New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910

By Don H. Doyle | Go to book overview

5
Patrician and Parvenu

Inquiring of young stranger, it is asked in Boston "How much does he know?"; in New York, "How much is he worth?"; in Charleston, "Who was his grandfather?" -- Charleston proverb

"As for Charleston," Francis W. Dawson grumbled in the editorial columns of his News and Courier, "the importation of about five hundred Yankees of the right stripe would put a new face on affairs, and make the whole place throb with life and vivid force."1 He recommended a cross between the Boston and Chicago species, a mixture that would bring the best of refinement and aggressiveness to his adopted "ancient city." For Dawson and other critics, it was never a question that Charleston's dismal economic fate was explained by the lack of such ambition and talent. Though the area's external problems were legion, it was, in their view, a failure from within -- a failure of human will -that doomed the city.

Both Charleston and Mobile entered the New South era with business leaders who, as a group, had little cause for optimism about their cities and, therefore, less inclination toward bold, risky responses to the challenges -- and the opportunities -- they confronted. The relatively stagnant economies of both cities allowed a well-entrenched older group of men to continue in positions of leadership and influence in the business community without significant challenge. These were, for the most part, men with strong ties to the plantation economy, foremost among them being the cotton factors and commission merchants who, in both cities, continued to command great prestige even as the economic base of their wealth eroded in the new order.

As in the previous chapter on Atlanta and Nashville, a collective biography of the business leaders of Charleston and Mobile around 1880 provides a useful description -- both as a group portrait and in individual details -- of the men who dominated economic affairs in the two seaports.2 Though the available information was spotty in many cases, the following sample of sixty-eight men in Charleston and sixty-one in Mobile offers a close view of the types of men who commanded positions of leadership and influenced the direction of their

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