|AMERICAN ECONOMIC GROWTH 1820-1860
Part 4: The Economy of the South
The Cotton South: By the middle of the 19th century the United States was developing a national market economy marked by inter-regional dependence. Although there was substantial industrial development in the South, including the famous Tredegar ironworks in Richmond, the southern economy remained primarily agricultural. Cotton was king in the Deep South, but the Upper South produced tobacco and wheat and a growing diversity of other crops. In addition, the existence of slavery in the South affected immigration patterns, as workers coming from Europe, who were often poor and willing to work for minimum wages, believed that competing with slave labor in the South would not be to their advantage. There was plenty of work to be done in the North and Midwest, as the economy expanded, but the growth of the slave population in the South meant that an over abundance of labor existed in parts of the South. In wide areas where slavery is prevalent, the slave population often outnumbered the white.
The social distinctions in the South that were products of the slave system were sharply differentiated. Certain myths existed, for example that the kind "massa" oversaw conditions where contented "darkies" lived tolerable lives. At the peak of white society were gallant young men and radiant southern belles who lived in comfort as a result of the wealth generated by their slaves. At the other end of the spectrum were what was referred to as poor white trash, dirt poor farmers scratching out a living in the clay soil of the hills. Those poor whites, non-slave owners, were reduced to ignorance and degeneracy by the slave system, according to some. The wealth of the South it was felt was based on human exploitation. And there is no question that life on the slave plantation was distressing. Slave women were exploited sexually, slave men were subject to beatings for little because, white women suffered in silence, as they were often more sympathetic to the plight of the slaves than were their masters, and although the myth of contented black men and women persisted for many defenders of the slave system, the fact was that most slaves yearned for freedom.
Not unlike the earlier northern farms, which were often mini-factories, the southern plantation often resembled a small village. A sexual division of labor was less evident in the South and in the north, and southern women had immense responsibilities on the plantation, especially where slave labor on smaller plantations had to be augmented by the labor of the owning family. Both slave men and women worked as field hands, and slave children generally began working in the fields at about the age of ten.
The impact of cotton on the South was enormous. In1810 the South had as much manufacturing as the north, but because the return on investment in slaves and cotton was enormous, and bore very little risk, the impetus for expansion once efficient means of producing cotton appeared was significant. Before the invention of the cotton gin, slavery was declining in parts of the South. 17 in the80s and 1790s slavery was on the decline, as 10,000 slaves were freed in Virginia during those decades. Whitney's cotton gin which appeared in seventeen ninety-three changed all that. There was a need for cash crops, and cotton brought instant cash, not only in the textile mills of the North, but in the textile mills of England and elsewhere in Europe.
Although much of the wealth generated by the cotton industry remained in the South, Northerners also profited substantially from the cotton boom. The North became the middleman for the South, overseeing insurance needs, transport and marketing. Despite its year in year out economic success, there were down periods. In eighteen nineteen a panic soft prices of cotton in Liverpool sink to low levels. Some of that was blamed on the banks who handle the financing for much of the cotton trade, but market forces also were a factor.
Land speculation also produced economic upheavals. Laws governing the sale of land were based on an 1800 statute, which soon became outmoded. Nevertheless the voracious appetite of British and French textile mills created what became known as King Cotton. The South produced a hundred and fifty thousand bales of cotton in1812, and by 1860 that number had risen to 3.8 million bales. Alongside the cotton industry the production of livestock procceded apace, as cttle, sheep, hogs and horses balalnced the Aouthern economy to a large extent.
As the cotton culture spread westward, slavery strengthened its hold on the South. The demand for slaves was greatest in the Deep South, and the Upper South sold its slaves "down the river" at ever higher prices. Slave trading was a lucrative business, but it sometimes led to the breakup of slave families. As the price of slaves increased, only wealthy southerners could afford to buy them, so by 1860 only one- quarter of southern families owned slaves. Slavery was profitable, but it kept southern capital from being invested in trade and manufacturing. Thus, northern business firms handled the marketing of the southern cotton crop. At bottom, slavery was a stagnant and inefficient labor system that wasted talent and energy.
ANTEBELLUM PLANTATION LIFE. A plantation resembled a small village. Sexual division of labor was less evident in the South than in the North, and southern women had immense responsibilities on the plantation. Both slave men and women worked as field hands. Slave children typically went to the fields around age ten.
THE PLANTATION SYSTEM:
SOUTHERN INDUSTRY: Diversification as salvation
WHITE SOCIETY IN THE SOUTH