The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century

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Found an Error? Tell us about it. With a balance of established and younger authors, of antebellum and postbellum analyses, and of narrative and quantitative methodologies, these essays offer new ways to think about politics, society, gender, and culture during this exciting era of southern history. They supported the creation of public schools and an end to dueling, but less progressive reform was also endorsed, such as building factories using slave labor rather than white wage earners.

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About Jonathan Daniel Wells. Jonathan Daniel Wells. Books by Jonathan Daniel Wells. Trivia About A House Divided In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most artisans found it increasingly difficult to earn enough to remain middle class. Middle-class income became associated with non-manual work, which implied education in literacy and numeracy. In Germany, for example, middle-class men frequently engaged in dueling to defend their honor, while their British peers disdained the practice.

Goloboy cans believed themselves to be middle class because they valued self-control and diligent, steady work at a non-manual profession. Take the example of Christopher Fitzsimons, an Irish immigrant who became a slave trader, distiller, and general merchant. Even wealthy merchants like Fitzsimons considered themselves to be middle class, both culturally and socially separate from the plantation elite.

A final complication in defining the middle class is that middle-class culture and the rise of middle-class professions antedated both a consistent terminology and a sense that society was best defined as three competing groups. By this point, however, centuries of bourgeois life had given the new class a set of values and acceptable occupations that could be modified but never completely discarded. Investing 42 Strangers in the South in government securities, neutral trading shipping opportunities that opened to Americans as neutrals during the European wars , cotton exporting, and the brief, legal revival of the international slave trade promised optimistic young men wealth and independence.

A branch of the Bank of the United States was founded in Charleston in , and the Bank of South Carolina was chartered the following year. Merchants were disproportionately involved in trading federal bonds, holding As neutral carriers, Americans were permitted to ship colonial produce between the West Indies and Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, as long as the captain stopped at an American port.

The Middle Classes

Charleston was well placed for this purpose, because it was so close to the Caribbean. Contemporary observer E. For a brief period before soil exhaustion set in, South Carolina was at the center of American cotton production. In , 75 percent of the cotton grown in the United States came from South Carolina and Georgia and 50 percent from South Carolina alone. Reopened on December 17, , the international slave trade flourished in Charleston until the federal Constitution definitively ended 43 Jennifer L. Goloboy it on January 1, , because South Carolina was the only state to permit the trade.

From a nadir in during the British occupation, the number of merchants in Charleston built to a peak in , declined sharply during the War of , boomed again after the war, and dropped back to its pre-boom numbers by The increase in the number of men entering commerce, and their equally rapid exit, is clear. The length of time that these men were listed in the directory indicates whether they were newly arrived in the city, or local men who had changed careers for example, from a retail shopkeeper to an overseas-trading merchant.

The city directory recorded men as merchants see Table 1. About 51 percent of them had been listed in the directory, and only about 11 percent of them had been in Charleston in during the Revolution. Again, only about half of them were listed four years earlier. The number of merchants in Charleston grew rapidly, promoted by immigration from Great Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere in America. In , there were merchants listed in the directory. Seven years later, in , less than half of them remained. Six years later, in , only about 41 percent of those men remained.

Though the first block of time stretched through the boom years, and the second included the wartime depression, merchants were nearly as transient under both conditions. Contemporary observers often complained that very few local boys grew up to be merchants. The same observers noticed the ethnic diversity of many Charleston merchants. Historian T. Milford has noted the itinerant careers of lawyers in the pre-Revolutionary period. In the nineteenth century, Americans and Europeans often claimed that the middle class had a moral sense superior to that of other classes.

Many historians have placed the middle class at the center of the humanitarian projects of the nineteenth century, such as abolitionism. British colonial economic strategy had been rooted in mercantilism: while promoting financial and industrial development in the mother country, it restricted the colonies to agricultural production. Seemingly staid occupations were actually thoroughgoing examples of aggressive capitalism. Banks loaned recklessly to insiders and blanketed the country with worthless notes.

Retail trade was especially corrupt. Customers demanded to look at all the goods in the shop, in hopes that the beleaguered clerk would offer them a discount. Meanwhile, clerks offered flattery while concealing the poor quality of their goods. As England became an industrial giant, the need to feed the machines drove demand for slaves and cotton. They cheated their customers, cheated the government, and only behaved ethically with their friends and family.

Such a system was functional because everyone knew what to expect: caveat emptor. A young Yankee in Charleston commented on the lack of ethics he witnessed as an employee of E. If they were cheated, they had only themselves to blame. The government and police force in post-Revolutionary Charleston did not protect citizens from swindling.

Modern Americans take the police force for granted, but it functioned quite differently in the early Republic. In early , merchant John Day loaded trunks with gold in Charleston and shipped them to Savannah. But the boat was becalmed, and the passengers disembarked, including the man charged with watching the trunks. When the passengers returned, the gold, not surprisingly, was gone.

Day had left Charleston by the time the theft was discovered. Confronted with an unhelpful police force, Day entrusted several friends with the task of tracking down the gold. In particular, Day became convinced that an old German man who worked for his friends Alexander Ewing and James Ross was the thief. At three in the morning, Ross woke the old man, holding a gun to his chest.

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Claiming the man had confessed to the crime in his sleep, Ross threatened to shoot him unless he gave up the location of the gold and his accomplice. Because they expected so little from the government and so many of them had only weak ties to South Carolina, many merchants had absolutely no ethical qualms about cheating either local or national governments.

Thomas Henry Hindley, a regular mercantile visitor from Great Britain, was about to ship cotton to a British client when he learned of the imminent approach of the Embargo. In his eagerness to fulfill the contract, he snuck onto the ship with a pilot before dawn, hoping to launch the ship unnoticed. Bribing the customs agents there was part of the cost of doing business. Fitzsimons suggested that it might be profitable to ship slaves from Charleston to Havana, if a war took place between England and Spain. Smuggling was an understandable response to governmental restrictions.

Goloboy A picture emerges from mercantile letters of the middle-class values merchants themselves most esteemed: energy, cunning, diligence, and reliability. What a man wanted was a partner who was willing to brave the cannons of the revenue cutter, lie about the illicit origins of a slave, bribe a customs officer, or smuggle goods out through a purportedly closed port. Hard work was at the center of middle-class identity, and virtue was much further down the list of valued assets in a trading partner. As they would have seen it, the goal was to run a business, not a Sunday school.

Despite all the short-term thinking and blatant fraud, the boom years still promoted improvement and modernity in Charleston, especially in the financial sector. For the remainder of the antebellum period, merchants and former merchants worked at local banks and also invested heavily in government securities. Josiah Smith, who had been a merchant in Charleston before the war, served as cashier of the local branch of the Bank of the United States.

He commented to a friend in that it was a good time to leave the retail and wholesale trades and to speculate in U. Unfortunately, some were not. Scholars agree that merchants were not always viewed negatively in South Carolina. Men like Henry Laurens, inspired by British writers who flattered the middle class for its cosmopolitanism and practicality, believed that even though a merchant could never be a member of the aristocracy, he could be refined into 50 Strangers in the South gentility by his occupation. Rogers Jr. To be put to bed at night on a mattress dumped upon the floor of this room when the family had retired, and stirred up in the morning by the broom of the house maid of all work to prepare it for breakfast, was.

The visible presence of work was not genteel. Furthermore, a gentleman required private space to prepare to be sociable. Why did planters decide they were superior to the merchants who had previously been their peers? Merchants knew that at least two types of business were only temporary—the slave trade ceased in and the neutral trade finished with American entry into the war—and entered into them with a frenzy that belied ethics and good judgment.

Nevertheless, planters were not disinterested parties. Historians have found many ways that the southern elite distinguished itself from the middle class. Elite white southerners upheld honor culture, rejecting Christian-inspired morality, self-control, and self-discipline. Neutral trading was shut off, and the overseas slave trade had already come to a close. Financial institutions were damaged by the war, and the Bank of South Carolina stock dropped in value. Following a wartime slowdown, high cotton prices prevailed between and After , however, cotton prices declined again.

From merchants in the city directory, the number dropped to in After a rebound in to merchants, the number declined again to in and in Ambitious young men went elsewhere. Newspapers commonly contained stories of predatory merchants who cheated naive customers. The temporary revival of the international slave trade also decreased mercantile status.

The rest belonged to citizens of Philadelphia, Boston, and Newport. As James McMillin has pointed out, Charlestonians had plenty of involvement in the slave trade, even if they were not merchants. Slave-trading merchants may also have been less foreign than merchants in general. Slave-trading merchants seem to have been less transient than the average merchant, which might have been due to the greater wealth of slave-trading merchants. Because men who sold slaves were supposed to extend a considerable amount of credit to their customers, it was a trade that was only open to the successful.

Table 2 Directory-Listed Merchants, Percent Listed in Previous and Following Years Year Slave-Trading Non-Slave Trading 64 59 38 31 50 41 29 25 54 Strangers in the South Even after the international slave trade was banned, Charlestonians continued to insist upon the primary culpability of foreign merchants. There seemed to be one, and I was told only one, exception to this rule, in the person of a very benevolent gentleman, the son of a slave trader. But apparently ashamed of their slave-trading past, Charlestonians wished to make transgressions disappear, as if by the hand of God.

At the same time that mercantile practices became most embarrassing, the middle class vanished from the mental map of elite Charleston. A bias against foreign merchants, based on a desire to seem aristocratic, a reaction to a particular economic bubble, and the controversial status of the slave trade in antebellum America, shaped the treatment of the middle class throughout the antebellum South. This may not have been true—a contemporary visitor claimed that five-sixths of local merchants were strangers.

As realists, they gave their loyalty to those who might return it: their families and business partners. Most customers and the state and federal governments were not included. Participants in the market understood the prevailing atmosphere of deceit, and took measures to protect themselves. The brief legal reopening of the international slave trade and the excesses of the boom years before the War of had readily apparent effects on the status of the middle class in South Carolina. As elite Carolinians liked to tell the story, deceitful foreigners had swept into South Carolina and then left again with their ill-gotten gains.

The mercantile middle class was nonexistent or dying out. When we hear contemporary speakers say that the southern middle class was disappearing, we should wonder how they benefited from saying so. William W. See previously listed books as well as Rosser H. Sam Whimster New York: Routledge, , For a more thorough analysis of this issue, see Jennifer L. Burton J. Jaher, Urban Establishment, Robert E. Stock prices calculated by the author using statistics from Richard E.

Sylla, Jack W. Wilson, and Robert E. Eli F. Hartford: Case, Tiffany, and Burham, , Jennifer L. Fraser, Charleston! James A. These calculations are based on my analysis of Charleston city directories. In determining their tenure in town, however, I count men who at one point called themselves merchants regardless of their later identification. Thus, a merchant in with a different occupation in would be included as a merchant for and would only be included in calculating merchant retention in Because of many sources of error, these numbers should used as a suggestion of population trends rather than as an accurate count of the total number of merchants in Charleston.

Directory tabulators often left people out, especially merchants who only spent part of the year in Charleston. Since different men assembled the directories, types of omissions probably varied from year to year. The common eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice of reusing first names for sons and nephews probably means that I inaccurately combined listings for close relatives. Merchants may have been listed twice, under their firm names and under their own names; I choose to include both listings to avoid combining listings for men with the same last names.

This count is based on a copy of the directory with missing pages, so is probably slightly low. However, this should not increase the retention percentage. Hargraves, Casper C. Coffin, Thomas Tunno. This observer visited Charleston in the mids. Seth Lothrop, Charleston, to Mr. Jaher, Urban Establishment. These historians have also acknowledged that the middle class may have chosen its favorite causes for self-aggrandizing reasons.

Thomas L. Ronald W. Goloboy Jonathan F. Peterson, , — J Rapelye, Charleston, to Mr. William H. Pease and Jane H. Ross, Charleston, to Mr. John Day, Messrs. Hindley, Charleston, to Messrs. Henry Lord, St. Marys to Messrs. Nelson to Mr. Jaher, Urban Establishment, ; Robert F. Dalzell Jr. On gentility among non-elites, see Milford, Gardiners of Massachusetts, 24— Richard L. Thomas Smith to John Ferguson Esq. Jennifer R. Wright, One Nation Under Debt, McMillin, Final Victims, 95— This does not include merchants in the directory who had names similar to those of slave traders, but whom I could not positively identify.

McMillin, Final Victims, — McMillin, Final Victims, 88— Byrne, Becoming Bourgeois, For the political background of this change, see Joseph J. Jaher, Urban Establishment, —39, — Byrne, Becoming Bourgeois, —73, , , When the Panic of hit, its ripples spread into a state already struggling from a string of economic troubles; aftershocks struck the region well into the s. By the early s, his children had become active in the local temperance movement, espousing in their turn the reform and improvement impulses of their northern middle-class counterparts.


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Bonney owned not one residence but two, the second a summer home in the sandhills just north of town, where 62 Bonds of Marriage and Community he counted among his neighbors some of the wealthiest planters in the district. He was well connected not only to members of the local commercial community, but also to acquaintances and extended family among the South Carolina elite. And like many other southern merchants he was a slaveholder, owning nine slaves on the eve of the Civil War. Much of the region lacked the large-scale processes of industrialization and urbanization that drove class formation in the Northeast and Britain.

The relatively small proportion of the southern population living in urban areas meant that fewer still were employed in the nonmanual occupations that were becoming a marker of middle-class status elsewhere. At the same time, southern planters remained economically and politically powerful throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, so that securing landed wealth evidently remained an important aspiration of many of their upwardly mobile neighbors.

Despite these differences, southerners built and promoted towns, funded railroads and other internal improvements, embraced reform efforts, promoted domestic manufacturing, and consumed increasing quantities of manufactured goods. Jonathan Wells has focused attention on a middle class of merchants and professionals emerging from these changes, defined in part by status and occupation, and in part by their shared commitment to forms of economic development and cultural reform inspired by their northern counterparts.

Yet during the first half of the nineteenth century such divisions were frequently balanced by networks of kinship and association that bridged social hierarchies and helped mitigate the development of rigid class identities. Catherine Kelly has found that in 63 Amanda Reece Mushal provincial New England, small community sizes alone helped limit the development of class distinctions, as residents shared bonds of family, friendship, and associational life across lines of wealth and occupation.

A close study of similar networks within a southern community—the town of Camden, South Carolina—suggests that they played an analogous role in shaping antebellum southern society. Local social life was further shaped by interactions between planting families, some of whom had lived in the area for several generations, and merchants who were often newcomers to the region. The proportions were similar elsewhere in the state.

Approximately one out of six Columbia merchants had been born in the Northeast. Clerks were less often outsiders than were their employers: in both Camden and Columbia, 64 Bonds of Marriage and Community nearly three out of every five clerks were native to South Carolina by Several of these were the sons of established merchants, suggesting the coalescence of class along family and occupational lines, yet others were the sons of prominent planters and professionals.

It was not uncommon for such merchants to acquire planting kin—and with them land and slaves—through marriage. Questions of class and occupation were further complicated by the status of professionals in southern towns. Several Camden doctors kept small drug stores, a necessary professional sideline in a region where apothecaries were few, but one that nonetheless compelled physicians to straddle the worlds of commerce and the learned professions.

On the other hand, the sons of prominent planters and professionals occasionally turned to trade, while planters themselves might diversify their interests by investing in mercantile or manufacturing enterprises. Marriages among young merchants and their professional and agricultural neighbors added new layers to already complex social networks. Of these, two commercial men married into planting families, as did six young professionals—medical men, lawyers, editors, and one minister. Two additional professionals, a minister and a naval officer, married the daughters of planters who also ran mercantile establishments in town.

Chesnut himself sat on the board of one of the local banks, and both sons-inlaw subsequently became involved in banking. Planter Benjamin Haile, whose daughter married merchant William Kennedy, later became a bank director as well. Out of twenty-nine marriages taking place between and in which both parties can be identified, one bookkeeper married the daughter of a prosperous farmer, while another wed a young woman whose brothers included a carpenter, a saddler, and a machinist.

Two professional men married the daughters of commercial men, while five professionals—including the sons of a bank president and a hotel-keeper—married into planting families. A senior bank officer saw his daughter wed the local Baptist minister. Like many southern communities, Camden underwent a profound change in the antebellum period. The town, which initially developed around the 66 Bonds of Marriage and Community backcountry branch of a Charleston mercantile firm, grew with the proliferation of short-staple cotton beginning in the s. As the cotton trade tied the piedmont more closely to Atlantic ports, planters in the region built themselves into a class that more nearly resembled the aristocracy of the coastal lowcountry than had their cattle-raising parents.

Beginning in the s and s, banks, improved transportation networks, and the development of increasingly rationalized and depersonalized institutions of credit assessment incorporated the community ever more closely into the national economy. Yet because the community remained small, these changes were experienced through the medium of the same personal interactions that had shaped social, economic, and political life in the past.

James Kershaw was the son of merchant, land speculator, and planter Joseph Kershaw, around whose store and flour mills the settlement of Camden developed in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Physician William Blanding and his brother Abram moved to South Carolina from Massachusetts early in the nineteenth century.

While Abram became prominent in state banking and political circles, William built up a medical practice in the Camden area, where he also opened a small drug store and cultivated friendships with his fellow merchants and a correspondence with nationally renowned naturalists. Both Kershaw and the Blanding family left letters and journals documenting the development of social networks and class distinctions from the last decade of the eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century.

Although both Kershaw and Blanding were prominent members of local society, their writings reveal networks that encompassed both the local elite and their more humble neighbors, providing a window into the development of these networks over time. Prior to the Revolution, Joseph Kershaw had constructed a substantial two-story frame house on a knoll overlooking the town.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

Rarely did his memoranda include details of the entertainments; rather, they read more like an accounting of social honors and obligations, a ledger that today provides a remarkable sketch of the social networks in which he was involved. Even those of limited means could and did maintain their social connections by making the rounds of their acquaintances. Both Kershaw and the Blandings were present at two wedding balls in At the turn of the century, only a few local residents could boast houses spacious enough to accommodate such large gatherings.

The Kershaws found themselves at the crux of these changes. They also attended dinners given in private homes. James Chesnut. Members of these families would be, by the late antebellum period, among the most prominent in the district, culminating a process of distinction begun much earlier in the century. For the most part Kershaw recorded social events matter-of-factly.

If the Kershaws made a point of reminding the Chesnuts of their commercial roots, the Chesnuts returned the compliment. Shortly before his marriage to Susan Witherspoon, merchant William McDowall received a letter from his prospective father-in-law warning him to expect hostility from the community. He had recently become an elder in the Presbyterian church and had studied under a well-regarded local physician; his uncle had married into an old mercantile family with planting connections.

By the early s, William Blanding found himself part of a closely knit enclave of merchants residing and keeping shop in the district of Camden known as Logtown. Miss Eccles,. Clarks famely and Mr. The friendship between Blanding and merchant James Murray was so close that Murray later named two of his children for Blanding and his wife. James Clark and Henry Abbott, both merchants, lived and kept dry goods stores nearly opposite each other in Logtown.

Social intercourse between Blanding and the Clark family stretched back at least to and occurred with a frequency that revealed the closeness of the connection. New Jersey-born Thornton was Mrs. He had moved to Camden to work for a mercantile brother-in-law, and then 71 Amanda Reece Mushal leveraged his success to become a small shopkeeper and the town postmaster.

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But by , as South Carolina staggered under the effects of tightening currency and several years of bad harvests, Camden and its dunning doctor were losing patience with each other. Cantey and John Boykin staid it out and lost not a little, each. They were all mighty drunk tis said. While planters might extend credit to establish social and political relationships, debt primarily represented a more straightforward economic obligation for mercantile men, and one that their own tenuous finances required them to pursue.

Unlike the calls Blanding paid on his male debtors, which he concluded by tallying monies received, his account of calls on the women made no mention of business, suggesting that these were explicitly social visits. The visit with Mrs. Cantey in particular, following as it did the calls for money from her male relatives, suggests that Blanding sought to preserve his social connections to the elite despite financial tensions. Boykins no doubt. The roots of change lay in the preceding decade, when in a branch of the state bank was established in Camden, and in fact may date to the late s, when local planters and businessmen laid plans to develop the Orphan Society, long a modest source of backcountry credit, into a full-scale lending operation.

Suddenly debtors discovered how much more pressing institutional obligations could be than those owed to friends and community members. Merchants purchased on credit from wholesalers, many of them based in the cities of the Northeast, and in turn extended credit to their own customers. They then tried to collect these accounts each winter after crops had been sold. Yet as overproduction drove prices down, and as the seaboard states struggled to compete with virgin soils of the Southwest, collections became increasingly difficult.

Rather than suing for their debts, which might send debtors into bankruptcy and yield only a small settlement for each creditor, many wholesalers continued to grant credit extensions to troubled merchants, hoping to collect at a future date. In the wake of the panic, northeastern wholesalers experimented with a number of measures designed to guard against future disasters. Many wholesale firms shortened the time permitted for payment; others purchased the services of new credit-reporting agencies such as the New York-based Mercantile Agency.

The widespread availability of credit information, collected and distributed anonymously, represented a major departure from older business practices. No longer were wholesalers compelled to rely on personal acquaintance or recommendation when deciding which merchants to do business with or what length of credit to extend to customers. Utter strangers could trade with each other on the strength of anonymous credit reports.

Yet at the same time, those reports relied on the same measures of credit assessment, gathered at the local level, which had served as the basis of earlier transactions. Within the Camden banks a second local bank was chartered in , customers turned to friends of good financial repute to provide security on notes when demanded by the banks. Such security could permit renewals when a bank might otherwise demand immediate payment. Where earlier internal improvements, including river dredgings and the chartering of steamboats, 74 Bonds of Marriage and Community had slowly improved the speed of transportation, the railroad increased business dramatically.

Even as Blanding worked to cash out his South Carolina assets, his nephew Penuel Carpenter moved to Camden to set up a dry goods business with cousin Eli Bonney. Bryant sent news of local parties and courtships to merchant William McDowall, in Charleston on business, who was himself about to marry into a planting family. Lucy had lived in Camden for several years while her son was alive, and then maintained connections to friends there through letters and visits after his death in Almost immediately upon her arrival, Lucy was greeted with a rush of calls from old friends.

Her visitors crossed lines of status and occupation, many of them bound together by long years of association.



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