I.  The Old South refers to the period between 1790s & 1860 when gradually, Southerners develop a self-conscious identity as members of a distinctive region


A. The most distinctive feature of the Old South--Southerners condoned slavery at a time it was under attack everywhere else in the Western "civilized" world


1. in 1775 it was found all thru the U.S.
2. by 1800, it was gone from the North & the  importation of slaves  was banned  in 1808

3. all over Europe, slavery was condemned 

4. but in the American  South, slavery was a very profitable venture

B. The Economy of the Old South was based on "king cotton" in the antebellum years because:  

1.  British textiles industry boomed, as did industry in the north

2.  in 1793, the invention of the cotton gin made cotton easier to process: a slave could gin 50 lbs. of cotton per day

3. the removal of Indians opened up lots of fertile land 

C. A cotton economy pushed the institution of slavery  westward into the old Southwest (Alabama & Mississippi)


1. The number of slaves grew substantially

a. a 70% increase from 1790 to 1810;

b. then the # of slaves tripled again from 1810 to 1860

2. Slavery covered 1/2 the American continent by the time of the Civil War

3. By 1860 the amount of money invested in slaves represented three times the amount invested in railroads and manufacturing

4. by 1860 12 wealthiest counties in US in the south

In summary, slavery was essentially an economic institution of enormous power, and it's presence in the American south made it's social and political structures very different from the north.


D. the south seemed very backwards & unprogressive to northerners    


1. lacked in public education  


a. research & development of agriculture was ahead of the north 

b. but otherwise, saw no need for universal public ed b/c southern agriculture didn't need educated work force  

c. indeed southerners discouraged an educated work force--not just for slaves but also for white workers  

d. political leaders feared they'd leave for better jobs up north--the average per capita income in the north by 1860 was $141.00; in the south it was $103.00  

2. lacked internal improvements--used rivers to ship to seaport cities

3. lacked financial structures  

a. planters were heavily dependent on financial structures in NY for credit, insurance, and trade  

4. the political structure  was an aristocracy in a democratic nation  

a. there was considerable inequality in the south, but property ownership was widespread  

b. planters dominated state governments way out of proportion to their #s, 

II. The Social and Political Structures of the Old South

A. Southern Soc Structure in 1860 was a pyramid


1. about 1/4 white families owned slaves (this was down from 36% in 1831) 

2. but a planter was someone with + 20 slaves  

a. these were about 10% of slave holders, or about 10,000 families, or  about 2% of the white population

b. only 1% of slaveholders fit owned more than 100 slaves

3. small slaveholders had from 20 to 1--most of these owned 5 or less 

4. yeomen farmers had no slaves but owned their own homes--these were 1/2 the total population

5. were some lawyers, Drs, merchants & artisans but their business depended on the slave trade

6. near the bottom of the pyramid were landless whites--unskilled workers w/o property or tenant farmers

a. roughly 25% of pop of region, but could be more in some places depending on state  

b. many were Irish who  lived in port cities  

c. often did hard labor  

d. others squatted & eked out a living in pine Barrens  

e. appeared to many to be shiftless & drunken--"white trash"  

f. but tolerated b/c southern law allowed squatting on unimproved land  

g. most were self-sufficient--didn't do wage wk for surrounding plantations b/c they liked independence of their lives  

7. there was a handful of free blacks--descendents of parents manumitted in 1780s & 90s b/c of Revolutionary War political  idealism, First Great Awakening religious convictions, and falling tobacco prices

a. some were well to do--a few of these owned slaves themselves, but  these were usually  family members bought b/c it was now illegal to free them 

b. most free blacks were very poor & marginalized 

d. many were hired farm labor or sharecroppers  

e. many free blacks were manumitted mulattos  

f. New Orleans had a community like this (See Anne Rice's novel Feast of All Saints for an interesting look at this community 

e. they had no civil rights

  B.  Southern politics were indeed aristocratic, but the political system was more complex than simple elite rule


1. it was true that planters dominated state governments,  but they found that they couldn't rule w/o the support of yeomen   

a. Planters owed their elections to non-slaveholders & frequently had to back down on economic issues such as banks

  2. there was potential for considerable class conflict over slavery

a. between 1830-60 slaveholders got greater share of southern  wealth & became fewer in #  

b. size of slaveholding population shrank from 36% of white population in 1831 to 25% in 1860  

c. some poorer whites wanted the international slave trade re-opened so the price of slaves would drop 

d. but most planters wanted to limit the number of folks who could join their ranks

3. so why was there not more class conflict over these gaps in wealth and power ?

a. poorer whites hoped to become planters and assumed they could with hard work, despite evidence to the contrary

b. white leaders played the race card--told poor whites they may be poor but at least they weren't black 

c. emancipation seen as leading to race war

4. the most powerful force for retarding change in the economic and social structures of the south, however, was the pro-slavery argument: according to this, slavery is not a necessary evil but a positive good:  

a. ancient civilizations w/ great refinement were built on slavery --southerners passion for the ancient world is seen in place names like Athens, GA, Sparta, TN, etc.

b. the north had an exploitive labor system--the strong exploited the weak;

whereas in the south they protected the weak    

c. churches joined in supporting this argument after 1831, arguing that whites had a Christian duty to elevate their inferiors--black people--by allowing them to learn Christian virtues like humility & self-control  


d. moreover, blacks were cursed by God with their black skin--they were the sons of Cain, who was marked by God for killing Able and his descendents  were destined to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" 

e. southern  churches increasingly attacked northern evangelicals on this issue until 2 denominations split: in 1844 Methodists split into northern and southern and in 1845 the Baptists also split  

In summary, let's read the words of George Fitzhugh, a writer from Virginia, was the most popular writer regarding slavery. The following excerpts are from his pamphlet entitled "Sociology For The South" published in 1850:


...slaves are always dependent, never the rivals of their master. Hence, though men are often found at variance with wife or children, we never saw one who did not like his slaves, and rarely a slave who was not devoted to his master. 'I am thy servant !' ...dependence is a tie of affection, that the relation of master and slave is one of mutual good will.... The slave always has a home, always an interest in the proceeds of the soil.... 


At the slaveholding South all is peace, quiet, plenty and contentment. We have no mobs, no trades unions, no strikes for higher wages, no armed resistance to the law, but little jealousy of the rich by the poor. We have but few in our jails, and fewer in our poor houses. We produce enough of the comforts and necessaries of life for a population three or four times as numerous as ours. We are wholly exempt from the torrent of pauperism, crime, agrarianism, and infidelity which Europe is pouring from her jails and alms houses on the already crowded North. Population increases slowly, wealth rapidly....Wealth is more equally distributed than at the North, where a few millionaires own most of the property of the country.