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Becoming Bourgeois

Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865

Frank J. Byrne
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 308
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Bourgeois
    Book Description:

    Becoming Bourgeois is the first study to focus on what historians have come to call the "middling sort," the group falling between the mass of yeoman farmers and the planter class that dominated the political economy of the antebellum South. Historian Frank J. Byrne investigates the experiences of urban merchants, village storekeepers, small-scale manufacturers, and their families, as well as the contributions made by this merchant class to the South's economy, culture, and politics in the decades before, and the years of, the Civil War. These merchant families embraced the South but were not of the South. At a time when Southerners rarely traveled far from their homes, merchants annually ventured forth on buying junkets to northern cities. Whereas the majority of Southerners enjoyed only limited formal instruction, merchant families often achieved a level of education rivaled only by the upper class -- planters. The southern merchant community also promoted the kind of aggressive business practices that New South proponents would claim as their own in the Reconstruction era and beyond. Along with discussion of these modern approaches to liberal capitalism, Byrne also reveals the peculiar strains of conservative thought that permeated the culture of southern merchants. While maintaining close commercial ties to the North, southern merchants embraced the religious and racial mores of the South. Though they did not rely directly upon slavery for their success, antebellum merchants functioned well within the slave-labor system. When the Civil War erupted, southern merchants simultaneously joined Confederate ranks and prepared to capitalize on the war's business opportunities, regardless of the outcome of the conflict. Throughout Becoming Bourgeois, Byrne highlights the tension between these competing elements of southern merchant culture. By exploring the values and pursuits of this emerging class, Byrne not only offers new insight into southern history but also deepens our understanding of the mutable ties between regional identity and the marketplace in nineteenth-century America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7145-6
    Subjects: Economics, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the summer of 1862 Jorantha Semmes wrote a letter expressing her war weariness to her husband Benedict Semmes, a Confederate officer. Responsible for the care of their five children in Federally occupied Memphis, Tennessee, Semmes told her husband, “I am tired of this separation.” His absence had left her bereft of “all gaiety of heart.” Caring for the children helped occupy Jorantha’s mind during the day, but she missed her “better half” at night when “it issolonely.”¹ Jorantha Semmes increasingly questioned the romantic militarism of the Civil War. Others, we know, shared this sentiment. Historians have noted...

  5. 1 Merchant Culture and the Political Economy of the Old South
    (pp. 13-40)

    This chapter explores how commerce distinguished southern merchant families and their culture in the antebellum South. In part, this comparative history examines the various social classes that composed southern society. The measure of merchant families’ experience can be taken only in relation to that of their economic and political neighbors, particularly yeoman and planter families. Merchants and their families showed themselves to be atypical Southerners in both words and deeds. Many antebellum planter and artisan families similarly troubled themselves over personal financial and legal issues, but the degree to which the market enveloped merchant families made them unique. These men...

  6. 2 The Antebellum Merchant in Southern Society
    (pp. 41-76)

    The business activities that ordered the internal lives of merchant families also helped fashion their public identity. Buying, selling, and investing made merchant families conspicuous in the antebellum South. Every day merchants had to perform before an audience. Whether selling goods to a reluctant customer, mollifying a nervous creditor, or simply attending church, men and women in merchant families negotiated public roles determined by their trade. Moreover, the parts these commercial actors played in their communities fundamentally influenced how planters, farmers, and slaves perceived them. Successful merchants understood the sundry ways their public behavior could affect profits and made sure...

  7. 3 The Merchant Family in the Antebellum South
    (pp. 77-120)

    The family was the center of southern merchant culture. The ties between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister provided the ultimate foundation for merchant values. While the political economy of the antebellum South circumscribed merchant culture, family defined it. Household relations affirmed the bourgeois and conservative ideals that combined to distinguish merchants from the mass of southern society. The dynamics of all nineteenth-century white families incorporated varying degrees of affection, materialism, paternalism, and racism, but the peculiar blend of these qualities within the merchant family made it unique. The families of neighboring yeoman farmers sought independence, political...

  8. 4 Secession, Merchant-Soldiers, and the Civil War, 1860–1863
    (pp. 121-144)

    The election of 1860, secession, and the rise and fall of the Confederate States of America wreaked havoc upon the lives of thousands of southern merchants and their families. War changed business patterns, threatened the safety of homes, and called men away from their families to take up arms for their new nation. This turmoil left its mark on merchant culture. Many husbands and sons never returned home from the war. Wives and daughters exercised increased authority in homes and stores. Freed slaves left merchant families and began attempting to create new lives. The Civil War brought substantive and rapid...

  9. 5 Merchants and Their Families in the Confederacy, 1861–1863
    (pp. 145-178)

    The effect of the Civil War on the southern commercial population transcended the number of merchants who served and died while fighting for the Confederacy. The war also radically altered the lives of families, friends, and business associates who lived on the home front. Confederate citizens endured material deprivation, loss of independence to a swelling state bureaucracy, and all the personal hazards associated with warfare. The conflict stretched the bonds of southern society to their breaking point. Within this maelstrom, commercial families, like their white and black neighbors, endured hardship in obtaining food, in being forced to relocate, and, of...

  10. 6 The Merchant Family and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1864–1865
    (pp. 179-202)

    The perils confronting white Southerners mounted as Confederate armies suffered reverses on the battlefield. By late 1863 what little had remained of normal existence on the southern home front had come to an end as casualties, material deprivation, and invading Federal armies challenged the faith of even the most stalwart Confederate partisan. During the travails of the final two years, often more than military success, mere survival consumed the lives of southern men and women. Merchants and their families endured many of the same hardships that afflicted their white neighbors. Their men died in battle, their homes and stores were...

  11. Conclusion: Merchant Culture in the Slave South and Beyond
    (pp. 203-208)

    Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865has investigated two related questions in the history of the antebellum and Confederate South. First, what identities and roles did merchants embrace in that society? Second, what do the activities and popular images of the merchant class reveal about the nature of southern society as a whole? Answering the first question required piecing together disparate fragments that were left behind by the overlooked men and women of the merchant class. What emerges from the historical record are the stories of people who shared a cosmopolitan worldview that emphasized a strong commitment...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 209-214)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 215-258)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 259-288)
  15. Index
    (pp. 289-297)