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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 is so lonely.” Jorantha Semmes increasingly questioned the romantic militarism of the Civil War. Others, we know, shared this sentiment. Historians have noted that the trials of war eroded the patriotism of many southern women. Semmes’s anxiety over the fate of her family and the Confederate cause seems to conform to this pattern.

What distinguishes Semmes’s writing from that of other educated southern women is its commercial tone. The couple’s letters reflect the concerns of their shared occupation, the mercantile trade. Benedict Semmes established his Memphis store shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. His absence during the conflict forced Jorantha to assume responsibility for the store’s operation, and their correspondence reveals her business skills. In June 1862 she wrote her husband that under Yankee occupation the boatloads of provisions arriving daily in the Mississippi River port sold “like lightning for specie.” The money she made selling what stock remained from the store, combined with the rent she collected from boarders, led her to inquire whether he might need five hundred dollars sent to him. As a savvy wife and mother in a mercantile family, Jorantha also suggested that the family’s earnings in Memphis should be invested in “a land purchase instead of letting it be idle.” More than a year later her continued confidence in business matters is obvious as she wrote her husband that the “terms” of her recent business transactions “are such as you would approve.” In 1864, Benedict openly acknowledged her acumen in financial matters when he asked her about collecting some debts: “I would like to have your own views, for you sometimes see things clearer than I.”

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