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FW: H-South Review: Miller on Evans, _The Conquest of Labor_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: Ian Binnington, H-South [mailto:cfib@eiu.edu] Sent: Monday, October 21, 2002 9:36 AM To: H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: Ian Binnington, H-South [mailto:cfib@...]
      Sent: Monday, October 21, 2002 9:36 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Miller on Evans, _The Conquest of Labor_

      Published by H-South@... (October 2002)

      Curtis J. Evans. _The Conquest of Labor: Daniel Pratt and Southern
      Industrialization_. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
      337 pp. Illustrations, chart, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95
      (cloth), ISBN 0-8071-2695-0.

      Reviewed for H-South by Randall M. Miller, miller@..., Department of
      History, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia.

      A Yankee Deep in the Heart of Dixie

      Over a quarter century ago Eugene Genovese chided southern historians for
      missing the stories of the industrialists of the Old South, and especially
      pointed to Daniel Pratt of Alabama and William Gregg of South Carolina as
      needing study both as exemplars of a particular "type" of southern
      capitalist and as important figures in their own right. He did so within
      the context of a series of essays, published as _The Political Economy of
      Slavery_, that argued that the slave-based economy and planter
      paternalistic ethos it fostered constrained southerners from investing in
      modernization and left industrialists in the region as anomalies at best
      and as step-children of planter interests at least.

      Although Genovese's arguments about a supposed planter hegemony have
      excited much comment and criticism, and no longer hold sway among many
      students of economic history, surprisingly few scholars embarked on
      biographical studies of particular industrialists or case studies of
      particular industrial enterprises to test out his insistence on southern
      industrialists' subordinate place in the regional economy, society, and
      mentality. Enter Curtis Evans to take up the challenge in his full-bodied
      biography of Pratt (1799-1873), perhaps the most successful southern
      industrialist of the mid-nineteenth century. The result is at once an
      admiring treatment of Pratt the man and an argument that Pratt's efforts to
      promote economic diversification, the construction of capital
      infrastructure, and manufacturing enjoyed much support deep in the heart of
      Dixie. Touche, Mr. Genovese.

      Evans's book, a revision of his doctoral dissertation at Louisiana State
      University, is a study of a man and a mission, framed principally by
      Evans's interests in detailing Pratt's ideas about and practices of work,
      industry, and political economy as the measure of the man and the responses
      southerners had to Pratt's products, politics, and personality. In a linear
      narrative, Evans tracks Pratt's life and work from his New Hampshire
      childhood, through his sojourn as a carpenter, a cotton gin manufacturer,
      and an architect in Georgia, to his establishment of Prattville, near
      Montgomery, in central Alabama, where he set up a cotton gin factory that
      came to dominate the market, built a factory complex also producing
      textiles, tools, and other goods, and laid out a mill village that bespoke
      Pratt's Yankee origins and respect for social order and town planning.

      According to Evans, Pratt brought Yankee know-how to every aspect of his
      enterprise. He initially relied on northern-born mechanics and managers to
      make the machines whir in Alabama and turned to family and associates in
      New England, and elsewhere, for capital to underwrite his industrial
      ambitions in the South. But Pratt, argues Evans, made his bed in Alabama.
      Pratt recruited and trained white southerners as mechanics, and he relied
      on various mixtures of mostly native white southerners and some slaves to
      tend the machines and make Prattville into a model mill village. He gave up
      a stern New England Calvinism for a more heart-thumping Methodism, and he
      acquired slaves and even a plantation. But the gin business remained the
      foundation of Pratt's enterprises and the engine of his wealth, and,
      indeed, by the 1850s Pratt was the nation's largest cotton gin manufacturer
      and had established an international reputation for the quality of his
      gins. All this Evans describes in loving and knowing detail, with ample
      references from Pratt's clients and from visitors to Prattville as to the
      utility and reliability of Pratt's machines and the integrity and energy of
      the transplanted Yankee.

      The main thrust of Evans's work, though, is to locate Pratt in a supposedly
      congenial political and social environment, where Pratt's advocacy for more
      manufacturing and a modernizing political economy found friends and where
      Pratt's ideas planted the seeds of the New South creed. Rather than an
      outcast or oddity, Evans's Pratt enjoyed widespread popularity as a model
      manufacturer and industrial spokesman. Evans cites Pratt's ability to find
      audiences for his many writings on industrialization and his election to
      the Alabama House of Representatives during the Civil War as evidence of
      the appeal of Pratt's ideas in Alabama. Pratt's mill village and his
      manufacturing success made him the paragon of progressivism in Alabama and
      showed that no premodern planter ethos ruled Pratt or the state.

      In making his case for Pratt's appeal and Alabama's progressivism, Evans
      corrects many details about Pratt's political ambition and life, especially
      showing that Pratt did not shrink from personal and political attacks on
      his political economy and his opposition to hotspur secessionists and did
      not let planters dictate his thought or action. In doing so, Evans
      repositions Pratt, and by implication his type, in the story of antebellum
      southern economy and society and calls into question Genovese's and
      others', including my own, previous suggestions about the limits of the
      industrial appeal and the strength of the planter interests in shaping and
      directing public policy.

      Readers will find much of interest in Evans's accounts of life and labor in
      Prattville, where Pratt sought to uplift his workers through a regimen of
      work, sober habits, religion, and learning. They will disagree, however, on
      the extent to which Pratt succeeded in his reform efforts, for Evans
      provides much evidence of workers holding on to their old ways even as he
      claims Pratt's program worked a moral reformation. Prattville had the look
      of a New England factory town but not yet its soul. That Pratt twice could
      not carry his own town in his bids for election to the state legislature
      spoke volumes on the distance between the manufacturer and the mill hands.

      Also of interest are Evans's detailed descriptions of Pratt's public
      arguments for economic diversification and support for manufacturing. But
      here, too, Evans does not wholly persuade as to his assertions that Pratt
      found Alabama a congenial environment for such ideas, for the evidence of
      the state's investment priorities pointed toward support of plantation
      interests more than industrial ones. Evans mistakes the endorsement of such
      pro-industrial publicists as James DeBow, who much admired Pratt and his
      model mill town, for general support for Pratt's proposals as to investment
      in transportation, banking, and manufacturing. For all his supposed
      influence in the legislature, Pratt was unable to get the state to support
      a railroad link to his factory complex. To be sure, Pratt was able to get
      materials in and move his products out because of his access to the Alabama
      River and thus to the Mississippi River system, but he was unable to
      convince the legislature to develop a connected system of transportation
      that would serve multiple needs and link the state's manufacturers with
      markets outside the region.

      What seems more evident from Evans's accounts of the political jockeying in
      the state capital, and in the newspapers, is that Alabama had no strategy
      for economic development. Local interests ruled, and Pratt's was one voice
      among many. That some manufacturing occurred in Alabama, and that some
      public money went into internal improvements, hardly prove Pratt and his
      ideas made their case. In the end, Pratt showed his true colors as a
      convert to southern interests. He came out for slavery and committed
      himself to Alabama during the Civil War, whatever his misgivings about
      wartime management from Richmond and southern prospects. After the war,
      Pratt invested as much in railing against Reconstruction as he did in
      rebuilding his state. Pratt's own fortunes recovered, and his investments
      in northern Alabama later paid off for his son-in-law Henry DeBardeleben in
      the development of Birmingham. World-class cotton gins continued to be
      manufactured in Prattville into the twentieth century. But Alabama hardly
      followed Pratt's lead. Scholars will argue whether the old planter class or
      new men emerged from Reconstruction as the "leaders" of Alabama and other
      Deep South states, but they will find but few Daniel Pratts among them.
      Evans does not establish any such lineage to Pratt and his type.

      The great strength of Evans's book also proves its great weakness. Evans is
      so preoccupied with Pratt's public life and work that he misses Pratt's
      place in the larger context of southern, and American, economic
      development. Evans's vision hardly extends beyond Prattville to consider
      other southern experiments in building factory towns and other southern
      experiences in developing manufactures. Evans does well in showing how
      Pratt became a southerner, even as he remained committed to New England
      ideas about ordering town life and industry, but he makes only passing nods
      to larger historical concerns about how and why the South lagged in
      industrial development and how the Pratt story stacked up with other
      entrepreneurial and social planning efforts in the South, the Midwest, or
      any "new lands" in the process of settlement and development, wherein
      "first comers" like Pratt in Alabama in 1833 might establish the character
      and interests of a place. All that said, Evans gives us an excellent
      profile of Pratt as an entrepreneur and advocate. He reminds us, too, that
      the logic of planters' political economy did not go uncontested. However
      much planters had their say and way in politics and public policies, they
      did not exercise "hegemonic" control. Even Yankees might find a home in

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