Antebellum Georgia: Economy & Slavery

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about Antebellum Georgia, or Georgia before the Civil War. We will focus specifically on Georgia's economy and its reliance on slavery. We will highlight key themes and developments.

What Was Life Like in Antebellum Georgia?

Have you ever visited certain locations and wondered what life was like there in the past? Maybe you've been to New York City and wondered how people lived during the ''Roaring Twenties,'' or perhaps you've visited Jamestown, Virginia, and wondered what is was like for those first settlers in the early 1600s. In this lesson we are going to focus on life in Antebellum Georgia.

If you're not familiar with the term, antebellum is Latin, and it literally means ''before the war.'' In the context of U.S. history, the term refers to the period before the American Civil War, which broke out in 1861. Here's the thing, though: There is not necessarily any definitive date on which the Antebellum Period began. Some historians regard the period as beginning back in 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted. More commonly, the Antebellum Period is considered to have begun after the the War of 1812. Certainly, the 1820s-1850s are considered the classic Antebellum Period. The term also has a connotation related to the South.

So what was life like in Antebellum Georgia? Well, if you were white and owned a lot of land, life was pretty good. Life was very hard for black slaves, however, as we will discuss. Life in Antebellum Georgia revolved around agriculture. The Georgia economy was rooted in agriculture, and slavery was a critical institution to making it function. Slavery brought prosperity to Georgia, even as it brought suffering to its victims. Let's take a deeper look.

''Cotton is King''

Given the geography and climate of the region, Georgia developed an agriculture-based economy even before the American Revolution and before it achieved statehood. However, shortly after American gained its independence, things really took off. In 1793, Savannah resident Eli Whitney developed a device called the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a machine used to separate cotton seeds from cotton fiber. Picking out the cotton seed by hand was very time-consuming; it might take all day to produce just one pound of seedless cotton fiber. With this revolutionary new machine, a team of 2-3 people could produce up to 50 pounds of cotton daily.

The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney, revolutionized the cotton industry.

At first it was believed that Whitney's machine might lead to an end to slavery, but in the long-run it actually increased slavery, since more slave labor was then used for planting and harvesting cotton. In Georgia and throughout the South, cotton became the primary cash crop. It was so profitable that the crop was eventually referred to as ''King Cotton.'' Cotton production further institutionalized slavery, and by the time of the Civil War, the American South was supplying three-fourths of the world's cotton.

Slave Culture in Georgia

Cotton plantations were common throughout Georgia. A plantation was a large farm usually operating on the basis on slave labor. Some slaves received religious instruction and were permitted to attend church - though they were most often required to sit separately from the white members of the congregation, in the back or the balcony - and they also organized their own congregations and developed separate religious practices. Over time, a hybrid of Christianity and African mysticism emerged and became a popular religious orientation within slave communities. African slaves developed their own genre of Christian-based music that became known as the negro spiritual. These songs and poems frequently expressed sadness over their plight as slaves, and called upon God to deliver them. Often times, comparisons were made to the Children of Israel who were held in bondage as slaves to the Egyptians.

Imagine what it would feel like to be a father or mother and have your children ripped from your arms and sold as property to another person. This was a heartbreaking reality that many slaves experienced. Some slave families were permitted to stay together, while others were split. Each plantation owner had his own philosophy of how to effectively control and manage his slaves. Slave auctions, where slaves were bought, sold, and traded, were held throughout the state. For slaves, these auctions were a devastating experience, as this was the site where family separation was frequently enacted.

Slaves suffered horrible hardships in Antebellum Georgia.

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