Putting It Together: The Antebellum South

Slavery was most prevalent in the antebellum South where it was seen as an integral component of the booming agricultural economy, and by extension, central to the health of the U.S. economy overall. Many proponents of slavery argued that the system protected enslaved persons, their enslavers, and society as a whole. Some “positive good” theorists such as John C. Calhoun believed that slavery was a more stable system than those found in free states, where the full involvement of lower classes in politics and civic society was viewed as chaotic and destabilizing. Still other theorists, in particular William Joseph Harper, argued that slavery was a positive social good rather than a necessary evil.

Historians have long debated the impact of the middling class of White farmers (sometimes referred to as the “Plain Folk of the Old South”) on the political/ideological conflict over slavery. The Plain Folk were subsistence farmers, commonly referred to as “yeomen,” who owned land but few or no enslaved persons. Though the Plain Folk did not rely upon slavery as an institution in the same way upper-class planters did, they tended to share in a distinctive Southern political ideology that blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism. As a result, many supported secession from the Union as a means to defend their families, homes, notions of liberty, and beliefs in racial hierarchy.

Abolition movements grew in opposition to what many did view as an evil institution. By 1805, most Northern states had abolished slavery, and slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers who favored gradual abolition as a means of stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists whose demands for unconditional emancipation merged with a concern for African American civil rights.

By 1776, approximately eight percent of African Americans were free. By 1810, 4 percent of African Americans in the South and 75 percent in the North were free. This growing demographic of free people of color, whether recently freed or born into freedom, found their civil and political rights routinely restricted based upon the color of their skin. For instance, blackface minstrelsy, which portrayed African Americans in stereotyped, troubling ways, is considered by many to be the first distinctly American theatrical art form. White actors often performed minstrel shows while wearing “blackface,” or exaggerated black makeup. The shows portrayed Black men as stupid and lazy and Black women as rotund and genial. For several decades, and despite their strong racist overtones, these shows provided the lens through which White Americans viewed Black Americans. Nonetheless, many families of free Black people achieved measures of wealth and societal participation, owning property, paying taxes, publishing newspapers, and in some Northern states, voting.

The laws in enslaver states, including slave codes that were established for the purpose of defining the status of the enslaved and the rights of their owners, left enslaved people who were treated unfairly without defense or recourse. Nonetheless, many enslaved people resisted via peaceful methods, such as through their use of African music, dance, language, religious practices, noncompliance, and familial support. Some resisted by inciting rebellions or plotting escape. The Underground Railroad, formed in the early nineteenth century as a network of abolitionists and sympathizers who provided safe passage to escaping slaves, is one such example of resistance. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the Railroad.

The antebellum South was a place of incredible wealth and unbearable oppression and misery. The roughly 25% of White southerners who owned enslaved workers helped create a culture that made it both acceptable and desirable to own other human beings. This culture of entitlement and wealth laid the groundwork for the Civil War that would start in 1861 in the name of states’ rights.