Author Interview--Kenneth H. Wheeler (Modern Cronies) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Kenneth H. Wheeler to talk about his new book Modern Cronies: Southern Industrialism from Gold Rush to Convict Labor, 1829-1894, published by the University of Georgia Press in May 2021.

Kenneth Wheeler is an Assistant Professor of History at Reinhardt University. He received his Ph.D. from the Ohio State University.

Ken, to start, how did you become interested in a set of individuals from North Georgia?

KHW: I came to this book project via student questions:  "My boyfriend and I were 4-wheeling this weekend and we came upon this."  She held out her phone, with a photo of what looked like a huge stone pyramid in the woods.  "What is it?"  I had no idea.  A few years later another student answered the question when he became passionately interested in nineteenth-century iron manufacture in the area of northern Georgia where I teach.  My student and I worked together for a time to understand the iron industry in antebellum Georgia.  That research was my entry point into this project.

What do you argue in Modern Cronies?

KHW: I argue that the Southern gold rush of the 1830s and beyond brought together a group of people who were highly ambitious and open to a diversified economy that included industrial development, not just in mining and milling, but in railroad construction and iron making.  They brought with them and fostered networks of kinship and Baptist religion that provided trust and an acknowledgement of similar values.  Joseph E. Brown, who would be Georgia's sole Confederate governor and play a gigantic role in post-bellum Georgia, was mentored and groomed within these networks, and that background played a significant role in his life and in the development of the state and the region.

Joseph Brown is not your only central individual, how did you decide on making personal stories the central driving force of your narrative? What benefits did you see in such an approach?

KHW: You are correct.  Brown does not show up until Chapter 4, almost the mid-point of the book, by which time readers have been introduced to a growing cast of characters.  I am not a novelist, but there is a novelistic structure to the book, which deals with the gold rush and Cherokee Removal, then turns to the development of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, then to the iron industry, then to a nearby resort for the wealthy, before Joseph E. Brown enters the picture and the reader sees the integration of distinct strands into a coherent whole.  The centrality of personal stories comes because in Georgia's Etowah Valley the relationships between these different sectors of the economy, or these facets of industrialization, were often forged through a combination of marriage and kinship, or ecclesiastical and temperance bonds.  Before the creation of a Better Business Bureau, ambitious people knew whether they could trust each other based on things such as reputation in one's extended family or through church membership.  Highlighting the personal connections these people forged with each other in family life and in church helps demonstrate the interconnections among these disparate endeavors.  Most important, the personal connections help the reader see how someone in that time could envision and then put together, as Joseph E. Brown did, a multi-faceted corporation in post-bellum Georgia that utilized all of the insights gained from living and working among antebellum Georgians with a variety of skills and ambitions.

How do these different individuals contribute to your "cronies" stories? 

KHW: Again and again, the cronies I study have not only connections to one another but also to governmental power.  When Farish Carter got the suggestion from John C. Calhoun that he put together a group to develop land along the route of what became the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Carter soon was working with the chief surveyor, Stephen H. Long, and with Tomlinson Fort, the head of Georgia's state-controlled Central Bank that would finance the state-owned railroad.  The governor, Charles McDonald, was Farish Carter's brother-in-law.  These relationships assumed that state power was to be used to benefit their endeavors; in this case, Farish Carter and his partners secretly purchased key points along the route of the railroad that created the cities of Chattanooga and Atlanta.  Stephen H. Long stayed on for years to oversee construction of the railroad, and his highest priority was to make sure the railroad passed where the partners' landholdings would increase in value.  My point in the book is not to expose ethical problems, but rather to explain in a new way how things get done, some of the reasons why the nineteenth-century Southeast developed as it did.

What is so fascinating about the "how things get done" part is how much this involved favoritism, corruption, and the like, which does seem to go counter to what we have as an image of the gentlemanly planter South? How does your book challenge our perception of the Old South and its leaders?

KHW: Just as you say, Niels, the "gentlemanly, planter South" really was an image.  Ask the Cherokee how gentlemanly they found the thousands of white people who swarmed into the Cherokee Nation and lived amongst them from 1829 to 1838.  Perhaps it was different in other places, but the people I have been studying were always grasping for opportunities and advantages.  They would farm and search for gold on the side.  They might feel a tinge of nostalgia for a place, but they abandoned it immediately when they thought there was more money to be made elsewhere.  They exploited enslaved people, yet Joseph E. Brown was originating a convict labor system in 1849 when he served in the state legislature, eager to harness the labor of imprisoned whites.  These entrepreneurs, in their letters to each other, were constantly evaluating the possibilities and opportunity costs of this or that venture, trying new businesses, seeking to become postmaster or obtain other government jobs.  America's millennial "side-gig" culture would seem like nothing new to these Old South cronies.  And we should remember that it was not just opportunity that spurred them on--sometimes people went bankrupt or lost everything.  They had plenty of examples of people with advantages, people like themselves, who failed despite all their hard work.  Fear can be a powerful driver.

Interestingly, the individuals you look at are not planters, they are business entrepreneurs. How unique or common was this group of individuals within the South considering they operated in one of the most industrialized regions of the South/Georgia?

KHW: Certainly there were entrepreneurs like this scattered especially through cities, ports, and fall line towns across the South.  Scholarship written by people such as Bruce Eelman, Mary DeCredico, and Michael Gagnon, among others, makes this clear.  What is distinctive about Georgia's Etowah Valley is the mineral riches, the natural resources, that attracted so many of these industrial-minded people.  Gold was in abundance, as was iron ore, copper, and manganese, along with numerous other commodities that could be mined and worked into valuable resources.  In other words, a distinctive landscape shaped the human experience in that place.  As those people made their way into positions of power--Joseph E. Brown took several Etowah Valley grist millers and gold mine owners with him to Milledgeville when he was elected governor in 1857--they brought with them their experiences and ideas about what a future Georgia, a future South, would become.  So what happened in the Etowah Valley spun into broader corridors of power and authority in ways that shaped the development of Georgia and the South in decades to come.

You are raising another interesting points about the close interplay between political and private enterprise--these individuals do not seem to have worried much about using their offices to enhance their own and the wealth of their friends. Could not we ask how different was the South from the rest of the country in that regard? Despite their critique of northern industrial society, they seem to have acted very much like northerners.

KHW: One feature of the Southern gold rush was the international interest and investment in it.  International workers were not uncommon.  The same was true of the iron industry in Georgia's Etowah Valley, where a family of German-Americans took the lead, then eagerly hired ironmakers from England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as workers from New York and Pennsylvania.  The Belgian engineer Eugene LeHardy moved to the Etowah Valley at the end of the 1840s and quickly made himself useful in railroad construction.  So the environment was not insular, and while there were certainly criticisms of abolitionism and, by extension, the dominance of northern collegiate education, the people in my book were hardly George Fitzhugh types railing against capitalistic exploitation of workers.  They loved railroads, inventions, mining, manufacturing, commerce, and the money to be made from all of these things.