Slavery in the Antebellum South

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Slavery in the Antebellum South

In the early part of the nineteenth century, many Americans believed that the institution of slavery would soon die out of its own accord. And yet it was just about to undergo a profound change that would make it the leading factor of the economy of the antebellum (“before the war”) South, the period falling roughly between 1810 and the American Civil War (1861–65).

The cotton gin

At the end of the eighteenth century the farming economy of the South was in trouble. Many wished to convert their farms to grow cotton because England, having recently developed new machines to process cotton into cloth, would buy as much cotton as southerners could grow. But separating the fragile cotton fibers from the seed—a process known as ginning—was too time consuming and costly to make a profit on the crop. Then in 1793 inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) invented a cotton gin that could process fifty times the amount of cotton that a laborer could process in a day. With the invention of the gin, cotton suddenly became a highly profitable cash crop and there was a tremendous increase in cotton cultivation in the Deep South (the southeastern region of the United States comprised of South Carolina , Georgia , Alabama , Mississippi , and Louisiana ). U.S. cotton exports skyrocketed from about 3,000 bales in 1790 to 178,000 bales in 1810.

For southern slaves Whitney's invention was a disaster. Growing cotton required large gangs of workers moving through the fields at different times in the growing cycle, planting, hoeing, and harvesting. The new cotton economy of the South depended on a huge slave labor force.

The value of a slave

The rise in need for slaves came exactly at the time that Congress banned the Atlantic slave trade , which forbade the importation of slaves from foreign lands. Slaves suddenly became much more costly. In 1810 the price of a “prime field hand” was nine hundred dollars; by 1860 that price had doubled to eighteen hundred dollars. Despite the ban on foreign slave trade, slavery grew. By 1860 the South's investment in its slaves actually exceeded in value all its other investments, including land.

Plantations of the “Old South”

The years from 1831 to 1861, the high point of cotton plantation culture, came to be known as the classic era of the “Old South,” often depicted in popular literature with images of large plantations with pillared mansions run by aristocratic gentlemen with hundreds of slaves. In fact the vast majority of southerners at the time were struggling farmers who did not own any slaves. Of the people who did own slaves, more than half held five or fewer, and 88 percent owned twenty or fewer. Though few in number, the large plantations and their farming operations worked more than twenty slaves—and often many more—and were a major fact of life in the antebellum South. These large plantations were the “big business” of the antebellum South.

Plantations were self-sustained communities, with slave quarters, storehouses, smokehouses, barns, tools, livestock, gardens, orchards, and fields. Slave laborers usually worked in gangs. Skilled slaves worked as handymen, carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, gardeners, and domestics. Care was taken to keep as large a number of slaves as possible busy throughout the year. Owners were often absent, and overseers were paid by how much cotton they produced, not by the condition of the slaves they supervised. The larger the plantation the more highly organized it was apt to be.

Regulating slavery

Southerners lived in great fear of slave uprisings and did everything in their power to prevent their slaves from finding opportunity to discuss plans for escape or revolt. The southern states passed “slave codes,” which made it illegal for slaves to read and write, to attend church services without the presence of a white person, or to testify in court against a white person. Slaves were forbidden to leave their plantation without a written pass from their masters. Between 1810 and 1860 all southern states passed laws severely restricting the right of slave owners to free their slaves, even in a will. Free blacks were considered dangerous, for they might inspire slaves to rebel. As a consequence most southern states required that any slaves who were freed by their masters leave the state within thirty days.

To enforce the slave codes authorities established “slave patrols.” These were usually locally organized bands of young white men who rode about at night checking that slaves were securely in their quarters. They were known to abuse slaves who had permission to travel and free blacks as well, but no one stopped them because they made the white families feel more secure.

Expanding southwest

As depleted soil lowered farm productivity in states such as Virginia and South Carolina, cotton planters moved into Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee , Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida , Missouri , Texas , and Arkansas between 1790 and 1860, bringing their slaves with them. From the 1830s through the 1850s the steady shuffle of slave coffles (groups of slaves chained together) southward and westward was a common sight. These moves uprooted roughly six hundred thousand slaves. The mass migration disrupted slave families and taxed slaves with the intense work of cutting dense cane, draining swamps, building levees, and planting in the new territory.

The internal slave trade

Because it was illegal to import slaves from other countries, an internal slave trade developed among the slave states of the South. It was an ugly business and slave traders were considered the least reputable of white men. Nevertheless the southern plantation economy could prosper only because of the transfer of surplus slaves from the upper South to the plantations of the cotton-growing Deep South and Old Southwest. Two million slaves were transferred from one region to the other between 1790 and 1860.

Slave life on plantations

Life for slaves on plantations was, at best, very difficult. While many plantations were run by impersonal overseers who did not hesitate to apply the lash, some wealthy southern plantation owners viewed themselves as father figures for their slaves and took pride in treating them with kindness. People who owned smaller farms and worked alongside the slaves tended to be less brutal. Even in these circumstances, though, slaves were treated as inferior beings and denied the ability to choose their own path in life.

Most plantation managers kept a strict eye on profits. This meant that slaves received a bare minimum of the necessities of life. Food was rationed. Shoes were only provided for winter months. Slaves lived in tiny cabins with no doors or windows and very little furniture. To save space and costs, slave owners often crammed as many slaves into a cabin as possible. Sleep was kept to a minimum; work was kept at a maximum.

Slaves struggled to keep stable family relations in very difficult situations. Members of a slave family could be sold to a faraway owner and never seen again. Slave owners often raped slave women and in such cases, a woman's offspring might not be the offspring of her husband. Still most slaves placed a high value on marriage. Family and community ties were very strong under the extraordinary circumstances.

Resistance and escape

In most southern states, whites outnumbered slaves. The strict slave codes and slave patrols made it difficult to escape, and the lack of mountains and forests made it difficult to hide. Nonetheless up until the time of emancipation (freeing of the slaves) in 1863, about fifty thousand slaves a year ran away for varying lengths of time. Most of these attempts ended in tragedy. Slaves found other ways to quietly resist their bonds. They secretly slowed their pace of work, abused farm animals, pretended illness, broke tools, and stole crops, all efforts to damage the owner's business. Some slaves poisoned slaveholders, burned storehouses, escaped, and staged violent revolts.

Southern slaves were largely illiterate and many did not know that a conflict had erupted between the North and the South. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, they observed it cautiously at first. Once they understood that the war could hasten their freedom, most slaves took every opportunity to aid the Union army (the army from the North) against the South. During the war approximately five hundred thousand slaves escaped or found haven within the Union lines.

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Slavery in the Antebellum South

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Slavery in the Antebellum South