Life in the South: Ordered Society and Economy of the Southern States

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

During the Antebellum period, the North evolved into an industrialized economy, whereas the South relied on agriculture and slave labor. Learn about the Southern economy, the significance of class structure in society, and how an agricultural economy dependent on slave labor impacted Southern views on slavery. Updated: 08/16/2021

Southern Economy

Photo of a cotton gin

Although the society and economies of North and South had been different since the earliest colonial days, these differences became more clearly defined in the antebellum years (roughly the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War). The colonial economies had evolved differently, thanks in no small part to geography; the climate of the South was conducive to cash crops, while fast-moving rivers of the North powered machinery. But while even Western agriculture was transformed by new inventions, the South seemed to become increasingly more dependent on slave labor since the invention of the cotton gin. There was some industry in the South, but it formed a relatively small percentage of their economic output compared to king cotton.

The cotton gin and fertile new land available along the Gulf Coast helped the South transition from tobacco to cotton as the main cash crop and shifted the productivity and population from Virginia and the Carolinas down to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Tobacco was still grown in lower quantities, along with rice, sugar and grains, but cotton was king. With a booming textile industry, both in the North and across the Atlantic, demand and prices for cotton soared. In the mid-19th century, more than three million bales of cotton were produced annually, accounting for 2/3 of all U.S. exports by 1860. Though the practice of importing new slaves had been abolished in 1808, the demand for labor was met both with natural increase and when planters in the upper South sold their slaves to the lower South, sometimes called the 'Old Southwest'.

Southern attitudes towards slavery were also changing with the economic reality. While many of the founding fathers had considered slavery a 'necessary evil,' Southern statesman John C. Calhoun defended slavery as a 'positive good' to the U.S. Senate in 1837. He later summarized the speech, saying, 'Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.' Additionally, many Southerners felt that their own paternalistic attitude towards slaves was more humane than the 'wage slavery' of industrial economies.

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  • 0:07 Southern Economy
  • 2:42 Southern Industry
  • 4:11 Southern Society
  • 6:43 Lesson Summary
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John C. Calhoun believed slavery was positive
John C Calhoun Photo

Southern Industry

Though the South was truly a cotton kingdom, there was some industry and development throughout the region. But they had only 19% of the nation's factories, and most of the goods that were manufactured in the South stayed in the South for consumption. For example, there were several textile and flour mills, as well as forges in Tennessee, but they made things that were used by Southern plantations and homes. So, they barely register as exports in terms of value to the economy. What's more, Southern banks were often required by their state charters to engage in other business pursuits, such as operating hotels or digging canals. Therefore, the network of agriculture, industry, banking, commerce and services in the South was economically intertwined.

While some Southerners did advocate for economic diversity and commercial development, the plantation system was so profitable, and so much of their capital was tied up in land and slaves that little cash was available for investing. What's more, the society of the South was committed to romantic ideals of chivalry and a leisurely rural lifestyle. Southerners prided themselves on maintaining an ordered society and believed that everyone thrived when that structure was stable. Rather than wishing to see the system abolished, poor whites aspired to the lifestyle of the planter class.

Southern Society

A proper gentleman esteemed honor above all else, defending his family name, white women and his children. Public disrespect towards any of these necessitated a duel. He should be physically strong, since a gentleman saw himself as a defender of the weak and defenseless. For all these reasons, a man who wasn't a planter might become a politician, a lawyer or a soldier. A lady's place was at home, supervising household staff, entertaining guests and speaking out in anger only to defend her children and husband. Although only a tiny fraction of the population owned large plantations with many slaves, these planters ruled politics and society for everyone - not unlike the old nobility of Europe.

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