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A Review on Ann-Marie Szymanski's Analysis of Southern Progressivism

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Often, the interpretation of southern sentiments regarding progressivism is lacking in nuance: most interpretations portray this region in a non-varied stasis of ineptitude and traditionalism, which is epitomized in historical analysis regarding the Progressive Era. During this critical period in American history, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, Ann-Marie Szymanski, argues that it is rather important to recognize the important role that southern ideas had in the progressive era. Szymanski’s article, from the Journal of Southern History, ‘Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building’, explores the south’s role in the prohibition movement and what methods, theories, and ideas the north may have adopted. Szymanski argues against the perception of southern ideology at the time, which is viewed as backwards thinking, with evidence of southerners laying the foundation in a major progressive goal: prohibition. The main assertions that she chose to disassemble are the ideas that: northern-led prohibition movements was more ‘advanced’ than their southern counterparts, the south’s staunch opposition to centralized government stifled progress, and the notion that southern progressives would have never seen success without the northern progressives to show them how to operate. To support her thesis, she relied on various claims and points that shall be discussed and analyzed in this article review including: the focus on local policy regarding prohibition, indigenous (to the south) anti-alcohol groups, the strategic embrace of prohibition, and the irrelevance of northern organizations in the attitudes of southern people during this time. Ann-Marie believes that the oversimplification and approach to the southern mindset shouldn’t be applied in the context of analyzing their fight for prohibition.

The primary assertion of Szymanski is that local autonomy was as much of a factor in the north as it was in the south. This is in direct rebuttal to the fact that “historians portray southern Progressives (including the league's southern leaders) as urban dwellers who challenged the rural South's customary adherence to local autonomy” (Szymanski, 110). She argues that “northern-based Progressives often faced as much (if not more) difficulty in inaugurating reform crusades outside of the South” (Szymanski, 111). She supports this by providing an example in Iowa in which the ASL superintendent from that area expressed that local churches and pastors were unwilling to work with the Anti-Saloon League. This unwillingness for the local organizations to adopt a centralized idea would most ordinarily be associated with southern progressivism, but the fact that Iowa was having trouble with this as well flies in the face of that notion. To prove that this wasn’t an isolated occurrence, Szymanski also focused her gaze towards several other examples; she states: “In addition, league leaders frequently complained about the problems they encountered in organizing many non southern states, including Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York” (Szymanski, 112). Like most things in history, the southern ideological landscape is complex and cannot be summed up or generalized into a definition that will work for every case and point. While the south had a distinct culture, it may be getting overplayed historically in order to simplify causes for certain events; when we allow ourselves to do this, Szymanski is arguing that it is not analytically appropriate and we must be more rational and look to evidence and not generalizations about situations. As evidenced with the abolitionist movement, it would be easy to isolate the south as being stubbornly against a central proposition, but when Szymanski looked into all cases she proved that this wasn’t uniquely southern. When this is proven, we can connect the concurrent circumstances correctly and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t merely southern parochialism, but more the inherent divisiveness that existed broadly pertaining to the conversation around abolitionism during the progressive era. This concept runs through the article and serves as a basis in looking into the actual groundwork southerners did to help the cause of prohibition.

As aforementioned, the main point of this article is to also prove that southern progressives had autonomous legislative action that was progressive and useful, while also being independent of northern coalitions. The author brings to light the fact that several southern abolitionist groups predated the northern ASL and were able to get legislation passed that were arguably more progressive than the north’s attempts at abolition. Szymanski comments: “Indigenous groups, however, had initiated their own drives for statewide prohibition in Georgia (1899-1902), Mississippi (1902-1908), Florida (1905), South Carolina (1901, 1907), and Texas (1907-1908) - all of which occurred either before the ASL had formed branches in those states or were still under construction” (Szymanski, 113). Understanding this, it is reasonable to see why the author argues that northern organizations were irrelevant in the development of southern progressivism. In essence, she is stating that the mindset of people in the south was not dependent on the organization carrying out the cause, but dependent on the actual cause at hand. Southern progressives had a uniquely southern solution to the issue of prohibition; southern abolitionist groups chose to be influential locally and the south embraced ‘the local option’ which worked well. The reason they did not try statewide ratification was because of the fact that many groups were not unified; they did hold small referendums in their respective counties “in which the citizens would vote directly on the question of whether liquor should be permitted in the area” (Szymanski, 122). She further explains the effects this had on governmental policy: “Through these mini-referenda, then, hundreds of southern localities outlawed the saloon” (Szymanski, 122). This article goes to explain how 100 of 137 counties in Georgia outlawed liquor sales by 1900 and just how effective the local option was for southern progressives when it pertained to abolition. As Szymanski puts it: “many observers argued that local option had paved the way for the adoption of statewide prohibition in ten of the eleven former Confederate states before the January 1919 ratification” (Szymanski, 122). This relates to the author’s initial point because at this time this was actually more progressive than the north, in terms of prohibition, who struggled adopting a similar system in their states. She explains the difference in thought, though, in the north: “the orthodox drys often derided the policy as ‘too local and too optional.’ While this criticism reflected their abstract preference for state and (ultimately) national prohibition, it also stemmed from their concerns about the practical consequences of such an approach” (Szymanski, 123). Although this may be true, this article argues that southern progressives laid a lot of the groundwork that the north may have assumed while concocting their own plan for prohibition.

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Additionally, another argument that this article presents is the suggestion that the local option influenced the ASL in its early stages, and southern strategies carried over into the national debate, implementation, and rhetoric surrounding prohibition. Initially, the ASL was in favor of starting locally, which led them to be more receptive to the previously successful model that was being implemented in the south. The article states: “In Ohio, Howard H. Russell modeled the Beatty Township Law on ‘similar option measures which had been held [constitutional] in other states, especially in the South’” (Szymanski, 126). Szymanski illustrates to us clearly that some of the principal strategies of northern progressives were derived from the southern progressives, the same ones that have been labeled as traditionalists and inferior in progressiveness compared to the north. The significance of the leader of the Ohio ASL using southern tactics in order to expand northern progressive ideology is that it proves the important role that the south had in prohibition. Without the south’s model, the local option law may not have existed in the form that it does; it also may have been more of a debate without the proof of prior success in the south. She uses this point in order to once again call into question the validity of the generalization and assumption of northern progressiveness and superiority in historical analysis, which is a commonality with this article’s criticisms.

Syzmanski’s use of reliable primary sources and accounts of history helped illustrate the South’s role described by southerners, rather than generalizations, and these sources helped her critique historians who have chronically understated the south’s role in prohibition and other progressive movements. One source used is historian Paul L. Harvey’s book ‘Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists’. She uses this as an example of a historian who believes that southern progressives followed a northern model, which serves as a principal basis of everything that Syzmanski chooses to argue against in this article. Another primary source used for a similar reason, and the primary source document for this article, is the scholar William A. Link’s ‘The Paradox of Southern Progressivism’. Syzmanski states this text provides the “most sweeping statement of this theme” of the north being the basis of the south’s progress (Syzmanski, 108); this text is the most heavily referenced scholarly source in this entire article, as it’s referenced more than nine times directly in bibliographic notes and dozens of times by name without quotation. An additional reason she used sources was to supplement her arguments with historical accounts of actions. Syzmanski uses Paul E. Isaac's ‘Prohibition and Politics: Turbulent Decades in Tennessee’, James B. Sellers’ ‘Prohibition Movement in Alabama’, and Dewey Grantham’s ‘The Progressive Era and the Reform Tradition’ in order to prove a point about reformers using their power to override vetoes from governors against prohibition. The relevance of the inclusion of these three sources in this discussion of references is not necessarily to explain them in detail, but more to explain that the author of this article utilized multiple documents to further give credence and factual basis for her arguments against Link’s article. The two primary ways she used references and sources to her advantage was to show the opposing theories on progressivism in the south so that she could critique it, and to supplement her original arguments and theories on the matter of the misconceptions on the south’s social progress.

To summarize, Syzmanski utilizes primary sources and scholarly texts to provide a rebuttal to the popular sentiment of northern superiority and southern parochialism. ‘Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building', by Ann-Marie Syzmanski, refutes the recurring remarks about the southern mindset by presenting the case of prohibition. Syzmanski articulated that this described parochialistic south: used the local option to contemporary success decades before the 18th amendment and years before the movement centralized in the north, the progressive north had indegenous progressive groups that faced some of the same local resistance of the southern groups at the time period, and that the notion that the south would have never been progressive without pressure from the north undermines and understates the real progress that southern states championed in this era. Most importantly, this article serves as verification that historical analysis based on assumption and overestimation of generalizations can often be flawed and misrepresentative. As Syzmanski puts it in her conclusion: “this article submits that scholars need to move beyond convenient formulations when thinking about [...] social reform more generally. [...] it provides a questionable portrait of the dynamics of social reform” (Syzmanski, 135). History is never linear nor solid; it often consists of bends and folds and textures that have a gradient of neither black, nor white, nor red, nor blue, but a culmination and chaotic amalgamation of the spectrum that can only be correctly understood with reasonable context and proper analysis.


  1. Szymanski, Ann-Marie. “Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building.” Journal of Southern History, vol. 69, no. 1, 2003, p. 107., doi:10.2307/30039842.
  2. Harvey, Paul. Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  3. Isaac, Paul E. Prohibition and Politics: Turbulent Decades in Tennessee, 1885-1920. University of Tennessee Press, 1965.
  4. Link, William A. “The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930.” Amazon, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996,
  5. Sellers, James B. Prohibition Movement in Alabama, 1702-1943. Univ Of North Carolina Pr, 2012.
  6. Grantham, Dewey W. The Progressive Era and the Reform Tradition. Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
  7. Russell, Howard H. 'Church and College Versus Saloon, Berea, Ohio' and 'The Governor Helps Quietly-Oberlin Wins the Beatty Law,' unpublished manuscripts.
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A Review on Ann-Marie Szymanski’s Analysis of Southern Progressivism. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“A Review on Ann-Marie Szymanski’s Analysis of Southern Progressivism.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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