The Antebellum South

Slavery in the Antebellum Period

Slavery was a form of forced labor existing as a legal institution from the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century.

Learning Objectives

Describe how slavery became the foundational economic institution in the antebellum South

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Slavery was integral to the agricultural economies of the South, and thus to the nation’s prosperity, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • By 1804, most Northern states abolished slavery, and the federal government prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory and banned the external slave trade, spurred by abolition movements that denounced slavery as sinful and antithetical to the principles of the nation.
  • Treatment of slaves was generally characterized by brutality, degradation, and inhumanity; whippings, executions, and rapes were commonplace. Slaves resisted via rebellions, noncompliance, and flight.
  • Slaveholders and those with vested interests in the plantation economy had a strong influence on national politics, forcing compromises over the preservation and extension of slavery from the time of the drafting of the Constitution through the 1850s.
  • Over the course of the Civil War, the Union made abolition a goal of the war effort. They succeeded, and all slaves were freed, without compensation for their owners, with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

Key Terms

  • Mason-Dixon line: Also known as “Mason and Dixon’s Line,” a boundary surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the resolution of a border dispute between British colonies in colonial America.
  • manumission: Release from slavery; freedom.
  • Dred Scott: An African-American slave in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott Decision.”

Slavery existed in the United States as a legal institution from the early colonial period. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.

Race was a critical element of chattel slavery. Slaves were of African descent and children of slaves became slaves themselves. Freedom was only possible via granting of manumission by a slave’s owner, a practice that was frequently regulated and sometimes prohibited by law, or by the slave running away, which was both dangerous and illegal.

The treatment of slaves in the United States varied depending on conditions, time, and place, but was generally characterized by brutality, degradation, and inhumanity. Slaves were denied basic education, and in some cases, prohibited from convening for religious gatherings, in order to prevent potential escape or rebellion. Punishment was meted out in response to perceived disobedience or infractions, but also as a means for a master or overseer to assert dominance. Slaves were punished by being whipped, shackled, hanged, beaten, burned, mutilated, branded, and imprisoned. Slave women were at high risk for rape and sexual abuse, a practice partially rooted in the patriarchal Southern culture of the era that perceived all women, black or white, as property or chattel. Many slaves fought back and some died resisting this sort of treatment, though some managed to escape to non- slave states and Canada, aided by the Underground Railroad.

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“Slaves for Sale: A Scene in New Orleans”: This image depicts slaves for sale.

While some slaves worked in urban areas as domestic servants, most labored on plantations or large farms where their owners took advantage of good quality soil and a temperate climate to mass produce cash crops such as rice, tobacco, sugar, indigo, and cotton. In small operations, slaves worked side by side with their owners; on large plantations, they were directed by white paid overseers.

The labor-intensive agricultural economies of the South during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dependent upon the continued institution of slavery. Because Northern industries depended upon the crops produced in the South, it seemed to many that the nation’s prosperity was also tied to the institution. The invention of the cotton gin in the late eighteenth century had revitalized cotton production in the South and Southwest, further increasing demand for slaves. Slaveholders of the South exercised strong influence over U.S. politics, and many presidents were slaveholders. However, by 1804, all states north of the Mason-Dixon Line had either abolished slavery outright or passed laws for the gradual abolition of slavery based upon abolition movements that viewed the practice of slavery as unethical, antithetical to the core principles of the United States, and detrimental to the rights of all free persons. Accordingly, the nation was polarized along the Mason-Dixon Line.

In 1789, there were 8 slaves states and 5 free states. The slaves states were New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The free states were Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. In 1800, there were 9 slave states and 8 free states. Kentucky and Tennessee were added as slave states, but New York went from being a slave state to a free state. In addition, Vermont and New Hampshire were added as free states. In 1821, there were 12 slave states and 12 free states. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri were added as slave states, but New Jersey went from being a slave state to a free state. Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were also added as free states. In 1837, there were 13 slave states and 13 free states. Arkansas was added as a slave state and Michigan was added as a free state. In 1846, there were 15 slave states and 14 free states. Florida and Texas were added as slave states and Iowa was added as a free state. In 1858, there were 15 slave states and 17 free states. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California were added as free states. Finally, in 1861, there were 15 slave states and 19 free states. Wisconsin, Kansas Territory, and Oregon were added as free states.

Slave States and Free States: Animation showing which areas of the United States did and did not allow slavery between 1789 and Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.

By the 1850s, the South was vigorously defending slavery and its continued expansion into new U.S. territories. Compromises were attempted and failed, and in 1861, 11 slave states broke away to form the Confederate States of America, leading to the American Civil War.

In 1862, the federal government made abolition of slavery a war goal. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states via the Emancipation Proclamation. By December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment took effect, permanently abolishing slavery throughout the entire United States with no compensation for the former slaves’ owners. The areas affected included border states such as Kentucky, which was home to approximately 50,000 slaves at the time, as well as Native American tribal territories.

The Proslavery Argument

Proponents of slavery argued that it protected slaves, masters, and society as a whole.

Learning Objectives

Identify the key tenets of the proslavery argument

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Southern slaveholders’ proslavery arguments defended the interests of the plantation owners against attempts by abolitionists, lower classes, and non-whites to institute a more equal social structure.
  • Southern proslavery theorists argued that the class of landless poor was easily manipulated and thus could destabilize society as a whole.
  • The “mudsill theory” of Henry James Hammond argued that there must be a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon.
  • “Positive good” theorists, such as John C. Calhoun, believed that slavery, with its strict and unchanging social hierarchy, made for a more stable society than that of the Northern states where wage laborers of diverse backgrounds engaged actively in democratic politics.
  • William Joseph Harper was a leading proponent of the notion that slavery was not merely a necessary evil, but a positive social good, and his “Memoir on Slavery” reinforced this idea.

Key Terms

  • apologist: One who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution.
  • Mudsill theory: A sociological idea that there must be, and always has been, a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon; the name is derived from the lowest threshold that supports the foundation for a building.

From the late 1830s through the early 1860s, the proslavery argument was at its strongest, in part due to the increasing visibility of the small but vocal abolitionist movement, and in part due to Nat Turner ‘s rebellion in 1831. Among those most famous for propagating the proslavery argument were James Henry Hammond, John C. Calhoun, and William Joseph Harper. The famous “Mudsill Speech” (1858) of James Henry Hammond articulated the proslavery political argument when the ideology was at its most mature.

Portrait of James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond: James Henry Hammond’s 1858 “Mudsill Speech argued that slavery would eliminate social ills by eliminating the class of landless poor.

These proslavery theorists championed a class-sensitive view of American antebellum society. They felt that the bane of many past societies was the existence of a class of landless poor. Southern proslavery theorists felt that this class of landless poor was inherently transient and easily manipulated, and as such, often destabilized society as a whole. Thus, the greatest threat to democracy was seen as coming from class warfare that destabilized a nation’s economy, society, and government, and threatened the peaceful and harmonious implementation of laws.

This “mudsill theory” supposed that there must be, and has always been, a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon. (The mudsill is the lowest layer that supports the foundation of a building.) James Henry Hammond, a wealthy Southern plantation owner, described this theory to justify what he saw as the willingness of the non-whites to perform menial work: Their labor enabled the higher classes to move civilization forward. In this view, any efforts toward class or racial equality ran counter to this theory and therefore ran counter to civilization itself.

Southern proslavery theorists asserted that slavery prevented any such attempted movement toward equality by elevating all free people to the status of “citizen” and removing the landless poor (the “mudsill”) from the political process entirely. That is, those who would most threaten the democratic society’s economic stability and political harmony were not allowed to undermine it because they were not allowed to participate in it. In the mindset of proslavery men, therefore, slavery protected the common good of slaves, masters, and society as a whole.

In 1837, John C. Calhoun gave a speech in the U.S. Senate advocating the “positive good” theory of slavery, declaring that slavery was, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Theorists of “positive good” believed that slavery, with its strict and unchanging social hierarchy, made for a more stable society than that of the Northern states, where wage laborers of diverse backgrounds engaged actively in democratic politics.

These arguments asserted the rights of the propertied elite against what were perceived to be threats from abolitionists, lower classes, and non-whites to gain higher standards of living. John C. Calhoun and other pre-Civil War Democrats used these theories in their proslavery rhetoric as they struggled to maintain their grip on the Southern economy. They saw the abolition of slavery as a threat to their new, powerful Southern market, a market that revolved almost entirely around the plantation system and was supported by the use of black slavery.

William Joseph Harper

William Joseph Harper (1790–1847) was a jurist, politician, and social and political theorist from South Carolina. He is best remembered as an early representative of proslavery thought. His “Memoir on Slavery,” first given as a lecture in 1838, established Harper as a leading proponent of the notion that slavery was not in fact a necessary evil but rather a positive social good.

Portrait of William Harper

Senator William Harper: Senator William Harper is best remembered as an early representative of proslavery thought. He argued that slavery was not in fact a necessary evil but rather a positive social good.

Harper advanced several philosophical, racial, and economic arguments on behalf of slavery, but his central idea was that “slavery anticipates the benefits of civilization and retards the evils of civilization.” Harper’s assessment of other nations around the world confirmed this point of view. Non-slaveholding civilizations in northern climates, such as Great Britain, were fractured by inequality, political radicalism, and other dangers. Meanwhile, non-slaveholding civilizations in more southerly areas, such as Spain, Italy, and Mexico, were rapidly slipping into “degeneracy and barbarism.” Only the slaveholding Southern United States, Brazil, and Cuba were seen as making “favorable progress.”

As did nearly every other defender of slavery before 1840, Harper nominally conceded that slavery, at an abstract level, did constitute a sort of (necessary) moral evil. Yet his strong, positive emphasis on the social and economic benefits of the institution separate him from the weaker apologists for slavery of earlier decades.

Plain Folk of the Old South

The “Plain Folk of the Old South” were a middling class of white farmers who occupied a social rung between rich planters and poor whites.

Learning Objectives

Identify the “Plain Folk of the Old South”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The “Plain Folk of the Old South” owned land, were subsistence farmers, and owned few or no slaves.
  • These farmers often are referred to as “yeomen,” a term that emphasizes an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.
  • Historians have long debated the social, economic, and political roles of Southern classes.
  • “Plain Folk” supported secession to defend their families, homes, notions of liberty, and beliefs in racial hierarchies.
  • Historians argue that a distinctive Southern political ideology blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism.

Key Terms

  • yeoman farmer: A free man who owned his own farm, especially during the Elizabethan era through the seventeenth century.
  • agrarian: A person who advocates the political interests of working farmers.
  • secession: The act of seceding from the union.

The “Plain Folk of the Old South” were white subsistence farmers who occupied a social rung between rich planters and poor whites in the Southern United States before the Civil War. These farmers tended to settle in backcountry, and most of them were Scotch-Irish American and English American or a mixture thereof. They owned land, generally did not raise commodity crops, and owned few or no slaves. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats preferred to refer to these farmers as “yeomen”  because the term emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.

Historians have long debated how large this group was and how much influence its members exerted on Southern politics in the antebellum period, particularly why and to what extent these farmers were willing to support secession despite their typically not being slaveholders themselves. Frederick Law Olmsted (a Northerner who traveled throughout and wrote about the 1850s South) and historians such as William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips considered common Southerners as minor players in Southern antebellum social, economic, and political life. Twentieth-century romantic portrayals of the antebellum South, especially Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1937) and the 1939 film adaptation, mostly ignored the role yeomen played. The nostalgic view of the South emphasized the elite planter class of wealth and refinement who controlled large plantations and numerous slaves.

The first edition cover of Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind

Twentieth-century romantic portrayals of the antebellum South, such as Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1937) and the 1939 film adaptation, mostly ignored the role of yeomen.

The major challenge to the view of planter dominance came from historian Frank Lawrence Owsley’s book, Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). His work ignited a long historiographical debate. Plain Folk argued that yeoman farmers played a significant role in Southern society during this era rather than being sidelined by a dominant aristocratic planter class. The religion, language, and culture of these common people comprised a democratic “Plain Folk” society. Critics say Owsley overemphasized the size of the Southern landholding middle class and overlooked a large class of poor whites who owned neither land nor slaves. Owsley believed that shared economic interests united Southern farmers; critics suggest the vast difference in economic classes between the elite and subsistence farmers meant they did not have the same values or outlook.

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Orville Vernon Burton classifies white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite. A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was less distinct. Stephanie McCurry argues that yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of real property (i.e., land). Yeomen were “self-working farmers,” distinct from the elite because they physically labored on their land alongside any slaves they owned. Planters with numerous slaves had work that was essentially managerial, and often they supervised an overseer rather than the slaves themselves.

Nevertheless, the very presence of slaves throughout the American South fostered white unity despite economic disparities. In a speech before the U.S. Senate in 1858, South Carolina senator and planter, James Henry Hammond, demonstrated this logic by arguing that slaves comprised, “the very mud-sill of society,” or a bottom supportive layer to a class system delineated across racial lines.

Though Southern society was dominated by a planter elite, “Plain Folk” supported secession to defend their families, homes, notions of liberty, and beliefs in racial hierarchies. Historians argue that a distinctive Southern political ideology blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism.