Free Labor in an Unfree World
White Artisans in Slaveholding Georgia, 1789–1860

Michele Gillespie

The first book-length study of white male artisans in antebellum Georgia


"Adds a new dimension to the historiographical rehabilitation of the nonelite by bringing the world of Georgia artisans to life and examining how they 'responded to and acted upon the social realities of class and race.' . . . Insightful and refreshing and should inspire southern historians to explore the artisan experience in other parts of the slave-holding region."
William and Mary Quarterly

"Gillespie's spectacular book weaves together some of the most important topics in American history to portray the challenges faced by free labor in the slaveholding South. . . . Gillespie brings a multifaceted perspective to this topic. . . . An immensely readable book."

"This is a serious, careful piece of social history . . . a very valuable, enlightening, and convincing study."
Journal of American History

"Free Labor in an Unfree World is an exciting achievement. . . . Gillespie presents a detailed and compelling analysis of craftsmen in antebellum Georgia, and their interaction with the region's complex web of class and racial tensions. She has made a notable contribution to the rich and expanding scholarship on the slaveholding Deep South and to our picture of the Old South more generally."
—Christopher Petley, Journal of American Studies

"This is a totally absorbing study and one that must be required reading for every student of antebellum Georgian and southern history."
—Betty Wood, Cambridge University

"Gillespie places her examination of white Georgia artisans in the context of other [northern] artisan studies that have appeared over the last few decades. Her study not only builds upon that earlier work but expands its geographical and conceptual scope in several important ways. This book says new things about artisans and the nature of free labor in a slave society."
—Charles Steffen, Georgia State University

"Gillespie gives us an interesting insight into the place of these free laborers in an unfree world. . . . This book should be read by all students and scholars with an interest in the history of the South."
History: Review of New Books

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White male artisans in the antebellum South occupied a marginal and ambiguous social and professional position very unlike that of their northern counterparts. As skilled, free laborers in a slaveholding society, they did not fit into a defined social class. In the first book-length study of white tradespeople in the pre-Civil War South, Michele Gillespie highlights the complex world and lives of a nearly hidden population marginalized by a growing slave system. Gillespie demonstrates that the appearance of solidarity in the white antebellum South was false, that, in fact, strong class conflicts threatened to divide white southern society.

Beginning with a discussion of the roles and interests of white artisans in the commercial and industrial revolutions and political world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the book explores the migration of craft and trade workers to the South, the evolution of a rudimentary class identity, and the development of political culture and structure among artisan groups during the post-Revolutionary period. Describing the declining social and economic opportunities afforded southern white artisans during an era increasingly dominated by slaves, Gillespie compares their situation with that of their counterparts in the northern states. The book documents the ways in which the hegemony of slavery thwarted efforts to organize a white working class in the South prior to the Civil War. Individual case studies explore the artisans' worlds on a more personal level, introducing us to the lives and work of such individuals as William Price Talmage, a journeyman, Reuben King, an artisan who became a planter, and Jett Thomas, one of the first master builders to leave his mark on Georgia's architecture. Gillespie's illuminating study of artisans who survived--and even succeeded--at their work despite the hardships they faced advances our knowledge of the antebellum South far beyond the plantation and the farm.

Page count: 264 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

Read more about antebellum artisans at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


List price: $29.95

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Michele Gillespie is an associate professor of history at Wake Forest University.