Place and Perception : Richmond in Late Antebellum America

Kimball, Gregg D., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

Late antebellum Richmond stood on the cusp of two economic systems: an urban world encompassing the great cities of the northeastern United States from Washington to Boston, and an agricultural, slaveholding regime stretching southward into the Virginia countryside and beyond. Richmonders developed a complex set of cultural world views through contacts and experiences within these spheres. Merchants and their families moved within a world of goods that carried them northward but intensified their allegiance to a rural vision of social order in reaction against the perceived degradation of the North. Slaves and free blacks articulated ideas about liberty and slavery within a larger world of possibilities and limitations stretching from the slave marts of New Orleans to Canadian settlements. Iron workers called on fellow artisans in faraway cities to defend their notions of skill and independence against the encroachment of slave masters. And citizensoldiers proclaimed their allegiance to Virginia and Union with their brothers from Northern cities.

Richmonders' differing visions of their world created tensions within the city. City leaders shared the assumptions of like men and women in the Virginia countryside to whom they were closely tied by economics, kinship, and slavery, but faced urban working people, slaves, and free blacks who valued other ideas and traditions. Slave runaways to the North forced merchants to explain rebelliousness against a supposedly benign, family-based system of bondage; white artisans' view of a fraternal world built on manliness and skill challenged city leaders' ideas about slave and free labor; and many men and women maintained allegiance to the Union despite the increasing hostility of city elites toward iv Northern society.

White Richmonders minimized these conflicts in several ways. City leaders courted the white working class through grand celebrations and concessions to skilled workers. Militia soldiers celebrated "Virginia and Union" with paeans to Virginia's revolutionary fathers, sublimating political differences through the idealization of the past. But the Civil War and Reconstruction exposed the divisions that existed beneath the surface of Richmond society, pitting elites against the many Richmonders who did not share their vision of the world.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Richmond (Va.) -- History -- 19th century, Richmond (Va.) -- Social life and customs -- 19th century, Richmond (Va.) -- Social conditions -- 19th century

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

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