did establish some degree of a biracial, cross-sectional political movement. But his ultimate failure to maintain this coalition, attract the support of the North, and create a viable statewide threat to Democratic rule illustrates how appeals to the War and Reconstruction impeded economic and civil-rights reforms and entrenched white supremacy. The story of McLane’s circuitous career is a story of racial and regional solidarity trumping the economic interests of poor Southerners through the conduit of historical memory. It demonstrates, more broadly, historical memory’s power as a political weapon, with tales of the past constraining ideologies of the present and visions of the future.
Rome, Steven, "The Apostle of Dissent: J. Hendrix McLane's Fight Against History in Post-Reconstruction South Carolina" (2020). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. 21.