Slavery and the Old South
In the antebellum south, the Large Plantation – agricultural way of life dominated the whole society. Only 25% of white southerners owned slaves and most did not live in mansions but in dark, cramped, two-room cabins. Cotton was the crucial cash crop of the South, but it was not the only crop grown there. Corn, sugar, rice, and tobacco were also grown – but Cotton was king, and the most labor intensive of all these crops. Not only was the South reliant on cotton, but the northern factories relied on the raw material as well as England. The South was the world’s largest producer and from 1815 to 1860 it represented over ½ the U.S. exports.
The Southern economy and way of life was dominated by agriculture – and little diversification into industry and commerce took place. Over 75% of the slaves in the South were used in farming. This therefore made the value of the slave increase and drove prices upward. “Raising” slaves therefore became very profitable and the profit to be earned in the slave trade increased.
In the 20 years preceding the Civil War, the South’s economy grew slightly faster than the North’s. Personal income in the 1860s was 15% higher in the South than in the Northwest. “If the South had become an independent nation in 1860, it would have ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in the world in per capita income.
The cotton gin invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 is the main reason for this. Now with the use of this machine a much more hearty variety of cotton could be grown. This was the “short staple” variety. With this new variety and invention men rushed westward to fresh, fertile lands for the growth of cotton. Now with slaves as a valued resource more care was given to them.
As time went on with years of constant use of the land for cotton – the land because exhausted and crop yields fell. Farmers in the old and upper South had to flee or diversity their crops. They shifted mainly to corn and wheat which were less labor intensive crops. Slave owners began to sell excess slaves to the growing Black Belt area of the Lower South. The internal slave trade from Virginia “down the river” to the Old Southwest thus became a multimillion-dollar “industry.” The external slave trade was formally ended by act of Congress on January 1, 1808.
While 75% of slaves were engaged in agricultural labor, with 55% in cotton alone, slaves were trained for every kind of manual labor. Many poor whites hated the blacks because they saw them as a threat to their job security. The South though refused to industrialize and put all their capital and energy into the growing of cotton. This would cause them to remain in an economically backward state – and would eventually hurt them during the Civil War.
Slavery served not only as an economic system – but also as a social system. While ¾ of all southern family did not own slaves – the idea of slave ownership determined the hierarchical character of the southern social structure. At the top stood the planter aristocracy. Some 10,000 rich families owned 50 or more slaves in 1860. The small planters owned from 10 to 50 slaves. The middle-level farm families made up the largest slave owning group. They owned fewer than 10 slaves. Upward economic mobility, social prestige, and political influence were determined by ownership of slaves. White southerners, therefore, supported slavery whether or not they owned slaves. They also defended slavery no matter who poor they were – because it at least gave them superiority over at least one group of people. “Better to be white trash and poor than to be black.” While there was always a small element of southern society that believed in emancipation, most southerners did not. 75% of white southerners did not own slaves. They were scattered all through the South and tended to be in the country rather than in the cities. These poor farmers tended to work less desirable tracts of land and were self sufficient. These yeoman farmers were the backbone of the South. They lived in 2 room cabins and grew or made just enough to supply their family’s needs. Another little known group f southern whites were the herdsmen who raised hogs and other livestock. They supplied bacon and port to local planters and plantations. These hogs were raised mainly by being allowed to range freely in the woods eating acorns and other things. Below them were the poor whites of the South, about 10% of the population. Often times they were called “hillbillies,” “Dirt eaters,” “crackers,” or “poor white trash.” These poor whites eked out an existence on the poorest lands. Because of poor diet and bad living conditions, they often suffered from diseases such as hookworm and malaria. Poor nutrition, worms, and heat all worked to debilitate the whites – thus giving them a reputation of being lazy, shiftless, and illiterate.
Justifying Slavery – Various arguments were used to justify slavery. Biblical, historical, constitutional, scientific, and sociological (phrenology).
Biblical – based partly on the curse of Canaan – the son of Ham – who was condemned to eternal servitude because his father had looked on Noah’s nakedness (Carthage).
Old and New Testaments tell slaves to obey their masters (Philemon).
Historical – slavery had a basis in history. All the great civilizations were built on the backs of slave labor. Rome, Greece, Egypt. With slave labor, the educated elite are relieved of manual labor and freed for the arts, law, government, and military glory.
Legal Grounds – The U.S. Constitution did not forbid slavery – and the overseas importation of new slaves would not end till 1808. No mention is made in the Constitution about the use of slavery or its demise. Slaves were also not legal voting citizens by the constitution and were only 3/5 of a person. Also the Constitution had provisions for the return of runaway slaves.
Scientific – Most white southerners believed that blacks were a degraded race with retarded mental and moral development. Phrenology plays heavily into this stating that the animal parts of the brain preponderate over the moral and intellectual – accounting for their deviancy in reason, judgment, and forecast. To have a white master to think for you was therefore a “positive good.” Blacks were also viewed as a separate creation (a theory called “polygenesis”) and were inherently an inferior race. They were also seen as grown children who must be governed. Emancipation, therefore, would be heartless and unthinkable, a burden to both blacks and whites.
Conclusion: Slavery was profitable. Before the invention of the cotton gin it was dying out – but slavery’s worst feature was not physical but psychological.
Life of a Slave:
Diet was very monotonous, usually consisting of cornmeal and pork. Their diet was sometimes improved by good masters, or by being allowed to grow their own small garden plots. Life in the Deep South was the worst and it was to this location that slaves dreaded to go. Field hands worked 14 hour days in the summer and 10 hour days in the winter. Poor diet and suffocating heat and humidity caused many blacks to lack the stamina for this hard work. Slaves would be organized in either a “gang” system or a “task” system for work. Gangs usually consisted of 20 to 25 workers working their way across a field under the whip of a driver. Under the task system a slave was given a task to do and when completed – was done for the day. This gave slaves the incentive to work hard enough to get done early – but their work was checked and must meet speck before they could be released.
Household slaves had much easier assignments than field slaves. But there were also disadvantages here. They were more closely watched, and were called at all times of the day or night.
Pregnant women were usually given moderate work – but were kept at it till the last hour, and were given 3 weeks recovery after birth. Infant mortality of children under 5 years old was twice that of white children.
Due to poor diet slaves were highly susceptible to disease. Not only did they feign illness to get out of work, but they were highly susceptible to epidemic diseases. An average of 20% and sometimes 50 to 60% of the slaves on the given plantation would be sick at one time. Whipping was the most frequently used form of punishment – and this added to the poor physical condition of the slaves. While harsh treatment and “damaging your property” was not logical – records prove that sadistic slave punishments were frequent and harsh. While whipping was the most common punishment other forms were: isolation and confinement in stocks and jails during leisure hours, chains, muzzling, salting lash wounds, branding, burning, and castration.
With Nat Turners revolt in 1831 and with agitation being printed by William Lloyd Garrison’s paper the Liberator, the South tightened up their slave code laws making them more restrictive. Southerners lived in constant fear of slave insurrection. Restrictions on slaves increased – but material treatment and rules regarding overly severe treatment were also increased to help decrease the chance of slave insurrection.
Most slaves married – either a member on their own plantation, or someone from another plantation. Southern courts though did not legally recognize these slave marriages – and it was not uncommon for masters to split up and sell parts of the family away. Some slaves did not have a choice of mate and were “given one” by the master. Sexual abuse of black women was not uncommon. The presence of thousands of mulattoes proves this. Slave women were encouraged to bear children whether married or not – as this would increase the wealth of the master. Despite all this, many slaves tried to have strong families and maintain connections even when split up. Communal life and society in slave quarters was therefore very important.
Due to the horrors of their day to day life, religion was one of the strongest aspects of most slaves’ lives. While they had nothing to look forward to in this life, they at least had the afterlife to look forward to. While Blacks preferred to worship by themselves – often times they were forced to attend church with their white masters. Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal were the largest Black faiths. Many times Black religious gatherings were forbidden except when white observers were present, or when a white preacher led them. When preached at by a white preacher the text of the sermon tended to be on the issue of “Servants obey your masters.” The Blacks took for themselves from Christianity the themes of suffering and deliverance from bondage. They identified with the children of Israel and with the Exodus story. Song became a very vital part of Black worship many Negro Spirituals were written about their sorrows. Such famous examples are:
Go Down Moses / Nobody knows the trouble I’ve Seen / Sometimes I Feel
Like a Motherless Chile
Black Resistance and Protest:
Besides running away – slaves had day to day acts that they could do to resist slavery. Breaking tools / burning crops, barns, and houses / stealing or destroying animals and food / defending fellow slaves from punishment / self-mutilation / feigned sickness / misplacing tools. The ultimate resistance was to run away – or death. The typical runaway was a young male, who ran off alone and hid out in a nearby wood or swamp.
Most runaways were caught because they stayed in the vicinity hoping to be able to maintain contact with their families. Some runaways, called “Maroons” hid out for months and years at a time in communities of runaway slaves. Several maroon colonies were located in the swamps and mountains of the South. Especially in Florida they tended to hid out with the Seminole Indian tribes. The Underground Railroad was the best means for escaping to the North. This was set up by abolitionists – and was a series of safe houses and stations where runaway slaves could rest, eat, and spend the night before continuing. Harriet Tubman led 19 separate trips leading 300 slaves to safety.
The ultimate act of resistance was rebellion. Most conspiracies never took place – but it did cause the white southerner to live in constant fear. Denmark Vasey of South Carolina planned a revolt in the basement of a church – but was found out by an informer and never able to carry out his revolt. The most well known is Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Turner was an intelligent skilled black minister slave. Turner wanted to kill all the whites and on an August night he and a band of fellow slaves killed his master’s family and about 55 to 60 other white men, women, and children. Reparations on the blacks were swift and severe. From this point on whites lived in fear of revolt.
Most free blacks lived in the Upper South. Because they represented a constant reminder of freedom to slaves and feared re-enslavement themselves, they were found least frequently in the Black Belt of the Lower South. Most southern free blacks were poor, laboring as farmhands, day laborers, or woodcutters. City dwellers lived in poverty and worked in factories. They were barred from most skilled trades. A handful of free blacks gained some wealth – and a few even owned land and slaves. In most states they could not vote, bear arms, buy liquor, assemble, speak in public, form societies, or testify against whites in court. Overall whites in the Deep South did not like free blacks in their midst and tried to force them to move on.