Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790–1860
South, Markets, Southern economy, Slavery
In the last decades of the twentieth century, traditional histories of the antebellum South described the region as economically stagnant and [End Page 530] socially backward. More recently, however, new scholarship has brought to light the pervasiveness of market activities in the Old South. Southern Society and Its Transformations builds on this new body of scholarship and makes important contributions of its own. This volume of essays paints a picture of a dynamic South that was constantly evolving and adapting (12).
In addition to the preface and editors’ introduction, the book’s nine essays are broken up into four sections that examine race relations, the emergence of the market economy, the rise of a southern middle class, and finance. The essays relocate the origins of regional modernization in the antebellum era and suggest a different timeline and pace for capitalist expansion. The authors depict the ebb and flow of southern economic development that started out slowly in the 1830s, but then rapidly accelerated in the late 1840s and 1850s.
Besides these shared contributions, the individual essays in Southern Society and Its Transformations offer three additional assertions that further complicate existing southern historiography. First, antebellum southerners were not only market-oriented, but also willing capitalists. Robert Wright’s essay surveys the economic viability of southern business and argues that southerners were not reluctant entrepreneurs. In fact, Wright demonstrates that southerners adroitly raised needed capital to finance their business ventures. He contends that southerners’ willingness to participate in the market was stifled only by the “negative externality” of slavery (198). Jeff Bremer’s chapter on the evolving consumer economy in Missouri and Gary T. Edwards’s essay on yeomen farmers’ desire to enter into surplus cotton production in western Tennessee further establish southern farmers’ willing engagement in market activities. Elbra David’s chapter on the role of unsecured credit in Natchez illustrates the adaptability of the southern credit system. Like Bremer, David demonstrates the usefulness of examining the whole range of credit relationships, including informal credit transactions that were conducted outside of formal lending channels, because of their importance to regional economic development and in financing southern agriculture.
Second, the two essays by Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green trace the creation of a self-conscious middle-class identity among a growing group of educated southern professionals, and they explore the occupational diversification that accompanied economic and social change in antebellum southern life. Wells examines southern professionals’ efforts to differentiate themselves from planters by forming professional societies, clubs, and organizations. Ultimately these organizations [End Page 531] helped the emerging middle class formulate a new future for the South, one that envisioned slavery comfortably coexisting with urban and industrial modernization. Green explores the educational background of antebellum southerners, concluding that graduates of higher schooling overwhelmingly entered into middle-class professional occupations and sought professional, not agricultural, success. These essays demonstrate the growing presence of a middle-class coalition of southerners who helped to redefine southern social mobility and cultivate bourgeois values long before the Civil War.
A third group of essays reveals significant tensions among white southerners. As whites increasingly engaged in market activities, their competing economic interests strained both racial solidarity and the traditional framework of the slave system. Specifically, these tensions underscored the need for nonslaveholding whites to participate in the common defense of slavery (which did not always occur). Keri Leigh Merritt’s chapter on the enforcement of vagrancy laws in antebellum Georgia exposes planters’ uncertainty about poor whites’ commitment to slavery. She argues that vagrancy laws were selectively used to punish poor whites whose allegiance they questioned. Michael J. Pfeifer’s essay highlights the surprising prevalence of extralegal lynching in the antebellum era. Like Merritt, Pfeifer uncovers interesting historical moments when the property rights of individual slaveholders were pitted against the larger community’s interest in reinforcing racial solidarity. Moreover, Max L. Grivno’s chapter on rural wage labor in Maryland fleshes out a portrait of poor landless workers who continually struggled to cobble together enough seasonal work to make ends meet. This desperate struggle often put white rural wage laborers at odds with the authority of slaveholders and caused considerable tensions between poor whites and free blacks who competed for the same low-paying jobs. These chapters dovetail nicely with other recent scholarship concerning the tensions caused by slave hiring and the use of slaves in southern manufacturing.
Despite the many strengths of this volume, a more substantial analysis of how the emergence of a market economy in the antebellum South affected notions of gender would have bolstered this collection. Perhaps the absence of an individual essay on this topic was due to a dearth of scholarship, but even within the existing chapters there are many missed opportunities to explore this issue. With the exception of Max Grivno’s chapter, which provides some in-depth discussion of single mothers, this deficiency in gender analysis is especially surprising considering the [End Page 532] frequent discussions about the rural household economy. Certainly Jeanne Boydston’s thought-provoking article, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” (Journal of the Early Republic 16, Summer 1996, 183–206), might serve as a model for southern historians hoping to understand rural women’s contribution to the household economy and engagement with the market economy. This omission, however, does not detract from the book’s overall contribution to southern scholarship.
More broadly, the research in this collection is important not only for southern historians, but also for scholars who study early America generally. So often, historians have relied on a historical paradigm that draws on the development of a market economy in the northeast and the existence of slavery in the South to explain the cultural and social differences between the two regions on the eve of the Civil War. As J. William Harris notes in the book’s preface, however, the essays collectively reveal the “uncomfortable truth that such a moral blight [slavery] could develop hand in hand with economic and social changes that we usually label as ‘progress’ “ (7). This new research challenges entrenched notions about the structure and culture of southern society and encourages scholars to reevaluate the effect of the market revolution on northern society.
Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch is an associate professor at the University of Michigan–Flint. She is the author of Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Orders and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia (Athens, GA, 2011). She is currently conducting research on gender and memory of the American Revolution in antebellum America.