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Becoming Bourgeois

Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865

Becoming Bourgeois is the first study to focus on what historians have come to call the "middling sort," the group falling between the mass of yeoman farmers and the planter class that dominated the political economy of the antebellum South. Historian Frank J. Byrne investigates the experiences of urban merchants, village storekeepers, small-scale manufacturers, and their families, as well as the contributions made by this merchant class to the South's economy, culture, and politics in the decades before, and the years of, the Civil War. These merchant families embraced the South but were not of the South. At a time when Southerners rarely traveled far from their homes, merchants annually ventured forth on buying junkets to northern cities. Whereas the majority of Southerners enjoyed only limited formal instruction, merchant families often achieved a level of education rivaled only by the upper class—planters.

The southern merchant community also promoted the kind of aggressive business practices that New South proponents would claim as their own in the Reconstruction era and beyond. Along with discussion of these modern approaches to liberal capitalism, Byrne also reveals the peculiar strains of conservative thought that permeated the culture of southern merchants. While maintaining close commercial ties to the North, southern merchants embraced the religious and racial mores of the South. Though they did not rely directly upon slavery for their success, antebellum merchants functioned well within the slave-labor system. When the Civil War erupted, southern merchants simultaneously joined Confederate ranks and prepared to capitalize on the war's business opportunities, regardless of the outcome of the conflict.

Throughout Becoming Bourgeois, Byrne highlights the tension between these competing elements of southern merchant culture. By exploring the values and pursuits of this emerging class, Byrne not only offers new insight into southern history but also deepens our understanding of the mutable ties between regional identity and the marketplace in nineteenth-century America.

About the Author

Frank J. Byrne is associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Reviews

"Byrne suggests that even though the planter class dominated every aspect of the region, a rising merchant middle class with economic ties outside the South was scattered throughout Dixie...He offers an interesting, well-researched thesis. Recommended."—Choice

"Becoming Bourgeois adds significantly to our understanding of social class in the Antebellum and Civil War South. Byrne's book reveals a great tension between the role of merchants as economic linchpins in the South and the cultural role they constructed for themselves to ensure their inclusion in southern society."—Michele Gillespie, Michele Gillespie

"Becoming Bourgeois is a welcome addition to the growing literature on commercial activity and class development in the South, and the presentation makes the book a pleasure to read. Byrne effectively combines his analysis with examples...to help the reader understand antebellum merchant culture and its broader significance."—North Carolina Historical Review

"Building upon recent work on the middle class and master class, historian Frank Byrne has added yet another dimension to scholarly understanding of the ways in which social structure and culture intertwine . . . . Byrne has provided us with an insightful analysis of a segment of the Southern population."—Jonathan Daniel Wells, Johnson & Wales University

"In sum, Byrne has given us a fine book that should further stimulate a recently initiated rethinking of the impact of merchants on nineteenth-century southern society."—Journal of American History

"Byrne's book is a worthwhile study combining facets of antebellum southern, class, gender, and history into an accessible whole."—American Historical Review

"In Becoming Bourgeois, Frank Byrne presents a long overdue re-examination of the antebellum merchant in the South. Rich in details gleaned from an impressive assortment of primary and secondary resources, Byrne's portrait of southern merchants is both familiar and novel."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Byrne. . . sympathetically depict[s] the textures of everyday life as experienced by antebellum southern merchants and their families."—Journal of Southern History

"This excellent study sheds light on a commonly overlooked class of white southerners and provides another example of the ways in which historians continue to highlight the diversity of the 'Old South.'"—West Virginia History

"Byrne. . . breathes new life into the slim and aging historiography of merchants in the antebellum South."—Civil War Book Review

"Frank J. Byrne's study is a welcome exploration of the nation's merchant class, which was crucial to the success of the dominant and more extensively researched planter class... His depiction of the southern merchant class is suggestive and illuminating."—Journal of East Tennessee History

"Becoming Bourgeois is a valuable addition to a new and growing body of scholarship on the Old South's middle class that has modified the traditional view of Southern free society."—Louisiana History

"Frank J. Byrne's ground-breaking study of merchants in the antebellum South rests on a question of such good sense one can only marvel why it has not been asked before...A book that shows the complexity of the social structure of the South and of its individuals, particularly one that combines a study of political economy and culture, is a most welcome addition."—Arkansas Historical Quarterly

9780813124049 : becoming-bourgeois-byrne
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