Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860

Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860

Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860

Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860


In Southern Society and Its Transformations, a new set of scholars challenge conventional perceptions of the antebellum South as an economically static region compared to the North. Showing that the pre-Civil War South was much more complex than once thought, the essays in this volume examine the economic lives and social realities of three overlooked but important groups of southerners: the working poor, non-slaveholding whites, and middling property holders such as small planters, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

The nine essays that comprise Southern Society and Its Transformations explore new territory in the study of the slave-era South, conveying how modernization took shape across the region and exploring the social processes involved in its economic developments. The book is divided into four parts, each analyzing a different facet of white southern life. The first outlines the legal dimensions of race relations, exploring the effects of lynching and the significance of Georgia’s vagrancy laws. Part II presents the advent of the market economy and its effect on agriculture in the South, including the beginning of frontier capitalism. The third section details the rise of a professional middle class in the slave era and the conflicts provoked. The book’s last section deals with the financial aspects of the transformation in the South, including the credit and debt relationships at play and the presence of corporate entrepreneurship.

Between the dawn of the nation and the Civil War, constant change was afoot in the American South. Scholarship has only begun to explore these progressions in the past few decades and has given too little consideration to the economic developments with respect to the working-class experience. These essays show that a new generation of scholars is asking fresh questions about the social aspects of the South’s economic transformation. Southern Society and Its Transformations is a complex look at how whole groups of traditionally ignored white southerners in the slave era embraced modernizing economic ideas and actions while accepting a place in their race-based world. This volume will be of interest to students of Southern and U.S. economic and social history.


J. William Harris

The contrast between an economically “progressive” North and an economically “backward” South before the Civil War has been a staple of both popular and scholarly histories of the United States since the antebellum era itself. Northern antislavery spokesmen were sure that slavery produced economic, as well as moral, backwardness. Theodore Parker, in 1854, called the South “the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce”; New York’s Senator William H. Seward asserted that slavery resulted in “an absence of enterprise and improvement” in the South and was “incompatible with all … the elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations.” Many southerners were happy to agree with the economic point, while reversing its alleged moral implications. Fire eater Louis Wigfall said that southerners were “an agricultural people…. We want no manufactures; we desire no trading, no mechanical or manufacturing classes.” A South Carolinian in 1860 told William Howard Russell, correspondent for the London Times, the same thing: “We are an agricultural people.… breeding up women and men with some other purpose than to make them vulgar, fanatical, cheating Yankees.”

Historians since then have made similar arguments. Progressive historians Charles and Mary Beard called the Civil War an “irrepressible conflict” over control of the national government between “planting interests” in the South who were “facing a decline in … economic strength” and “capitalists” in the North—the phrase “irrepressible conflict” borrowed directly from a famous speech by Seward. Eugene D. Genovese, Douglas Egerton, and John Ashworth are among the more recent historians for whom the slave South was variously “precaptalist,” “prebourgeois,” or “premodern,” the prefix always signaling a South facing backward in a progressive world. For contemporary polemicists and historians alike, a key factor—arguably, the key factor—was the presence in the North, and . . .

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