Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch's Brothers of a Vow is a complex book that addresses a deceptively simple question: what did it mean "to be a white male in the slave South" (p. 12)? To readers fixed on the southern cavalier, this may seem like overplowed ground, but for the past few years it has become virtually a new field among southern historians. The idea that all white southern men were essentially alike (patriarchal, self-absorbed in proving their honor, secure in their mastery of women and slaves) has been challenged at several levels in works by Amy Greenberg, Jennifer Green, Stephen Berry, Lorri Glover, and others. The new research reveals the obvious: though virtually all southern white men endorsed slavery, most did not own slaves, fight duels, or raise cotton, nor did they necessarily live on farms or plantations. They took their identity from other sources. southern cities and small towns displayed most of the same social classes and diversity as northern ones, with all the accompanying stresses. Even staid Virginia was by 1850 an evolving, dynamic market economy in which fully half of its workers described themselves as urban, not agricultural. How, in such a landscape, could a nonslave-holding, nonprofessional, nonelite nonplanter affirm his sense of inner worth and civic value?
He might send his sons to military school or launch off on voyages of conquest. Or he might join one of the secret brotherhoods, notably Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Sons of Temperance. Less elitist than hunt clubs or library associations, fraternal orders reached out to a broad spectrum of the rising southern bourgeoisie, bringing artisans, shopkeepers, and professional men into a "civic brotherhood" of white males. Pflugrad-Jackisch's analysis is finely paced and nicely contextual, and it draws on the latest scholarship in manhood studies as well as thorough research into archives and statistics. Brothers of a Vow describes "an alternative definition of [End Page 94] white male independence based on men's moral conduct rather than the ownership of land or slaves"(p. 12). Yet all, to a man, defended slavery.
Pflugrad-Jackisch unfolds this phenomenon in several ways. The first two chapters establish context, wherein the lodges evolved to negotiate "white male class turmoil" brought on by the market revolution. Her close analysis of membership rolls is sophisticated and persuasive: these were inclusive brotherhoods that bridged a gap between artisans and professionals, and their rise was directly paced to the evolution of the market. Her third chapter explores both the criteria and the rewards for memberships. In return for sobriety, honesty, and allegiance, a member received not only secret passwords and elaborate regalia but insulation from con men and dandies alike. In a shifting market landscape, these were means of "reconstituting a face-to-face society within the lodge"(p. 59).
Fraternal organizations also served public functions. The concluding chapters of Brothers of a Vow demonstrate the ways in which moral men enacted moral enterprise. Lodge members helped their brothers through tough times and buried them with honors when their time ran out, took care of their widows and orphans, and even started schools to educate their young. In a partisan age, they avoided partisanship. And, of course, they dressed up and made parades. Pflugrad-Jackisch's narrative is particularly fine on these points. She avoids condescension, treats her subjects fairly, and grounds everything in solid research.
This benevolence came with a price, she argues, for during the 1840s and 1850s men's civic ventures "marginalized women's activities in the public sphere and made benevolence, charity, education, and the quelling of partisan conflict masculine civic responsibilities," that is, they drove the women back into the home (p. 73). This may overstate the case. Pflugrad-Jackisch offers plenty of evidence that the orders reinforced masculine solidarity, but it is not clear, at least not from the evidence presented here, that fraternal organizations were anything more than one element in the exceedingly complex redefinition of...