Men, Women, and Mercantile Friendships in the Early Republic

Jennifer L. Goloboy

In 1804, James Hamilton sailed from London to America to resolve a situation mismanaged by a business partner, John Couper.  As John lingered on the other side of the Atlantic, his wife Isabella wrote him several pleading letters: "Mr Couper’s speckulations have been imprudent & very unfortunate but beleive if possible that the intention was good__ for should we deprive ourselves of affectionate friends by contentions of this nature ah my dear Mr. Hamilton what forlorn creatures we are possest of all the affluence of this world."

            This paper will consider what Isabella Hamilton meant when she called a business partner a "friend."  Historians such as Amanda Vickery, Richard Godbeer, and Sarah Pearsall have documented the importance of friendship to Revolutionary-era culture: shaping consumer purchases and home design, providing a symbol for the ideal society, and binding transatlantic families together. This paper will use the new research on sociability to look at how and why business transactions were rooted in personal friendships. Using contemporary concepts such as sympathy and sensibility, it will consider how business friendships were similar to and distinct from other friendships. 

            Additionally, this paper will analyze how both men and women in mercantile families participated in these relationships, though on an unequal footing.  Specifically, it will focus on the well-documented James and Isabella Hamilton family, of London, Charleston, and St. Simons, Georgia, and show how Isabella's role in sustaining the family's business friendships gave her a voice (though a subordinate one) in her family's business concerns.  It will conclude by considering how a more developed economy ironically reduced the role for women in mercantile families.