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Blogging AHA17: Session #7, On Family & Business

The first conference panel I attended today may have had more attendees than the panelists expected considering the snow and the focus on the social history of the private worlds of women, merchants, and antebellum America but there should have been many, many more people in the room to hear these four papers.
First, Lindsay Keiter, a public historian conducting research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation provided a close reading of prescriptive literature and perhaps even satire—with Ben Franklin it’s always a fine line—about the practicality of marrying well versus for sentiment.  Historians of courtship and child raising have long noted that from the colonial era through the Revolution into the antebellum period Americans graduated from a fairly austere and severe familial mode toward companionate marriages and kindly parenting.  Generally affectionate relationships displaced authoritarian relationships.  For courtship economics, the value of a brides dowry or her match’s future potential earnings would have been far more important than their feelings toward one another until the unfolding antebellum era supplanted pragmatic partnerships with sentimental attachments.  Keiter argues that in reality, the antebellum correspondence that she has mined demonstrates otherwise: economics mattered far more and far longer into the 19th century than assumed and was joined by sentiment, not displaced.
Mandy Cooper of Duke University similarly scrutinized the private correspondence of antebellum Southern business, merchant, and financial middle and upper class men.  Here she notes that relationships often understood to be within the impersonal and public world of finance depended heavily on networks and connections of credit derived from family relations.  Additionally, men, even without familial intimacy, relied heavily on familial language of love, affection, service, and the like to make impersonal relationships carry the same sense of duty and obligation on one another in the fulfillment of business obligations or favors.  For Cooper, this blending of the public and private obliterates the simplistic notion of separate masculine and feminine spheres—something that historians of working and/or politically engaged women have argued for some time.  However, Cook’s examination of similar boundary blurring by male business climbers and leaders is refreshing, original, and brings to light some very illuminating antebellum correspondence often overlooked by Southern historians of politics, or race and slavery.
     Alexandra Finley of delivered a fabulous paper on the slave trade at the Southern Historical Association meeting in fall 2014, but today continued to offer excerpts from the dissertation she has completed at the College of William and Mary.  Historians of the slave trade all to often assume or rely on secondary assessments of slave traders as immoral, aloof, often socially ostracized men who’s greed, acquisitiveness or descent into the depths of slave hunting, jailing, and transporting left them beyond the social pale.  From fictional and literal portrayals in antislvary literature, propaganda and slave narratives traders are so rarely contextualized as family men.  Finley finds otherwise, however, and discovers the many ways in which traders’ wives either actively participated in and profited on trading, or at least, failed to morally temper their husbands toward less deplorable commerce.  Placing slave traders in the routine context of family men, husbands, fathers, and sons does a lot to remind historians that slave trading was perhaps more socially tolerated than abolitionists or Southerners themselves would have reported in the antebellum world, and that perhaps family was no restraint on conduct.
     Finally, Rikki Bettinger of the University of Houston (Go Cougs!) examined the travel diaries of Mary Lowell and Susan Magoffin.  Both women from the north Atlantic—Lowell married into the textile family of Massachusetts and Magoffin married to a merchant trader in the Southwest—traveled extensively in antebellum Cuba and Mexico, respectively.  In Cuba in 1831-32, Lowell and her family extended their commercial reach to a land of cotton production and often part of the South’s aspirations to attach to the US.  In wartime Mexico, from 1846-1848 Magoffin circulated in the commercial outposts of the Santa Fe trail with her husband.  Both women worked on frontiers or in foreign lands to diplomatically advance their hsubands’ enterprises, and, as Magoffin notes, often took the lead as a “traderess” herself in the absence of her husband from time to time.  Like Cooper, these women’s lives demonstrate the permeability of the line between public and private spaces, but Bettinger also notes the way in which American merchant class women advanced American commercial and perhaps even imperial ambitions.
    The panel was adeptly chaired by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor who offered thoughtful introductions and conclusions which tied the papers together--- I am likely in debt to her for some of my thoughts above, tho I confess, I wish she had been a little tougher on one charming and amiable attendee who turned the q&a into her own personal story time.  But, to be honest, the chair and panelists handled that with kindness and patience, and I have seen far worse conduct by professional historians who choose to use that time to give speeches about their own perspectives.
    In the afternoon I attended a panel on the Cold War and a plenary on Trump, but perhaps I will have more to say about those tomorrow.  Until then,
     Yr obdt srvnt,
NPCox

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