- The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston
At first glance, The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston appears to be one more celebration of the Old South at its richest and most patrician. But in fact Maurie McInnis presents Charleston's opulent material culture from another perspective. She depicts the antebellum city, a community built on and by slavery, as the physical expression of a slaveholding aristocracy striving to maintain position in the city and nation and, above all, to control and justify the institution of slavery. In exploring material culture as a means by which leading Charlestonians conveyed their values and accomplished their purposes, McInnis's work also spurs questions about the use of such evidence as expressions of intent—an approach widely employed in our field.
First a word about the physical book itself, which suits its purpose admirably. It is handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated with informative images clearly reproduced and large enough to study. Color plates capture the creamy white-skinned flesh and lush silks and satins of elite women and the ruddy faces and confident bearing of their men; the gleaming surfaces and buxom forms of gilded and carved furniture; and the delicate color washes of a backyard streetscape or a sketch of a "Slave Girl Going to Market." Maps, period drawings and paintings, and photographs depict the city's material culture from its urban plan to a curtain-rod finial. The author and the press meet admirably the challenge of presenting visual evidence of sufficient abundance, quality, and size to convey the objects in which any material culture study is grounded.
Throughout most of the antebellum period, Charleston's population was slightly more than half black, mostly slaves. In 1790, with 16,000 people, it was the fourth-largest city in the nation, but it was soon outstripped by other American cities: by 1830 it ranked sixth and by 1860 was twenty-second, with about 40,000 people. Charleston and the Low Country's wealth in the colonial period ranked highest in the colonies, but in the nineteenth century, while other American regions burgeoned with industry and trade, McInnis writes, Charleston's national economic standing dwindled as its leaders continued their reliance on plantation agriculture. Rather than seeking modernization or democratization, Charleston leaders took a conservative course that drew upon the "golden age" of their ancestors to assert their position in a hierarchical society.
McInnis weaves a story based on her intensive and extensive reading of both the material culture of architecture, furniture, arts, clothing, and more, as well as documentary texts written by Charlestonians or about Charleston during the period. Analyzing the material culture in the context of political and racial issues, she concentrates on a few interwoven themes. At one level, she seeks to "explain why the city looks the way it does" (8) and depicts the city's layout and changing architectural patterns, giving special attention to the distinctive "single house" widely identified with Charleston and to other house types and public buildings. She describes how Charlestonians transformed the "open" city of the eighteenth century with its relatively permeable social and physical boundaries to a "closed" antebellum city concerned with barriers, privacy, and protection. At a deeper level, she presents the city as the embodiment of the values, attitudes, and actions of a hereditary slaveholding elite. The antebellum elite responded to problems of a slave society and a nation beset by growing sectional tensions by tightening control of slaves while lauding the benefits of slavery as demonstrated by their refined culture and aristocratic colonial legacy.
Charlestonians' focus on control of their slaves increased after the alleged Denmark Vesey insurrection plot in 1822: slaveholders constructed stronger barriers and edifices for protection from and punishment of their slaves. Moreover, McInnis explains, after the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s and with the national intensification of the antislavery movement, Charleston leaders moved from defending slavery as a necessary evil to asserting it as a positive good. They affirmed...