Plantation, The

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


"The plantation" figures among American icons. Like "the cowboy" or "the New England village," both the word itself and the imagery associated with it seem to tell something fundamental about being American. One element is stability, projected in the balanced architecture of the great plantation houses that line the James River in Virginia, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in South Carolina, or the Mississippi and its lower tributaries. A second element is patriarchal hierarchy. Plantations require planters, and all plantations were organized around the principle that their planters presided over communities with no pretense at equality. White and black alike, a plantation's denizens occupied different rungs on a social ladder, with the planter at the top. A third element is remoteness from the driven, ceaseless transformations of the capitalist world.

Planters carefully cultivated such imagery. The emergence of a permanent, resident planter class had a great deal to do with early Virginia's transformation from a violent, volatile society to a place where white people's lives could be comfortable and stable. Virginia planters developed ways of imposing themselves on the land and on the land's other inhabitants that provided a social template from Chesapeake Bay to east Texas. The notion that the southern ruling class was descended from the cavaliers of Stuart England and that it carried their gracious ways to America acquired great cultural strength and is not completely dead.

Unlike their West Indian counterparts, who often lived in England rather than on their plantations, North American planters tended to be resident. That meant committing themselves to their own communities—a commitment that bore fruit when they persuaded large numbers of nonplanters to go to war in 1861 in order to protect the planters' way of life. To that extent, the received imagery of plantations as organic communities has an element of truth. But for the most part the reality was otherwise. From their beginning, plantations were in fact part of the emerging capitalist world, partaking of all that world's capacity for disruption, profit seeking, and change. Never was that more true than in the early nineteenth century.

The historian Peter Wood has suggested that, whatever their degree of refinement, plantations are best described as "slave labor camps." Robin Blackburn has pointed out that, in its combination of race as a sign of permanent degradation, slavery as a condition of life and work, and large-scale production for distant markets, "the slave plantation complex" of the Western Hemisphere was unique in the history of the Western economy. Any resemblance to the manors of England or mainland Europe was superficial.

plantations in a booming republic

The conventional criterion for planter status was the ownership of at least twenty slaves. This was the minimum number necessary to relieve the owner and the owner's family of manual field work. A planter with a slave force of that size was not able to maintain anything like the grand style of conventional plantation imagery. Rather than a "big house," such a person probably occupied a dwelling of only moderate refinement. Rather than a small army of "house slaves," there might be one slave adult and a few slave children to aid in domestic work, and even they would be dispatched to the fields

at sowing or harvest time. Even a very large operation, such as Pierce Butler's rice plantation in 1830s Georgia, might lack most of the symbols of refinement, as Butler's English wife Frances Kemble found when she insisted on visiting it in 1837.

Prior to American independence plantations were characteristic of two separate zones, the tobacco-growing Chesapeake and the rice and indigo-growing Carolina and Georgia lowlands. These were very different places. Tobacco planting meant dividing slaves into separate "quarters" of about twenty-five slaves, the number depending on the size of the holding. The characteristics of the crop required gang labor. By the middle of the eighteenth century the Chesapeake no longer needed the African slave trade to sustain and grow its servile population. Carolina, however, required the trade because of the more demanding conditions of the rice crop and lowland life. Holdings in the rice zone tended to be much larger, in terms of slave numbers, than in the tobacco zone. Because periodic flooding renewed the soil, rice planters, their families, and their slave forces stayed in one place. Slaves generally worked under the task system, which limited a day's work and allowed the possibility of free time.

After independence, however, "the South" emerged. The major reason was three new slave crops: hemp, in Kentucky; sugar, in southernmost Louisiana; and, foremost, cotton, because of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Prior cotton production was limited to the sea islands of the Georgia and Carolina coast, where the long-staple variety could thrive. Long-staple seeds are easily separable from the lint, but the short-staple variety that could grow inland was another matter. Production shot up, from 10,000 bales the year Whitney invented the gin to 209,000 in 1815, when the European wars of the French Revolution finally ended. Now England's mills and the emergent mills of the American Northeast could take all the cotton that the South's plantations could produce. In 1830 the total reached 732,000 bales, with far larger totals to come.

Some of this ever-burgeoning crop came from small farms that produced a few bales for cash income. Most came from plantations, as the Cotton Kingdom spread across South Carolina and Georgia, Alabama, into Mississippi, and beyond the Mississippi River. Most of these took shape on formerly public land, which their owners bought as Indians lost it, cleared with slave labor, and put into production with a view to catching a rising market.

the spread of plantations and the trade in slaves

Opening a plantation required capital, for purchasing land, for buying equipment and machinery, and often for purchasing slaves. Some cotton plantations amounted to far-flung branches of existing enterprises, as the younger generation of a tobacco or rice family took part of an older slave force westward onto new land. But expanding the plantation South required a lively slave trade. Most of the founding states banned the African slave trade after the American Revolution, but at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia the Constitution forbade Congress to do so until 1808. South Carolina reopened the legal African trade in 1804.

What followed was not peripheral to the story of forced African migration to North America but rather a major part of it. The historian James McMillin estimates that about 170,000 enslaved Africans entered the United States after the Revolution, nearly double the previously accepted figure. The demand for these people came directly from the rapid growth of plantation agriculture. An illegal trade from Africa went on after Congress's ban, both to serve small farmers who wanted to become planters and to meet the needs of cotton and sugar production.

Congress did act to close the trade as soon as the Constitution permitted. But unlike the British West Indies, where the plantation economy began to die when Parliament closed the trade about the same time, the plantation system in the American South grew and prospered. As soon as the trade in enslaved Africans dropped off, a trade in American-born slaves began to flourish. Between 1790 and 1799 most came from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, where the pre-Revolutionary tobacco economy was yielding to the production of wheat, a crop that required less labor. By 1820 the two Carolinas and Kentucky also were exporting slaves. Some traveled by coastal vessel to Mobile or New Orleans, others overland to the Southwest in coffles. Between 1810 and 1829, when Alabama was opening up to cotton production, it imported roughly 90,000 slaves. During the same two decades Virginia exported more than 150,000. The expansion of the plantation system required the forced disruption of slaves' lives on a massive scale.

Either way, the experience emulated what the slaves' ancestors had undergone leaving Africa. The original trade underpinned the founding of the Western Hemisphere slave plantation complex. The domestic trade underpinned the expansion of that complex across the southern United States. In the Louisiana sugar zone, the demography of the trade was much the same as it had been to the sugar regions of the West Indies and Brazil. Sugar planters wanted young males whom they could work at a very hard pace. In the colonial-era West Indies the combination of cheap African slaves, a tropical disease environment, and high profits on sugar had created a demographic catastrophe. Planters brought in slaves and worked them to death. Jamaica imported about one million Africans over that period. But it had a population of only about 300,000 in 1800. Louisiana sugar production was demanding, but the high price of slaves gave planters an incentive to treat them better.

But both in the sugar region and on the cotton frontier, the early stages of plantation expansion were likely to lead to a skewed population structure, with adolescents and young adults heavily over-represented. Census records of the mid-nineteenth century, which make comparative analysis possible, show that this was particularly so in highly fertile areas close to water transport, where land values were high and where high productivity could be expected. Planters moved into such areas in the 1850s in order to grow as much cotton as possible as fast as possible, not to create patriarchal communities. There is no reason to think that the cotton frontier thirty years earlier was different. Slaves being moved by the domestic slave trade into the cotton zone did have one advantage over Africans: they moved in roughly equal numbers of males and females, which permitted the founding of families, assuming that a couple was not separated by a subsequent move. In 1830 white men outnumbered white women in Alabama, 100,846 to 89,560, but the number of male slaves (59,170) and the number of female slaves (58,379) were virtually even.

planters and plain folks

Throughout the history of American slavery, the planter class formed a small proportion of slaveholders and an even smaller proportion of white society. The 1790 census is the only count that gives slave-holdings. It was taken prior to the cotton gin and it excludes Virginia, but it provides some sense of the planter class's dimensions. In South Carolina 5,657 slaveholding families had fewer than 20 slaves. Only 1,267 families had more than 20. Of these, 859 had 20 to 49 slaves; 285 had 50 to 99; 96 had 100 to 200; 21 had 200 to 300; and only 6 had more than 300. In North Carolina there were 10,122 nonplanter slaveholding families and only 804 in the planter category. Of those planters, 701 had 20 to 49 slaves; 90 had 50 to 99; 11 had 100 to 199 slaves, and 2 had more than 200.

The actual difference between a "farmer" or (as Mississipians would come to say) a "second planter" who held seventeen or eighteen slaves and a supposedly "real" planter with twenty-five slaves cannot have been great. Even a large-scale planter who intended to lead his county had to win his fellows' consent, not impose himself on them. When James Henry Hammond, who married into the South Carolina elite, returned nouveau riche from Europe in 1837, his neighbors refused to be impressed by the works of art he had acquired and by the gaudy houses he built in Columbia and on his plantation at Silver Bluff.

Whether a plantation had twenty slaves or two hundred, it is best described as a "factory in the fields." Large or small, a plantation produced much of its own food and on a large operation many other day-to-day goods as well. Fields were planted in corn, for human and animal feed, as well as in cotton or rice. This was not "mixed farming" of the sort nonslaveholders and northern free-labor farmers practiced. A plantation's purpose was to produce commercial commodities at the lowest possible cost for a highly competitive market. It required heavy investment and reinvestment in a capital market that did offer other possibilities. Really sizable planters could invest in other activities, or even out of the South. South Carolinians sponsored the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad, completed in 1833, which was the first long-distance line in the United States. Nonetheless, in the early nineteenth century, while the "Old South" was developing, plantations, their owners, and their mode of production dominated southern life, just as in the decades before the Civil War.

See alsoAgriculture: Agricultural Improvement; Agriculture: Agricultural Technology; Alabama; Cotton; Cotton Gin; Emancipation and Manumission; Georgia; Louisiana; Mississippi; North Carolina; Slavery: Slave Life; Slavery: Slave Trade, African; Slavery: Slave Trade, Domestic; South; South Carolina; Virginia .


Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

Kemble, Frances Anne. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. Edited by John A. Scott. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

McMillin, James A. The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783–1810. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Moore, John Hebron. The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Morris, Christopher. Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slave-holders. New York: Knopf, 1982; London and New York: Norton, 1998.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, 1996.

Wood, Peter H. "Slave Labor Camps in Early America: Overcoming Denial and Discovering the Gulag." In Inequality in Early America. Edited by Carla Gardina Pestana and Sharon V. Salinger. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.

Edward Countryman

More From

You Might Also Like