- Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era by Jennifer L. Goloboy
Jennifer Goloboy recounts an interesting and detailed history of merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, from the 1760s to the 1820s. By framing this period as the “Revolutionary Era,” she argues for important continuities in the commercial culture of Charleston before and after the Revolutionary War. The lives and habits of Charleston merchants, she argues, offer a new perspective on the important organizing factors in the history of middle-class culture in America. “Above all,” Goloboy writes, “I hope to dispel the idea that ‘middle-class’ inherently implied ‘nice’: economically and socially progressive, engaged in nurturing a close family life” (4). Charleston merchants were sharp dealers, whose main object was to survive the fickle nature of the market economy. Goloboy’s study of the habits and practices of trade favored by Charleston merchants underpins her most important point: “the cultural work of making the [End Page 380] middle class happened in the countinghouse as well as the parlor, and among men as well as women” (92).
Goloboy defines the middle class as “a distinctive culture that belonged to independent trading households” (3). Yet for a book that purports to reshape our understanding of the middle class as both a category and a group, the discussion of the theoretical models of class identity and the broader historiography of middle-class culture is brief. Goloboy struggles with a key question in the history of the middle class: Were merchants, by definition, middle class? She conflates the economic role of merchant with the idea of middle-class status without exploring how merchants, shopkeepers, retail traders, auctioneers, attorneys, bankers, insurance agents, and, in some cases, artisans came to see each other as more than other actors who participated in the commercial life of Charleston. By her own description, the middle class was recognizable by the middle of the eighteenth century. As early as 1763, Goloboy argues, colonial North American merchants “expected to lead restricted middle-class lives and pass their status on to their children” (10). In addition, she defines artisans as middle class, but in jeopardy of losing their middle-class status by the end of the eighteenth century, noting, “most artisans found it increasingly difficult to earn enough to remain in the middle class” (3). She departs from the practice of using the term “middling sorts” to describe these men to argue for coherent middle-class identity in the late eighteenth century. Yet without a more detailed discussion of the transformation of Charleston social hierarchy in the transition from colonial port to independent city, it is not clear how the “middle class” was more than a group of men who fell within a general range of economic status.
Goloboy does not make it clear how these men navigated the transformation from the traditional hierarchies of birth that underpinned class status in colonial Charleston to an understanding of class identity where prosperous men and their wives organized social status around ideas of refinement, gentility, and sentiment, mandating restraint to rein in the dangerous tendencies toward luxury that they feared unchecked prosperity might encourage. Market behavior might include sharp dealings that fell outside of “nice” behavior, but class identity was a way for merchants and prosperous artisans to create divisions within commercial culture that would distinguish those with “good motives” from those who skated the edges of both legality and propriety in commercial relationships. The links between behavior in the market and behavior in [End Page 381] the home were important to prosperous Americans, both northern and southern. The success and failure of commercial enterprises depended on the shrewd assessment of a man’s assets and his character, in public and in private. It seems unlikely, therefore, that merchants and shopkeepers in the turbulent economic world of the early republic would have been willing to see all men of business as members of the same class of people.
Goloboy’s work joins a growing body of...