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Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790-1860

Author(s):Downey, Tom
Reviewer(s):Peskin, Lawrence A.

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Tom Downey, Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. xiii + 262 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-3107-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence A. Peskin, Department of History, Morgan State University.

Let us now praise town studies. They proliferated in the days before literary criticism and post-modernism, when positivism and progress still held sway. Modest, and implicitly collaborative, they generally eschewed broad theoretical statements in favor of intensive archival research. When well designed they offered a powerful way to address larger historical debates and to advance knowledge one step at a time.

Tom Downey’s history of South Carolina’s upcountry Edgefield and Barnwell districts is a fine town study. Deeply rooted in local archives, it also makes good use of the widely scattered papers of area capitalists and planters and of the R.G. Dun and Company credit reports. Furthermore, it focuses on a particularly important and vexing question: the extent and nature of capitalism in the antebellum South.

Downey, an assistant editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, views this hoary question through the lens of the recent debate over the extent of the market revolution in the North rather than revisiting the older Genovese-Oakes debate over planter mentalit?. This approach dictates a focus on economic development and political-economy, and consequently Downey’s concerns tend more toward words than hard numbers.

The first chapter offers a broad view of the economic bases of Edgefield and Barnwell. Downey demonstrates the relative successes of tobacco and cotton culture in ostensibly unpromising, sandy soil. By 1860, Edgefield and Barnwell respectively ranked first and second in gross cotton production among South Carolina districts. Edgefield’s and Barnwell’s agricultural prosperity suggests that, far from an alternative to agriculture, relatively extensive mercantile and manufacturing development might exist quite comfortably in plantation country.

In subsequent chapters, Downey convincingly demonstrates the parallels to the northern Market Revolution. Despite the Jeffersonian rhetoric of economic independence and the yeoman farmer, commercial enterprises such as sawmills played a role in Edgefield and Barnwell from the American Revolution on. Moreover, just as in the North, local government provided support for entrepreneurs with the construction of roads and other internal improvements. As an upcountry merchant class grew and expanded, it developed a taste for what other historians have termed “state mercantilism” — utilization of South Carolina’s resources to assist the state’s commercial interests, particularly in competition with their rivals across the Savannah River in Georgia. Most notably, the state underwrote the new commercial town of Hamburg, conceived in 1821and hyped as a means of bypassing the merchants of Augusta, Georgia, who received most of Edgefield and Barnwell’s cotton shipments.

As in the North, this market revolution was further facilitated by new railroads and factories. They arrived in the guise of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company and William Gregg’s factories, all of which received important incentives from the state. By 1849, Gregg’s Graniteville factory produced more than a quarter million dollars worth of cotton textiles annually. Soon the region also welcomed new banks and even new towns, again with state incentives.

Still, Edgefield and Barnwell were hardly late blooming imitations of northern towns. They remained vociferously pro-slavery throughout the antebellum period. Far from seeing slavery and northern-style market capitalism as incompatible, pro-manufacturing leaders from the region promoted paternalistic factory villages as a way to provide income and teach “habits of industry” to poor white laborers who might otherwise become discontented (p. 133). Even the area’s most famous planter, James Henry Hammond, held out hope that under the proper circumstances planters and manufacturers might “mutually enrich and strengthen one another” (p. 122). However, such a harmony of interests was tricky to maintain. Downey suggests that with the rise of large capitalists and corporations, the state began supporting corporate projects at the expense of the old single proprietor mills, most notably in its riparian laws. Furthermore, the old emphasis on the public good, which was always implicit within the commonwealth rhetoric of state mercantilism, faded away as large corporations such as the railroads began to focus on more profitable intra-state projects.

Downey shows that by the time of the Civil War, a new class of capitalists had arisen and begun to transform Edgefield and Barnwell’s economies. The transformation was far from complete, but, as Downey concludes, the agrarian landscape was “in transition from being a society with capitalist features toward becoming a capitalist society” (p. 227). This formulation cleverly mirrors Ira Berlin’s evaluation of the antebellum North as a society with slaves rather than a slave society.

It is here that some of the limitations of the town study become apparent. Clearly it is an open question as to how far Downey can generalize based on these two admittedly unusual districts. One can only hope that other studies will come along to add more bricks to the edifice that he has so capably begun.

Beyond issues of representativeness, Downey leaves the reader yearning for more analysis of the broader significance of the story of Edgefield and Barnwell. Is this a study, as the author occasionally implies, that seeks to complicate the commonly accepted North/South dichotomies of capitalism/pre-capitalism, industry/agriculture, intensive versus extensive development and so forth? If so, it also, perhaps inadvertently, reveals the great gulf between North and South. One fascinating example is the famous Hayne-Webster debate of 1830 which was prompted in part by Hayne’s refusal to support openly a petition by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company for federal assistance in its efforts to construct the Hamburg railroad, presumably due to southern fears of federal interference in slavery. This incident prompted Daniel Webster’s once immortal speech, which culminated in his declaration, “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

For northern Whigs like Webster, federal assistance, the tariff, internal improvements and banking all fit together neatly to create an American System. But clearly for antebellum South Carolinians like Hayne, no matter how interested in Whiggish issues of capitalist development, the problem of slavery trumped all other concerns. One wishes Downey had dug a bit deeper into the politics of political economy here to offer more insight into the Whigs’ failures in South Carolina. Unfortunately, Downey seems to be unaware of Joseph Persky’s excellent study of southern economic thought, The Burden of Dependency (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) which might have provided more of an analytical framework to address the contradictions between free-trade and mercantilism, agrarianism and economic development, and anti-capitalism and pro-capitalism that frequently and seemingly improbably coexisted within the thought of southern promoters and political economists and which certainly differentiated them from their northern counterparts.

Lawrence A. Peskin is Associate Professor of History at Morgan State University in Baltimore and author of Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century