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Lecture 2: Antebellum South
Transcript of Lecture 2: Antebellum South
Continuity and Change
Southern white women grew up with the ideal of domesticity, reinforced by the notion of a paternalistic master who was lord of the plantation. But the plantation mistress soon discovered that the daily demands placed on her made that ideal hard to fulfill.
In her youth a genteel lady enjoyed a certain amount of leisure. But once married and the mistress of a plantation, she discovered the magnitude of her responsibilities. Nursing the sick, making clothing, tending the garden, caring for the poultry, and overseeing every aspect of food preparation were all of her domain.
Slaveowners: 1 out of every 30 white southerners belonged to families of the planter class. Nevertheless, the planter class controlled more than 90 percent of the region’s wealth.
Plantation Mistress: planter women had considerable responsibilities within a confining sphere.
Yeoman Farmers: backbone of southern society. No slaves, farmed 80 to 160 acres; about 80 percent owned their land.
Farmers in the Upper South made wheat and corn their major crops: require less labor, slaves sold in the Deep South.
Much of the South’s new wealth resulted from the westward migration of planters, thereby masking fundamental problems.
Overwhelmingly rural, with 84 percent of its labor force engaged in agriculture in 1860 (compared with 40 percent in the North).
Investments in slaves paid as well as investments in the bonds of railroad companies, the closest equivalent to our modern stock market. In this and other ways the slave South resembled the free North more than contemporaries believed.
When contemporaries called the South backward, they often were thinking of its concentration on agriculture at the expense of manufacturing; implicitly or explicitly, they compared the region to New England.
Slaveowners in the South adapted their “peculiar” institution to their economic needs in a wide range of work.
Profits and Prosperity
Manners are a formal code of proper behavior. The South has stressed etiquette and has attributed much significance to the form of verbal expression and behavior in a group.
Thus, in the South moral codes, laws, and manners have been intertwined, with the aim of curbing individual aggressiveness and maintaining social order through a combination of external community pressures and internalized individual motivation.
How culturally distinct, though, was the South? Was there a characteristic southern mind, an ineffable southern way of life, a set of attitudes and values and expectations—a culture that clearly made the antebellum South a separate nation that found political expression ultimately in 1861?
1790 fewer than 700,000 Southern slaves; 1830 about 2 million southern slaves; 1860 almost 4 million southern slaves, an increase of almost 600 percent in seven decades
In 1859, the average plantation slave produced $78 in cotton earnings for his master annually while costing only about $32 to be fed, clothed, and housed.
A planter of consequence needed to own at least 50 slaves, and there were only about 10,000 such families—less than 1 percent of the white population. This privileged group made up the aristocracy at the top of the southern class structure.
Owners of large numbers of slaves were very rare; only about 2,000 southerners owned over 100 or more slaves. Although limited in size, the planter class nevertheless owned more than half of all slaves and controlled more than 90 percent of the region’s total wealth.
The poorest white southerners were confined to land that non one else wanted. They lived in rough, windowless log cabins located in the remotest areas and were often squatters without title to the land they were on. The men spent their time hunting and fishing, while women did the domestic work, including what farming they could manage.
Other white southerners referred to them scornfully as crackers, white trash, sandhillers, and clay eaters.
Most white southerners lived, in the decades before the Civil War, like white northerners, in families of middling economic standing and social status. The South was much less urbanized than the northeast (36 percent) and somewhat less so than the midwest (14 percent), but the South’s cities and towns were home to one in ten southerners in 1860, with a mix of occupations typical of American cities.
Tobacco and rice continued to be grown in the Chesapeake region, and planter families continued to live comfortably.
In much of Piedmont Maryland and Virginia, the larger plantations had long ago shifted to wheat cultivation, and small farmers, landowning yeoman, came to dominate tobacco production with their small, five- to ten- acre crops.
The Old South as a whole was self-sufficient in foodstuffs, like the post-Civil War South. Yet despite substantial cereal and livestock production, cotton came to dominate the Old South’s economy, its labor force, and its state of mind the way no other crop did.
Corn was a more ubiquitous crop than cotton because practically every farmer, from the wealthiest planter to the poorest tenant farmer, planted it as the primary food crop for himself, his family, and his livestock.
Cotton was admirably suited to the climate of the South, for it requires a growing season of slightly over tow hundred days.
From the white viewpoint, cotton was well suited to cultivation by slaves because the mature plants were short enough for planters and overseers to easily see and supervise slaves working in the field. But cotton was also a very democratic crop.
Small farmers sometimes depended on larger growers to gin and market their cotton in return for a tiny percentage of the output.
How do we reconcile these two images?
Given the republican belief that farming provided the moral basis for good citizenship, Jefferson felt it essential that the US continue to open new territory to settlement. Without access to new land, Jefferson reasoned, crowding would pressure people into working for others as urban wage laborers. In contrast, territorial expansion allowed every Americans the change to be a self-sufficient farmer.
The US could never guarantee control of the Mississippi unless it controlled New Orleans as well.
Expanding the Agrarian Republic
Within the vocabulary of Americanism, southerners slowly began, as it were, to speak with a different accent. In part, this was a result of the localistic orientation of most southerners.
For everyday life, one’s world revolved around one’s immediate vicinity. There were local newspapers, relatives who visited, and everyone was eager to learn news of the outside world from visitors, itinerant peddlers, and the paper or periodical often scanned at the country store. But the correspondence, diaries, and account books reveal that most people’s attention was on the ordinary, practical details of farm life.
In terms of numbers, yeoman farm families were the backbone of southern society, accounting for well over half the southern white population. These farmers owned no slaves and farmed the traditional 80 to 160 acres, like northern farmers. About 80 percent owned their own land.
Since yeoman farmers lacked cheap slave labor, good transportation, and access to credit, they could not compete with planters in the production of staples.
The South’s climate and longer growing season gave it a rural and agricultural destiny.
Many great rivers provided rich soil and transportation routes.
The South developed as a biracial society of brutal inequality, where the liberty and wealth of one race depended on the enslavement of another.
Cotton growers spread out over large areas to maximize production and income. Consequently, population density in the South was low.
Southern society is divided naturally into “three classes broadly distinguished from each other and connected by no common interest—the slaves on whom devolves all the regular industry, the slaveholders who reap all its fruits, and an idle and lawless rabble who live dispersed over vast plains little removed from absolute barbarism.”
~ J. E. Cairnes, British abolitionist, 1861
People of the South
Comparing the South & North
The geographic sizes of the South and the North were roughly the same.
In 1815, white southerners and free northerners shared heroes and ideology from the American Revolution and War of 1812.
They worshiped the same Protestant God as northerners,
Both regions lived under the same Constitution, and similarly combined nationalism and localism in their attitudes toward government.
Realities & Myths
Agriculture & Profits
Poor Whites: confined to land no one else wanted. Little more than 5 percent of the white population.
Enslaved African Americans: 1790 fewer than 700,000 Southern slaves; 1830 about 2 million southern slaves; 1860 almost 4 million southern slaves.
Characteristics of the