In Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country by Stephanie McCurry, an analysis of South Carolina low country residents is presented and the argument is made that master to slave relationships in the state were far from being based solely on race. Instead, the relationships were more generally defined by the hierarchical structures of power exercised inside and outside the yeoman residence.
Throughout McCurry's book, she proves that free white males were overwhelmingly the most powerful masters of not only ruling over slaves, but also women and children. The male fear of losing their rank at the top of the social and family hierarchy made men the most dominant ruling power throughout antebellum South Carolina. McCurry claims that the fear men had at losing their supreme authority and dominance inside and outside the household reflected the fears that engulfed southern society as a whole. She writes, "the slave South was commonly represented as the last republic loyal to the principle of government by an exclusive citizen body of independent and equal men." (236)
By reviewing the complex relationships between oppressors and oppressed, McCurry's work exposes faults that other historians may have when they write about history. She argues that overemphasizing the importance of political events casts politicians as figurative puppet masters who dictate the course of history. She states "to view the political edifice solely from that perspective is to remain captive to the designs of its proslavery architects." (246)
As McCurry's book ultimately proves, there are indeed two sides to every story that require examination. Instead of analyzing history by reviewing public sources of evidence, McCurry digs deep into private life evidence available to examine how power distribution in the family influenced and reflected society as a whole. Her study provides the reader with an invaluable account of how everyday citizens hierarchical positions of power existed and were constantly maintained in the antebellum South Carolina low country.
McCurry's arguments are heavily based on church records available from nineteenth century parishes. Her review takes a unique approach and her analysis provides the reader with an invaluable account that shows the structure of power in churches was in direct relation to the structure of power within the household. Impressively, when she writes about the succession crisis, she utilizes sixty different church records and shows that the separation of church and state was non-existent and that all sixty church ministers supported succession. (292)
While the church evidence supports McCurry's argument, she also utilizes census data and proves that wealthy planters and land owners held nearly exclusive political control over their yeoman farmer counterparts. To demonstrate, she shows that between 1820 to 1860, planters controlled the senate 92% of the time. In addition, 72% of those elected to the house of representatives were planters. (242)
Census data and mercantile evidence reviewed also proves the dominance that planters had and maintained in antebellum South Carolina. McCurry conclusively proves that cotton use and sales left yeoman much economically behind planters who maintained an extremely high centralization of wealth. Her analysis of statistics is undeniably accurate and it clearly provides legitimate evidence that support her arguments.
In reviewing gender roles in yeoman families, McCurry utilizes diaries as a source of her evidence. The diaries prove that in yeoman families the role of women was one of blind submission to the authority of the male household master. McCurry, with boldness, argues that married yeoman women were comparable to slaves in that their freedom was almost non-existent in the family and community. In fact, she states that when Christian women married, it represented "a burial alive...the death of self." (197)
Submission to male authority was also represented by how children were raised in yeoman families. Young males were mostly raised to replace their fathers as eventual ruling masters over family. In comparison, young females were reared to strictly obey and submit to their male counterparts for a future devoted to obedience. Using diaries and comparing those first-hand accounts with marriage records, divorce records, and census date gives definite credence to McCurry's arguments.
A large devotion of McCurry's book argues that during the early nineteenth-century evangelical movement, church leaders were predominantly male and they fiendishly interpreted scripture to give divine justification that their overabundance of power was simply the natural structure of society. Her analysis of church records provides definite validity to support her argument.
Spacial seating arrangements in the church itself is one of the best examples of how race and class were so thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of society. Male planter elites often purchased seats in the front region of the church, white yeoman families sat behind the planters, and blacks were always placed in the balcony. Thus, the sitting order is a perfect reflection of how socially and economically divided South Carolina was at the time. McCurry summarizes church structure beautifully when she writes "the 'body' of the church might be black and female, but 'the mind of the church' was white and male." (142)
McCurry's book ultimately shows that maintaining power is a struggle against fear and intrusion by corruptible forces that threaten a powerful elite's social status. Her work demonstrates how Jacksonian values became so endowed into southern society that the heightened fears reached their pinnacle when northern invasion threatened to invade and dismantle the worlds of all free men.
In defining slavery, McCurry proves that men were effectively able to make such a broad definition of the word that it entailed all subordinates to repression. The result, an aristocracy of white men who had oligarchic rule in family, political, and religious worlds.
As powerful and well written McCurry's account is, it does not contain faults or possible inaccuracies. For instance, it does not account for the population who did not leave evidence of their everyday activities. The unavailability of this evidence could show instances where women were not entirely subordinate to male authority. As McCurry states, yeoman women like their male counterparts often shared farm responsibilities. It is entirely possible that women could have influenced men in how the family voted in an election. She often gives the impression that almost all men were testosterone filled alpha-males who exercised their dominance over females with an iron-fist. Certainly, there had to have been some men who did not have such a passionate drive for maintaining power.
Also, census records at the time spanned from 1850 to 1860. The ten year gap gives the impression that the data had perpetual consistency when the numbers analyzed could have showed more randomness. Nonetheless, many of the figures and statistics analyzed do indeed show clear trends and the data provides excellent evidence that bolsters and validates McCurry's arguments.
While McCurry relies heavily on church records for the bulk of her evidence, there was little if any review done on educational records that may exist. Though possibly unavailable, a review of scholastic materials would would bolster her arguments in determining whether or not male and female students were conditioned to their respective gender roles in the school as well the home.
The highest criticism of McCurry's book is that she makes too far-fetched of an argument when she argues white women were enslaved to the point of being on equal ground with negro slaves. That argument has no basis in reality as white women, unlike black women, were never often raped without consequence nor had their family members sold to other slave owners. Such a comparison is without merit and it makes too extreme of an argument about how repressed women were to males. The dehumanizing hand of slavery without question did not touch white women as much as it did slave women.
In conclusion, McCurry effectively makes the reader question the legitimacy of historic review that overemphasizes the importance of political activity. Politicians, as proven by McCurry, were overwhelmingly upper class planters who eventually joined with highly influential ministers and radical politicians to create a impenetrable nexus of male authority. Historians often limit their focus to politicians and leaders who shout the loudest. They must indeed give more effort in listening to the voices of the silent majority. McCurry's book demonstrates the necessity of reviewing the commoners view of events. The perception and insight gained is undoubtedly one that the majority of people can relate to as hierarchical forms of oligarchic power still exist and arguably always will in any modern society.
By penetrating the private sphere and explaining the complex interrelationships between class, race, and gender, McCurry's effort showcases brilliance and excellence in showing how power structures in small worlds directly reflect power structures in large worlds.
Indeed, McCurry has proven that households at the time were powerful small worlds in which male masters exerted power over subordinates. When that world was threatened, men naturally took up arms in order to remain masters of their own domain.