“Your Obedient Servant”: Family and Business Culture in the Antebellum US

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Mandy Cooper, Duke University
The scholarship on business and economics in the nineteenth-century United States emphasizes the importance of personal relationships for establishing credit. Indeed, familial relationships in the antebellum period were central to personal and economic credit, with membership in an extended family network coming with reciprocal obligations of support that tied the interests of the individual members together. Yet, business and credit networks and their activities are often viewed as public simply because of their economic nature.

This paper examines emotion and business culture within the correspondence of familial business networks throughout the antebellum period to demonstrate that such networks were firmly ensconced in the private world of the family. Such networks were extended and maintained through adherence to emotional conventions specific to distinct yet overlapping communities – familial, business, and political. Within business culture, this language included assurances of friendship and intimacy. These friendships, like families, were not necessarily egalitarian. Many friendships were inherently hierarchical as mentor and mentee, a condition central to the creation and maintenance of family networks, with the older generation teaching the conventions to the younger. Many business relationships, familial and otherwise, were even more explicitly hierarchical, as evidenced by the repetitions of phrases such as “Your Obedient Servant” in correspondence that continually reinforced the status of the letter writer and the recipient within their relationship.

The use of servant carried very different connotations than employee, further challenging the assumption that business and credit networks are part of the public realms of men. Where an employee remained in the seemingly public world outside the home, a servant breached the boundary into the home and consequently into the seemingly private world of the family. Thus, this paper argues that what we often imagine as private and personal had a profound effect on economic development in the antebellum U.S.