A Culture of Respectability: Southerners and Social Relations in Richmond, Virginia, 1820-1865

Minton, Amy Karen Rider, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent (Cindy), Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

Southerners in Richmond, Virginia, from a wide variety of backgrounds and social classes, created a common culture based on ideas of respectability over the first half of the nineteenth century and through the Civil War. Respectability, in this Southern city, emerged as a social ideal that many residents used in an attempt to impose order on an often chaotic, rapidly changing and diverse society, and to appear modern and respectable to the outside world while still firmly upholding slavery. The development of respectability as a Southern social ethic grew out of the influences of the American Revolution, evangelical religious thought, transatlantic ideas of domesticity and gender, Jacksonian democracy, honor culture, and the maintenance of a slave society. By combining these elements, many Southerners felt they were cultivating an enlightened. Christian and modern culture while striving to avoid the class conflict, social radicalism, and crass materialism they saw as the product of Northern practices and culture.

Respectability significantly shaped how the people of Richmond acted toward and interacted with one another. In the volatile slave society of the antebellum city, people from all corners and social classes of the city used respectability as a common language. Despite their different goals disparate groups within Richmond, including merchants, professionals, women, the working class, and African Americans used respectability not only to further their own interests, but to give everyone a stake in maintaining their common society.

The Civil War, in many ways, represented a culmination of antebellum trends toward a culture of respectability. Rather than celebrating only the aristocratic and hierarchical nature of Southern society, the Richmond press used the language of simple respectability and moral worth in an attempt to draw Confederates from all backgrounds together in common cause, not as wealthy or poor, but as respectable Confederate citizens.

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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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