The Fall and Rise of Southern Presidents: How the Civil War Broke The South

Out of all the regions in the United States, the South probably has the most unique and interesting history. Looking at the geographic origins of each president provides a fascinating proxy of Southern influence in America. To do this, I have compiled a table which lists whether each president had Southern origins or not.

Here are the early years of America:

President From the Former Confederacy?
George Washington Yes
Yes
John Adams No
Thomas Jefferson Yes
Yes
James Madison Yes
Yes
James Monroe Yes
Yes
John Quincy Adams No
Andrew Jackson Yes
Yes
Martin Van Buren No
William Henry Harrison Yes
John Tyler Yes
James K. Polk Yes
Zachary Taylor Yes
Millard Fillmore No
Franklin Pierce No
James Buchanan No
CIVIL WAR BEGINS

In this table, Southern is defined as simply the former states of the Confederacy. Presidents with two terms get two entries; those with one term get merely one. It is generally pretty clear whether or not a president had Southern origins; the only two difficult cases are that of President Harry Truman (raised in Missouri) and President George W. Bush (who was born in Connecticut but spent most of his life in Texas).

As the table indicates, Southern presidents dominate the early life of the republic. Four of the first five founding presidents are Southern; their Democratic-Republican Party eventually extinguishes the New England Federalists. Interestingly, it appears that Southern influence was already in decline by the late 1840s; the last three presidents in this list are all non-Southern. By 1860, non-Southern presidents have held control over the country for the longest period since its founding.

The Civil War then utterly annihilates Southern influence:

President From the Former Confederacy?
CIVIL WAR BEGINS
Abraham Lincoln No
No
Andrew Johnson Yes
Ulysses S. Grant No
No
Rutherford B. Hayes No
James Garfield No
Chester A. Arthur No
Grover Cleveland No
Benjamin Harrison No
Grover Cleveland No
William McKinley No
Theodore Roosevelt No
No
William Howard Taft No
Woodrow Wilson Yes
Yes
Warren G. Harding No
Calvin Coolidge No
Herbert Hoover No
Franklin D. Roosevelt No
No
No
No
Harry S. Truman No
No
Dwight D. Eisenhower No
No
John F. Kennedy No
Lyndon B. Johnson Yes
Yes

For a long time after the Civil War, Southerners are unelectable. President Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President Andrew Johnson is the last Southern president for nearly half a century. After President Woodrow Wilson, it’s nearly another half century before the next Southern president.

During this period the Southern vote is uniformly Democratic. Unfortunately for the South, this means that the Democratic Party rarely nominates Southern presidential candidates; it already has the region under its belt. Moreover, and more importantly, Southerners are still tarred by the brush of secession. The northern electorate is extremely reluctant to cast a ballot for a Southerner.

In the modern era, Southern presidents have once again begun appearing frequently:

President From the Former Confederacy?
Richard M. Nixon No
No
Gerald R. Ford No
James Carter  Yes
Ronald Reagan No
No
George H. W. Bush No
William J. Clinton Yes
Yes
George W. Bush  Yes
Yes
Barack Obama No

Four of the last five presidential terms have been controlled by Southern presidents. In the process, the South has closed much of the once vast income gap that existed between itself and the wealthier northern states.

All in all, the Civil War destroyed Southern influence for about a century. The South then regained some of its influence. However, it still has not reached the dominance over the American political system that it had during the antebellum era. Given the way in which America has changed and expanded since the Civil War, it probably never will.

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3 Responses to The Fall and Rise of Southern Presidents: How the Civil War Broke The South

  1. Brett Heffner says:

    The 14 states of the South that I use in the definition that I learned in school in PA (the 11 former Confederate states, WV, KY, and OK) currently have at least 34% of our population. It is interesting that Virginia produced the majority of our Southern Presidents and it has come full circle to a swing state in modern Presidential elections. Out of 15 Southern Presidents (16 if Kentucky-born Lincoln is counted,) eight are from Virginia (the most of any state.) Only seven Presidents were born west of the Mississippi—Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Ford (from Omaha,) Clinton, and Obama.

    • Brett Heffner says:

      The 14 states of the South that I use in the definition that I learned in school in PA (the 11 former Confederate states, WV, KY, and OK) currently have at least 34% of our population. It is interesting that Virginia produced the majority of our Southern Presidents and it has come full circle to a swing state in modern Presidential elections. Out of 15 Southern Presidents (16 if Kentucky-born Lincoln is counted,) eight are from Virginia (the most of any state.) Only seven Presidents were born west of the Mississippi—Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Ford (from Omaha,) Clinton, and Obama.

      Actually, 15 is the correct number of Southern-born Presidents, since Lincoln and GWB cancel each other out. Obama is the first non-Southern Democrat since JFK.

      • inoljt says:

        I didn’t know that about Virginia; that’s quite interesting. One would think that more presidents would have been from Texas.

        As for Western presidents, I’m not too concerned about our underrepresentation. After all, the West didn’t have much populationa at all until the latter half of the 20th century. Having 7 out of the last 12 presidents be born west of the Mississippi is not bad.

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