Frank L. Owsley was a noted Vanderbilt University historian and apologist for the Old South. “The purpose of my life,” he wrote to a colleague in 1932, “is to undermine . . . the entire Northern myth from 1820 to 1876.” Only historians would read his books, he reasoned, “but it is the historians who teach history classes and write textbooks and they will gradually and without their knowledge be forced into our position.”
The son of Lawrence Monroe Owsley and Annie Scott McGehee, he was born on his maternal grandparents’ farm near Montgomery, Alabama, and raised on a large farm where his father rented land to mostly black sharecroppers. In his youth, Owsley listened intently to aging Confederate veterans, absorbing from them a distaste for the Yankee colossus which had overwhelmed the South in 1865.
Having earned a master’s degree from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1916, he entered the University of Chicago to study under the southern historian William Edward Dodd. Although he appreciated Dodd as a teacher and shared with him an intense enthusiasm for southern history, Owsley resented his mentor’s attacks upon the South’s antebellum aristocracy. Awarded the doctorate in 1924, Owsley quickly emerged as a formidable scholar who eventually published three books, two textbooks, and thirty-four articles along with many book reviews and review essays.
Owsley began his teaching career at Birmingham-Southern College, where he met and married Harriet Fason Chappell. He then joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University in 1920, remaining there until 1949, when he left to help establish the newly created Ph.D. program in history at the University of Alabama. Stimulating as a teacher and popular as a graduate professor, he directed almost forty dissertations and powerfully influenced a generation of budding Southern intellectuals.
Though he remained a southern chauvinist, Owsley’s career as a writer fell into three fairly defined periods. Throughout the first phase–bounded by his States Rights and the Confederacy in 1925 and King Cotton Diplomacy in 1931–he warned that Southern defeat in 1865 and the South’s continued subjugation in his own time resulted from internal divisions. He argued that throughout the Civil War white Southerners responded with enthusiasm to the crisis and won most of the military engagements, but in the end suffered defeat when their sacrifices were undermined by wrong-thinking domestic policies.
The second phase of Owsley’s career began in 1930 and climaxed in 1940. Throughout this decade he campaigned against forces that he believed threatened southern culture: neo-abolitionist historians and northern industrialists, Communists, southern liberals, and blacks. He, along with eleven other Southerner intellectuals, collaborated to produce I’ll Take My Stand (1930), dedicating it to the support of “a Southern way of life against . . . the American or prevailing way.” Owsley’s essay, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” condemned northern abolitionists and industrialists as hypocrites and Pharisees who campaigned to impose their corrupt culture upon an agrarian South. In one of his more controversial articles–“Scottsboro, the Third Crusade,” published in the American Review of June 1933–Owsley castigated the defenders of nine alleged Negro rapists in Alabama as neo-abolitionists interfering with southern justice. These latter-day reformers, he proclaimed, fostered racial tension, promoted anarchy, and created fertile ground for the twentieth-century cancer of communism. In 1940 he delivered his presidential address before the Southern Historical Association–“The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War: Egocentric Sectionalism.” Once again he scourged the North, branding its politicians and publicists as aggressors forcing the South out of the Union in 1861.
Owsley commenced the third phase of his intellectual endeavors in 1936 by focusing on a project to present his idealized image of the Old South; it culminated in his classic work Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). He, his wife, and a coterie of graduate students gleaned archives to prove that the Old South was more a democracy supported by small farmers than an oligarchy dominated by powerful aristocracy. He pioneered the use of the United States Census as a valuable historical resource and documented from it that across the South small farmers resided in close association with the large planters. He overlooked, however, the censuses’ economic data that showed the aristocrats’ overwhelming economic domination; and he relied upon elite sources–county and local histories and the autobiographies of lawyers, physicians, and preachers–to portray the social fellowship of yeoman and planter. “The Southern folk . . . were a closely knit people,” he thus concluded. “They were not class conscious in a Marxian sense, for with rare exception they did not regard the planters and men of wealth as their oppressors.”
Owsley suffered a fatal heart attack while researching in England; he died October 21, 1956. Across a distinguished career, his work retained a singular theme. Ending a lecture series presented to the University of Georgia’s faculty and students in 1938, he relished their applause because, in his words, “it was the rebel yell that I heard.”