Thursday, January 17, 2008

Class Conflict In Pocahontas County, 1892

Sherry Chandler has an interesting series of posts on how the "ruling elite" of America identify portions of our population as "The Other," a dark underbelly that must be improved, chastened, or ignored. Sometimes "The Other" is the American South, sometimes it's the American proletariat, and often it's Appalachia's hillbillies. Think John Fox, Jr. and Deliverance. John Hennen's article Benign Betrayal: Capitalist Intervention in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, 1890-1910 catches our own Andrew Price identifying Pocahontas County's "Other"--the drunken, gun-slinging hillbilly come to town. I find it chilling that Mr. Price quotes with approval the Bluefield editorial praising the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency soon to become famous for strikebreaking and murder.

In addition to his interest in fostering industry in Pocahontas County, Price and other modernizers were obliged to cultivate a moral framework compatible with the new age. The social stresses which accompanied rapid population increases and new economic relationships mandated greater regimentation and social control than did traditional mountain culture. The personalized relationships of preindustrial economies were not well-suited to the competitive demands of the commercial marketplace. To guarantee the benefits of economic modernization, local elites set out to reshape the provincialism of traditional society. Since mountaineers had gained a reputation for violence and traditional ways, boosters had to prove that local citizens were peaceful and willing to welcome industrialization.

Price used the forum of the Pocahontas Times to promote a modern, functional moral code for his neighbors.... While Price extolled the resourcefulness and honesty of a people who had "prospered . . . in a quiet way" before capital came to the county, he admonished his readers to seek the self-discipline necessary to profit from new opportunities. For example, Price equated education with success and good moral fiber....

Like many other modernizers, Price contributed to the negative mountaineer image by focusing on the damage to order and efficiency caused by whiskey consumption and latent violent tendencies. Whether drinking and violence were actually increasing is debatable, and in any case they could arguably be attributed to the social instability of emerging industrialization.

Nevertheless, Price cautioned repeatedly that "disregard for law and order [is] a real menace; at present there is an era of lawlessness which we must consider seriously. The root of it is the illegal sale of whiskey." Concealed weapons, another social menace feared by Price, should be controlled by the vigilance of the people: "When you take a revolver away from a hasty youth it is like clipping the claws of a tiger. . . . The condition is such that every endeavor must be fostered and endorsed by every good citizen."

Price's admonition on rowdiness may simply have been the moralizing of a Calvinist reformer. But it may also reflect his reaction to widening class divisions in Pocahontas County, just as in other developing areas, a crisis which escalated after the timber boom. His warnings were identical to those of modernizers in other mountain regions where rapid structural changes were taking place. He occasionally reprinted comments by other editors on the moral crises, including an 1892 testimonial to Baldwin agency detectives by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph:

The Organization of West Virginia Railway and Mine Police, under the management of our intrepid townsman, W. G. Baldwin, and his able assistants . . . will soon cause the toughs of the Tug and other points of the Ohio extension to amend their ways or move on to Moundsville [location of the state penitentiary]. The better class of people in these regions fully appreciate the great work they are doing and lend their aid and influence in every instance.

Andrew Price played an important role in Pocahontas County by establishing a foundation for the region's chronic dependence on a national economy that relied on the resources of local economies, but treated the economic health of its constituent parts as secondary and peripheral. Industrial society realigned social relationships and class orientation in the mountains, resulting in the potential social upheaval decried by Price. The traditional agricultural social order, based on the kinship and geographic ties of independent farmers, had included a flexible and tangible hierarchy based on wealth and status. The industrial order, however, mandated rigidly defined class roles: absentee owners determined patterns of development and received the profits; local elites depended on the absentees for their own prosperity; and most mountaineers increasingly became wage earners in the timber and mineral industries.

As a prominent representative of the local elite, with the ability to communicate easily with the mountaineers, Andrew Price helped set the stage for the patterns of exploitation typical in the Appalachian Mountains. He parlayed legal acumen, family heritage, social graces, literary skills, self-discipline, and a firm belief in the moral rectitude of free-market liberalism to promote the capitalist penetration of Pocahontas County. While local elites such as Price consolidated their control of the legal, social, and economic framework of mountain communities, they handed over the wealth of their region to men with no cultural obligation to preserve or renew the sources of that wealth. As absentee capitalists sought to expand their corporate empires, the exploitation of rural areas became a "prerequisite of industrial growth, resulting in unequal economic development between commercial centers and peripheral areas." Sadly, the Sage of Pocahontas, together with other industrial agents, arranged the benign betrayal of the land of his fathers.

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