Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country

Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country

Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country

Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country

Synopsis

In this innovative study of the South Carolina Low Country, author Stephanie McCurry explores the place of the yeomanry in plantation society--the complex web of domestic and public relations within which they were enmeshed, and the contradictory politics of slave society by which that class of small farmers extracted the privileges of masterhood from the region's powerful planters. Insisting on the centrality of women as historical actors and gender as a category of analysis, this work shows how the fateful political choices made by the low-country yeomanry were rooted in the politics of the household, particularly in the customary relations of power male heads of independent households assumed over their dependents, whether slaves or free women and children. Such masterly prerogatives, practiced in the domestic sphere and redeemed in the public, explain the yeomanry's deep commitment to slavery and, ultimately, their ardent embrace of secession. By placing the yeomanry in the center of the drama, McCurry offers a significant reinterpretation of this volatile society on the road to Civil War. Through careful and creative use of a wide variety of archival sources, she brings vividly to life the small worlds of yeoman households, and the larger world of the South Carolina Low Country, the plantation South, and nineteenth-century America.

Excerpt

This is a book about power and the complex channels in which it worked in slave society in the United States; about the yeomanry and the web of relations within which they were enmeshed; and about women as historical actors and gender as a conceptual category in the history of the antebellum South. But the book is, of course, also something far more modest, for it focuses on a particular class and region: the yeomanry in the South Carolina Low Country.

To date, most studies of the southern yeomanry have looked to upcountry regions in which yeoman farmers were the dominant demographic presence, even, some have argued, the dominant social and political presence. I was interested, in contrast, in studying the yeomanry in a plantation-belt setting in which relations between yeoman heads of households and more powerful planter ones were direct and immediate, matters of everyday, face-to-face negotiation, and in which those negotiations were conducted in full recognition of the importance of the enslaved black majority that surrounded them. Nowhere was this more palpably the case than in the South Carolina Low Country, where the very presence of a yeomanry, although perfectly evident on the manuscript census, had long been overlooked and even denied and where the size of the black majority and the immense wealth and power of the planter class had long provided the central, if not exclusive, dynamic of historical interpretation. Nowhere, then, did the inclusion of a yeomanry promise more dramatic historiographical consequences than in this, the vanguard of the Confederacy.

But precisely because of the qualities that recommended it as an exciting site for study, the choice of the South Carolina Low Country posed inevitable questions of representativeness or typicality. and indeed, it was in many respects a unique place. Like every locale, the Low Country had its distinctive features. Yet, in ways I try to demonstrate, the Low Country also evinced clear kinship (demographic, social, political) with other parts of the black-belt South, and thus its historical experience can shed much broader light. This, then, is my hope: that the questions raised here and the perspectives offered, although grounded . . .

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