- The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800 to 1861
Jonathan Daniel Wells has written an important book on an important subject. The antebellum Southern middle class is a group neglected, if not quite ignored, by historians of the South. The South did, Wells shows, have a middle class; significant numbers of Southerners held middle-class occupations, and [End Page 99] they created a network of institutions that supported a middle-class way of life. By the 1850s, he believes, they had developed a consciousness of themselves as distinct from, and to some extent in conflict with, both planters and manual workers.
Wells argues that middle-class Southerners were heavily influenced by the larger and better-established middle class of the Northeast. Travel and migration led to personal connections between Northerners and Southerners, and, in small towns as well as cities, Southerners subscribed to periodicals such as Harper's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book. Furthermore, Southerners recognized and celebrated these intersectional connections and openly admired their Northern counterparts. In Charleston, Richmond, and other places, Southerners joined voluntary societies devoted to benevolent reform and patronized libraries and lyceums. Many middle-class women, notably editors such as Frances Webb Bumpas of Greensboro, North Carolina, "transgressed the blurred boundaries between the supposedly separate spheres and contributed to the economic life of the developing middle class" (111). With their cosmopolitan outlook, middle-class men and women gravitated naturally to the Whig Party and its support for policies such as public education.
By the 1850s, Wells claims, middle-class Southerners had self-consciously distinguished themselves from both planters and urban working men. They denounced dueling as a remnant of "a dark and barbarous age" (81) and sharply criticized planters for their resistance to economic diversification. They also set themselves apart from the "mechanic" class. Wells's evidence for this comes primarily from the public reaction to two labor actions: the Norfolk Dry Dock Affair of the early 1830s, which Wells mischaracterizes as a "strike" (183), and a strike against Richmond's Tredegar Ironworks in 1847. In both cases, white artisans tried, but failed, to prevent employers from hiring skilled slave workers.
Unlike these artisans, middle-class Southerners supported slavery unambiguously. Many urban middle-class families owned slaves, and businessmen purchased and hired slaves for their stores and factories. Middle-class Southerners argued that slavery was not incompatible with economic and social progress; on the contrary, by serving to discipline white as well as black workers, slavery could give the South a competitive edge in national markets for manufactures. J. Mills Thornton III, Steven Hahn, and others have argued that rapid Southern economic development in the 1850s led to internal tensions that found an outlet in sectional conflict. Wells adds a distinctive strand to this line of argument with his claim that Northern [End Page 100] middle-class resistance to the "Slave Power" was in part a fearful response to Southern development and to the possibility that slave labor might indeed give Southern manufacturers an unfair advantage. The argument is original and suggestive, though Wells provides little evidence in support—evidence that would have to come from Northern sources.
Wells's study is stronger as cultural history than as social history. He pays close attention to theorists of class but little to questions of numbers or precise definitions. He essentially adopts the argument of Stuart Blumin in The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (1989) that the middle class can be largely identified with the families of the urban nonrich in nonmanual occupations, referring at one point to the "commercial and professional class" (xiii), and at another to "storekeepers, clerks, teachers, editors, ministers and their families who tended to reside in the small towns and larger cities" (8). Nor does Wells make full use of relevant quantitative research from historians of the urban South, such as David Goldfield or Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease.
There are also questions about whether...