Living in the South
Living in the South
Stereotypes. Americans, North and South, believed that two separate cultures had grown into existence, characterized by differences in manners, principles, and outlooks on life. As the popular novelist Joseph Holt Ingraham wrcte in 1835, “There are many causes, both moral and physical, which concur to render the inhabitants of the South dissimilar to those of the North…. The difference is clearly distinguishable through all its grades and ramifications, and so strongly marked as to stamp the Southern character with traits sufficiently distinctive to be dignified with the term ‘national.’ “Out of this climate of perceived differences arose the “plantation legend,” a stereotypical view of the South that was propagated by popular writers from both regions. Minstrel songs and novels depicted the South as a land of sprawling cotton plantations, where cavaliers and their belles strolled the verandas, mint juleps in hand, and where benevolent slaveholders headed large “families” of whites and contented slaves who sang in the fields while they worked. This popular image of the South idealized its leisurely pace of life, traditions of chivalry and honor, and paternalistic relations between whites and blacks and contrasted these to the bustling North preoccupied with monetary gain.
Yeoman Farmers. The reality of the South was much different. Three-fourths of all Southern whites never owned slaves, and the majority of those who did lived on small farms rather than large plantations. Non-slaveholding families were sometimes city dwellers, but most often they were poor farmers who could not afford slave labor and instead relied on the labor of their family members for their livelihood. They also relied on their neighbors, many of whom were relatives, to help with necessary tasks such as maintaining roads and fences, bringing in crops, and building barns or houses. Corn shuckings and quilting bees, common in the North among farming families who relied on communal labor, were also prevalent among yeoman families of the South. Labor on small farms was divided by gender, with men cultivating the fields and women taking charge of the daily needs of the family by tending the gardens and dairy cattle, cooking meals, and making clothing. Because of their relative poverty and limited access to markets, such women produced up to one-half of their families’ basic needs by spinning or weaving their own cloth and making clothing, soap, and candles. If money were left over to purchase goods, a slave who could help increase the production of crops was usually the first priority.
Small Slaveholders. Despite the Southern stereotype the vast majority of slaveholders did not own plantations. In fact a large portion of the South was not suitable for plantation farming. The average slaveholder owned fewer than five slaves, lived in a log cabin, and labored alongside his slaves in the fields of his small farm. The small slaveholder, who closely resembled the yeoman farmer and probably had been one himself not long before, lived in near poverty, sometimes producing food to sell but more often than not using everything the farm produced for his family’s subsistence. Far from living lives of leisure and gentility, all members of the household—fathers, mothers, children, and slaves—labored together constantly to survive. Slaves became integral members of the household, eating the same food, performing the same work, and often sleeping in the same rooms as their masters.
Planters. While the majority of slaveholders owned only a few slaves and small farms, most of the South’s slaves were owned by planters who ran large plantations and owned more than twenty slaves. The planter class made up only about 10 percent of the South’s population but controlled 90 percent of its wealth, in the form of land and slaves. More closely resembling Europe’s landed aristocracy than the wealthy elite of the North, the Southern planters monopolized their region’s political power as well as its wealth. They viewed themselves as having a paternalistic obligation to look after the rest of society and regarded it as their duty to serve in public office; the planter class produced the South’s leading politicians. But they saw as their primary responsibility the welfare of their own families and slaves. If the head of the planter household were not in Washington or the state’s capital, his job was to supervise the management of the plantation, which was handled by his wife, overseers, and drivers. He usually set down rules for the plantation’s operation and the management of slaves. Like the average slaveholder’s household, the plantation’s population was racially mixed, although on a much larger scale. And while a few slaves might become like members of the family, most lived separately in their own quarters and worked only in the fields.
Plantations. The plantation centered around the “big house” where the slaveholding family lived and where
slaves, called house servants, performed every task necessary for the upkeep of the house and family. Slave cabins were set away from the big house, providing cramped and often unsanitary accommodations for the slaves. Many other buildings, such as barns, stables, workshops, storehouses, and sometimes infirmaries, completed the plantation, which was a self-sufficient community producing nearly all of its own food, clothing, and other necessities. The slaveholders’ mansions, as the symbol of their great wealth, often lived up to the popular image of plantations: they were elaborate mansions in the Greek Revival style, and they included parlors, ballrooms, and many guest rooms furnished with the most luxurious sofas, finely detailed mahogany tables and chairs, gilt mirrors, and pianos, all imported from Europe. But before the 1850s many planters, rather than invest their money in these luxuries, still concentrated their wealth in their slaves and livestock. Emily Burke, a New England schoolteacher who taught at a female seminary in Georgia, wrote in 1845, “I have visited plantations where the master’s residence had not a pane of glass in the windows nor a door between the apartments.”
Slaveholders’ Wives. The wives of slaveholders often carried heavy burdens, whether their husbands were small farmers or rich planters. Southern white women tended to marry earlier and bear more children than their Northern counterparts. Whether rich or poor, the Southern woman was the center of the domestic circle and was expected to conform to the ideal of the true woman who lived for others and was subservient to her husband. The wives of small farmers worked alongside their slaves, making candles, cooking, producing cloth, and making clothes, while the wives of planters were entrusted with the households’ management and often with that of the plantations while their husbands were away. The most important function of a planter’s wife was to bear and raise children to inherit the plantation and perpetuate the planter class. But she was also responsible for the food produced in the garden that would feed the household, sometimes working in the garden herself, and for the livestock raised to feed the family and slaves. She was also in charge of clothing the slaves, making sure they were cared for when sick, and distributing food staples such as corn, milk, and pork to them. She was responsible for the household budget and, in the absence of her husband, the entire plantation’s finances. But despite these many responsibilities plantation mistresses were not allowed to conduct business in the public sphere. They were still bound by conventions that restricted women’s activities.
Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982);
William J. Cooper Jr. and Thomas E. Terrill, The American South: A History (New York: Knopf, 1990);
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).