Thursday, June 5, 2008

Masters of Small Worlds

Kevlev's comment reminded me of an excellent book I read recently: Stephanie McCurry's Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995). McCurry argues that South Carolina's many yeomen farmers, like their more affluent neighbors, based their claims to power and political privilege on their status as independent heads of households. Rich and poor alike upheld a system of power that defined white men as the undisputed masters of their families, slaves, and dependents — a system that was bolstered by proslavery Christianity. For a more in-depth review, see Jeanette Keith's article on H-Net.

While the South Carolina Low Country is remembered as a land of massive plantations, impossibly wealthy planters, and overwhelming black majorities (up to 80% of residents in the antebellum period were slaves), the region also had a thriving yeoman class. McCurry's definition of a "yeoman" is anyone who owned his land and worked it with his own hands, which was generally true of farmers who owned fewer than 150 acres and fewer than 10 slaves. While 10 slaves may seem like a large workforce, McCurry shows that yeomen typically bought children or women because they were cheaper than adult men (over half of the slaves on these small farms were children — pg. 49). Similarly, the 150 acres were generally of poor quality, since large planters owned the rich, rice-producing lowlands.

Yeomen considered themselves freemen, citizens, and heads of their own households and, thus, the political equals of their elite planter neighbors. While planters were often uneasy about the ramifications of democratic ideology, they “forged an uneasy alliance” with yeomen on the basis of their common position as heads of households and benefited from yeomen’s support at the polls (93). For their part, yeomen supported the systems of slavery and social hierarchy because their own claims to power rested on the power and privileges afforded them under those systems.

McCurry's book is important because it undercuts the ubiquitous neo-Confederate claim that very few Confederate soldiers were slave owners and thus did not fight to preserve slavery. McCurry argues convincingly that free, white heads of household supported slavery because their privileged position rested on their ability to claim absolute dominion over their households, whether those households included only their own wives and children or hundreds of enslaved workers. She also examines tensions between planters and yeomen, as well as their social interactions:
Out of the personal nature of the ties that bound them, out of their common respect for private property and property in man, and out of the social and political imperatives of slave society, yeomen and planter in the South Carolina Low Country forged a workable alliance (112).

I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever tried to explain why white Southerners who did not own slaves supported the system nevertheless. One caveat: The South Carolina Low Country had a unique social and economic landscape due to the large number of huge rice plantations, so we should be careful not to extrapolate to other parts of the South (for example, over 75% of white heads of households in some SC parishes were slaveowners). That said, her argument about household heads supporting a system of privacy and household autonomy that upheld slavery will probably travel well.

1 comment:

The History Enthusiast said...

Nice review!

I love this book, and I think I've read it three times now (including one time reviewing for comps).