EXCERPT: Charleston and the Emergence of Middle Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era

The following is an excerpt from the just-released Charleston and the Emergence of Middle Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era by Jennifer L. Goloboy, the latest addition to the Early American Places series from the UGA Press. 

Why study Charleston’s merchants as exemplars of the middle class? The essential problem of the man in business was to persuade potential trading partners to work with him rather than his competitors. This problem was at its extreme (and best-documented) for merchants, who rarely, if ever, saw their trading partners, and communicated primarily by letter. To put it bluntly, how do you get a man who’s never met you before to trust you with his money? Merchants appealed to shared values in their letters, and found connections beyond the raw necessities of buying and selling. For example, Charlestonian Josiah Smith was apparently delighted that his ideas on child-rearing corresponded so exactly with those of his friend, Londoner William Manning:

am pleasd to find that your Sentiments & mine Coincide in placing Our Sons under the Care of Honest Clergymen, in Order that their morals may be the more properly directed & Securd them. the Venality of the Time will otherwise afford from Laymen. You & I [illegible] are now Equal as to the Number of children, being now Five–Three Sons & Two Daughters, and may each of us enjoy Comfortable Hopes of them, that they will not be led astray in these days of almost General Depravity–(1)

Smith even found meaning in the fact that the number of children in each family was identical; that was another sign that his values corresponded with Manning’s. Epistolary attempts to connect across the Atlantic developed the essential values of the middle class (2).

Middle-class values transcended the wealth of individual trading partners, because it was useful for all concerned to pretend that aspirational communalities made current financial status unimportant. Young traders promised that they were just like their elders; rich old men connected with the new merchants who would extend their firms into the future. However, the idea of the middle class as a status group was never totally detachable from economic concerns. Middle-class values shifted according to the economic outlook– in slow periods, merchants testified to the benefits of prudence, for example. In general, colonial men tried to exude a respectful willingness to serve, men of the early republic an almost piratical eagerness to make good, and antebellum merchants a polished professionalism. Much of this book will look at how the economic prospects of merchants shaped the middle-class culture they were creating.

Looking at Charleston’s merchants enables us to rethink the middle class in the light of the new history of capitalism and its commitment to reintegrating the Old South into the world economy. This project is part of a recent upswell of interest in the southern middle class, which rejects earlier interpretations that claimed there was no such thing (3). Much of this research has been about the late antebellum period, and has successfully revealed the presence of a caste of professionals that sought to bring economic development and progress to the Old South, without abandoning slavery. Historians Jonathan Wells, Frank Byrne, Gregg Kimball, and Jennifer Green have demonstrated that men like William Gregg and J.D.B. DeBow were only the best-known part of a much broader movement (4). These historians have generally focused on the late antebellum period, and I believe the roots of middle-class culture in the south can be found much earlier. Furthermore, these studies generally link the southern middle class with “economic and cultural modernization,” and my research shows a middle class less interested in long-term progress than in short-term economic survival in turbulent times (5). Nevertheless, research on the southern middle class has demonstrated that the Old South was neither pre-capitalist nor isolated from the rest of American culture. This is a particularly important consideration in South Carolina, whose historians have attributed the decline of Charleston to an anti-market local culture.

We seem to have gotten the history of the American middle class wrong–or at least incomplete. Colonial historians have shown the importance of the profit motive in bringing men to America. Most of colonial society was inherently market-oriented and very mobile (6). And yet our studies of the middle-class experience in the early nineteenth century has been shaped by an earlier generation’s understanding of the essential colonial America– small-town New England, isolated from the larger global marketplace. The middle class, we have been told, was born in the collision of small-town innocence with urban market culture, and the moral revulsion that necessarily resulted (7). This does an injustice to the young men who came to the city from the plantation, or crossed the Atlantic from Scotland. Furthermore, it may not even be fair to the New England farmers, who were far less self-sufficient and isolated from the market than we once imagined (8). If we want to write the experience of the middle class in America, we should include the South. Not only Lydia Maria Child, but also Zephaniah Kingsley.

The previous generation of historians was fascinated by the idea of isolates from the capitalist system. One of these supposed isolates was the Old South, which Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese famously said was “in but not of the capitalist world (9).” This led to an interest in the culture of these isolates as a form of resistance to capitalism, and an endless consideration of whether this resistance was real or not. The middle-class home was another one of these supposed isolates, and like the Old South, it was treated as not subject to change and growth (10). Historian Ann Douglas lamented in her study of Victorian culture, “The problems of the women correspond to mine with a frightening accuracy that seems to set us outside the processes of history (11).” Previous historians have considered whether middle-class values created a real resistance to capitalism (as sometimes in the abolitionist movement) or not (as when these values were used as a cudgel to beat the working class) (12).

More recent historians have taken pains to reintegrate these supposed isolates back into the larger economic system, and therefore back into historical time. My project attempts to treat both the culture of the counting-house and the culture of the parlor as endlessly-shifting middle-class responses to the demands of the larger world economy. Most importantly I want to rid my readers of the sense that there was a Middle Class that was formed, reached its highest self, and then stayed constant.

Jennifer L. Goloboy is an independent scholar based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, specializing in the history of the early American middle class. She is the editor of Industrial Revolution: People and Perspectives. Goloboy earned her PhD in the history of American civilization from Harvard University.

  1. [Josiah Smith] to Mr. William Manning, London, December 5, 1772, Josiah Smith Letter Book, RASP.
  2. Similarly, families used the new rhetoric of “family feeling” in their letters to connect over vast distances. Sarah M.S. Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2008) 7-11. See also Debby Applegate’s extremely insightful essay on middle-class identity. Debby Applegate, “Henry Ward Beecher and the ‘Great Middle Class’: Mass-Marketed Intimacy and Middle-Class Identity,” in Bledstein and Johnston, eds., 107-124.
  3. See, for example, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s comment, “Most societies… have a large middle, if only because most sociological analyses structure data in a manner that guarantees it. The question remains: Middle of what?” Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) 41.
  4. Wells; Frank Byrne, Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the Antebellum and Confederate South (University Press of Kentucky, 2006); Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. (University of Georgia Press, 2000); Jennifer R. Green, Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds. The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century. (Louisiana State University Press, 2011). An exception to this trend, Emma Hart focuses on the middle class in colonial Charleston. Emma Hart, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2010).
  5. Wells and Green 3.
  6. Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
  7. Karen Haltunnen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (Yale University Press, 1982) ch. 1; Bruce Laurie, “‘We Are Not Afraid to Work’: Master Mechanics and the Market Revolution in the Antebellum North,” in Bledstein and Johnston, eds. 52.  On the other hand, for a view of the middle class even less sanguine than my own, see Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  8. T. H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies v. 25(1986) 467-99; Winifred Barr Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  9. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 1983) 16.
  10. The assumption of timelessness in the Old South particularly irked Edward Baptist.  Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) xviii, 111. For a sophisticated analysis of the problem of treating middle-class culture as a constant for the hundred years after 1850, and how this issue has haunted the historiography, see Robert D. Johnston, “Historians and the American Middle Class,” in Bledstein and Johnston 298-303.
  11. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture. Reprint edition. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) 11; Mary Ryan felt that separate spheres and the association of women with the home had existed more or less intact from “the early nineteenth century” until “the 1960s.”  Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1981) 241.
  12. For the middle class and abolitionism see Thomas Bender, ed., The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (University of California Press, 1992); for the middle class and its morality-based charity, see Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1987) especially 34-5 and 70-4.

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