- Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865
In his compelling rendering of southern merchants in the antebellum and Civil War years, Frank Byrne argues that these oft-neglected carriers of bourgeois values “served as financial linchpins in keeping the southern economy viable during peace and war” at the same time that they operated outside of the traditional agrarian prerogatives that dominated southern society (6). Byrne has mined a wide range of archival, printed, and government sources to recreate their world in Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865. This excellent study sheds light on a commonly overlooked class of white southerners and provides another example of the ways in which historians continue to highlight the diversity of the “Old South.”
Byrne begins Becoming Bourgeois with a well-constructed portrait of the merchant community in the antebellum South. He argues that their economic ties to the North, as well as their penchant for traveling there, gave southern merchants a different orientation than most white southerners, but Byrne is careful to note that merchants never seriously challenged the centrality of slavery to the South. These early chapters use brief case studies of individual merchants and their families to great effect, offering not only a glimpse of their business prospects, but also their Whiggish political orientation and the dynamics of a family life “exhibiting behavior historically associated with the northern middle classes” (93). By the advent of secession, we see a merchant class struggling to maintain its social status within the South at the same time that their economic role made them indispensable to the region’s economy. Byrne concludes that maintaining this position required southern merchants to be “Janus-faced” in order to survive.
The Civil War offered both opportunities and setbacks for southern merchants. On the one hand, Byrne finds that merchants sacrificed both personally and professionally for the Confederacy through military service and severing their business ties to the North. On the other hand, the longstanding suspicion that their market orientation made them less “southern” [End Page 99] plagued merchants throughout the Civil War, particularly when they profited from the unique circumstances created by the conflict. Stories about the inherent greed and callous nature of merchants circulated during wartime. When a mother asked how to feed her seven children if flour cost seventy dollars a barrel, a merchant reportedly replied, “I don’t know madam, unless you eat your children.” Byrne suggests that, whether real or fictional, the presence of such tales “bolstered the conclusion that storekeepers held values alien to southern people and their cause” (189). Following the collapse of the Confederacy, southern merchants led the charge to create a “New South,” which enhanced their economic standing, yet still ran them afoul of traditional concepts of southern identity.
Becoming Bourgeois is an important book that provides an accessible, yet very densely researched, reconstruction of the world of the southern merchant. Byrne is quick to point out that his subjects embraced a distinct worldview from their fellow southerners on the plantation, but also seems reluctant to delineate them on their own terms. By defining southern merchants generally as “people who shared a cosmopolitan worldview that emphasized a strong commitment to liberal capitalism” (203), Byrne sets them in opposition to the predominant political and economic values traditionally associated with the nineteenth-century South. In doing so, he highlights their unique position while never really challenging the dominance of the planters’ worldview in historical constructions of southern society. Although their relatively small numbers and hostile reception suggest that Byrne is correct in placing his subjects somewhere on the margins, one wonders how his composite portrait of “Southern Yankees” could become more significant if he emphasized the ways in which they altered our conceptions of southern society rather than simply negotiating the commonly held visions of it. This call to place southern merchants within a wider view of the “Old South” is by no means a slight on Byrne’s impressive accomplishment in Becoming Bourgeois, but instead a reminder of how important...