Conquest of Labour

Review: Miller on Evans

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, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8071-2695-0.

Reviewed for H-South by Randall M. Miller, Department of History, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia. October 2002.

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 formanufacturing. 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 developingmanufactures. 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 anentrepreneur 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 Dixie.

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