Markets and Masculinity: Pursuing Wealth, Power, and America "Manliness" in the China Trade, 1820-1842

Lisa A. Carmichael

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Cynthia Kierner, Jane Censer

Johnson Center, #325
June 13, 2018, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


This dissertation examines the intersections of American masculinity, American national identity, and the development of American global capitalism in the antebellum era. Focusing particularly on the working relationships of American men connected to the firm of Russell & Company–as clerks and partners, as financiers and agents, as colleagues and critics–reveals how these men interpreted, experienced, and enforced the imperatives for American masculine performance in the global marketplace, and in turn, influenced the codification of these masculine imperatives for future generations of aspiring young American men.       

Russell & Company was the largest American firm operating in the China trade in the nineteenth century, and part of a commercial network of other firms operating throughout the East Indies, with extensive connections to related businesses like banks, brokerages, and shipping agencies. Examination of the letters, business papers, and diaries left by these American men yields four key insights into the evolution of American masculinity. First, the homosocial environment of the vessels that transported the merchants and clerks to China, and more importantly, of the foreign factory complex where Chinese Imperial law required them to live and work in Canton, had a formative influence on the development of American masculine identity, shaping the American commercial man that returned to the United States.

Secondly, each American man in Canton acted on his fellows to influence interests, expectations, and ambitions, thus creating networks of like-minded men who brought these expectations and ambitions home. They became the basis for evaluation of other American commercial men, creating a commercial atmosphere that demanded the acceptance and performance of specific masculine behaviors in order to participate in an emerging American capitalist culture.

Additionally, pursuing the China trade could make or remake a man financially, emotionally, professionally, and personally. It could also ruin him financially or in health. But, looking particularly at the partnership structure of Russell & Company brings to light a different type of failure, one that stripped a man of authority and control over his fate, and relatedly, his professional and personal masculine identity and sense of self.

Finally, what these American men did professionally shaped how they perceived themselves as men. Their work was inextricably linked to their masculine identities, which were also shaped by how they compared themselves with the other men–Chinese, British, and American–around them. The lives and experiences of these American men living in China and London for extended periods of time, surrounded almost entirely by men of various cultures and nationalities, provide a unique opportunity to examine differing perceptions of masculinity. What emerges is a specifically American masculine identity, tied to capitalism and American national identity, presaging the image of the American capitalist of the Gilded Age.