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Builders of a New South: Merchants, Capital, and the Remaking of Natchez, 1865-1914

Author(s):Anderson, Aaron D.
Reviewer(s):Gillespie, Michele

Published by EH.Net (March  2015)

Aaron D. Anderson, Builders of a New South: Merchants, Capital, and the Remaking of Natchez, 1865-1914. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. vii +279 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-61703-667-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michele Gillespie, Department of History, Wake Forest University.

In Builders of a New South, Aaron D. Anderson, assistant professor of history at Alcorn State University, argues that post-war merchants rebuilt Natchez, Mississippi’s sharecropping regime with new furnishing and credit systems, making merchants instrumental in the staple crop market’s transition from slavery to freedom.  He offers a close analysis of the economic and social networks generated by ten successful merchant families and their contractual relationships with planters and freedmen over five decades.  He uses this micro-history to argue that a new class of entrepreneurial merchants used hitherto ignored economic prowess to assemble a sharecropping system that worked to their advantage in the confusion of post-war Natchez.  In the process, he insists, they remade the city.  In a departure from well-known earlier studies, Anderson shows how this postbellum merchant class used local culture and favorable laws as well as socioeconomic realities to control the petty financing of cotton, and as a result, managed to take on the mantle of Natchez’s newest elite by the late nineteenth century.  He bases his argument not only on the usual census, property, tax and probate records, but on thousands of chattel mortgage contracts, a largely overlooked but invaluable archival source.

Although informed by an older historiographic tradition, including Harold D. Woodman’s classic study on New South merchants as King Cotton’s newest retainers, Anderson embraces more recent approaches by insisting on the interdependence of socioeconomic and cultural realities.  He joins a younger generation of historians of southern economy and society who have been insistent that all historians recognize the importance of an ambitious commercial and professional middle class sandwiched between yeomen and planters in the antebellum era. He adds to their work by stretching that time frame through the end of the nineteenth century.  Thus, his argument provides a valuable book end to Frank Byrne’s Becoming Bourgeois: Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865 (2006).  Byrne revealed merchants as overlooked economic linchpins in the antebellum South who, despite their relative economic success, more often than not failed at securing social inclusion and political influence in planter society.  In contrast, Anderson shows us how the Civil War’s destruction of the antebellum southern economy brought with it plentiful opportunities for postbellum merchants in the Reconstruction South to secure not just new wealth, prestige, and power but a starring role in shaping the New South economy.

The argument for the central place of these merchants in constructing a dynamic postbellum Natchez and its surroundings is conveyed through Anderson’s in-depth analysis of ten families, who began their Natchez careers as essentially outsiders; eight of the ten family heads were non-native southerners and six were Jewish. Despite their atypicality as southerners, these merchants built massive plantation-furnishing houses and cotton-buying firms. They accrued foreclosed land left and right, including cotton plantations, paid for with the profits they made by offering high-interest credit not just to planters but to freedpeople too.  The merchants’ fresh fortunes secured from across the social class spectrum propelled them to the top of Natchez’s fragile postbellum social and commercial worlds, where they became fervent southerners and prominent civic leaders, best exemplified by Isaac Lowenburg who, although he had only arrived in Natchez as an immigrant in 1863, was elected the city’s first Jewish mayor twenty years later.

Anderson’s book is at its best when it insists on the centrality of freed African Americans as consumers and producers to the post-war southern economy.  In this sharply altered world, the author shows his readers, the most successful merchants recognized from whom they could make money the quickest, snatching up the opportunity to provide freed blacks goods and credit in what was essentially an enormous new market.  Anderson emphasizes that merchants’ money-making skills could be leveraged even further by powerful social networks of religion, marriage, and ethnicity, and by favorable new agricultural lien laws in 1867 that gave them a near monopoly on the business of local cotton.  Struggling planters and farmers were able to use their local crops as security, thus benefitting the local merchants over their former big-city competitors in New Orleans and Mobile. The failing planter class and the rising merchant class increasingly intermixed in the social, economic, and civic circles of Natchez, as planters’ sons turned businessmen out of necessity, and the two groups conspired together to keep African Americans in a subordinated place.  The merchants’ rise to power in Natchez was ultimately a brief one, for the ratcheting up of Jim Crow racism drove black men and women out of the region, just as the cotton economy suffered precipitous declines.  While Anderson champions the merchants for putting the post-war economy back on its feet and marching the region’s population down the road to modern capitalism, he is also quick to point out that these merchants lacked any progressive instincts, routinely manipulated and exploited their customers, and left the region as soon as opportunity in early twentieth-century Natchez began looking bleak.

Missing from Anderson’s otherwise sharp analysis is closer attention to the role of women and gender.  Understanding women as economic actors in their own right and as powerful facilitators of cultural influence with spillover effects in political economic realms have been especially noteworthy developments in history as a discipline over the last thirty years.  Although Anderson is attentive to the multi-generational, dynastic aspects of his merchant families and their clever use of capital to secure wealth, and mentions the role of marriage and wives in facilitating this new merchant wealth and status (pp. 158-162), he has not explicitly addressed the ways marriage, widowhood, inheritance, female wealth and female authority shaped his merchant family case study, or the ways merchants may have negotiated the new plethora of female-headed households of freedpeople and planters.  There is more work to be pursued here on the new gendered realities of this post-war world, how gendered differentials in access to law and credit, as well as racial ones, denied opportunity for some and generated it for others. Indeed, this welcome case study and its important thesis invites new work in general through comparative studies of regional economies and merchants in other postwar cities across the South.

Michele Gillespie is the author of Katharine and R.J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South (University of Georgia Press, 2012), gillesmk@wfu.edu.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII