Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

Article excerpt

The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861. By Jonathan Daniel Wells. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 321. Acknowledgments, prologue, tables, illustrations, epilogue, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95, cloth; $22.50, paper.)

Almost thirty years ago, Burton J. Bledstein observed that people who fundamentally agree with one another "often threaten and repel each other . . . accentuate their differences, intensify their mutually felt hatreds, and consume each other with envy and jealousy" (The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America [1976], p. 54). In this important new book, Jonathan Daniel Wells argues that the middle class in the nineteenthcentury North and South did this and more: they were so much alike they began to shoot each other.

Wells recovers something that has been buried since at least 1865: an antebellum southern middle class. The New South, he argues, was not new at all, at least in terms of possessing an ambitious commercial class. The middle class had sharply different professional, commercial, and cultural interests from both patriarchal planters and yeoman farmers who were suspicious of both urbanization and industrialization. Slave labor reaped not only wealth for planter aristocrats, it also created a class of prosperous entrepreneurs and merchants. In Wells' view, Henry W. Grady would have been very much at home in the pages of DeBow s Review in the 1850s.

The ambition of this book-it touches on religion, education, print culture, gender, politics, and economics-is impressive. And it is most welcome. It will enrich a literature that has been contented with a rigid and simplistic three-tier model of slave society ever since Ulrich B. Phillips first proposed it a century ago. In this, Wells accomplishes the first of three broad goals he lays out for his study-that of complicating our view of southern slave society. His work bears the mark of its intellectual genealogy, as he studied with J. Mills Thornton. Wells gives voice to people who do not fit comfortably into the prevailing story of the Old South: writers and editors who admired northern reforms, evangelicals who despised dueling, politicians who despised illiteracy, and merchants who despised politicians. Wells demonstrates that these people should be taken seriously, and that we would write better histories if we did so.

His second goal is less easily accomplished. He argues that a study of the southern middle class offers new ways to think about class formation. This is a bold argument, and a difficult one to sustain. The central problem for anyone keen on tracing class formation in the Old South is the absence of large-scale economic change. Ingeniously, Wells argues that this was not required. Instead, the middle class was formed by the "cultural and ideological mutations" imported en masse in a "deluge of information and ideas that flowed to them from the North" (p. 13). Classes, he argues, "can be influenced and shaped by ideas emanating far removed from them geographically" (p. 6). Wells thus posits what might be termed a "colonial culture" in the Old South, where others have found a "colonial economy" in the New.

Wells relies on a Thompsonian definition of class as "an objective component of the social order, as well as a cultural construction" (p. 10). But it is clear that he is keener on culture than on economics to do the heavy lifting in class formation. Culture seems to lay the foundation for a class that is ultimately created only in the 1850s by its support for industrial and commercial slavery. Thus he rejects the view, set out in Eugene Genovese's theory of planter hegemony, that slavery was a single culture. Accordingly, he must demonstrate that middle-class support for slavery was distinct enough from that of planters to bear the weight of a conscious class interest. To do this, he relies on the 1847 strike at Tredegar Iron Works, arguing that antagonism between planters and "middle class industrialists" like Tredegar's Joseph Reid Anderson, only grew worse during the subsequent decade. …

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