Review- McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds”

Stephanie McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country” (1995) – Historian Stephanie McCurry gets down to social history cases in the antebellum Low Country of South Carolina, arguably the harshest and most alien American social environment this side of Massachusetts at the height of the Puritan theocracy. Over half of the population were enslaved Africans, reaching seventy percent of the population in some places. This skewed the already warped Southern social fabric. Here, instead of a non-slaveholding white majority like you saw in many southern states, even the “small” “yeoman” farmers owned upwards of ten slaves. McCurry doesn’t discuss landless white agricultural workers in this work, which suggests they were only present in very small numbers, unlike in the rest of the country.

No, the Low Country was something of a propertarian dream (as, indeed, the antebellum south is generally for a clade of right-wing libertarians). The small farmers, caught between the system of massive cotton and rice plantations run by ultra-wealthy elite planters and the abyss, more or less, found a place in the system based on what they had: ownership and mastery over a small amount of land, a small number of slaves, most importantly over their families and especially wives and daughters. Ownership, mastery, and their inevitable counterpart, submission, became the master metaphors of the Low Country, governing everything from how the people related to the Almighty in the evangelical churches to how electoral politics functioned.

McCurry tries to address the paradox between the universal white manhood suffrage South Carolina embraced and the aristocratic control exercised by Low Country planters. There could be no republican governance without a subject working class- the “mudsill” of civilization, as they called it. By being routinely recognized as not part of this mudsill, as (lesser) masters in their own right, the yeomen were essentially flattered into taking part in an otherwise deeply undemocratic system where the planters held the balance of power through gerrymandering, property requirements on offices, and so on. This is a good enough answer, and an explication of the “psychic wage” theory of white supremacy. I do wonder, though- elites everywhere would give a lot for the kind of control the antebellum planter elite had in South Carolina. Why did it work out so diabolically well for them there and not elsewhere? Is it just happenstance, or a founder effect from the Barbadian planters that settled the country in the late seventeenth century? Or are the differences exaggerated? Either way, this is good spadework done on a difficult and counterintuitive subject. ****

Review- McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds”

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