Emma Hart is Professor of History at University of St. Andrews. This interview is based on the paperback release of her new book, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Building Charleston?
EH: I often get asked this question as many Americans wonder how a British person ended up writing a book about Charleston. Like many first books, this started off as my PhD dissertation. I went to graduate school with the intention of researching the artisan economy in early American cities. My supervisor alerted me to the fact that both Charleston and Newport had received the least attention from historians. I decided to visit Charleston first, and never made it Newport. Coming from the UK, the combination of palmetto trees and Palladian architecture was really striking and, as I soon realized, symbolic of so many of the dissonances in Charleston’s long and eventful history. Even as I finished the PhD thesis, however, I realized that the people I was looking at were part of a larger group of white townspeople, who all used their labor, and that of their enslaved Africans, to accummulate wealth and property in the city. Building Charleston became a story about these men and women who were neither planters, enslaved field workers, nor plain folk, yet still made a major contribution to the character of colonial South Carolina. I also came to feel like a cheerleader for Charleston, which was often overlooked by historians as an important colonial city in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, even though it grew almost as fast as these northern towns.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Building Charleston?
EH: In the eighteenth century Charleston was not merely a vehicle of South Carolina’s plantation economy, but rather was a fully functioning participant in the creation of a British Atlantic urban world. Among other things the growing city fostered the emergence of a middling class of people, who strongly shaped urban culture, politics, and economics, in ways that made the place look very similar to contemporary cities in provincial Britain.
JF: Why do we need to read Building Charleston?
EH: I hope that readers will come away with a new outlook on how important towns were to British America’s plantation societies during the colonial era. Like Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados, Charleston was a dynamic city, whose economy brought wealth to a distinct sector of society. What is more, enslaved African people were often foundational to these urban wealth-creation activities. For example, enslaved carpenters and bricklayers were instrumental in the speculative building craze that gathered pace after Charleston’s major fire of 1740. Owned by white builders, such people saw none of the profits, however, which lined the pockets of their masters who used this wealth and property as the basis of a middling social status. Thus, the story of America’s entrepreneurial middle class starts in the eighteenth century, and is as much a southern story as it is a northern one. What is more, slavery was right there at the inception. The important role of urban society in shaping South Carolina society at this time also reminds us that we shouldn’t read the state’s archetypal antebellum southern character back to the eighteenth century as it wasn’t always so. There was a time in the eighteenth century that Charleston’s importance gave the region a much more urban quality, and townspeople even challenged the authority of the plantation elite.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EH: I decided to become a historian when I was only 13 years old – I had a very dynamic history teacher at school who persuaded me pretty early on that my future lay in the past! When I got to university I started to do more eighteenth century history, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I liked the rambunctious nature of eighteenth century society, which is embodied in so many of William Hogarth’s pictures. When I got the opportunity to do a special topic on Revolutionary America, I knew I’d found my historical home – early America was not only more rowdy than Europe, it was also a society that grew incredibly quickly, and incorporated so many contradictions of slavery and freedom, success and failure, and violence and refinement. Once I’d decided to commit myself to an academic career by starting a PhD, there was no question about which field I’d study.
JF: What is your next project?
EH: I’m working on a history of marketing in early America, tentatively titled Trading Spaces: The Early Modern Marketplace and the Creation of the American Economy. The research continues my fascination with how humans interact with space and landscape in past societies. I’m trying to unearth the places, customs, and institutions that characterized ordinary peoples’ daily trading practices. American historians have usually portrayed “the market” as an ideological abstraction. However, the majority of early modern people encountered the market as a physical space entangled in local social and economic relationships. I think that it is only by investigating the early American market place on these terms can we grasp the foundational role of the colonial era in the long-term formation of an American market economy.
JF: Thanks, Emma!