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Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860

Author(s):Delfino, Susanna
Gillespie, Michele
Kyriadoudes, Louis M.
Reviewer(s):Wahl, Jenny

Published by EH.NET (November 2011)

Susanna Delfino, Michele Gillespie, and Louis M. Kyriadoudes, editors, Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860.? Columbia, MO:? University of Missouri Press, 2011.? vii + 260 pp.? $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8262-1918-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jenny Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

Southern Society and Its Transformations, 1790-1860 contains wide-ranging micro-histories covering topics from lynching to corporate entrepreneurship in the antebellum American South.? The vignettes contained within various essays are often riveting, although the essays themselves are uneven in quality.? The strongest chapters — particularly Gary Edwards?s work on yeoman farmers in Southwestern Tennessee — intersperse case studies with aggregate data to illustrate temporal changes in a particular sector of antebellum Southern society.? The weakest offer sweeping assertions without much evidence; some barely relate to the general theme of the collection.

The opening piece is a case in point.? Keri Merritt claims that vagrancy laws controlled poor whites before the Civil War just as they ?were used to control blacks in the postbellum period? (p. 27).? She says little about any transformation that may have occurred during the antebellum period.? What is more, she presents only spotty information about cases involving whites from a few antebellum Georgia court records, offering nothing tangible to connect pre- and post-Civil-War vagrancy laws.?? Some inferences seem unsupported as well; for example, a person with $200 of personal property in 1850 was not necessarily impoverished, although Merritt seems to think so (p. 34).?

Michael Pfeifer?s essay on lynching is likewise a little slim.? His data consist of newspaper accounts that point to 55 mob executions of blacks — mostly slaves — between 1835 and 1862.? Although Pfeifer declares that this far exceeds the estimate Eugene Genovese suggested (30 lynching of blacks between 1840 and 1860), the numbers don?t seem that different.? Nor do they seem large enough (two lynchings per year, out of nearly four million slaves) to suggest that a ?practice of mob execution of blacks had emerged in the South by the 1830s? (p. 47) or that antebellum lynching ?forecast the wide-scale disavowal of formal law by many southern whites after emancipation? (p. 57).? Theory fails to support the latter contention as well:? antebellum lynching pitted the interests of white owners against white mobs.? The calculus was far different after 1865.

Jeff Bremer?s conclusion — that people embrace markets where available — isn?t terribly surprising to economists.? The best parts of his essay on markets in rural central Missouri are the details he offers from his own research, particularly about the activities of individual women (p. 93).? His description of the Missouri-Santa Fe trade (pp. 90-91) — apparently compiled from other sources — is interesting.

The Edwards chapter (mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review) nicely pulls together census data on acreage, landless population, number of slaves, livestock value, and cotton production by planters and yeomen farmers for several Tennessee counties in 1850 and 1860.? It also offers an intriguing look at the multiple jobs held by yeomen and makes the insightful point that successful small farms relied heavily on the presence of adolescent and adult males (p. 120).??

Max Grivno?s chapter on Baltimore-area wage laborers opens with the shocking account of child murder and suicide committed by a desperately poor man (p. 130).?? His investigation of county records — wills, statutes, letters, court papers, newspapers — leads him to conclude that poverty yielded similar harsh conditions for whites and free blacks (p. 147).? Grivno also claims that local landowners paid the same paltry wage to everyone, regardless of race, and cared little about the color mix of their labor force.? Laborers alternated between following the harvest and scrabbling for menial jobs (p. 136); free blacks had the added burden of binding out their own children to avoid having the authorities take them away (pp. 142-44).?? This essay is well-written and filled with fascinating stories.

Jonathan Wells and Jennifer Green discuss Southern professionals — particularly doctors, dentists, lawyers, and civil engineers — and their associations, journals, school curricula, and careers.? Wells notes that Southerners were responsible for creating a legal definition of dentistry as a subset of medicine (p. 171).? Green uses military-school alumni records and Colin Burke?s American Collegiate Populations for the 1840s and 1850s to trace subsequent career patterns of graduates.? Although these are informative chapters, I would have liked to see some comparison to the North to ascertain whether different regional patterns emerged and, if so, why.?

Robert Wright sets himself a goal: to document that many Southern states enjoyed a level of corporate entrepreneurship approaching that of the North and far exceeding the level in Europe (p. 199).?? His measures are the per capita number and minimum authorized capitalization of specially incorporated companies.? Although his reach falls somewhat short of his grasp — he focuses almost exclusively on Virginia and Pennsylvania — Wright presents some nice data on special charters by business type, as well as a few case studies.

The book finishes with a chapter by Elbra David, who examines collections suits filed in Natchez — mostly in the 1820s — to discover how a local credit market worked.? David determines that slavery and cotton could support complex financial arrangements, including unsecured loans and promissory notes. David observes a growing rate of default and increasing reliance on promissory notes over time (p. 224) but gives little explanation for the trend.

Viewing the past via micro-histories offers an intriguing alternative to cliometrics.? These essays can be seen as providing small, sometimes eye-catching, pieces in the kaleidoscope that is antebellum Southern history.?? But that is all they can do.? In short, this collection will appeal to some economic historians and leave others longing to look at a larger pattern.?

Jenny Wahl, Professor of Economics, Carleton College is currently working on an investigation of the connections between income and wealth for high-wealth taxpayers.?

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century