- Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Orders and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia
Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch's Brothers of a Vow examines the gender identity of largely middle-class, nonagricultural white men who joined the ranks of Virginia's secret fraternal orders in response to the expanding antebellum [End Page 269] market economy. Focusing on the three predominant fraternal societies in Virginia—the Freemasons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Sons of Temperance—the author qualifies the prevailing scholarship of southern honor and mastery by arguing that many white men sought and achieved an alternate vision of manhood that privileged market prowess and morality over the more aggressive martial manhood upheld by the patriarchal honor code. The result is a nuanced reinterpretation of masculine priorities in the antebellum South, one that should reinvigorate historical investigations of the Old South and its gendered dimensions.
Brothers of a Vow proceeds thematically, beginning with an outline of the significant social changes in antebellum Virginia: the rapid expansion of the market economy and urban centers, the decline of tobacco's profitability, and sharp spikes in slave prices combined to frustrate nonelite white men's designs for mastery and prestige. Pflugrad-Jackisch details the rising popularity of secret fraternal orders within this context and highlights the relatively egalitarian nature of these orders. Compared to college fraternities, debating clubs, and professional associations of a more homogenous composition, Pflugrad-Jackisch argues that secret fraternal orders allowed white men of middling classes to attain membership and distinction.
The author illustrates how secret fraternal orders actually crafted new standards of masculinity and promoted white male equality through the rhetoric of brotherhood and high moral character. Seen as a safeguard against moral depravity, economic dependence, and political factionalism, secret fraternal lodges gave middle-class white businessmen a support network that mitigated the harsh realities of an increasingly impersonal market while reinforcing masculine standards of moral character and economic success.
Pflugrad-Jackisch explicates how secret fraternal orders reconciled these emerging masculine standards with older notions of republicanism and moral virtue. They constructed elaborate fraternal histories that co-opted classical symbolism and Revolutionary rhetoric to lay claim to a fraternal tradition of republican virtue and stewardship. The author examines how secret fraternal orders exhibited these traditions and new masculine standards publicly through dedication ceremonies, parades, and benevolent and charitable activities. She argues that these assertions of masculine civic responsibility diminished the prominence of women's reform in the period, as white male fraternal orders appropriated much of the community reform initiatives formerly allotted to women. The author concludes by highlighting how the rise of a more restrained, middle-class [End Page 270] notion of manhood in antebellum Virginia encouraged white male solidarity by consciously excluding blacks and women, at once altering masculine standards while reinforcing racial patriarchy.
Pflugrad-Jackisch's analysis continues along the inroads laid out by Craig Friend and Lorri Glover in Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South (2004). She similarly seeks to re-evaluate the narrative of southern honor and mastery by including the perspectives of nonelite white men performing and debating their perceived public duties. Here the author's conclusions fall in line with those reached by John Mayfield in Counterfeit Gentlemen: Manhood and Humor in the Old South (2009) and Peter Carmichael in The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (2005). All chart the different ways in which young and nonelite white men reacted to the momentous economic and social shifts of the antebellum era.
Despite the largely evangelical foundations of antebellum southern social reform, Brothers of a Vow rather cursorily addresses religion within southern culture. Though her analysis corroborates that of Beth Barton Schweiger in The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (2000), Pflugrad-Jackisch fails to explicitly make connections between a developing middle-class white masculinity and increasingly pervasive Protestant evangelical social mores. In this respect...