"My word is my bond" : honor, commerce, and status in the antebellum South

Mushal, Amanda Reece, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Miller, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Department of History, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

"My Word Is My Bond": Honor, Commerce, and Status in the Antebellum South Honor was a multivalent concept used to navigate national commercial relationships, articulate southern economic and political grievances, and construct the core of a southern national identity. By the mid-nineteenth century, southern commercial communities, like their northern counterparts, had begun to incorporate an older reliance on personal reputation into new credit-rating systems and an emerging national discourse of responsible business practice. Challenges to a southern merchant's commercial reputation, as well as responses to such challenges, often relied on personal connections and rituals of honor analogous to those called into play by the social honor culture.

Within small southern communities the persistence of personal interactions across boundaries of status and occupation limited the development of class distinctions and provided opportunities for successful merchants to move up within the region's social hierarchies. At the same time, such mobility required ambitious men to navigate the rituals of the region's honor culture. The duel was the most extreme of these rituals. Because it was laden with status implications, it could be an especially critical ritual for young men and men of humble backgrounds to master in their quest for public reputation. The dissertation traces this process through the Taber-Magrath duel of 1856, analyzing the networks of personal relationships called into play by the duel as well as the process by which the younger men involved learned the high-stakes etiquette of the region's political honor culture.

In politics, the idea of honor was deployed in toasts and editorials to articulate sectional grievances and rally supporters. Occasionally such appeals engaged the idea of commercial honor directly, as emerging nationalists grappled with the importance of a sound commercial reputation to the honor of their contemplated nation. Because it was a powerful idea for commercial as well as agrarian southerners, honor was invoked by unionists as well as secessionists and, in the process, became a unifying feature of a southern national identity.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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