Family/Business: The Private Sides of Business and Empire in Antebellum America

AHA Session 7
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor, University of California, Davis
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor, University of California, Davis

Session Abstract

This panel brings into conversation two significant strands of nineteenth-century historiography: the family and the reinvigorated study of capitalism in the United States. The panelists highlight the personal and familial scales of business, finance, and empire, and reconstruct the links between the “private” actions of women and the expression of emotion to the larger systems of capitalism and imperialism enacted within and by the United States. The papers employ individuals and families as the lens through which they analyze the explosive growth of the market economy and American influence abroad in the first half of the nineteenth-century.

Lindsay Keiter argues for the fundamentally economic nature of families by examining how marriage was described and deployed as a system of property management. After tracing some of the financial metaphors employed for marriage, she examines private correspondence with attention to the discussion of wealth. She finds that even as the language of emotion was more frequently deployed, families continued to recognize the critical economic functions of marriage and to respond to economic development. Throughout the early national and antebellum period, marriage continued to be treated as a business decision in which risks were assessed, investments made, and wealth transferred.

The second paper also interrogates language, but analyzes instead the expressions of deference and obligation that masked discussions of business as professions of friendship. Mandy Cooper demonstrates how economic links between individuals were made and reinforced through private connections, examining how antebellum business culture employed terms of esteem and deference to reinforce both intimacy and hierarchy in business relationships. In particular, she emphasizes the nearly ubiquitous use of the closing “Your Obedient Servant” as revealing the porousness of the “private” realm of friendship and the “public” world of business.

Alexandra Finley looks at women’s roles in maintaining relationships that were simultaneously public and private. She reveals how slave traders’ wives were essential to the maintenance of the domestic traffic in people, and thus the operation of Southern agriculture. Focusing on the partnership of Isaac Jarratt and Tyre Glen in the 1830s, she assesses how their wives’ domestic, reproductive, and social labor not only contributed to the functioning of their households but also facilitated the growth of their joint business. Like Keiter’s and Cooper’s business correspondents, Finley’s actors mobilized their private relationships with friends and kin with explicit or implicit business needs in mind.

In the fourth paper, Rikki Bettinger explores how American women carried these ideas and behaviors into Mexico and Cuba in the antebellum period. She contends that these women did not passively observe the process of imperialism; like their less peripatetic counterparts in the previous papers, their “private” behavior was critical to the public imperial process. As merchants’ wives they reinforced political and financial ties as hostesses, and, Bettinger argues, even the seemingly mundane labor of managing the household, as colonizers, had political meaning. This paper mines women’s diaries for evidence of their labor and relationships, treating them as construction of self that reveal traveling women as actors rather than observers.

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