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Becoming Bourgeois

Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865

Frank Byrne

Publication Year: 2006

Becoming Bourgeois is the first study to focus on what historians have come to call the “middling sort,” the group falling between the mass of yeoman farmers and the planter class that dominated the political economy of the antebellum South. Historian Frank J. Byrne investigates the experiences of urban merchants, village storekeepers, small-scale manufacturers, and their families, as well as the contributions made by this merchant class to the South’s economy, culture, and politics in the decades before, and the years of, the Civil War. These merchant families embraced the South but were not of the South. At a time when Southerners rarely traveled far from their homes, merchants annually ventured forth on buying junkets to northern cities. Whereas the majority of Southerners enjoyed only limited formal instruction, merchant families often achieved a level of education rivaled only by the upper class—planters. The southern merchant community also promoted the kind of aggressive business practices that New South proponents would claim as their own in the Reconstruction era and beyond. Along with discussion of these modern approaches to liberal capitalism, Byrne also reveals the peculiar strains of conservative thought that permeated the culture of southern merchants. While maintaining close commercial ties to the North, southern merchants embraced the religious and racial mores of the South. Though they did not rely directly upon slavery for their success, antebellum merchants functioned well within the slave-labor system. When the Civil War erupted, southern merchants simultaneously joined Confederate ranks and prepared to capitalize on the war’s business opportunities, regardless of the outcome of the conflict. Throughout Becoming Bourgeois, Byrne highlights the tension between these competing elements of southern merchant culture. By exploring the values and pursuits of this emerging class, Byrne not only offers new insight into southern history but also deepens our understanding of the mutable ties between regional identity and the marketplace in nineteenth-century America.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: New Directions in Southern History

Front Matter

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This project started as a seminar paper at the University of Georgia, developed into a dissertation at Ohio State University, and is now a book. Over that time I had the good fortune to meet numerous individuals who encouraged my love of history while at the same time challenging many of my assumptions about the past. Numan V. Bartley, Emory M. Thomas...

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pp. 1-12

In the summer of 1862 Jorantha Semmes wrote a letter expressing her war weariness to her husband Benedict Semmes, a Confederate officer. Responsible for the care of their five children in Federally occupied Memphis, Tennessee, Semmes told her husband, “I am tired of this separation.” His absence had left her bereft of “all gaiety of heart.” Caring...

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1. Merchant Culture and the Political Economy of the Old South

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pp. 13-40

This chapter explores how commerce distinguished southern merchant families and their culture in the antebellum South. In part, this comparative history examines the various social classes that composed southern society. The measure of merchant families’ experience can be taken only in relation to that of their economic and political neighbors, particularly...

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2. The Antebellum Merchant in Southern Society

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pp. 41-75

The business activities that ordered the internal lives of merchant families also helped fashion their public identity. Buying, selling, and investing made merchant families conspicuous in the antebellum South. Every day merchants had to perform before an audience. Whether selling goods to a reluctant customer, mollifying a nervous creditor, or simply attending...

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3. The Merchant Family in the Antebellum South

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pp. 77-120

The family was the center of southern merchant culture. The ties between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister provided the ultimate foundation for merchant values. While the political economy of the antebellum South circumscribed merchant culture, family defined it. Household relations affirmed the bourgeois and conservative ideals that...

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4. Secession, Merchant-Soldiers, and the Civil War, 1860–1863

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pp. 121-144

The election of 1860, secession, and the rise and fall of the Confederate States of America wreaked havoc upon the lives of thousands of southern merchants and their families. War changed business patterns, threatened the safety of homes, and called men away from their families to take up arms for their new nation. This turmoil left its mark on merchant culture...

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5. Merchants and Their Families in the Confederacy, 1861–1863

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pp. 145-177

The effect of the Civil War on the southern commercial population transcended the number of merchants who served and died while fighting for the Confederacy. The war also radically altered the lives of families, friends, and business associates who lived on the home front. Confederate citizens endured material deprivation, loss of independence to a swelling...

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6. The Merchant Family and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1864–1865

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pp. 179-201

The perils confronting white Southerners mounted as Confederate armies suffered reverses on the battlefield. By late 1863 what little had remained of normal existence on the southern home front had come to an end as casualties, material deprivation, and invading Federal armies challenged the faith of even the most stalwart Confederate partisan. During the travails...

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Conclusion: Merchant Culture in the Slave South and Beyond

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pp. 203-208

Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865 has investigated two related questions in the history of the antebellum and Confederate South. First, what identities and roles did merchants embrace in that society? Second, what do the activities and popular images of the merchant class reveal about the nature of southern society as a whole? Answering...


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pp. 209-214


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pp. 215-257


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pp. 259-288


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pp. 289-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171456
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124049

Page Count: 308
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: New Directions in Southern History