Professor's book on Southern merchant class challenges antebellum myths

Frank ByrneIn his new book, Dr. Frank Byrne of SUNY Oswego’s history department looks at the often-overlooked merchant class in the Old South and how it challenges some of the era’s romanticized myths.

“Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865” explores the economics and culture of the rising merchant class of that time. Most historical and popular depictions concentrate on plantation owners, yeoman farmers and slaves, and paint a pastoral picture of a genteel agrarian culture.

Such a picture is incomplete and distorted, Byrne said.

“A lot of postwar literature and novels ignore this group or depict them as Northerners or outsiders undercutting the values of the South,” Byrne explained. “But the merchant class was an intrinsic part of their society, and they were sons of the South. Farmers were already relying on the merchants, buying and selling things as an important part of their economy.”

The vitality of a merchant class complicates the traditional vision of an agrarian, isolated, parochial and rigidly hierarchical Southern culture that remains a mainstream fallacy, Byrne said.

But even as they sold their parcels of goods, the Southern merchants themselves were bundles of contradictions, Byrne noted. On the one hand, they were intermediaries embracing the North’s market and economic values that were liberal, or often controversial, in the Old South, and bringing a taste for consumerism and fashion—“many of the modern values we take for granted,” he said. On the other hand, the merchants still supported their region’s conservative values and institution of slavery, perhaps out of pragmatism, he added.

Byrne estimated merchants themselves represented about 3 percent of the white population, or 8 to 10 percent including their families. But in cities reliant on trade, such as Charleston, Savannah or New Orleans, merchant classes comprised about a quarter of the community. Because of their economic activities and cultural values, the influence of the class exceeded its size, especially after the Civil War, he said.

The war itself caused the merchants to break off business relationships with the North, and the merchant class went to war and lost as much as anyone, Byrne said. Some of those who stayed in business were accused of speculation, “making money on the backs of good Southern gentlemen” even as they provided necessary goods after the Northern blockade and were unfairly vilified, Byrne noted.

After the war, merchants first reconnected with northern business connections to help rebuild the economy and modernize the region.

“If you look at this group, you can understand the rise of the merchant class in the South after the Civil War and the rise of the merchant and professional classes with the eventual triumph of their values, which were not agrarian,” Byrne said. “They were bringing a modernism to the South that had not already been there.”

Those reading the book will realize that merchants provided continuity between antebellum and postwar Southern culture and that, outside of the inexorable influence of the slave system, “the differences between the North and South, culturally, are not as great as many would assume,” Byrne said.

“Becoming Bourgeois” is published by the University Press of Kentucky and retails for $50.

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(Posted: Oct 18, 2006)