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Richard Peters: Champion of the New South.

Richard Peters: Champion of the New South "Atlanta Named Capitol; Peters Makes It Happen," the title of one chapter of this book, reflects the tone and approach of this worshipful biography of Richard Peters, one of Atlanta's earliest and most active boosters. From 1835 until his death in 1889, Peters pursued his business interests and his civic activities in Georgia with enormous energy and with a keen awareness that the two were closely related. In telling Peters's story, Royce Shingleton has added to an important but still small body of serious studies of business leaders of the American South.

Shingleton has also provided more material for those who stress continuity between the South before the Civil War and the South after the war. His argument for continuity parallels James Michael Russell's recent fine study, Atlanta, 1847-1890: City Building in the Old South and the New (1988). Shingleton's clearly written, well-organized narrative follows Peters from his Pennsylvania home to Georgia in 1835, where he started as a railroad construction engineer, through a career in investing in and managing stage coach lines, railroads, real estate, flour milling, street cars, and, during the Civil War, blockade running. His successes exceeded his failures, both of which are covered by Shingleton, and Peters died a man of substantial though not great wealth.

Peters was also a civic booster and activist. He helped to rename Atlanta (from Marthasville), to transfer the state capitol there, and to attempt to give the city what he perceived as good government and moral uplift. In addition, he had a significant role in Atlanta's postbellum commercial expositions, in the construction of Atlanta's famed Kimball House, an enormous hotel dedicated to business and businessmen, and in the locating of its academic cousin, Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta.

Peter also expended considerable capital and energy in experimenting with livestock, plants, and trees, and he tried to encourage agricultural diversification in the South. His hopes that southern farmers would follow his lead were, however, largely unrealized. His antebellum plantation was successful enough to allow him to acquire sixteen slaves. In 1861, the transplanted Pennsylvanian reluctantly embraced secession, and he became a loyal Confederate.

Specifics in this book fluctuate to an unsettling degree. Shingleton provides considerable detail, for instance, about Peters's large street car operations and his plantations, but only sketchy details about his family. A clear picture of how Peters amassed his wealth does not emerge from the story of his many business and civic ventures. Shingleton does say that the basis of Peters's success was real estate, specifically strategically located land in Atlanta, but these purchases need to be stressed and given greater analysis. Shingleton lauds Peters's efforts for good government without probing who benefited most or least from such a government. Nor does Shingleton deal adequately with the possible relationship between Peters's powerful political connections and his business ventures. If Henry Grady was an influence on Richard Peters, as this book argues, then the evidence to support that argument ought to be fuller and clearer. Moreover, that issue may be moot if we assume that Atlanta would have thrived with or without Grady. Finally, Shingleton accepts and restates several interpretative approaches to southern history that have been substantially qualified or discredited altogether by recent scholarship.

Scholars for some time have had serious reservations about describing the economy of the South as a "colonial economy." Most have rejected the notion that southern farmers irrationally and stubbornly ignored calls for agricultural diversification or that the residence of railroad owners--local, northern, southern, and so forth--had much impact on how railroads were operated over the years. Why the economy of the South fell so far behind that of the North is still a disputed question. Surely, though, the nature of the region's antebellum economy and the defeat of the South in America's first total war ought to be crucial points in any attempt to explain the gaps in the economic performances of the North and South. Shingleton asserts that: "Poverty in the South stemmed from the Northern-dominated economy.... Northernset freight rates ... adverse Supreme Court decisions, adverse tariff policy, ... [and] restrictive 'hard money' policy," which prevented southerners from gaining "control of the Southern market for themselves. This exacerbated the lack of capital in the South, which gave impetus to the rise of the 'diabolical system of credit' and cotton dependency instead of diversification" (p. 241). This argument is woefully inadequate and reflective of a long-nurtured tradition in some circles of blaming the "damn Yankees."

Thomas E. Terrill is professor of history at the University of South Carolina. His several books include The American South: A History (1990), written with William J. Cooper, Jr.
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Author:Terrill, Thomas E.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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