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Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country.

In this ambitious study of the political culture of the antebellum South Carolina Low Country, Stephanie McCurry argues that yeoman farmers found common cause with their planter neighbors in the shared experience of mastery. If wealthy planter men lorded it over their slaves, then poorer farmers dominated their wives and other dependents in a similar way. Republican ideology promised men independence, a status that was defined against both the slavery of African-Americans and the subordination of women. Evangelical Protestantism unified the planter and yeoman classes in defense of a social order that was "distinctly hierarchical, patriarchal, and proslavery." (p. 179) In times of political crisis, the planter elite needed only to invoke the resonant theme of a Northern threat to the sacred household, and yeoman farmers fell quickly in line. "In the end," the "commitment" of the yeoman farmers "to the slave regime owed as much to its legitimation of dependence and inequality in the private sphere as to the much-lauded vitality of male independence and formal 'democracy' in the public sphere." (p. 228) McCurry's thesis is so clear, and she restates it so often, that it is impossible to miss: "As patriotic sons, as fathers, as heads of households, as white men, as propertied men - as masters - yeoman freeman were called in 1860 to defend their world." (p. 283)

This is a bold thesis, and it is vigorously argued. There is much to admire in this book: the clarity of the writing, the depth of research in some sources, and the attempt to integrate gender into political history. When all is said and done, however, Masters of Small Worlds is unpersuasive. Critical parts of the argument depend upon implausible definitions, thin documentation, or sheer bravado. When all these are stripped away, what remains is chiefly an intriguing thesis about the bases of social and political cohesion in antebellum South Carolina.

In her first chapters, McCurry offers two definitions upon which her interpretation will hinge. First, she extends the boundaries of the Low Country all the way to the fall line, including a tier of inland counties often referred to as the "Middle Country," and second, she defines the yeoman as a land owner who relied upon the work of himself and his family, even if they were assisted by as many as nine slaves. (pp. 47-9) These definitions are important to McCurry. Yet although she insists that "the social structure of the Low Country had a discrete geography," (p. 24) the effect of expanding the social and spatial boundaries of the lowcountry yeomanry is to situate it anywhere and everywhere in the South. It is little wonder then that McCurry can find "a class of yeoman farmers" in a place where their existence "has been denied, almost without exception, by modern historians." (p. 37) Moreover, by inflating the yeomanry in this way, McCurry is able to assert its typicality, for "this social geography characterized every black-belt region in the antebellum South." (p. 29)

Once she has set up this series of mirrors, in which the Middle Country is a reflection of the Low Country, and the two are but mirror images of the entire black belt, and in which a family that owns nine slaves is the social equivalent of a farming family with none, McCurry is free to select her evidence from well beyond the lowcountry yeomanry. Whenever she needs an example of a hard-pressed evangelical yeoman woman, for example, she turns to the diary of one upcountry woman, cited ten times, or the correspondence of two upcountry sisters, cited four times. When she wants some more evidence about the "meaning of Christian womanhood," she uses the journal of "the daughter of a small upcountry planter," (p. 196) from which she had quoted seventy pages earlier not to show the similarity of outlook between planter and yeoman women, but the contempt the former had for the latter. Just as upcountry and lowcountry yeoman women are interchangeable, so are planter women throughout the South, with McCurry drawing her evidence from the journals of planter women from Louisiana, Georgia, and even demonstrably non-black-belt Virginia and Maryland.

Some of the problem must be attributed to the sheer lack of available evidence. Presumably, if there were extant diaries and letters from lowcountry yeoman women, McCurry would have used them. When she has good evidence, she uses it to excess, for example, twenty-one separate documents to demonstrate the unexceptionable point that planters purchased a variety of foodstuffs from yeomen. (p. 107, n.22) The illusion is thereby created that other portions of her argument are equally well-supported by the extant sources. The footnotes for the undocumented assertions are just as thick, but the citations are frequently irrelevant - for example books by Kathy Peiss and Susan Porter Benson about women and consumer culture at the turn of the twentieth century and primary sources from other regions of the South.

McCurry's analysis of gender is the most original part of her book, but it is also the most problematic, not only because of the thin documentation. Take away gender, and McCurry has only to explain why South Carolinians who owned up to nine slaves would have committed themselves to the preservation of the slave system, hardly a daunting task. Slavery and racism are such obvious candidates for explaining the cohesiveness of lowcountry slave owners that in order for McCurry to argue that gender has more explanatory power, she must attempt to clear away both slavery and racism. First, by calling those with as many as nine slaves "yeomen" and insisting that the slaves (and the massive capital invested in them) were somehow irrelevant if the yeoman and his family also got their hands dirty, then slavery has simply been defined away as a motivating factor for the typical southern slave owner (who owned between four and six slaves(1)). Then McCurry falls back upon the "discrete geography" of the Low Country. While acknowledging that racism was "not entirely absent from lowcountry proslavery discourses," (p. 231) she says first that "scientific racism may well have acquired more discursive prominence in other parts of the South," (pp. 230-1) and finally, as if reconsidering, that "racial theories acquired greater currency more quickly in the free-labor states than the slave." (p. 232) In other words, Southerners were able to resist the prevailing currents of racism in direct proportion to the number of enslaved African-Americans in their midst.

Having argued that experience was irrelevant as a basis for thinking about slavery, McCurry then insists that it was precisely the experience of gender in the household that underwrote the entire edifice of southern proslavery, hierarchical, patriarchal ideology. Yet, typically, McCurry's evidence is either from other regions or classes or open to alternate interpretations. The only people who make a connection between the defense of slavery and a hierarchical social order that subordinates women and children in the household are a handful of planter ideologues and a few preachers (one of whom is from upcountry Edgefield County). That is why McCurry is at such pains to extend the geographical boundaries of the Low Country, and then insist that it is one coherent region in which relations between yeomen and planters were "direct and immediate, matters of everyday, face-to-face negotiation." (p. vii) But this definition obscures the absence of compelling evidence from the mouths or pens of the yeomen themselves. In addition, the little bit of evidence that McCurry has about women is so ambiguous that it allows for a variety of interpretations. She introduces her fourth chapter, for example, with a complicated story about the fracturing of an evangelical church when it attempted to discipline one of its most prominent members for abusing his wife - and claims that it is an apt illustration of the "social insignificance" of yeoman women. (p. 134)

McCurry's inability to recognize the range of female behavior and the complexity of women's lives is related to the way that she understands the concept of gender. She suggests that all social transactions in yeoman society were contests over "men's honor and reputation" and never about the women themselves. Therefore, when women appealed to a male church tribunal for protection or vindication, "all too often the leverage [they] acquired came at the cost of their subjectivity." (p. 194) In McCurry's analysis, it is as if women are defined solely and essentially by their gender, and never by their race, their class, their religion, or any other attribute, so that any interaction with men or appeal to them must result in a net diminution of their essential femininity. Moreover, McCurry seems to believe that in attaching themselves to men and "in tying their fate to those relations, women contributed their part to the legitimation of domestic dependencies and secular hierarchies." (p. 194) The implication is that yeomen women could have made substantially different choices. In other words, they might have been liberal individualists, like the women of the North.

In her search for a coherent South, McCurry tends to flatten complexity and to push aside alternate interpretations. In her footnotes she dismisses as "judgment" (p. 86) and "interpretation" (p. 189) the work of women's historians such as Marylynn Salmon and Suzanne Lebsock, without grappling with the challenge that their evidence might present.(2) McCurry's pattern of citing secondary sources - some many, many times, with other relevant works utterly ignored - enables her to create her own small scholarly world in which the importance of her work in relation to a few key studies is carefully set out, while those that might complicate her argument with contrary evidence or different interpretations are never acknowledged. By my count, Lacy Ford's works are cited fifty-one times (or once every six pages); Steven Hahn's, twenty-three; and Eugene Genovese's, nineteen, even though they are not fully consistent with McCurry's, nor always relevant. At the same time, others who have also written important books on the South, sometimes anticipating McCurry's arguments, sometimes complicating them, are mentioned not at all: Victoria Bynum, Orville Vernon Burton, Joan Cashin, Robert Kenzer, Mitchell Snay, Barbara Bellows, Joyce Chaplin, Albert Raboteau, Mechal Sobel. And those works that present fundamentally different interpretations, such as those by James Oakes, Jane Turner Censer, and Suzanne Lebsock, are either ignored or dismissed summarily in the footnotes. Complexity is intrinsic to the historical record. Much as we might like, we cannot simply will it away.

Jan Lewis Rutgers University, Newark


1. James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York, 1982), 39. In her sample parish, McCurry finds that "slightly more than five in ten . . . were yeoman farmers" (54).

2. Salmon's analysis of divorce in South Carolina is considerably more complicated than McCurry suggests. Salmon contends that indeed the requirements of a slave society made divorce an impossibility in South Carolina, but that the state compensated with a form of legal separation that was comparatively protective of women. In other words, it was slavery, more than the patriarchal domination of women, that gave shape to southern society. Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill, 1986), 64-66, 74-6.
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Author:Lewis, Jan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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