Cotton, Slavery, and the Old South chapter summary

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Cotton, Slavery, and the Old South


The North and South differed in many ways, but during the first half of the nineteenth century, no difference proved more significant than the relative absence of industrialization in the South at a time when it redefined much of the North. The Southern economy was growing but was increasingly dominated by a few products: cotton, and in some areas tobacco, rice, and sugar. The persistence of a farm-based economy created a system of business and society that made the Old South quite different from the rest of the nation. The most obvious of those differences was the region’s reliance on slavery. More than just a labor system, slavery had become an integral part of the Southern social fabric. Slaves and slavery were much of the basis on which Southern whites defined themselves. Wealth and social status often revolved around slave ownership. Thus, the planters with large slave populations had an influence on society far beyond their numbers. The “plain folk” (men and women who were mostly subsistence farmers) and the poorest white Southerners usually did not own slaves but supported the system because of the economic power exerted by the large planters and because the very presence of slaves raised their own status. Bound by race and a strong patriarchal and hierarchical way of life, whites of different classes and both genders shared many common values and beliefs. At the same time, there were significant differences within the white society, which were not always apparent to the casual observer. The result was a complex society that has often been romanticized and frequently misunderstood.

African Americans were also united by race. Most were united by slavery as well. Despite their oppressive situations, they found a variety of ways of maintaining and expressing their own culture and values. Although rebellion to slavery was rare and always brutally punished, resistance was an everyday occurrence. In short, slaves managed to cultivate their own traditions, unite as best they could, and maintain a degree of dignity and self-esteem. In doing so, they managed to create a social system that transcended their condition as slaves and enabled many of them to endure the hardships they faced.


A thorough study of Chapter 11 should enable the student to understand:
1. The staple crop system of the Old South and how it shaped the commercial and social life of the region

2. The Old South’s dependency on the North for industry and manufacturing

3. The Southern white class system and the role the large planters played at the top of this order

4. The role of the “Southern lady” in the Old South

5. The characteristics of Southern “plain folks” and their place in the Southern social and economic order

6. The nature of slavery, its variations, and the role of the slaves in the Southern social and economic system

7. The means by which some slaves resisted slavery

8. The features of slave culture that developed apart from white culture and how some of these culture characteristics helped sustain them under slavery

9. The continuing historical debate over the nature of the Old South, its “peculiar institution” of slavery, and the impact of that institution on both blacks and whites


1. How the staple crop economy helped the South develop a unique culture

2. The characteristic differences between the South and the North

3. The nature of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and the effect it had on both whites and blacks


1. What was the “Southern way of life” for the white Southerner? How did the staple crop economy shape this Southern way of life?

2. How did the economic attitudes of the North and the South differ? Compare material in Chapters 10 and 11 to answer this question. Were the differences rooted in something other than the goods each section produced or the labor each section employed?

3. How did the institution of slavery function, and what was its impact on the slave? How did the planters seek to control their slaves? How did the slaves respond to those efforts at control? What were the means by which slaves asserted their own dignity and self-worth as individuals and as a people? Explain the importance of the oral tradition in slave societies?

4. Why did so few Southern whites own slaves? Why did the nonslaveholding whites not oppose the institution of slavery?

5. Compare and contrast the way of life of Northern and Southern women during the 1840s and 1850s? How were their respective lives changing? How were they staying the same? Be sure to include black women in your analysis.

6. Discuss the debate among historians over the nature of slavery and its effects on African Americans. Why have historical interpretations changed? Why have some historical assessments of slavery been more controversial than others?


1. Note the areas of cotton production in 1820 and 1860.

2. Note the distribution of slaves in 1820 and 1860.


1. Between 1820 and 1860, into what areas did cotton production spread? What political factors accounted for this? What geographic factors played a part as well?

2. Compare and contrast the slave distribution in 1820 and 1860. In which areas did slavery spread? What political factors accounted for this? What geographic factors played a part?

3. In what areas did cotton production and concentrated slave distribution coincide? What accounted for this? In which areas did cotton production not coincide with a concentration of the slave population? What may have accounted for this?

4. Note where the concentration of slaves was high and yet cotton production was low. What accounted for this?


These questions are based on the preceding map exercises. They are designed to test students’ knowledge of the geography of the area discussed in this chapter and of its historical development. Careful reading of the text will help students answer these questions.

1. Compare and contrast the areas of cotton production in 1820 with those in 1860. What accounted for this growth in production? What factors contributed to the spread of the “Cotton Kingdom”?

2. Note the relationship between areas of cotton production and the density of the slave population. What does this suggest about the system under which most of the cotton was grown?

3. In some regions, cotton was grown but there were few, if any, slaves. What contributed to this situation? What sort of society would have developed there?

Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (1992)

Peter W. Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth Century South (1996)

Fred Bateman, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialism in the Slave Economy (1981)

Charles Bolton, Poor Whites in the Antebellum South (1994)

Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Women’s World in the Old South (1982)

Robert Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (1989)

Charles Joyner, Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (1984)

Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (1993)

Roderick McDonald, The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves (1993)

Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, A Slave (1991)

Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (1996)

James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (1990)

Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (1978)

For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see this book’s Online Learning Center at

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