Gentlemen Merchants

A Charleston Family's Odyssey, 1828-1870

  • Author(s): Racine, Philip N.
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2008-07-30
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $38.95 | Buy Now

Gentlemen Merchants preserves the correspondence between members of two wealthy slaveholding merchant families, the Gourdins and the Youngs in nineteenth-century Charleston, South Carolina. Because the correspondence lasts over forty years, the letters provide a significant record of historical Southern themes. Plantation-born urban dwellers, the correspondents comment deeply and widely on their own family history, religion in the South, slavery and race, business, secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Gentlemen Merchants offers a fresh perspective on the Old South’s elite slaveholders from the vantage point of commercial offices, docks, and wharves instead of the rural plantation. These prominent Charleston families grew wealthy through commercial trading of Sea Island and upland cotton, rice, and wine.

Charleston emerges as a main character in these letters as the discrepancy between the wealthy upper class and working-class immigrants becomes more pronounced. There are also letters from family members who traveled widely for business and pleasure. They recount travel adventures in England and France, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, and at Niagara Falls.

The Gourdins and Youngs lived in material comfort for over three decades and fought to preserve their way of life, the basis of which was made possible by slavery. The family was one shaped by privilege and destroyed by war. When the world changed as a result of the Civil War, the family members were left penniless.

It is unusual that both sides of this correspondence have survived, making this collection an extraordinary primary source for historical research. Historically minded general readers will also enjoy the perspective on the urban South that these letters provide.

Philip N. Racine published numerous articles and books about southern history, including Piedmont Farmer. He is currently the William R. Kenan Professor of History at  Wofford College, where he has taught since 1969.