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  • Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865
  • Jonathan Daniel Wells
Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865. By Frank J. Byrne . ( Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Pp. 297. Cloth $50.00.)

Is there a revival of interest in the nineteenth-century Southern social structure? After more than three decades of the "cultural turn" in the historiography, it seems that scholars are once again turning their attention to the class structure of the South. Importantly, however, this new trend in the study of class does not leave culture out of the picture but instead ties the two historiographical themes together, to the betterment of both. Building upon recent work on the middle class and the master class, historian Frank Byrne has added yet another dimension to scholarly understanding of the ways in which social structure and culture intertwine.

Byrne argues that Southern merchants lived in constant tension between their desire to be accepted as legitimate contributors to society and the feeling among these same merchants that they had more in common with their counterparts in the North than they did with Southern planters or yeomen farmers. Like their brethren in the free states, Southern merchants adhered to nineteenth-century middle-class values such as the importance of education for advancement, the ever-present search for profit, and the belief in evangelical religion. Indeed, as others have pointed out, Byrne finds a great deal of interaction between Northern and Southern merchants, including the trips that the latter made each year to the large cities of the North.

In contrast to their affinity with Northern merchants, Southern shopkeepers, grocers, and wholesale merchants found acceptance within the South difficult, according to Byrne. Reviled as "Jews" or "Yankees," Southern businessmen often found themselves targeted for their perceived greed. Although clearly in support of slavery, these merchants questioned the more radical political ideology found in the region; Byrne demonstrates convincingly that these Southerners favored the Whig party and were largely Unionists.

When the Civil War broke out, however, Southern merchants were forced from the political fence-riding demonstrated by their adherence to the Constitutional Union party in the 1860 election. Although merchants questioned the wisdom of secession, and realized that war would break [End Page 417] vital trading links with the North, they avidly joined the Confederacy after fighting began. As Byrne points out, Southern merchants "tirelessly worked to place their businesses on a war footing" (128). They served as town quartermasters, army recruiters, and commissary agents even while they tried to benefit from the privation caused by the war. Tales of gouging profits, greed, and opportunism (some of which were exaggerated for effect) found ready believers among a people devastated by war.

Byrne is at his best in bringing the social and cultural together when he discusses merchant families. Confronted by financial anxiety before the war, these families faced dwindling supplies and accusations of speculation, especially in the harsh final two years of the war. Interestingly, just as the mistress was forced to run the plantation in the absence of her husband, so too did many merchant wives take over the running of stores and businesses when the men left for the battlefield.

Byrne's study would have benefited greatly from an expanded discussion of the Southern social structure. If these merchants were part of a "class," and Byrne uses that term frequently, we need more analysis of important issues such as class formation. If there was a middle class, which elements of the social structure might we consider them in between? Do they fit sandwiched between planters and slaves or should we consider merchants part of an emerging urban society in which white laborers, hired slaves, and incipient industrialists made up the top and bottom of a city-bound social structure? These questions Byrne does not consider. Finally, if the merchants were marginalized and scorned as Byrne argues, then why did so many Southern communities trumpet their progress in business and industry?

Byrne has provided us with an insightful analysis of a segment of the Southern population. The hope is that scholars will carry on this work and refine our understanding of the complex society that was...


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pp. 417-418
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