- An American Aristocracy: Southern Planters in Antebellum Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Southern sympathies
Daniel Kilbride's An American Aristocracy analyzes the close bonds that developed between Philadelphia elites and the southern planter class during the first six decades of the nineteenth century. Described by Kilbride as the "leisure" class, this shared aristocratic identity bridged sectional difference and brought southerners to Philadelphia to live, learn, and mingle. The bulk of the book's action takes place within the city of Philadelphia. Instead of emphasizing a bustling antebellum community devoted to antislavery activism, however, Kilbride brings the reader to Carolina Row and the prestigious institutions of the city. Beyond the author's descriptive claim as to the strong ties and southern sympathies of the city's elites, he also advances a more critical argument that sectionalism [End Page 720] did not shape social interactions until the decade prior to the Civil War. Kilbride demonstrates that the planter class embraced a form of nationalism that allowed identification as both Americans and southerners.
The first two chapters focus on family and friendship ties between the regions, while the next four examine institutional ties to the south. Throughout, Kilbride draws heavily upon the private words found in diaries and correspondence and supplements these with cultural references found in newspapers, books, and institutional records. In his introduction, the author argues that to understand "the class dynamics of the early republic" one must "accommodate the presence of this leisure class" (3). In other words, there is value to analyzing class dynamics from a perspective other than from the "bottom up." Within this framework Kilbride poses questions as to how and why did these geographically different people get along, how did their relationships change over time, and why? In my opinion, the most important questions are implied ones: How does a national identity form for the upper classes? And does class trump region, a thesis that would complicate our understanding of nineteenth-century social relationships? Kilbride tackles this issue throughout the book.
An American Aristocracy begins with an examination of family and friendship ties by tracking the social interactions of, first, the Manigault household, and then cousins Sidney and Joshua Fisher a generation later. Margaret Manigault, the widow of a wealthy South Carolina planter, relocated her family to Philadelphia after her husband's death in 1809. Manigault's home often functioned as a conservative salon where Philadelphia's leisure class mixed and mingled with their visiting southern counterparts. Kilbride argues that these women "mold[ed] other aspects of political life, especially caucusing, consensus building, public opinion, and patronage" (7). Kilbride does a beautiful job of bringing to light the daily lives of elites, and in particular women, through their own words, and deftly proves the cultural importance of elite women differentiating them from the republican mothers of the middle class. In the next chapter the author turns to the Fisher cousins, and shifts from the early republic to the antebellum era. Kilbride further illustrates how interregional friendships continued, even during an era of growing sectional differences.
The next chapters discuss the education of southern young adults at Philadelphia's boarding schools and medical schools. For the young [End Page 721] women educated in Philadelphia, refinement and connections with local elites were considered as important as the curriculum. The large number of southern men attending school in the city was a product of more than just the lack of formal medical training available in the South. Philadelphia was seen as a safe location, both culturally and politically, for the southern student. Kilbride uses this chapter to illustrate the local elite response to antislavery activism, arguing that southern students found Philadelphians "nearly as hostile to anti-slavery agitators as they were" (89). Kilbride concludes that "the southern presence in Philadelphia's medical schools built strong and lasting bridges between the sections in the decades before the Civil War, strengthened the city's southern character, and reinforced the cohesion of the American upper class" (103).
The American Philosophical Society was another welcoming...