phil magness vs. nancy maclean: a knockout punch?

nutter home school photo sept 1958 found by magness.jpg

Parents in Virginia continued to hold classes after segregationists successfully closed public schools. In September 1958,  UPI circulated this story about Virginia parents who opposed segregation and continued to hold classes in the home of economist Warren Nutter.

Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, on James Buchanan and public choice makes a very disturbing claim. Namely, that James Buchanan, and other public choice scholars, were aligned with segregationists. If true, this is very important to know. But if it is false, the record needs to be cleared up. Immediately.

Phil Magness has been on a year long mission to verify and critique MacLean’s book. More so than any other critic, Magness has spent hour after hour hunting down sources and finding  new materials. In case after case, he finds errors. Some minor, some egregious. Phil recently announced that he’s found direct evidence that one of MacLean’s major historical claims about Buchanan – that he was aligned with pro-segregationists or benefited from them – is simply wrong. He discovered that Buchanan’s colleagues in Virginia were actually active participants in an anti-segregationist group that worked to keep schools open when segregationists shut them down.

What did Phil find? This crucial archival work focuses on Buchanan’s friend and colleague, economist Warren Nutter. This is very important because MacLean suggests that Buchanan and Nutter “ignored the overt racism and turned a blind eye to the chronic violations of Black citizen’s liberty.” Who are the good guys in MacLean’s book? In Virginia, a group of parents who fought the segregationist “Massive Resistance.”

Specifically, Magness found the following. He discovered in letters that Buchanan praised the defeat of segregationist school closures. He discovered that Nutter and his spouse were founders of the parent anti-segregation group Parents Committee for Emergency Schooling and they used their home to hold classes when segregationists shut down their school. Nutter even borrowed chairs and desks from the University of Virginia. Phil’s summary of the documentary evidence from his article in the History News Network:

On September 24, 1958, the Washington Star ran a story on how the PCES mobilized to ensure the continuity of schooling after the Massive Resisters shut down Venable Elementary. They specifically featured Nutter family’s efforts and interviewed Mrs. Nutter for the article. A week later, the Staunton Leader visited the temporary classroom in the basement of the Nutter home at 1860 Field Street. They recruited Mrs. James Leitch, a displaced public school teacher from Venable, to teach the class and converted picnic and ping-pong tables into desks. As they settled in for the long fight against Byrd’s school closure policy, Warren Nutter even brought home desk-chairs from the University of Virginia for the students to use.

This is not a minor point. The essence of Democracy in Chains is that there is a lot of indirect and circumstantial evidence that Buchanan and his colleagues were exploiting anti-Black backlash to school desegregation. Here, we have extremely direct evidence that the circle of people around Buchanan were key players in the anti-segregationist movement – the complete opposite.

Let me reiterate a few basic points here. James Buchanan is not beyond criticism. Maybe it is the case that public choice economics is a really bad idea. If so, that is a debate to be had. But it is simply not legitimate to claim that he was an exploiter of anti-Black backlash when (a) there is no direct evidence that is case and (b) there is obvious and strong evidence he was embedded in networks of people who actively fought segregation.


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Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. You might be interested in, linked from, if you haven’t already seen them. (I’m reluctant to resort to Twitter, here, but Kuehn’s critique of Magness’ critique is worth some consideration, and Twitter’s where it’s at.)


    Josh Garoon

    November 30, 2018 at 5:46 am

  2. Josh – I’ve engaged Kuehn extensively on this subject and other related features of the MacLean/Buchanan debate. He is firmly wedded to the notion that Buchanan was a “moderate segregationist,” and seems to have formed that view before several important pieces of information were uncovered that tend to go against that claim. That he has not adjusted his initial position suggests to me that he’s allowing his prior assumptions to motivate his interpretation of subsequent finds.

    Of course he’s welcome to make an argument to the contrary, and I encourage him to do so in a suitable journal. But thus far he’s restricted himself to tweeting from the sidelines, and usually in ways that enlist evidence very tendentiously.


    Phil Magness

    November 30, 2018 at 7:30 pm

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