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The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

by Jonathan Daniel Wells

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With a fresh take on social dynamics in the antebellum South, Jonathan Daniel Wells contests the popular idea that the Old South was a region of essentially two classes (planters and slaves) until after the Civil War. He argues that, in fact, the region had a burgeoning white middle class—including merchants, doctors, and teachers—that had a profound


With a fresh take on social dynamics in the antebellum South, Jonathan Daniel Wells contests the popular idea that the Old South was a region of essentially two classes (planters and slaves) until after the Civil War. He argues that, in fact, the region had a burgeoning white middle class—including merchants, doctors, and teachers—that had a profound impact on southern culture, the debate over slavery, and the coming of the Civil War.

Wells shows that the growth of the periodical press after 1820 helped build a cultural bridge between the North and the South, and the emerging southern middle class seized upon northern middle-class ideas about gender roles and reform, politics, and the virtues of modernization. Even as it sought to emulate northern progress, however, the southern middle class never abandoned its attachment to slavery. By the 1850s, Wells argues, the prospect of industrial slavery in the South threatened northern capital and labor, causing sectional relations to shift from cooperative to competitive. Rather than simply pitting a backward, slave-labor, agrarian South against a progressive, free-labor, industrial North, Wells argues that the Civil War reflected a more complex interplay of economic and cultural values.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An important book on an important subject. . . . Undoubtedly an important scholarly contribution."
Civil War History Journal

"Notably absent [in studies of the history of the middle-class] has been any attention to the American South. . . . With [this] intelligent analysis of middle-class formation in the antebellum South, that absence is no more. . . . A fresh addition to our understanding of the origins of the Civil War."
Journal of Southern History

"This important book should be required reading for students of the Old South."
American Historical Review

"Wells recovers something that has been buried since at least 1895: the antebellum Southern middle class. . . . Impressive. . . . Enriches and challenges our comprehension of this place and time."
Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"[An] ambitious, well-written, and persistently argued book."
Florida Historical Quarterly

"Wells addresses the complex problem of class formation with boldness, deftness, and sensitivity. . . . Merit[s] the attention of all antebellum Southern historians."

"Excellent and should be read by those interested in the coming of the War."
Louisiana History

"His claim will be controversial, but his book will enrich our understandings and change our thinking.
(Michael O'Brien, University of Cambridge) "

Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

By Jonathan Daniel Wells

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5553-7

Chapter One

Travel and Migration between the North and the South

In the fall of 1838, Ruth Ingraham and Mary Leonard, two recently widowed sisters from Augusta, Maine, purchased a large stock of clothes and dry goods from a Boston merchant and moved to Georgia to open a store. Their migration to the South was certainly a bold move, not just because their gender made them unlikely entrepreneurs, but also because of the lingering economic hard times left by the Panic of 1837. Writing back home to their sister, who owned a store in Maine, the women, like many newly minted "southerners," bragged of the warm weather upon their arrival in Brunswick in December 1838: "We walk on the piazza of the hotel," Ruth taunted her northern kin, "without any additional clothing." And, she added, "we have some very good society at the hotel, many Northerners." But the main focus of Ingraham's correspondence was the sagging fortunes of her Brunswick enterprise, not the weather. She wrote that after scouting out the business prospects in other Georgia towns, she had reluctantly decided to leave Brunswick and set up her permanent business in Augusta. "Yet I shall leave this place with much regret," Ingraham lamented, "for I have been treated with much kindness by the people here, and they cannot bear to have me leave." Her reticence to move reflected not just lost friendships but perhaps business opportunities left behind as well: "Several new buildings are being erected," she noted, "steam-mills are about going into operation and things are beginning to wear a city like aspect." And yet, in early 1839 Ingraham and her sister followed their entrepreneurial intuition and set up a shop in Augusta.

Initially, the enterprise prospered, and the women wrote to their sister in Maine of the progress of their business. "Our store is usually filled with customers between ten and eleven o'clock.... The store is nearly as large as yours with two counters and shelves behind each, a room as large back of it where we have a long counter with drawers ... back of that is the workroom with three windows." In fact, the store did so well that the sisters decided to hire a young slave woman to help tend the counter and to perform domestic duties. Such hiring was common in the towns of the Old South. Masters sometimes "hired out" their slaves to merchants, manufacturers, or farmers for periods ranging from one day to a year or more. Ellen, Mary Leonard informed her northern sister without a hint of guilt for employing a slave, "is a yellow girl, and has an ebony husband named Steven who belongs to a different master. Ellen's master is a feisty old bachelor who lets her by the month at eight dollars-she is right smart for a slave and clever, does our cooking, washing, and ironing, and minds the store while we eat." Many northerners who ventured to the South recorded in their travel diaries or wrote back home to relatives their disgust at witnessing slavery in practice. Not so with these southern transplants from Maine. In fact, by January 1840, they had acquired another slave, "thirteen years old named Sylvia," to help with domestic responsibilities.

Like the thousands of other northerners who came to live in the antebellum South, Ingraham and Leonard influenced, and were influenced by, their adopted region. The sisters' conformity to southern society extended beyond the acceptance of slavery. Indeed, Ingraham and Leonard took active roles in the social and religious life of their new community. As merchants, they were constantly in contact with the many customers who passed by their business. They joined a local Presbyterian church and even complained about the divisions within their church "between the old and the new school." Ingraham wrote home in 1840 about witnessing the baptism of a group of slaves, remarking that although many whites were Methodists, "the majority of blacks are Baptists." Obviously not shy to engage socially and religiously with their southern neighbors, Ingraham and Leonard appear to have blended as easily with the residents of Augusta, Georgia, as they had back home in Augusta, Maine.

Ultimately, however, the business begun with so much promise succumbed to the difficult economic times. Ingraham complained that "the Merchants from many of the Northern cities, and even from Charleston, S.C. are sending or bringing their goods to this place ... until the market is fairly glutted. I have regretted bringing so many goods with me." A few months later, she added that "so many goods [are] sent here, from most of all the Northern cities, that we must sell low if we sell at all." Mary's decision to leave Augusta to settle in the Georgia town of Athens left Ruth to run the business alone, and the work became burdensome: "[I] can get no help here without paying more than it is worth, consequently am slaving myself to death ... if we could obtain good help here, at the rates that we do at the North, [I] could do much better here than there." But in July 1841, three years after she left Maine for Georgia, Ingraham decided to return to the North. She claimed to have made a "little fortune" while in the South and now decided to come back to New England. "I shall very much dread," she confessed, speaking as if she were a lifelong southerner, "giving up our beautiful climate ... for the Cold North" (emphasis added).

The story of Ruth Ingraham and Mary Leonard illustrates well the point that northerners and southerners traveled freely between the regions, on temporary trips as well as for long-term settlement. While Ingraham left Georgia after three years, her sister apparently stayed. Each followed paths blazed by thousands of other northerners who visited the slave states for brief visits or to begin new lives. Based upon a study of the 1850 census, historian Richard N. Current reports that more than 600,000 southern natives lived in the North and about 200,000 natives of the free states resided in the South. And based on the 1860 census, historian Fletcher M. Green estimated that about 360,000 southerners in 1860 had been born in the North and that southern voters sent no fewer than 200 ex-northerners to Congress before the Civil War. These northern men and women migrated to the South in pursuit of economic opportunities, ministerial appointments, or literary careers. Much is known about the carpetbaggers who migrated to the South after the Civil War looking for work, and yet throughout the antebellum period, a similar influx of northerners like Ruth Ingraham and Mary Leonard ventured into the southern states, multiplying the cultural contact between the sections. In a dialectical process, the North and the South shaped each other through contacts subtle and overt, on an individual as well as a national level.

Within different areas of the South, there were differences in the number and origin of newcomers. Urban areas tended to experience larger concentrations of migrants from the North as well as immigrants from Europe. And the more recently settled towns and cities of the southwest also attracted a larger percentage of people who were either northern-born or foreign-born. In New Orleans in 1850, for example, out of the 40,000 or so whites who were born in America, about 9,500 came from the North. Immigrants also were a sizable minority in the city. In 1860, for example, 44.5 percent of New Orleans' residents were born outside the United States, a number comparable to the estimated 50 percent of people in Chicago, New York, and Milwaukee who were foreign-born. More than one-third of the population of other southwestern cities, such as Mobile, Louisville, and Memphis, were not native to America. These cities also experienced a dramatic influx of northerners who came to the region in search of economic or professional opportunities.

Southerners even encouraged northerners to venture southward to build up industry there. "Let us at once, then," a southerner implored, "cease to talk, and begin to act in earnest, by resorting to those measures, that will not only induce our population and property to remain at home, but which will encourage mechanics and capitalists to settle among us." Scholars are only beginning to understand the important role played by industrialists from New York or New England who came to the South to make their fortune in business. While others headed west to settle in the growing cities of Chicago and Cincinnati, many northerners determined that the next wave of industrialization would come to the South. Such northerners viewed the region as ripe for speculation in manufacturing, as a place of unusual opportunity for making money and the "main chance." As one Savannah resident wrote to a correspondent in Massachusetts, "Your father does not know the immense field a man has open before him in these parts to make a fortune." Of course, not all of the reports of transplanted northerners to their friends and family back home were as optimistic. But enough northerners responded enthusiastically to the prospects of economic success in the South to form a substantial minority in many southern towns and cities. Swayed by calls for economic progress on the northern model, these enterprising people joined the efforts to remake the South in the North's image.

Among the most influential migrants from the North and Europe were merchants like Ingraham and Leonard. These northerners carried with them a belief that they could not only make better lives for themselves but could also change the South itself. John Parkhill, for example, was born in Londonderry, Ireland, but moved to Richmond and then finally settled with his family in Tallahassee in the 1820s. Once in Florida, Parkhill established himself as an important member of his community, working as a banker and postmaster. He also became active in the local Presbyterian church, helped to guide the financing of many internal improvement projects, and reared sons who became doctors and lawyers.

Businesspeople like Parkhill, whether from the North or from Europe, helped to shape southern society and its economy in the antebellum period by advocating the building of railroads, banks, and manufacturing enterprises. Albert Pike, a Massachusetts native, moved to Little Rock in 1835, where he became the editor of the Arkansas Gazette. Like many other merchants and industrialists who came to the slave states, Pike sought to persuade his adopted region of the virtues of manufacturing. Pike became a prominent advocate of southern industrialization, including actively promoting the commercial conventions that appeared in the region. Pike used any argument he could muster to convince southerners of the value of diversifying the region's economy, even playing upon southern desires for economic independence from the North: "From the rattle with which the nurse tickles the ear of the child born in the South to the shroud which covers the cold form of the dead, everything comes to us from the North." Advocates of modernization like Pike brought with them from the North knowledge of, and experience in, promoting manufacturing and internal improvements. By taking roles as newspaper editors or as prominent speakers at commercial conventions, northern migrants like Pike ensured that they would influence southern opinion on matters of political economy.

Interestingly, such northern boosters of modernization often ventured to the South with few financial resources. Daniel Pratt, one of the best-known industrialists in the Old South, left New Hampshire in 1819 with "only nine months of schooling, a bundle of clothes slung over his shoulder, and twenty-five dollars in his pocket." But Pratt would eventually establish one of the most lucrative manufacturing enterprises in the South. At first, his Alabama enterprise made only cotton gins, but his business ultimately included factories for making boots, textiles, marble, bricks, and many other products. In addition, he modeled his complex of factories and housing for workers after those he recalled seeing in New Hampshire. He constructed what a recent biographer has called a "Yankee town" in the South and became a prominent, wealthy, and politically influential industrialist in his adopted region.

Pratt's rags-to-riches story is well known to historians, but the lives of thousands of others are less studied. William H. Young, a New Yorker who settled in Georgia in 1824, began his business career modestly by representing a northern clothing company. But by the 1830s, Young was a leader in the cotton export business in Apalachicola, Florida. Thus, even the wilds of the Gulf Coast attracted aspiring entrepreneurs from the North. Daniel Ladd arrived in Florida after a voyage from New England at the age of sixteen in 1833. Like many northern transplants, Ladd became a clerk first, working for his uncle's commission business. Ladd utilized his apprenticeship well, for as a clerk he acquired knowledge about selling and bookkeeping that proved invaluable when he set out on his own. By the 1850s, he had become a leading Florida cotton factor and had branched out into supporting railroads and other internal improvement projects.

One of the more influential Yankee industrialists who ventured southward was Henry Merrell. Born just after the War of 1812 in Utica, New York, in the heart of the area that Mary Ryan has termed the "cradle of the middle class," Merrell moved to the small town of Roswell in northwest Georgia in 1838. Determined to create a "Southern Manufacturing System" in Georgia, Merrell played a central role in building up the industry of the state, making it the envy of the South. Like many northerners and southerners who urged cultural and economic interaction between the sections, Merrell "thought it a patriotic calling to try and inaugurate a line of things tending to reconcile unhappy differences between the North and the South." Merrell, of course, had doubts about leaving his native Oneida County, New York, where exciting changes in society and the economy were already occurring. When he moved to Roswell in May 1839 to assume the position of manager in the Roswell Manufacturing Company, however, even Merrell must have been surprised by what he found. Roswell, settled by Roswell King, another northerner who had come to the South to make his career in business, was a conscious imitation of the traditional New England town. The plan for Roswell copied the New England town square, with the residencies placed on the western side and the businesses on the east; the style and architecture of the Presbyterian church duplicated those of churches in New England, and the pastor was a former northerner; the factory in which Merrell initially worked was designed by a builder from New Jersey; even many of the houses copied a traditional New England style. Merrell remarked that northern influence was everywhere felt in the South.


Excerpted from The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861 by Jonathan Daniel Wells Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Wells's book is not so much a study of the quotidian life of an emerging middle class as it is a fresh look the social and economic sources of the antebellum sectional conflict. As such, it is bold [and] interesting.—North Carolina Historical Review

Meet the Author

Jonathan Daniel Wells is associate professor of history and chair of arts and sciences at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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