While the North was urbanizing and industrializing, the South became more committed to its rural, leisurely lifestyle and its agricultural economy built on slave labor. Limited industry did exist, but cotton was king!
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.
John C. Calhoun believed slavery was positive
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.
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.
In fact, very few people lived that way in the South; 3/4 of all Southern whites didn't even own a single slave, and of those slave holders, a majority owned fewer than six people. Most white Southerners were yeoman farmers, growing food for themselves and their animals, with just a little extra to sell. They might own a slave or two and as likely as not, worked alongside them in the fields every day. A lower class of whites lived on unproductive land in horrid poverty equal to that of slaves (although they were free). Referred to disparagingly as clay-eaters and other unkind pejoratives, such as 'crackers,' some historians attribute this slur to the fact that most slave drivers - who 'cracked the whip' - came from this underclass of whites.
Statue on top of the U.S. Capitol Building
At the bottom of society, were, of course, the slaves. American students today often have a mental image of slave life that represents just one type of worker: the cotton field hand. Slaves on cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations typically worked in gangs from sunup to sundown, driven by a white overseer. However, slaves in the rice fields and on smaller farms generally worked within the task system; each person had a specific job to do, and when it was finished, he was on his own time. There were also house servants and urban slaves who worked in skilled trades. One notable example was Philip Reid, the slave responsible for casting the bronze Statue of Freedom that sits on top of the U.S. Capitol building today. In fact, slaves worked side-by-side with hired laborers on many government buildings in the 1800s. This practice of teaching slaves a trade, however, declined throughout the century.
Let's review. Since the invention of the cotton gin, the productivity and population of the South had shifted to the Gulf states. Soon, king cotton accounted for 2/3 of America's exports on the eve of the Civil War. Southern attitudes began to reflect this economic reality, as people like John C. Calhoun began to defend slavery as a positive good for the nation. There was limited industry in the South, accounting for roughly 20% of the nation's factories. But most of their goods stayed in the region, and their economy was intertwined in many other ways, as well. While some Southerners recognized the problems with their economy, there was little available capital and most people were resistant to disrupting their prosperity and lifestyles.
At the highest rung of Southern society were the planters - genteel, strong and proud. Below them were independent yeoman farmers, very few of whom owned slaves. Next were a class of whites who lived in abject poverty and finally, slaves. Large cotton plantations had field hands work in the gang system, while rice plantations used the task system. There were also slaves in homes and towns, though using slaves for skilled labor declined throughout the century.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Discuss the Southern economy and how its attitudes were shifting during the Antebellum period
- Explain how Southern industry was intertwined and how this impacted what society wanted
- Analyze how classes and slavery affected Southern society