The Origins of the Southern Middle Class: 1800-1861

the origins of the southern middle class

With a fresh take on social dynamics in the antebellum South, Jonathan Daniel Wells contests the popular idea that the Old South was a region of essentially two classes (planters and slaves) until after the Civil War. He argues that, in fact, the region had a burgeoning white middle class--including merchants, doctors, and teachers--that had a profound impact on southern culture, the debate over slavery, and the coming of the Civil War.

Wells shows that the growth of the periodical press after 1820 helped build a cultural bridge between the North and the South, and the emerging southern middle class seized upon northern middle-class ideas about gender roles and reform, politics, and the virtues of modernization. Even as it sought to emulate northern progress, however, the southern middle class never abandoned its attachment to slavery. By the 1850s, Wells argues, the prospect of industrial slavery in the South threatened northern capital and labor, causing sectional relations to shift from cooperative to competitive. Rather than simply pitting a backward, slave-labor, agrarian South against a progressive, free-labor, industrial North, Wells argues that the Civil War reflected a more complex interplay of economic and cultural values.



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“Jonathan Wells’s fine new study greatly complicates and enriches our understanding of the slaveholders’ South. By moving outside the familiar triad of aristocratic planters, enslaved blacks, and poor yeomen, Wells calls into question the conventional wisdom about Southern ideology, social development, and politics before the Civil War. His book is challenging and essential reading for anyone interested in Southern history–and why the war came.”
– Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

“In this pathbreaking study of the antebellum South, Jonathan Wells recovers that which most historians have presumed did not exist–the foundational elements of a middle class. Introducing us to previously neglected storekeepers, bankers, teachers, doctors, ministers and their families, he brings to the fore middling southerners whose shared interests and values were fundamentally different from those of the planter elite and the rural yeomanry and urban laborers. Promoting educational reform, organizing commercial conventions, and leading benevolent institutions, debating societies, and lyceums, these residents of small towns and larger cities played a considerable role in shaping the trajectory of Southern public life. In Wells’s reckoning, the ‘Old’ South is replaced by a ‘New’ South that prepares the ground for its post-Civil War successor.”
– Mary Kelley, University of Michigan

“With cogency and learning, Wells has made a powerful case that the origins of southern bourgeois society can be located not in the postwar New South, but in the midst of the antebellum slave South. His claim will be controversial, but his book will enrich our understandings and change our thinking.”
– Michael O’Brien, University of Cambridge

“An important book on an important subject…undoubtedly an important scholarly contribution.”
– Civil War History

“A compelling book about a complicated subject, which effectively… [examines] the meaning and substance of class in American history”
– Times Literary Supplement

“This important book should be required reading for students of the Old South and should be considered in any future synthesis. I hope that the author’s thesis will soon find its way into textbooks. Graduate students will find Wells’s book particularly valuable for the wealth of new research possibilities it suggests.”
– American Historical Review

“…all scholars of antebellum America – North and South – should take seriously the new information and vigor that Wells brings to the study of class formation, sectionalism, and southern distinctiveness.”
– Journal of American History 

“…an intelligent analysis of middle-class formation in the antebellum South…Wells’s book is…much more than an account of middle-class formation; it is a fresh addition to our understanding of the origins of the Civil War…an important contribution to middle class, Civil War, and southern studies…I appreciate this book as a subtle, complicated analysis of the middle class.”
– Journal of Southern History

“…an ambitious, serious work…presented in often graceful prose…an important work that should force historians to reassess their understanding of the nineteenth-century South.”
– Journal of Social History

“One cannot help but be impressed by such an ambitious work. What makes Wells’s achievement even more impressive is that his ambition is for the most part confirmed by his deep research and carefully qualified conclusions…While The Origins of the Southern Middle Class makes a number of important claims, some of which historians will find controversial, it is likely that it will also prove significant for stimulating further research.”
– Journal of the Early Republic

“Wells has given us a study to be read and debated. He has asked big questions and encouraged fresh thinking on the social dynamics of the slave South that defy easy generalizations.”
– Georgia Historical Quarterly 

“The great strength of Wells’s account of the origins of southern middle class is his judicious balance between structure and volition. As a social historian, he finds identity to have been socially constructed, and as a student of ideas and consciousness he appreciates the uniqueness of individual choices by men and women whose diaries and letters he has read with sensitivity and sympathy. Readers will appreciate the complementarity of culture and experience in his crafting of this book.”
– Robert M. Calhoon, University of North Carolina at Greensboro