Arnett, Alex Matthews (1888–1945)

Alex Matthews Arnett was a historian and teacher noted as among the first historians to document the Populist movement in a scholarly work. Born near Sylvania, Georgia, to Hamilton and Georgia Arnett, Arnett grew up in a religious family, as his father was a Baptist teacher, educator, and even tax collector. Arnett graduated from Mercer University, a Baptist college in Macon, in 1908 and taught school (English and history) in Georgia from 1908 until 1912. In 1912 he accepted a position teaching history at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, and earned a master's degree in history from Columbia University in 1913. Arnett married in 1916 and received a Ph.D. in 1922, again from Columbia. After a year teaching at Furman in Greenville, he and his wife settled in Greensboro where he taught at North Carolina College for Women until his death in 1945.

Arnett was a student of Benjamin B. Kendrick, and both were influenced by Charles Beard, even though Beard had left Columbia before Arnett arrived. Beard's progressive interpretation of history left a mark on Arnett, and Arnett's works reflect the progressive view that economic factors shape history as a conflict between the haves and have-nots that would eventually result in a more democratic society. Arnett's dissertation, “The Populist Movement in Georgia: A View of the ‘Agrarian Crusade’ in Light of Solid-South Politics,” was completed in 1922 and published that same year.

In 1935, Arnett and Kendrick published The South Looks at Its Past, a set of historical essays intended as a preface for a broader southern regional study under the direction of Howard Odum of the University Of North Carolina. Arnett provided two essays centering on the South after 1875 and further developed ideas explored in Populist Movement in Georgia. His last book, Claude Kitchen and the Wilson War Policies (1937) dealt with antiwar sentiment during World War I. In 1933, he coauthored The Story of North Carolina as a history for use in the public schools.

Arnett contributed reviews and articles to historical journals throughout his lengthy career, but his Populist Movement in Georgia was his most significant and lasting work, still unchallenged as a historical study. He died at an early age in 1945 and is buried in Screven County, Georgia, where his father had been a pastor for over a half a century.

Boyd Childress

See also: Historians of Populism


Arnett, Alex Matthews. Populist Movement in Georgia: A View of the “Agrarian Crusade” in Light of Solid-South Politics. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, no. 104. New York: Columbia University, 1922. .

Hirsch, Jerrold M. “Arnett, Alex Matthews.” In William S. Powel, ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979, pp. 46–47.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.