Sanders on Forret and Baker, 'Southern Scoundrels: Grifters and Graft in the Nineteenth Century'

Jeff Forret, Bruce E. Baker, eds. Southern Scoundrels: Grifters and Graft in the Nineteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 272 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7219-3.

Reviewed by Dru Sanders (Rice University)
Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

Though most studies of US capitalism in the nineteenth century center the industrial North, recent investigations on slavery’s role in capitalism have piqued interest in how the system took shape in the South. Works like Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014),and Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) provide bird’s-eye views of how slavery contributed to capitalism at a systemic level, but less has attention has been paid to the way southern capitalism functioned on the ground. Speaking precisely to this need is Southern Scoundrels: Grifters and Graft in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Jeff Forett and Bruce E. Baker, who present the volume as adding to the framework developed by the New History of Capitalism by providing “bottom-up social histories of the obscure actors who enabled ‘capitalist transformation’ at the local level” (p. 6). Altogether, the collection paints a picture of a largely unregulated economic order, where trickery and violence had as much importance as hard work and sound investment. But the “scoundrels” in the collection’s narratives were not aberrations, as Forret and Baker argue in their introduction: “The stories we recount here were not outside the true nature of capitalism in the nineteenth-century South but, to the contrary, wholly integral to it” (p. 5). The volume, then, serves to demonstrate a darker reality of the uneven development of US capitalism.

A system built on contracts, credit, and—ultimately—trust, capitalism requires brokers of good faith. John Lindbeck’s contribution, “Preachers and Peddlers: Credit and Belief in the Flush Times,” focuses on the role ministers and churches played in establishing trust in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Of particular value were itinerant ministers, who “facilitated financial transactions, ensured the reliability of faraway planters and businessmen, and provided an overarching belief in the economic system of the South under God’s providence” (p. 13). At the same time, however, anxiety emerged about the legitimacy of itinerant ministers, and Lindbeck points to several cases of “counterfeit preachers” who used their assumed position for personal gain. Perhaps most compelling is the social implication of this fear: “If the only symbol of stability, respectability, and divine providence was a fraud, too, then nobody could be believed, and the whole system of credit would collapse” (p. 15). Overall, Lindbeck’s narrative speaks to the rickety social change attendant to a growing system of credit and trust in an underregulated environment.

Two essays in the volume locate the role of slave traders in the development of the banking system, Alexandra J. Finley’s “A Gentleman and a Scoundrel? Alexander McDonald, Financial Reputation, and Slavery's Capitalism” and Forret’s “‘How Deeply They Weed into the Pockets’: Slave Traders, Bank Speculators, and the Anatomy of a Chesapeake Wildcat, 1840–1843.” Joining other historians in pushing back on the claims of proslavery authors that slave traders were not accepted in southern polite society, Finley’s contribution demonstrates the presence of slave traders on the boards of directors of banks and their ties with fellow capitalists. Keeping with the theme of the collection, however, Finley’s work does focus on a man identified as a scoundrel, banker and slave trader Alexander McDonald. As Finley points out, however, McDonald’s contemporaries did not consider him a scoundrel because of his activity in the slave trade—she notes other slave traders who were considered respectable businessmen—but rather because he undermined the public trust in the banking system by failing to repay debts. Going further, Finley turns the claim of proslavery authors on its head, concluding that slave traders “were not outside of nineteenth-century southern society but the epitome of it,” that, “in their disregard for how that accumulation happened, they sine qua non represent the heart of the capitalistic ethos” (pp. 54–55).

While Finley’s work centers the role of slave traders in the banking system to demonstrate their social acceptance, Forret does so to present a mutually beneficial relationship between the traders and wildcat banks. In particular, itinerant slave traders, by dispersing bank notes far away from the issuing institution, delayed the redemption of notes, thereby giving the bank breathing room to issue more, albeit irresponsibly. As in Finley’s essay, the men branded as scoundrels in Forret’s work earned that title not because of involvement in the slave trade but because of their fraud. Forret focuses on the Commercial Bank of Millington, under the control of brothers William and F. A. Weed. Purchasing the bank’s charter in 1839, the brothers found that “the prospect of realizing immense profits through overly generous lending policies proved too tantalizing” to resist (p. 62). By printing bills far in excess of its cash reserves, the Millington bank caused its own undoing. While slave traders could disperse their bank notes far and wide, they “jeopardized their professional standing and faced legal” repercussions by doing so. Further emphasizing the mutually beneficial relationship between the banks and slave traders, Forret’s narrative includes slave traders who reinvested the financial gain of selling humans “to finance new banking ventures that might rescue old ones” (p. 82).

While Finley and Forret speak to the operations of slave traders in an unregulated environment, Maria R. Montalvo’s essay, “Bernard Kendig: Orchestrating Fraud in the Market and the Courtroom,” addresses the unique regulations on the slave trade in New Orleans, along with the efforts to circumvent them. Louisiana’s regulations required a slave trader to disclose certain details of an enslaved person’s history: “if the person in question was addicted to theft, had previously committed a capital crime, was in the habit of running away, or suffered from leprosy, madness, or epilepsy” (p. 88). Such a disclosure was likely to decrease the monetary value of an enslaved person, incentivizing lying. Focusing on one slave trader with a habit of withholding information, Montalvo’s essay demonstrates an additional layer of the commodification of enslaved people, built on trust in contracts and arbitrated in the courts. As Montalvo puts it, “slave buyers, sellers, and traders transformed these regulations into tools of the trade that they used to depict enslaved people as products worth buying” (p. 89). Bernard Kendig, the focus of the study, lost multiple lawsuits for failing to fully disclose what he knew about the enslaved people whom he sold. However, the damages he was required to pay, Montalvo suggests, were nothing compared to the profits he reaped through the sale of humans.

Three of the volume's essays speak to southern capitalism during the Civil War, Jeff Strickland’s “William A. Britton v. Benjamin F. Butler: Occupied New Orleans, Confiscation, and the Disruption of the Cotton Trade in Wartime Natchez,” Rodney J. Steward’s “Devils at the Doorstep: Confederate Judges, Masters of Sequestration,” and Jimmy L. Bryan Jr.’s “‘Irresistibly Impelled toward Illegal Appropriation’: The Civil War Schemes of William G. Cheeney.” On the whole, the three demonstrate how the added complexity of the war opened opportunities for grift at multiple levels. The first two deal with military confiscation. Strickland’s work is a microhistory following the economic pursuits of William A. Britton and his cohorts. A northerner drawn to the pecuniary promise of the South, he dealt in finance, cotton, and slavery. Among the money that Union General Benjamin F. Butler confiscated during his command at New Orleans was 7,500 dollars belonging to Britton. Like many southerners, Britton sued for restitution after the war ended. Britton’s efforts would be taken up later by his brother Audley, banker and “the largest slave owner in the city of Natchez (p. 125). As Strickland writes, Audley Britton’s claim was purely fraudulent, and the money was never returned. Perhaps the most interesting detail of the essay, however, comes in a brief note in the conclusion. After the war, Audley Britton formed a bank with George W. Koontz, using wealth accumulated through slavery. As a coda to his essay, Strickland demonstrates the enduring legacy of that wealth, noting “in November 2013, Home Bancorp, a billion-dollar holding company for Home Bank of Lafayette, Louisiana, acquired B&K Capital Corp., the holding company for Britton & Koontz Bank, for $34.5 million” (p. 125).

While Strickland’s contribution speaks to Union confiscation efforts, Steward’s essay addresses those of the Confederacy. Focusing on the Confederate courts and the Confederate Act of Sequestration, the essay describes how the blunt, seemingly vengeful, legal instrument caused “financial devastation” that “would last for generations” (p. 131). The Act of Sequestration was the Confederacy’s response to Union confiscation policy, and it targeted for seizure any property and wealth “held, owned, possessed or enjoyed by or for any alien enemy” (p. 132). Such property would then be sold, and the gains placed in a fund to provide indemnity to “loyal Confederates” whose property had been seized by the Union. Steward presents two core problems with the implementation of the law. First, without a definition of “loyal Confederates,” the decision to provide indemnity was up to the whims of local officials. Second, the law allowed for widespread corruption and extreme overreach. As Steward writes, “those with no political connections or legal recourse were at the greatest risk of losing property, whether they were associated with alien enemies or not” (p. 137). Ultimately then, the law “punished only common folks on the southern home front,” with implications lasting well into the twentieth century (p. 144).

While Strickland and Stewart find fraud in the courts, Bryan highlights potential corruption within the Confederate military. Bryan’s work seeks to contextualize a favorite story of many military history buffs—the Confederate effort to develop a submarine—in the life of its supposed creator, William G. Cheeney. Simply put, Bryan argues that Cheeney’s “attempt to build a submarine may have been nothing more than a plot to defraud the Confederate navy of cash” (p. 148). A thief and burglar turned conman, Cheeney made a habit of dodging creditors, changing identities, and finding opportunities to enrich himself. As Bryan argues, Cheeney made a career of shady business practices before and after his employment in the Confederate navy, raising the possibility that the submarine project may have been a farce. Tracking the sources other historians have cited for the existence of the submarine, Bryan finds that almost all sources are based on hearsay. In fact, Bryan finds that “the only direct evidence of Cheeney’s efforts came from several requisitions drawn on Tredegar [Iron Works] and the correspondence and journal entries of Lieutenant [John M.] Brooke,” evidence which demonstrates the existence of an expensive project with many delays, but no completion (p. 158). Centering the direct evidence and placing it in the context of Cheeney’s career, Bryan concludes that he “likely never developed a functioning submarine” and that his time in the Confederate navy could fit his “consistent pattern of scheming and at times fraud[,]... a pattern of an ambitious man with no capital of his own convincing others to part with theirs” (pp. 160, 166).

The final three essays in the collection turn to the postwar South. Baker’s “Das Kapital on Tchoupitoulas Street: The Marketing of Stolen Goods and the Reserve Army of Labor in Reconstruction-Era New Orleans” brings attention to the key role of the port city’s informal economy. Employing Marxist theory, he argues that the market for stolen goods was central to the subsistence and reproduction of the laboring poor. In the years following the Civil War, New Orleans experienced an influx in available laborers available for dock work, pushing down wages. Additionally, while the port needed a large supply of labor, opportunities for work were inconsistent. Because of these factors, the market of stolen goods became important to sustain dock workers. Beyond simply demonstrating the importance of theft, Baker questions whether it makes sense to impose a division between legitimate and illegitimate economies, as the city’s economy rested on a labor force sustained by stolen goods. To Baker, “the entire economy of New Orleans existed on a spectrum of legality, none of it, like the muddy waters of the Mississippi, entirely clean” (p. 175). Relying on newspaper reporting, Baker argues that the informal economy was indeed key to the functioning of the port. While Baker concludes provocatively that “capitalism, in a port city anyway, required crime to survive,” the generalization feels broader than the scope of the study (p. 191). In this moment in New Orleans, however, Baker convincingly argues this point, and the work provides a compelling challenge to traditional views of markets and capitalism.

Asking questions about the Reconstruction-era development of the Ku Klux Klan, Elaine S. Frantz’s essay, “The Violent Lives of William Faucett,” speaks to the violent environment of Union County, South Carolina. Her main focus is William Faucett, more a brawler than a grifter, who “between 1852 and 1878 ... played a role in more criminal indictments in the county than did any other person,” save for a bondsman (p. 200). His career in violence, however, appears to have been sanctioned by the county’s elite, seen most explicitly in 1870, when the county’s Democratic sheriff paid Faucett’s bail after he was arrested for assaulting and threatening to kill a Black man. The vast majority of Faucett’s documented fights were with other poor white men, but Frantz argues that he shifted his target somewhat to Black men following the war. Frantz connects Faucett’s violent history to the development of the Klan, arguing that, rather than “sprouting from seed sewn [sic] in southern soil during the Civil War[,]... Klan terrorism took its own form, [and] it was radically nourished by structures of status oppression in place well before the war’s disruptions” (pp. 196–97). While Frantz acknowledges that it is difficult to be certain about Klan membership, she sees Faucett’s “fingerprints all over it” (p. 210). Beyond the shared theme of violence tolerated and at times endorsed by elites, however, the argument connecting Faucett in particular to the Klan is somewhat tenuous. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Faucett’s life was his relationship with women, both white and Black. Over the course of his life, Faucett lived with a “rotating cast of marginal young women,” and Frantz concludes that he was engaged in prostitution; however, she leaves open the possibility that he could have been “extending patriarchal protection in a nonexploitative way” in some instances (pp. 206, 203).

The final contribution to the volume is T. R. C. Hutton’s “Eureka! Law and Order for Sale in Gilded Age Appalachia.” The work focuses on Alfred Burnett, who in 1877 formed the Eureka Detective Agency, an organization of “mountain detectives” who provided law enforcement and security for new mining operations in Appalachia. Taking up the framework of Appalachia as an “internal colony,” Hutton argues that “it required a comprador class that acted as mediator between capitalists and their future employees” (p. 229). Agents like the Eureka Detectives filled this role, helping to build lucrative capitalist operations in exchange for personal profit. While neither as notorious nor as violent as the Pinkertons, the agency served to arrest strikers and troublemakers, and Burnett successfully marketed the stories to the press. One particularly salient detail of the work speaks to the relationship between for-profit law enforcement and racism, as Hutton notes that “Burnett recognized that black suspects meant quicker convictions—and, therefore, surer bounty payoffs—in a white supremacist environment” (p. 225). Ultimately, Hutton’s work complicates the narrative of the capitalist development in Appalachia by demonstrating that, rather than “a stark binary between workers and owners,” there was a “combination of factors reflecting a deceptively complex society” (p. 229).

Overall, Southern Scoundrels adds depth to the New History of Capitalism by providing case studies of how southern capitalism functioned on the ground. The collection will be of great value to any historians of the South, slavery, and nineteenth-century capitalism.

Citation: Dru Sanders. Review of Forret, Jeff; Baker, Bruce E., eds., Southern Scoundrels: Grifters and Graft in the Nineteenth Century. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.

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