In Planting a Capitalist South, Tom Downey effectively challenges the idea that commercial and industrial interests did little to alter the planter-dominated political economy of the Old South. By analyzing the interplay of planters, merchants, and manufacturers, Downey characterizes the South as neither strictly capitalist nor noncapitalist but as a sphere of contending types of capitalists: agrarians with land and slaves versus commercial and industrial owners of banks, railroads, stores, and factories. His book's focus is the central Savannah River Valley of western South Carolina. An influential political and economic region and the home of some of the South's leading states' rights and proslavery ideologues, it also spawned a number of inland commercial towns, one of the nation's first railroads, and a robust wage-labor community, including the famous Graniteville textile mill of William Gregg, the South's leading proponent of industrial development. As such, western South Carolina provides a unique opportunity for looking at a variety of contrasting economic forces vying not as sectional competitors but solely within the boundaries of the South—slavery vs. free labor, industrial vs. agricultural, urban vs. rural. Downey shows how merchants, factories, and corporations—through a series of disputes and debates over the public responsibilities of entrepreneurship and the proper role of government in economic development—succeeded in advancing their interests over those of the local population, while recruiting state government as their ally. A revisionary study, Planting a Capitalist South offers clear evidence that a transition to capitalist society was well under way in the South even before the outbreak of the Civil War.
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