Skip to content

Funder Occupations

More than a quarter of the subscribers to the University of the South listed their occupation as plantation owner. However, many were also involved in other, diverse areas of business and political activity. To amplify their wealth and power, many of them sought and gained influence at the highest levels of local, state, and national politics and, significantly, in the Episcopal Church. In short, the elite status of the men and women whose funds founded the University of the South reflected their ability to exploit an interlocking network of economic, political, and religious authorities. Starting up a university with the Episcopal Church—the unofficial church of the South’s enslaving class—was more than an expression of religious devotion or piety. It was also a power play, an investment by like-minded men (and some women) in an institution that would enhance their social capital and strengthen the cultural and religious authority of a civilization based on bondage.

These interlocking factors are charted here, which combines several occupations within a parent category. For example, John Armfield (1797-1871) of Tennessee, a prominent slave trader in the firm Franklin & Armfield, is listed as a merchant. Former First Lady Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891) of Tennessee listed her occupation as a wife, even though at the time of fundraising she was a widow who had inherited multiple properties, including enslaved people. This chart uses the occupation that the person held in 1860, which means that many former congressmen or other politicians can be found under the category of doctor, lawyer, or judge. Information about their additional vocations or offices can be found in the mini-biographies accessible on the Founding Funders map.

Business connections drew together a number of Founding Funders even before the University campaign. These links formed the basis of their allied interests in strengthening the institution of slavery by means of an institution of higher education whose various departments would serve the peculiar interests of the plantation states. A good example is Henry Workman Conner (1797-1881) of South Carolina, a broker for Conner and Son that operated in that state and Louisiana in the early nineteenth century. Conner came to know several of the era’s financial giants, including John Pierpont Morgan and George Peabody. George Peabody (1795-1869) was a prominent figure in the firm Riggs, Peabody, and Company, which did big business in selling a variety of goods, including enslaved people. Peabody eventually became Conner’s client and assisted his rise to powerful and lucrative positions in finance. By 1860, Conner was the president of the Bank of Charleston and the South Carolina Railroad Company. Conner was not Peabody’s only personal and business connection to the enterprise of the University of the South, but together their subscriptions amounted to $12,000.

Occupation was not the only connection between the Founding Founders. They prayed, intermarried and donated together. Conner and Morgan attended the same Episcopal Church in New Orleans in the 1830s. By 1860, Conner was worshiping in St. Michael’s Episcopal, the church of that city’s Protestant elite. These multiple layers of connection—family, friendship, vocation, religion—overlapped and reinforced each other and influenced their decision to support the University of the South. The majority of Founding Funders attended Episcopal churches throughout the American South, and those who did not had friends and family in leadership positions in Episcopal churches.