Jennifer Goloboy is an independent scholar based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era (University of Georgia Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?
JG: The project originally started because of a graduate school class I took with David Hancock, in which we read the Henry Laurens papers. I was fascinated by Laurens as an exemplar of the eighteenth-century middle class. He had a rigidly hierarchical view of the world. He demonstrated a weird blend of public sanctimony and private willingness to betray his own principles, especially when engaged in the slave trade.
When Prof. Hancock told the class there weren’t any other collections of letters from Charleston’s merchants that were as interesting as the Henry Laurens papers, I took it as a personal challenge.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?
JG: My book is designed to help us clarify what we mean by “middle-class” in Early America. Focusing on merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, it shows how the economic impact of the post-Revolutionary transition shaped middle-class culture.
JF: Why do we need to read Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?
JG: For readers interested in class in early America, my book is unusual in that it focuses on work rather than the home as a cradle of middle-class culture. Charleston’s merchants used shared cultural assumptions to connect with their business partners. These assumptions changed over time. Before the Revolution, the ideal merchant was deferential and polite; the post-Revolutionary merchant was a rowdy sport willing to do anything to serve a client; and the cotton-port merchant was a professional and an institution-builder.
Readers interested in Charleston will remember that historians have rarely written about the city between the end of the Revolution and the late 1810s. So there’s been a mysterious and unexplained transition in local behavior: before the Revolution, a happy participant in British mercantilism, but after the gap, disdainful of trade. This book argues that Charlestonians distrusted merchants because of a forgotten post-Revolutionary bubble, based partly on the slave trade and neutral trading with the Caribbean, which ended disastrously because of the War of 1812. This is important because antebellum Charleston was so central to Southern intellectual history; we need to know that resentment of mercantile outsiders was not a natural product of the cotton empire.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JG: I really became interested in history when I realized that the point was not to eulogize heroes of the past, but to explain the distinct internal worlds of our ancestors. I was a big fan of the “If You Lived In” series as a kid— and now I torment my poor children by telling them what “If You Lived In Colonial Times” left out.
JF: What is your next project?
JG: As I was researching this project, I realized how much we still have to learn about American trade in the years before the War of 1812. They’re exciting years in economic history: lots of smuggling, lots of semi-licit trade between Europe and the Caribbean. Stephen Girard, as one of the most important merchants of his era, kept track of the goings-on in all the ports touched by his business— I intend to use his papers to clarify this confusing era.
JF: Thanks, Jennifer!