Review: The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century
Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds. The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. 313 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-3851-9.
The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century engages several longstanding questions about the southern social structure that historians have examined over the last decade. In such works as Frank Towers’ The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War (2004), Frank J. Byrne’s Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820–1865 (2006), the recent anthology Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790–1860 (2011), and co-editor Jonathan Wells’s own The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800–1861 (2004), historians of the American South have been reevaluating the emergence, geographic concentration, and relative autonomy of southerners of the middling sort. In a timely examination of these themes, the essays here offer a portrait of social heterogeneity and conflict, geographic and economic diversity, and steady transformation over the course of the century—a South that, contrary to previous accounts and depending on one’s point of emphasis, was not all that unlike the free-labor North.
This anthology’s most illuminating essays remain attuned to the theoretical stakes of identifying a distinct southern middle class. Those stakes have to do with prevailing assumptions about conditions of middle-class formation that (theoretically) transcend time and place. Thus, to identify a southern middle class is to claim that the southern economy was sufficiently capitalist (or at least commercialized). It also implies that a distinct and significant group of southerners pursued interests in conflict with those of planter elites and that this group went on to attain consciousness of those conflicting interests. Finally, to examine the southern middle class is to say something about its relationship to slave labor, particularly if that relationship made the path to southern middle-class formation historically exceptional. As the editors aptly note, the main challenge when engaging such a web of historical issues is that of establishing an adequate definition of “middle class” that applies to the southern social context, yet yields useful comparisons to other cases of middle-class formation. Relying by turns on occupation, status and cultural traits to identify the southern middle class, the contributors productively engage the northern middle class as a historical baseline, even as their definitions remain flexible enough to accommodate their differences.
Combined, these essays demonstrate that middle-class southerners shared much in common with their northern counterparts. John Deal examines the middle class of antebellum Norfolk, Virginia, and finds participation in benevolent societies that was typical of middle-class urban activity outside the South. Frank Towers’s analysis of secession-era antiparty rhetoric helps to explain why middle-class southerners, although in many ways autonomous, accepted secession even as their interests remained distinct from those of the planter elite. And Angela Lakwete’s profile of three businessmen in the old Southwest presents a compelling case for the southern economy’s diversity beyond agricultural and manual occupations. These historians show that the occupations, interests, and culture of the southern middle class at least complicates notions of a monolithic South subservient to the planter aristocracy.
At the same time, the idiosyncrasies of the slaveholding states remained integral to southern middle-class formation. Jennifer Green argues that early southern professionals emerged from planter families, calling into question the typical occupational markers of southern bourgeois status. Likewise, Susanna Delfino’s examination of middle-class factory managers and clerks suggests that antebellum industrialization was compatible with slavery and slaveholding ideals. And, as Reece Mushal shows, if the relations between the middle class and aristocracy were often antagonistic, countervailing kinship networks served to mute class divisions. If the southern middle class was indeed autonomous, these essays raise the question of to what degree.
Yet in assessing the strength of the southern middle class, timing remains important. Martin Ruef persuasively argues that although a distinct middle class emerged in earnest in the late antebellum South, it did not mature into a class “for itself” until the end of the century. Jonathan Wells also carries the conversation beyond the Civil War, providing a useful examination of how the southern middle class adjusted to a postwar world that was eager to condemn their entrepreneurial virtues in terms of Yankee materialism.
By far, however, the most provocative treatment of the theoretical problem of a southern middle class appears in James Oakes’s conclusion. Essentially, Oakes asks if a proper middle class could have emerged from a slave society—“a society that could not be bourgeois because it was not capitalist” (286)—and one that (in principle) required subservience to the slaveholding enterprise. Oakes urges historians to transcend the false dichotomy of subordination and independence when describing the bourgeoisie’s relationship to slaveholders, particularly by appreciating how southern slavery might have created uniquely favorable conditions for middle-class formation. If southern society was not technically capitalist, it was at least commercialized to such an extent that “it is wrong to assume that a master class and the middle class were fundamentally incompatible” (293).
Collectively, the contributors provide a welcome balance of illuminating case studies with more synthetic and interpretive treatments of a thorny historiographic question. With their focus on the free white men who dominated the southern economy, however, key comparative frames remained noticeably absent, particularly women and the African American middle class (the sole exception being Sonya Ramsey’s examination of middle-class black women in the late-nineteenth century). Although the essays span a range of decades and regions, the reader is left to wonder, for instance, how ideals of domesticity compared with middle-class northern ones, and how racial boundaries shaped the southern middle class in distinct and perhaps exceptional ways. Nevertheless, the anthology is a helpful introduction to how historians’ current understandings of nineteenth century southern society defy earlier notions of homogeneity and stasis, as well as a helpful starting point to future studies of the southern social structure.