Big Kings & Little Castles: Yeoman Farmers and their Family Relations

In her book, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, Stephanie McCurry explores the lives of small farm living in South Carolina in the years leading up to the Civil War. Though it is a fairly limited study in this book, geographically speaking, the area is largely representative of most southern antebellum era areas. One idea she covers that we have seen in many of the books is the idea of coverture. In her study, McCurry, points out that during this time and in this place, coverture was more like slavery for these wives. They were expected to work alongside their husbands, in the fields if need be, and along side the slaves, if they had any. They were simply expected to follow their husband’s dictates. Those who refused or spoke out against their husband, especially in instances of abuse, were vilified alongside their husbands. McCurry states that to the men of South Carolina, the “real offense was the erosion of male authority within the family and community when coverture was cracked and wife elevated, even morally, over husband”(132). Without the ideology of coverture and the coverture laws that were still in place at the time, these communities and households would crumble because of slavery, inequality, and the important politics of all white men being equal. It was absolutely necessary, according to their own ideas, that women remain bound to their husbands and not allowed any freedoms, aside from those he chose to grant her. McCurry showcases, in her book that “On family farms, children were ‘flesh, blood, and labor supply.’ So, in an even more literal sense, were wives, for few kinds of labor were more important to the yeoman household economy than women’s reproductive labor…In the yeoman households of South Carolina Low Country, the reproductive labor of wives…paved the route to household independence”(59). These women were seen as little more than property under coverture laws and financial gain due to their reproduction capabilities. The more children a man had, the less he had to pay out for working labor. Only as their families grew would these yeoman farmers buy more acreage and expand their farms. When they got too old, the land was divided, and the next generation would take wives and begin the reproductive/land grab cycle all over again (60).

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One thought on “Big Kings & Little Castles: Yeoman Farmers and their Family Relations

  1. Great analysis! I’d like to see you address more directly the relationship between gender and southern political culture. Why did the household structure of yeomen farms matter so much? It is not only about women’s dependent/subservient status, but also about male political power, and the tenuous political bond between those white men who held slaves, and those who did not (yeomen farmers). Any sign of women’s rebellion could and did disrupt this political order of white male equality.

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