Ante-Bellum South

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Definition [?]
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.

The Ante-Bellum South comprised the slave states before the American Civil War started in 1861. The social history is considered in terms of large plantations with more than 20 slaves that grew cotton and other crops for export, and the "plain folk", who owned few or no slaves.

Plantation System

The ante-bellum economy was dominated by plantations owned by rich white families and using slave labor. Historians define a plantation as having 20 or more slaves (of all ages). Cotton was the main crop in a broad swath (called the "Black Belt") that included most of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Other plantations grew tobacco (in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Kentucky), hemp (Kentucky and Missouri), rice (South Carolina) or sugar (Louisiana). Most slaves were owned by plantations, and slave culture has been extensively studied. The great majority of whites did NOT live on plantations, and farmed on a smaller scale or on a subsistence scale. The plantation South had few large cities; the most notable were Charleston, SC, and Natchez, Mississippi. In general the plantation owners invested all their profits in new lands and new slaves.

The system survived the Civil War, as the emanciapted Freedmen continued to work on plantation land, as hired hands, tenents or sharecroppers. Aiken (1998) notes the plantation after 1865 had scattered sharecropper huts (compared to concentrated location before). There were few towns so plantation owners provided a crossroads central place that provided a "furnish" store (to advance tenants seed, tools, food staples, against their share of the harvest) and other town-like services. The blacks set up their own Baptist and Methodist churches; the preachers became both religious and political leaders.

The system of cotton plantations collapsed in the 1940s as cotton picking machines drastically reduced the need for labor.[1]

18th century

Most of the scholarshup deals with 1810-1860. However archaeologists and historians have recovered new evidence regarding 18th century plantations.[2] Thomas Jefferson's parents operated Shadwell, a plantation in the 1740-70 period. The Jeffersons led lives of comparative cultural refinement, although Shadwellwas at the extreme western edge of the Virginia frontier. They created a personal "island" of gentrified culture in the Piedmont region, a homestead that virtually replicated the finer domestic accommodations and routines as well as "institutional structures, patterns of slaveholding and agriculture, and slave life" existing in the eastern Tidewater region at the time. Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas) was a successful planter, slaveholder, surveyor, and government officeholder. Jane (the mother of Thomas) was the educated daughter of a successful merchant; they shared a value system that focused their energy and talents on financial success and acquiring status. Shadwell's proximity to the Rivanna River, physical layout, main house and outbuilding construction, household furnishings, and the documentary record of the family's domestic and business activities reveal an extraordinary blend of rugged individualism and the social expectations of the planter class.

Plantation Historiography

Anderson (2005) shows that after the Civil War a wave of nostalgia created an image of the plantation South that endured for a century, most notably typified in the novel and movie, "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Memoirs and fiction by former white plantation residents indicate "that nostalgia occurs most forcibly after a profound split in remembered events and experiences." These literary strategies "reveal a potent change in elite white southern consciousness after the Civil War." By 1900, plantation reminiscences that described the Old South as a place of wealth, self-sufficiency, honor, hospitality, and happy master-slave relationships had gained regional, national, and international popularity. The nostalgic memories of Southerners helped them triumph over defeat and create a sense of continuity with the splintered past.

Serious scholarship began in 1900 with [[Ulrich Bonnell Phillips]. He studied slavery not so much as a political issue between North and South but as a social and economic system. He focused on the large plantations that dominated the South.

Phillips's addressed the unprofitability of slave labor and slavery's ill effects on the southern economy. Phillips systematically hunted down and opened plantation and other southern manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods inspired the "Phillips school" of slavery studies between 1900 and 1950.

Phillips argued that large-scale plantation slavery was inefficient and not progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power, that is, Slave Power).

Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well and his views were rejected most sharply by neoabolitionist historian Kenneth M. Stampp in the 1950s. However, Marxist historian Eugene Genovese revived many of Phillips' ideas in the 1960s. Phillips' economic conclusions about the decline of slavery were challenged by Robert Fogel in the 1960s, who argued that slavery was both efficient and profitable as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn Fogel came under attack.

Plain folk of the South

see Plain Folk of the Old South

The Plain Folk of the Old South, often called yeomen, were the middling white Southerners before 1860 who owned few slaves or none. The term has been extended to include the poor and middling whites in the South into the early 20th century. Historians have long debated the social, economic and political roles. Terms used by scholars include "common people", "yeomen" and "Crackers." The term favored in Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy was "yeoman", which emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.

From the travel accounts of Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1850s through the early-twentieth-century interpretations of historians William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips, common southerners were portrayed as minor players in the antebellum period.

Romantic portrayals, especially Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1937) and its 1939 film ignored them. Novelist Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, portrayed the degraded condition of whites dwelling beyond the great plantations.

Owsley as historian of Plan Folk

The major challenge came from historian Frank Lawrence Owsley in Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). It ignited a long historiographical debate. Owsley started with the writings of Daniel R. Hundley who in 1860 had defined the southern middle class as "farmers, planters, traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, a few manufacturers, a goodly number of country school teachers, and a host of half-fledged country lawyers, doctors, parsons, and the like." To find these people Owsley turned to the name-by-name files on the manuscript federal census. Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South, says Vernon Burton, is, one of the most influential works on southern history ever written. Using their own newly invented codes they turned into data bases the manuscript federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. Plain Folk argued that southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role in it. The religion, language, and culture of these common people created a democratic "plain folk" society. Critics say he overemphasized the size of the southern landholding middle class while excluding the large class of poor landless and slaveless white southerners.[3] Owsley assumed that shared economic interests united southern farmers without considering the vast difference inherent in the planters' commercial agriculture versus the yeomen's subsistence life style.

Recent scholarship: Burton and others

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Orville Vernon Burton classified white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite.[4] A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was never very distinct. Stephanie McCurry argues, yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of land (real property). Yeomen were "self-working farmers," distinct from the elite because they worked their land themselves alongside any slaves they owned. Ownership of large numbers of slaves made the work of planters completely managerial.

Wetherington (2005) argues the plain folk (of Georgia) supported secession to defend their families, homes, and notions of white liberty. During the war the established patriarchy continued to control the home front and kept it functioning even though growing numbers of plain folk joined the new wartime poor.

Wetherington suggests that their localism and racism dovetailed with a republican ideology founded on Jeffersonian notions of an "economically independent yeomanry sharing common interests" (p. 12). Plain folk during the war raised subsistence crops and vegetables, and relied on a free and open range to hunt hogs. Before the war they became more active in the cotton and slave markets, but plain folk remained unwilling to jeopardize their self-sufficiency and the stability of their neighborhoods for the economic interests of planters.

The soldiers had their own reasons for fighting. First and foremost, they sought to protect hearth and home from Yankee threats. White supremacy and masculinity depended on slavery, which Lincoln's Republicans threatened. Plain folk concepts of masculinity explains why so many men enlisted: they wanted to be worthy of the privileges of men, including the affections of female patriots. (p. 145). By March 1862, the piney woods region had a 60 percent enlistment rate, comparable to that found in planter areas.

As the war dragged on, hardship became a way of life; Wetherington reports that enough men remained home to preserve the paternalistic social order, yet there were too few to prevent mounting deprivation. Wartime shortages increased the economic divide between planters and yeoman farmers; nevertheless, some planters took seriously their paternalistic obligations by selling their corn to plain folks at the official Confederate rate "out of a spirit of patriotism." (p. 171). Wetherington's argument weakens other scholars' suggestions that class conflict led to Confederate defeat. More damaging to Confederate nationalism was the localism that grew as areas had to fend for themselves as Sherman's forces came nearer. During Reconstruction, plain folk viewed freedmen as the greatest affront and humiliating symbol of Yankee victory, so they turned their hatred against Carpetbaggers (Republicans from the North) and refused to tolerate Scalawags (white Republicans from the South).


Primary sources

  • Phillips, Ulrich B. ed. Plantation and Frontier Documents, 1649-1863; Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial and Antebellum South: Collected from MSS. and Other Rare Sources. 2 Volumes. (1909). vol 1 online and vol 2 online


  1. See Virts (2006); Aiken (1998) notes plantations never entirely disappeared.
  2. See Isaac (2004) and Kern (2005)
  3. Hyde (2005)
  4. Burton (1985)