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The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860-80.

When Michael Wayne first published The Reshaping of Plantation Society, it won four awards, including the prestigious Francis Butler Simkins Prize from the Southern Historical Association. Roughly a decade later, a paperback edition, unchanged from the original, appears. The strengths that led to those awards remain apparent - admirable brevity, clear, crisp prose, and an astute analysis of important issues in post-Civil War Southern history. Wayne's interest in these larger issues renders his book less a local history than a case study of how one region, the three parishes in Louisiana and five counties in Mississippi around the town of Natchez, made the transition from slave to free labor. The resulting "reshaping of plantation society," in the words of the very apt title, emerged from the attitudes and interactions of many groups, but three - the freedmen, the planters, and the storekeepers - dominate Wayne's account.

Wayne differs from most historians in not giving a prominent role to a fourth group, federal officials. He briefly comments on the Army's support for the continuation of the plantation system but says relatively little about the Freedmen's Bureau that succeeded it as the representative of the federal government. Other historians portray the Bureau as an important influence on postwar developments and as a consistent advocate of a free-labor economy. Wayne's differing emphasis may reflect a regional variation, but, inexplicably, he failed to examine the papers of either the Army or the Freedmen's Bureau. The use of these records, major sources for similar studies, might have led Wayne to a different or at least fuller account of the federal role.

Those same valuable records might also have helped him provide a richer portrait of the lives of the freedmen. Even so, Wayne gives the former slaves a very important role in his story. He argues that their desire for "social autonomy and economic advantage" forced the planters to compromise on a new system of labor relations (p. 140). This process of accommodation, shaped in part by distressed economic conditions, evolved through gang labor, then the squad system, before sharecropping and tenantry emerged in the 1870s as the form that the New South plantation would take. Wayne does a good job of explaining these developments, but the origin of sharecropping has by now become an oft-told tale. Indeed, Ronald L. F. Davis tells it in more detail for the Natchez region. Wayne's most important contribution to historians' understanding of that new plantation system lies elsewhere, in the account of his two other main groups, the planters and the merchants.

Wayne did extensive research in the private papers of the planter elite and intended his book to be primarily the "history of the gentry: of their successful efforts to preserve their material interests after the war, and of their failed efforts to preserve their world" (p. 2). He establishes that despite the destruction of the Civil War over half the region's planters held onto their land into the 1870s, in part through means of dubious legality, but in large measure because no one wanted to buy it. But Wayne also shows that these large landowners had to change their ways. Antebellum planters in the Natchez district, in his view, were paternalists for whom the plantation was not just a business but a way of life. Much recent scholarship has made it increasingly difficult to see Southern planters as unmindful of business interests or the market. Wayne's argument, though, can incorporate market orientation among the planters and still describe their labor relations as paternalistic, the crucial point in his contention of fundamental changes in the plantation system. After the war, Wayne convincingly demonstrates, planters became more attuned to the cash nexus, abandoned paternalism, lost the benefits of plantation law, and for the first time had to learn to operate in a labor market. Wayne rejects the contention of many historians that postwar planters succeeded in creating some new form of coercive labor and anticipates William Cohen's more recent work in arguing that planters' competing interests helped doom the attempt to do so. He even provides strong, though limited, quantitative evidence of labor mobility after the war, a crucial requirement for the existence of a true labor market.

Reshaping the Plantation System provides one of the best, if not the best, available accounts of the postwar rise of the storekeepers or merchants, Wayne's third main group. Unlike the planters, antebellum store owners rarely kept their businesses going through the war; instead, new men - Northerners, former Confederate soldiers, Europeans - opened the local stores that came to be increasingly important in the Natchez area. By the aftermath of the depression of 1873, these merchants, who often became landlords as well, had achieved significant influence and had aligned themselves with the planters. The reshaped plantation system, like that of the antebellum era, had a powerful upper-class, but one with a more complex social base and with very different ways of thinking and maintaining control.

Wayne's account of this transformation of the plantation system in the Natchez district appeared as part of a burgeoning literature concerned with the impact of the Civil War on the South and, especially, its economy. These works, which continue to appear, are often divided into those that argue for continuity or for discontinuity in nineteenth-century Southern history, an obvious but nevertheless useful oversimplification. The arguments for a "reshaping" of the plantation system and a changing mentality among the planters put Wayne's work firmly into the second camp. It and David Carlton's book on industrial development in South Carolina remain the best local studies that stress discontinuity. They provide strong evidence to support historian Harold Woodman's recent observation that "although there were elements of continuity that bridged the war, emancipation brought a revolutionary change to the South." Because it so cogently and successfully demonstrates changes in the plantation system itself, where the case for persistence should be most easily proved, Wayne's book remains especially important to understanding the dynamics of that revolutionary change.
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Author:Foster, Gaines M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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