Why is the South Routinely on the Wrong Side of History?

by Jonathan Hobratsch

The blog is inspired by two new discriminatory laws passed by the states of North Carolina and Georgia. Fortunately for Georgia, Republican governor Nathan Deal had the foresight to veto his state’s bill.

For whatever reason, the South perversely seeks to be on the wrong side of history, legislatively speaking. As such, the recent bills of North Carolina and Georgia do not come as a surprise.

In this blog, I will present the record of several states regarding twenty important and/or controversial laws from the past. My goal is not only to see which of the former Confederate states clings most desperately to the past, but also to show my readers how wide the gulf is between Southern states and three Northern states: New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

This blog may be updated in the future to incorporate all of the states, as well as analyze other laws. I am not including any recent legislation, since we need to see how the results of the legislation plays out.

Legislation Analyzed for this Study

The following twenty acts or bills were used in this study, primarily for their future influence or importance. I looked only at the legislation as it was voted on by US Representatives for each state. In four instances, majority of  every state’s US Reps approved of the bill.

1 Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
2 Alien & Sedition Act of 1798
3 Cumberland Road Bill of 1806
4 Slave Trade Ban of 1807 (every state passed it)
5 Indian Removal Act of 1830

6 Force Bill of 1833

7 Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
8 Civil Rights Act of 1866 (South not eligible to vote)
9. Enforcement Act of 1870 (South not entirely eligible to vote)
10. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
11. Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906
12. Federal Employees Compensation of 1916 (all states wanted it)
13. Women’s Suffrage 1919
14. Immigration Act of 1924
15. Social Security Act of 1935 (all states wanted it)
16. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938
17. Civil Rights Act of 1964
18. Voting Rights Act of 1965
19. Social Security Act of 1965
20. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (all the states agreed)

States Against History: A Ranking

The following is a ranking of the states in regards to their history with the above historical legislation. The comments below may be harsh, but I want to make it clear that these results reflect the judgment of the state’s US Representatives and not the people of these states. In many of these cases, the states clearly voted against the majority or strong minority of their own constituents.

1. Mississippi

Votes against history: 11/14 or 79% (historical legislation 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19)

If you are voting with Mississippi, then you may not want to mention it in your memoir, unless you are unconcerned about how your great-grandchildren will view your judgement. Mississippi has shown a consistent legacy against a portion of the American people since its admission to the Union. The state has shown little regard for Native American, African-Americans, women, immigrants, the working poor or elderly. Additionally, it was one of the few states opposed to both the Pure Food and Drug Act and child labor laws. I’m somewhat flabbergasted how the state elects its politicians when it seems to hate its entire population. Nevertheless, it does crank out great NFL football players, but they move on to other states, since Mississippi hasn’t a team. The state did allow the popular vote since it’s admission to the Union in 1817. Like the rest of the Deep South, Mississippi joined the Confederacy, and it was one of the last states still in Reconstruction after the war.

2. Georgia

Votes against history: 11/18 or 61% (historical legislation 1, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19)

Historically, Georgia has voted against the rights of Native Americans, African-Americans, women, the poor and elderly. They’ve also been in favor of very restrictive immigration policies and they opposed the ban on child labor. In addition to this, one Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention refused to sign the document, because he opposed the concept of a federal government. Georgia did not allow the popular vote in presidential election until the 1828 election, nearly four decades after the first election. Like the rest of the Deep South, Georgia seceded to join the Confederate States. For three and a half months it was the only state still in Reconstruction after the Civil War.

3. Virginia

Votes against history: 11/18 or 61% (historical legislation 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19)

While tied with Georgia, I’ll place them under Georgia, since the state seems to have evolved much more than Georgia has evolved. Virginia, formerly the most populous slave state, was also the South’s defacto leader. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe were all national leaders with the strongest base of their support with their allies in the South. As such, to maintain that leadership Virginia had to lead the way in the direction they were expected to lead, even if it meant opposing natural change. We can say a few things that are good about Virginia from the start. For instance, they quickly supported Massachusetts and the Independence movement. They gave us several enlightened politicians, such as Jefferson and Madison. They were hesitant to join the Confederacy, since many of their leaders, including Robert E. Lee, were actually unionists. However, they have a solid conservative streak as well. Two delegates refused to sign the US Constitution, most famously George Mason. Virginia was also home to John Randolph of Roanoke, who was arguably the leader of the most conservative wing of Jeffersonian Republicans in the early 19th century. In their history, they have voted similarly to Georgia. Unlike Georgia, they fought against funding infrastructure and they supported the ban on child labor. For whatever reason, possibly because of immigration to Washington DC, Virginia has become a rather centrist state, often voting Democrat. It voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012.

4. Alabama 

Votes against history: 9/15 or 60%  (historical legislation 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19)

The results show that Alabama has a toxic history on major legislation involving Native Americans, African-Americans, women, the poor, elderly, and immigration. In addition to a 60% vote against history, the state did not allow a popular vote in the presidential election until 1824; although, it’s first election wasn’t until 1820. As a reminder, Alabama seceded from the Union to join the Confederate States, also.

5. South Carolina

Votes against history: 11/19 or 58% (historical legislation 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19)

I was surprised to see that our historically most stubborn state was not at the top of this list. South Carolina is arguably the most elitist state in our history. The state was one of the last states to support Independence from Great Britain. Most of the delegates from the state for the Declaration and the Constitution were related to one another. South Carolina was also the last state to allow for the popular vote in presidential election when it was forced to do so following Reconstruction in 1868. It was one of the states against funding infrastructure. South Carolina also has an awful record on Civil Rights for women, African-Americans and Native Americans. It has also opposed legislation designed to help the working poor and elderly. The state as often favored restrictive immigration policies. It did, however, vote to ban child labor. It is possible that the state could evolve fairly soon, since the state that gave rise to John C. Calhoun is now welcoming minority candidates such as Tim Scott and Nikki Haley.

6. Texas

Votes against history: 6/12 or 50% (7, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18)

My Lone Star State is something of both a Western and Deep South state. As such, it has sometimes voted independently of its Southern allies. Texas has always allowed the popular vote in the presidential election. A solidly pro-business state, Texas voted against the Pure Food and Drug Act. However, it did support the ban on child labor. The state has been restrictive on immigration and has a poor record on African-American civil rights. Texas voted against medical benefits for the poor or elderly. It should be noted that Texas is a somewhat conflicted state. A noticeable minority of the US House has often voted for progressive measures, generally representatives near the Southern border and from the cities. If these representatives continue to increase, then the political history of Texas could veer a different direction. As it stands, Texas politicians Ted Cruz and Julian Castro represent two opposing ideologies and two potential futures in Texas.

7. Arkansas

Votes against history: 6/13 or 46% (historical legislation 7, 10, 14, 16, 17, 18)

Arkansas has been relatively progressive for a Southern state, voting slightly with history rather than against it. Historically, it has been overly strict regarding immigration and opposed to African-American civil rights. Additionally, Arkansas opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ended child labor. It also seceded to join the Confederacy. To its credit, Arkansas allowed the popular vote in presidential elections from the start.

8. North Carolina

Votes against history: 8/19 or 42% (historical legislation 1, 5, 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18)

As a state of the Upper South, it has avoided voting with the more extreme conservatism of the Deep South in regards to its legislative record. In fact, despite the recent discriminatory bill this month, North Carolina has tacked a little towards progress. In 2008, the majority of voters voted for Democrat Barack Obama, our first African-American president. Historically, however, it has had a poor record supporting African-Americans in general. The state also voted to forcibly remove Native Americans and to deny women the right to vote. North Carolina’s stance on immigration is also historically restrictive. To it’s credit, the state did vote in favor of the working poor, the elderly and for the ban on child labor. During the Constitution Convention one delegate refused to sign the Constitution; although, he later wanted to ratify it. During the Civil War, the state joined the Confederacy. General James Longstreet, a Confederate general, who later joined the Northern-dominated Republican Party, may represent the relative moderation of this state compared to its Southern neighbors.

9. Louisiana

Votes against history: 6/15 or 40% (historical legislation 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18)

Perhaps it the French and Spanish influence, or perhaps its figures like Huey P. Long, but Louisiana has shown relative tolerance compared to the rest of the Deep South. Historically, at times, it’s been a wild card, since Louisiana had sometimes backed Whig candidates over Democrats, who virtually dominated Southern election. Their votes against history show a record against African-American civil rights, womens right to vote and immigration. Louisiana also did not allow the popular vote in presidential elections until 1828, sixteen years after it became a state. During the Civil War, Louisiana joined the Confederacy. In relation to the rest of the Deep South the state has approved of major legislation for the working poor and the elderly. Louisiana also voted to ban child labor.

10. Tennessee

Votes against history: 7/18 or 39% (historical legislation 5, 7, 10, 14, 16, 17, 18)

As a member of the Upper South, Tennessee has a less disastrous legislation history than the more conservative Deep South. In fact, the state of Andrew Jackson was divided in its loyalty during the Civil War. As you may remember, Abraham Lincoln’s second VP was Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a pro-Union Southerner. The state has voted to forcibly remove Native Americans, greatly restrict immigration. It also voted against Civil Rights for African-Americans and against child labor laws. It did vote for the right to vote for women and for healthcare benefits for the working poor and the elderly.

11. Florida

Votes against history: 4/13 or 31% (historical legislation 7, 10, 14, 17)

For whatever reason Florida has a good track record for a Southern state. The state’s relative tolerance may explain why it has a history of often voting differently than the rest of the South in presidential election. For instance, in 1928, Florida voted for a Republican, while the Deep South stayed solidly Democratic. Florida’s past shows a history of strong opposition towards African-American civil rights and immigration. The state also seceded to join the Confederacy. To its credit, it allowed the popular vote in its first presidential election. Lastly, the state now has a sizable forward thinking population, which could eventually make Florida one of the more enlightened states in the country.

12. Pennsylvania

Votes against history: 5/20 or 25% (historical legislation 1, 2, 3, 10, 14)

Pennsylvania has been described geographically as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Alabama in the middle. It has been both a very Northern liberal state, but it has also had a strong conservative tradition. If it hadn’t have been for Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania would have probably opposed Independence. One of their delegates, John Dickinson, was absent on voting day, since he opposed Independence. The state was also the birthplace and home of James Buchanan, one of the most pro-Southern Northern presidents in US History.  The state was also one the state opposed to funding infrastructure. It also voted for three of the most restrictive anti-immigration bills in US history. For the most part it has done a solid job looking out for the civil rights of its citizens and for the working poor. Except for 1800, the state has always allowed the popular vote in presidential election.

13. New York

Votes against history: 4/20 or 20% (historical legislation 1, 2, 5, 10)

The dark marks on New York’s history is almost exclusively deep in the past. I should note that the percentage is somewhat misleading, since the state was routinely divided over much of this legislation. A large minority of the US Reps often sided with Southern legislatures, possibly for reasons of trade or commerce. Nevertheless, the majority looked forward and voted with history. The mistakes of New York’s past include the passing of the first Fugitive Slave Act, the Alien & Sedition Acts, the Indian Removal Act and the restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act. For much of it’s early history, it was rather conservative for a Northern state. It was the only state not to vote in favor of Independence (it abstained). It had two delegates vehemently opposed to the US Constitution, and did not ratify it quick enough to partake in the first presidential election. The state did not allow a popular vote in the presidential election until 1828. There was a large faction, including the Mayor Fernando Wood of NYC, that so strongly supported the South’s succession that they proposed seceding from the Union. Most New Yorkers, however, were solidly pro-Union. Following the Civil War, the state became more and more liberal, probably because of the increase in immigration to the state, which eventually allowed for a more tolerant home population. For instance, the first Catholic nominee for president, Al Smith, was a former governor of that state.

14. Massachusetts

Votes against history: 3/20 or 15% (historical legislation 1, 2, 14)

Massachusetts will represent New England in this study. For the most part, Massachusetts has consistently sided with history and with reason. Two of its dark marks come from the two earliest pieces of legislation being considered. It favored the earliest Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 and it also favored the Alien & Sedition Act, which was extremely anti-immigrant. In 1924, it also signed one of the most restrictive immigration laws. Overall, Massachusetts has been a leading light for all civil rights and for labor and for the elderly. As the state housing our leading institution of education (Harvard), and the first to demand Independence from Great Britain, it is unsurprising that this state would consistently show foresight when evaluating major groundbreaking legislation. Massachusetts did have one delegate to the Constitutional Convention that refused to sign the document, but he did so because it lacked a Bill of Rights. As arguably the leading abolitionist state, Massachusetts fought passionately for the Union in the Civil War. Except for the 1800, 1808, and 1816 elections, they have always allowed for the popular vote in presidential elections. Currently, Massachusetts continues to build on its excellent reputation with enlightened leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren.


My question, then, for my readers is: Why has the South routinely sided on the wrong side of history? What is Massachusetts fundamentally doing that Mississippi does not?


4 Comments Add yours

  1. rottingpost says:

    i have long wondered the answer to this. but i don’t pretend to have one.


  2. Anonymous says:

    There has long been a tradition of glorifying the confederacy and what it stands for. As long as this is tolerated, the South will never be on the right side of history.


  3. Alfred Corn says:

    The Bay Colony was settled by educated middle-class religious idealists. The Southern states (excepting Maryland) were settled by a motley crew of fortune seekers, most often poor, and sometimes transported convicts. The most readily available source of income was farming, which is backbreaking labor, leaving little time for the finer things, like reading. No major universities were founded in the South before the 19th century. Accounts of what went on at UVA are shocking. Learning was beside the point of drinking and fighting for most of the enrolled. But, supremely, the institution of slavery brought in a set of attitudes that became ingrained. If you excuse yourself for a moral failure of that magnitude, you will excuse yourself for other failings as well. Finally, military defeat always produces bitter feelings, and Reconstruction did nothing to mollify the defeated, but instead punished them. A Federal system allows states’ rights, and just how far those go will always be debated. Each time state law in the South is overturned by Federal decisions,it is experienced as a defeat comparable to the Civil War. Result: a desire for payback, an aggressive intention to be what one is rather than concede defeat to another part of the national polity. Thumb your nose, or cut it off to spite the face of the USA. It’s not an edifying spectacle.


  4. Sic semper tyranus! The South will rise again!! 🙂 but seriously…there’s no right or wrong side of history, only winning or losing side. The South and North are such vastly different cultures. Though the North is ethnically diverse, applying normative ethics to the South is still most akin to ethnocentric thinking. Perhaps that is not le mot juste.

    Conversely, the South is just as much in error by placing normative valuation on the actions of the North.

    Wisdom can’t be forced. The Tenth Amendment is a rather beautiful thing. It seems to me that the essence of our federal system of government is most strongly found in that final amendment of our Bill of Rights.



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