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A Conversation Regarding Thomas Goode Jones

In America, American History, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, The South on November 8, 2017 at 6:45 am
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Review of Brent J. Aucoin’s “Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics & Justice in the New South” (University of Alabama Press, 2016)

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South on August 2, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.

Brent J. Aucoin’s new biography is a probing treatment of the neglected figure of Thomas Goode Jones. To some, Jones is discredited because of his ownership of slaves and military leadership in the Confederate Army; to others, he’s a wounded war hero, distinguished jurist, and revered governor who sought reconciliation with former slaves. The truth, as always, is more complex.

Jones does not fit neatly into simplistic categories; he defies the trite labels of current political vocabulary. He even cut across partisan divides in his own day. His story is not a crude morality tale, nor does it contain clear lessons for posterity. Aucoin calls Jones “enigmatic.”  He seeks to consider Jones “holistically.” His studied reflection on Jones reveals a complicated man who’s both congenial and flawed, ahead of his time and yet a definite product of it.

Born in precarious circumstances in what today is Macon, Georgia, Jones had family roots in Virginia. His father, Samuel Goode Jones, worked for the railroad and moved the family from place to place, trying to earn an honest living. They settled in Montgomery when Samuel took a job there as an engineer. Thomas Jones was five at the time.  He and his family attended St. John’s Episcopal Church, downtown, where the pew in which Jefferson Davis worshipped remains intact, the other rows of pews having been replaced long ago.

A romantic childhood it was not. Jones was sent to Virginia to study at academies that fed into the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was groomed to be a soldier. By the time he enrolled at VMI, the Civil War had broken out, and he joined the ranks of his professor, Major General Thomas J. Jackson. Jones transferred units and worked his way up the chain of command, barely avoiding death on more than one occasion. Legend has it that, while riding horseback, he saved a wandering child during the heat of battle. This and other tales of heroism earned Jones the reputation as a valiant warrior. General Robert E. Lee himself selected Jones, among others, to deliver the flag of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the War, Jones returned to Alabama to begin a new career, or careers.  He married, sired 13 children, and enjoyed a rapid rise to fame and distinction, first as an editor of The Daily Picayune and later as a speaker, lawyer, and Democratic politician.  Believing it was God’s will for the South to fully reintegrate into the Union, he championed reunification, receiving honors and awards for his efforts to this end.  His celebrated 1874 Memorial Day Address was a reconciliatory precursor to that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a decade later.

Jones is known, in our day, mostly as a legislator, judge, and governor—and indeed the bulk of Aucoin’s book is dedicated to these periods of Jones’s life. Aucoin pays close attention to Jones’s often contradictory, always multifaceted, and sometimes disturbing views on race and race relations. Following Booker T. Washington, Aucoin says, “Jones eschewed the idea of a political solution to the so-called Negro problem—namely, the passage and enforcement of civil rights legislation—but also . . . opposed the political effort to disenfranchise blacks.”

Jones supported segregation of the races under a separate-but-equal scheme, yet he backed the creation of Alabama State University, a black college founded in 1867. He advocated the education of blacks to varying degrees, but his rhetoric on this topic can sound paternalistic and hollow to the modern ear. That he opposed educational prerequisites to voting, however, suggests he was willing to risk clout and status to take an unpopular stand on behalf of former slaves. He also, quite controversially at the time, sought to abolish the exploitative convict leasing system that carried with it the residual features of slavery.

Aucoin describes Jones’s politicking in great detail, from probable election fraud to campaigns for higher taxes. As governor, Jones decried the mob violence that had become common in Alabama. Later, as a judge, he attempted to charge a lynch mob under federal law.

Jones’s popularity waxed and waned. An economic crisis befell the state during his governorship, and workers from different industries began to strike. This once gallant soldier grew tired and frustrated and lost much of his charisma.  During one ceremony as governor, suffering from “cholera morbus,” he fell from his horse as he tried to dismount. Word of this clumsy incident spread quickly, and Jones was humiliated.

Yet he always drew admirers. His work on race relations, if not always courageous, was at least a step in the right direction. When he died, an unexpected number of blacks attended his funeral, watching solemnly. “Jones may not have been a hero,” Aucoin submits, “or someone on the good side who was unfaltering in his fight against evil, but there appears to be cause for concluding that he distinguished himself from the more rabid racist leaders of the South.”

The institution I work at bears the name of this curious man, whose bust is displayed prominently at the top of the stairs of the entry rotunda, looking down on the busy law faculty and students who come and go without the slightest concern for, or even knowledge of, his life. I’ve placed my copy of Aucoin’s biography beneath that bust with a short note: “Free copy. Learn about a fascinating person.”

It seemed like the right thing to do.

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