- You Can’t Go Home Again: Politics, War, and Domestic Life in the Nineteenth-Century South
In 1865, Edwin G. Reade stood before North Carolina’s Constitutional Convention to deliver his opening address. “Fellow-citizens,” he began, “we are going home.” Despite recent events, the Union still stood as an “old homestead . . . built upon a rock . . . [that] . . . weathered the storm.” Defeated Confederates simply needed to “grasp hard again the hand of friendship which stands at the door . . . [and] . . . enjoy together the long, bright future which awaits us.” 1 Making the Union into a domestic haven outside history’s upheavals, Reade metaphorically blunted the conflicts that had divided the nation. Although contemporary commentators complimented the imagery, they failed to explain why it worked. Neither have historians of the nineteenth-century South, who invoke sentimental attachments to the “old homestead,” but then pass it by to locate the dynamics of change elsewhere.
Stephanie McCurry’s Masters of Small Worlds and LeeAnn Whites’s The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender expose the dangers of accepting Reade’s domestic imagery too uncritically and reveal the historical logic that made his metaphor work. While advancing very different arguments, both authors illuminate connections between the “private” sphere of domestic relations and the “public” world of war and politics and build on a growing body of literature that uses insights from women’s history and feminist theory to reinterpret traditional topics. As their books reveal, Edwin Reade could not “go home” to a place untouched by historical change. Historians of the [End Page 570] nineteenth-century South will find it difficult to “go home” as well. Their favored topics will never look quite the same again.
Masters of Small Worlds is social history at its best, opening up new conceptual ground through an exhaustive reading of archival sources. South Carolina’s low country, with its large slave population and self-conscious planter class, may seem an unlikely setting for a book on white yeoman households. Such studies generally have focused on the piedmont or upcountry. In fact, key historiographical debates turn on the historical meaning of the distance between the yeomanry and the planter class: what economic, social, and cultural differences existed between the two groups, whether those differences resulted in political conflict, and why the yeomanry sided with slaveholders during the Civil War. Taking up these issues, McCurry turns the low country to her advantage. Here, the yeomanry lived alongside slaveholders and, contrary to current historiographical wisdom, they formed a majority of the white population. Making the low country’s yeomanry visible thus allows McCurry to reveal and address a central weakness in the literature: its conceptual inability to explain how this group fit into the slaveholding South.
McCurry uses gender to illuminate the ties that bound the yeomanry and planter class together. As she argues, the central link was “the virtually unlimited right of an independent man to mastery over his own household and the property that lay within its boundaries” (p. 6). Such mastery included control of all household dependents—white women and children as well as slaves. Relations within the household then structured the social order generally, organizing “the majority of the population . . . in relations of legal and customary dependency to the propertied male head” and elevating all male heads as the public representatives of their households (p. 6). Whether masters of large or small worlds, all household heads were invested in this structure because all their prerogatives as “free men” derived from it. McCurry then shows how this dynamic worked in everyday life, taking readers into yeoman households and then leading them out through the neighborhood and local churches to state and national politics. Each chapter builds on the next, explaining the intertwining of gender and class in the economic structure...