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The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston

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At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the mos At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the most refined cities in antebellum America. While other cities embraced a culture of democracy and egalitarianism, wealthy Charlestonians cherished English notions of aristocracy and refinement, defending slavery as a social good and encouraging the growth of southern nationalism. Members of the city's merchant-planter class held tight to the belief that the clothes they wore, the manners they adopted, and the ways they designed house lots and laid out city streets helped secure their place in social hierarchies of class and race. This pursuit of refinement, McInnis demonstrates, was bound up with their determined efforts to control the city's African American majority. She then examines slave dress, mobility, work spaces, and leisure activities to understand how Charleston slaves negotiated their lives among the whites they served. The textures of lives lived in houses, yards, streets, and public spaces come into dramatic focus in this lavishly illustrated portrait of antebellum Charleston. McInnis's innovative history of the city combines the aspirations of its would-be nobility, the labors of the African slaves who built and tended the town, and the ambitions of its architects, painters, writers, and civic promoters.


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At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the mos At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the most refined cities in antebellum America. While other cities embraced a culture of democracy and egalitarianism, wealthy Charlestonians cherished English notions of aristocracy and refinement, defending slavery as a social good and encouraging the growth of southern nationalism. Members of the city's merchant-planter class held tight to the belief that the clothes they wore, the manners they adopted, and the ways they designed house lots and laid out city streets helped secure their place in social hierarchies of class and race. This pursuit of refinement, McInnis demonstrates, was bound up with their determined efforts to control the city's African American majority. She then examines slave dress, mobility, work spaces, and leisure activities to understand how Charleston slaves negotiated their lives among the whites they served. The textures of lives lived in houses, yards, streets, and public spaces come into dramatic focus in this lavishly illustrated portrait of antebellum Charleston. McInnis's innovative history of the city combines the aspirations of its would-be nobility, the labors of the African slaves who built and tended the town, and the ambitions of its architects, painters, writers, and civic promoters.

35 review for The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    This was was one the best books I've ever read. I never thought I'd say that about basically an architectural book. That's never really been my thing, partly because I think I never understood the story that architecture and the landscape/arrangement of a city can convey. Ms. McInnis examines the contradictions of Charleston that have led it to become the tourist hub it is today: competing but interconnected stories of "moonlight and magnolias", slave life and resistance, and the Civil War. She e This was was one the best books I've ever read. I never thought I'd say that about basically an architectural book. That's never really been my thing, partly because I think I never understood the story that architecture and the landscape/arrangement of a city can convey. Ms. McInnis examines the contradictions of Charleston that have led it to become the tourist hub it is today: competing but interconnected stories of "moonlight and magnolias", slave life and resistance, and the Civil War. She explains why Charleston became the city of refinement we all think of, contrasting the physical beauty of grand homes with the brutality of the slave market. But, again, she points to the interconnectedness of these narratives. Who would have thought that something as ubiquitous as the piazzas (entry porches) of the city's homes themselves were a symbol of the barriers to entry of the black population of Charleston? The drawing rooms were the center of Southern refinement and socialization for white Charleston, while the work yard and outbuildings behind the mansions were the center of slave culture and resistance, and rarely would the two worlds meet...until the world was turned upside down when free black Union troops entered the city and the homes in 1865. The author reports on the slow slide into oblivion of Charleston's elite culture caused by the lack of primogeniture which was slowly dividing up the wealth with each successive generation, the scare of slave Denmark Vesey's plotted revolt, and a paranoid mindset developed in response to Northern abolitionists. In response to the latter issue, white Charlestonians accelerated their accumulation of the symbols of wealth in outfitting their homes and carriages. The more refined their society appeared (on the surface) the more readily they could argue the benefits of slavery to the advancement of society at large. By building high-walled work yards in their backlots and around their mansion's outbuildings, they could hide the true world of slavery from innocent or prying visitors. The book emphasizes other methods of control of the slave population. A taste for classical architecture recalled not the democracy of ancient Rome, but the agrarian society based upon chattel slavery of ancient Rome. Also, classical architecture was the rage in England, and so Charleston could offer a link to the English hierarchical aristocracy as further validation of their system. Leisure and refinement were pursued as evidence of cultural authority. "They were the inheritors of ancient archetypes, morally sound, favored by God, and culturally superior to the money-grubbing North. They argued it was slavery that provided the freedom from labor that allowed the master class to pursue political, social and cultural refinement." Public buildings, also in the classical style, were used to control the slave population: the Work House (for punishment), the Guard House, the Arsenal and the Citadel. The after-curfew patrols of the City Guard, with drum beat and weaponry, gave the effect of a "city under siege." But the messages did not stop there. Although the private mansions were also in the classical style, the slave buildings in the backlots were nearly exclusively in the Gothic Revival style, making forceful statements about the supposed links between Christianity and slavery based upon a patriarchal drive to "elevate" slaves for the positive good. And so, side by side, the contradictions lived on in contrast between Christian "parentage" but still with the need for authority and control by the master class. "The refined and cultivated world they created behind elaborate facades served as an antidote to the increasingly unrefined world around them and provided an answer to critics who thought slavery had a degenerating influence in Southern society. Their houses were put forth as the most important documents of the cultural achievements of their society." When even "well-treated" slaves immediately left their former masters after the Civil War, it pulled the rug out from under the basis of antebellum society that the slaves had been a happy and contented race raised up under the wing of their "parents". A truly incredible book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Reid

    This is currently my favorite book. McInnis shows how the urban landscape reflects and facilitates the social agenda of antebellum Charlstonian aristocrats. Now when I walk around, I focus on the built environment and try to guess why things are the way they are. It keeps me in the moment.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alex Werrell

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janine

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ricky Balas

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

  8. 5 out of 5

    Christine Carpenter

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  11. 5 out of 5

    Marc

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ceda

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cj

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  16. 4 out of 5

    Teri

  17. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lora

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mary Chambers

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rex

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

  22. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Henderson

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

  26. 5 out of 5

    Paige

  27. 4 out of 5

    James Archibald

  28. 4 out of 5

    Missy Sherriff

  29. 5 out of 5

    Leah Dahlback

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cherie Bush

  31. 5 out of 5

    Renée

  32. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  33. 4 out of 5

    Lashunda Hill

  34. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Murphy

  35. 5 out of 5

    Lilli Ann

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