- Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Orders and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia
Brothers of a Vow is a tightly written and thought-provoking book about the men who became Odd Fellows, Freemasons, and Sons of Temperance in antebellum Virginia. In five short chapters, Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch manages—by means of thorough research, incisive engagement with the latest scholarship, and persuasive explanations of causes and effects—to make the case that fraternal organizations allowed working- and middle-class men to come together and to assert a wholly new kind of masculine respectability and white male civic brotherhood. She argues, persuasively, that the language of brotherly love and male equality so ubiquitous in the fraternal orders held great appeal for men seeking to navigate the uncertainties of a society increasingly divided by economic interest and party allegiance.
Moral integrity, not economic success or social prominence, was the marker of a worthy member. And that standard for membership allowed men in Virginia, whether propertied slaveholders or not, to construct and to lay claim to a new standard of southern white manhood and male independence. Pflugrad-Jackisch rests much of her argument on Amy Greenberg's description of two distinct and competing varieties of masculinity in antebellum America: martial manhood, with its emphasis on honor and violence; and restrained manhood, with a market-friendly stress on trustworthiness, temperance, and self-discipline.1 Brothers of a Vow reveals how fraternity and ritual could serve as means to embrace the latter while minimizing class divisions that were painfully present in the cities of Virginia.
Indeed, the elaborate rituals themselves played an important role here. Pflugrad-Jackisch rightly contends that the fraternal signs and symbols allowed men to distinguish those of good character from the unworthy. A member's attention to the increasingly complex and lengthy rituals of [End Page 534] the Masons, Odd Fellows, and the relatively new Sons of Temperance were "part of a larger performance that indicated the quality of his character and reinforced the 'familial' bonds of the lodge" (61). Adherence to tightly scripted behavior within the lodge could evince a man's self-discipline out of doors. And the ability to keep those rituals secret could prove his reliability.
The content of antebellum rituals in Brothers of a Vow, however, is given relatively short shrift. Rituals were useful as "an effective means of policing white male conduct" (75), but Pflugrad-Jackisch does not ascribe to them much larger significance. This is at times a real strength to her study: She is able to see through the regalia, pomp, and secrecy to locate a desire among mid-nineteenth-century Virginia men to find a medium through which they could cultivate white male solidarity and help manage the stresses of an increasingly market-driven society.
But the men themselves gave the letter and spirit of the rituals more significance than does the author, and on one occasion her emphasis leads her astray. When she notes that an aspiring Mason was rejected for having only one leg, "presumably because it interfered with his ability to support himself" (80), she misses an opportunity to explore ways in which the content of the ritual had real meaning, not just utility, for the participants. For the actual reason the man was rejected dates back to the beginnings of modern Freemasonry in England (and lingers to this day in many Masonic jurisdictions), specifically, the prohibition on any applicant who did not "have his right Limbs as a Man ought to have."2 The reason was ideational rather than practical, having to do with the ideal image of a man and with his ability to perform the requisite motions of initiation and recognition. Attempts to understand what drew men to the lodge should give more weight to the rites and rules that they set out for themselves.
There is much more in this short volume, for the joiners in Brothers of a Vow were doing something besides simply...