Free Labor in an Unfree World: White Artisans in Slaveholding Georgia, 1789-1860

Article excerpt

Free Labor in an Unfree World: White Artisans in Slaveholding Georgia, 1789-1860. By Michele Gillespie. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 2000. Pp. xxiv, 236. $40.00, ISBN 0-8203-1968-6.)

In the most popular fictional account of the Old South, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, the masters, slaves, and belles dominate the pages and screen. Historians are slowly challenging the enduring yet incomplete and distorted image from this saga, by writing about southerners largely excluded from both the fictional and historical records. Michele Gillespie's study of white artisans in Georgia from 1789 to 1860 is an important addition to this revision. To introduce her less well known historical figures she chooses, ironically, one of the popular novel's most memorable characters. Gerald O'Hara was not born into the plantation class, but represents the self-made men far more common in the antebellum South than legendary genteel planters.

Gillespie chose to study southern artisans, men largely excluded from the Old South's popular image, but she makes clear that she considers them more a part of the South than part of a national artisan tradition. Her work reinforces the scholarship of Eugene Genovese and others who claim that race overwhelmed class consciousness in the Old South. She concludes that, because of the profound impact of slavery, "the artisan experience was fundamentally different in the South" (p. xviii). Although Gillespie offers interesting information about the development of artisanal republicanism in Georgia, she suggests that it was weak and that it deteriorated in the decades before the Civil War because artisans organized more "to gain entrance into the planters world" than to pursue their own distinct interests (p. …