South, The

views updated May 21 2018


This entry includes 2 subentries:
The Antebellum South
The New South

The Antebellum South

If the United States possesses an official history, it is a heroic tale in which Americans struggle over numerous obstacles to advance the principles of freedom, equality, and democracy. In this story, when so told, one part of the United States, the South, has repeatedly thrown up the barriers whose removal has been necessary for the nation to achieve its destiny. In the mid-nineteenth century, such resistance caused the gravest crisis in American history, as the nation erupted into civil war. Only enormous self-sacrifice and massive carnage allowed the Union to survive and to extend its principles of freedom by abolishing slavery. With its rejection of majority rule, the antebellum South helped bring about this crisis. If for no other reason, this societythe great antagonist to the semi-official United States dreamdeserves careful scrutiny. Yet, like other Americans, antebellum southerners saw themselves as defending liberty.

Time and Place

Historically, both for the region and for the nation, there are good reasons to focus on the antebellum period, generally understood as the years from 1830 to 1860. Southern distinctiveness blossomed after 1830, as the region increasingly set itself apart from the rest of the nation in politics, economics, religion, and philosophy. Several related developments occurred around 1830 that paved the way for regional separatism. Among these events were the growth of a northern abolitionist movement, the most famous slave revolt in U.S. history, a definitive decision by Virginia to maintain slavery, and a bitter struggle over tariffs. By the early 1830s, in light of these occurrences, the South saw itself as besieged by hostile forces and organized to defend its institutions. Its philosophers increasingly pictured slavery as a positive good; its churches severed their northern connections; its politicians grew more belligerent in defense of southern rights; its people became intensely suspicious of reformist ideas. Then, to safeguard its perceived interests, to protect its distinctive way of life, and to constitute its own version of republican liberty, the South attempted to create a new nation.

Definitions of the South's geographical borders are often fluid and depend on the criteria used. Using economic measures, for example, one might define the antebellum South as the fifteen slave states. Employing a political yardstick, another definition would focus on the eleven states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy, and would thus exclude the slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Applying cultural benchmarks such as dialect and social habits, one might even include parts of some free states in a definition of the South. In essence, there was a central core of Deep South states that included most areas that joined the Confederacy and where southern distinctiveness was strongest, and there were transitional zones of southern influence to the north and west.

Inside the South there existed considerable geographic diversity. The climate was generally warm, normally well watered, but nowhere entirely frost free. In the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, the climate was cooler and the soil generally poor. Swamps and sandy tracts dotted the coastal plains and were often unsuitable for productive agriculture. Because of early frosts, cotton did not generally thrive in the Upper South, roughly the area north of central Tennessee, and the cash crop was often tobacco or wheat. On the other hand, much of the Lower South, especially the humid climate and rich black soil of the Mississippi Delta, was perfectly suited to production of enormous crops of cotton. Coastal South Carolina and Louisiana were warm enough and wet enough to support the cultivation of rice and sugar cane as well.

Plantations and the Antebellum Economy

The antebellum South was a slave society, but most white southerners owned no slaves. In 1860, slave-owning families composed roughly twenty-five percent of the region's white population. Planter families, usually defined as possessing at least twenty slaves, were much scarcer, comprising only some three percent of southern whites. Yet plantation slavery thrived in antebellum years and continued to expand westward. The key crop was cotton. The South was the world's leading producer of this commodity, which was a vital component of the global economy. Demand for cotton continued strong through the 1850s, and southern cotton fed the world's textile mills. During the 1850s, the South exported more than $100 million worth of cotton per year, comprising more than fifty percent in value of U.S. exports.

Slavery facilitated large-scale, profitable agricultural operations, providing economic opportunities not available in the free states. In most areas, farming would not support high enough wages to attract a reliable work force. Plantation owners, on the other hand, purchased their laborers, provided them with housing and sustenance, and made tidy profits. American slaves were defined as chattel, that is, as moveable property, and few legal restrictions hindered their exploitation. Not tied to the land like Russian serfs, American slaves could be relocated at the will of the owner. Owners were free to pursue economic gain even to the point of breaking up black families. In some areas, particularly in the east, slave sales were crucial to plantation profitability. Plantations enjoyed the advantage of economies of scale. They purchased supplies in bulk at low prices and produced a large enough crop to make money, even if profit per unit was relatively low. Though concentrating on cash crops like cotton, plantations often produced much of their own food and thus reduced overhead expenses. On several levels, then, a plantation was a rational and profitable business investment.

Although there were many variations, plantation management was often quite efficient. Planters used positive incentives to motivate their workers, such as prizes for the most cotton picked or for the most corn shucked. Also present was the negative incentive of the whip. Most cotton plantations used the gang system of labor management in which groups of slaves, often twenty or so, worked systematically at a task throughout the day under supervision of an overseer. Rice-growing areas typically used the task system in which slaves were assigned a specific amount of work per day and toiled with minimal supervision. When the task was finished, the workday ended. In both systems, men and women worked the fields, but men generally did heavy jobs like plowing and women such domestic chores as sewing.

Plantation slavery was a distinctive way of life, not simply a business proposition. Other investment opportunities were available in the South that yielded greater returns than did plantations. For example, southern industrialists, such as William Gregg of South Carolina, often earned higher profits operating factories than planters did farming. But because the southern social ideal was to become a planter, most investment capital nonetheless flowed into agriculture. Even those who made their money as merchants or manufacturers often invested their profits in land and slaves. Most importantly, the relationship between master and slave was qualitatively different than between employer and wage earner. The slave owner invested not just in labor time but in the actual laborer. At least in theory, he had a vested interest in maintaining the health and welfare of the worker, to an extent that employers of hired workers did not. Plantation owners directed the work of slaves but also claimed to safeguard them in sickness and old age. They sometimes equated their role as master with that of a father caring for dependent family members. Many avoided the image of the hard-charging capitalist and embraced the role of manorial lord.

Slavery was a relatively adaptable labor system whose use was not confined to large plantations. On small farms, it was common for slaves to work in the fields beside their owners. Other slaves were rented out, providing cash income for slave owners. Some slaves hired out their own time, receiving wages and remitting a portion to their masters. Industrial concerns used both slave labor and free labor, and slaves worked in iron foundries, textile mills, mines, saw mills, and steamboats. Southern industry developed more slowly than industry in the northern states, but compared with most countries, including many in Europe, the antebellum South experienced substantial industrial growth, including construction of an extensive railway system.

By 1860, the region was one of the wealthier areas of the world, and its per capita income had increased rapidly for the previous twenty years. Relative abundance was widespread and even trickled down to slaves. Slaves ate plain food, mostly corn and pork, but these staples were often supplemented with garden vegetables, fish, and wild game, a diet that provided plentiful energy and sufficient nutrition. Clothing and housing were not luxurious but generally were not much worse than those of poor whites. In material terms, slaves in the antebellum South had a higher standard of living than did many ordinary folk in other countries, much higher, for example, than the standard of living of eastern European peasants.

Meanwhile, the majority of southern whites were neither rich nor poor. Most lived in families headed by yeoman farmers who possessed land but no slaves. Such farmers often practiced an agriculture designed to produce sufficiency and to minimize economic risk rather than to maximize profits. Most of their cultivated land went into food crops, such as corn and sweet potatoes, but they also raised pigs and cattle. Yeomen grew cotton and tobacco to supplement these foodstuffs and thus generated cash to purchase commodities they could not themselves produce. Achieving partial self-sufficiency through this balanced style of farming, yeomen families possessed a degree of independence from market fluctuations.

The People

Some nine million people lived in the eleven states that joined the Confederacy in 1861, and slaves made up about 40 percent of the population. Compared to the rest of the nation, the antebellum South was overwhelmingly rural, as the vast majority of blacks and whites engaged in agriculture. Of the ten largest cities in the United States in 1860, only New Orleans and Baltimore were located within the region. Immigrants tended to avoid the South because wage-paying jobs were scarce. Nonetheless, there were some immigrants, especially Irish refugees, who settled in cotton ports such as Savannah. The region's population continued to grow, quite rapidly in western areas such as Texas, and more slowly in the East, but its population did not increase as rapidly as in the free states. As the South grew more distinctive, its status as a minority within the Union became clearer.

Southern white society had numerous class divisions. Its big planters were among the wealthiest of all Americans, while some ten percent of white families possessed no land and little other property. In economic terms, most whites stood somewhere between these extremes as members of the yeoman order. Clashes and resentments existed, but several factors mitigated class conflict. In a growing economy, upward social mobility was possible and poorer whites of ten sought to emulate rather than to denigrate planters. Planters shared interpersonal connections with other whites, including kinship, commodity exchanges, and church membership. Common identity as citizens and free men also tied whites together. In contradistinction to slaves, white men defined themselves as independent agents, and even if poor, tended to be little patriarchs who professed to rule their wives and children.

Such men zealously guarded their social reputations, and a violent code of masculine honor thrived in the region. Free men were expected to avoid public humiliation and to resent insults. For many elites, protecting one's honor meant fighting duels. Although dueling was generally illegal and many southerners denounced it, a number of the South's antebellum social and political leaders did fight on the field of honor. Poorer men resorted to knives or fists. The roots of this honor code are partly traceable to Celtic practices brought to America by ancestors of antebellum southerners. But the physical force necessary to maintain slavery, which inured many whites to violence, and the determination of white men to avoid the appearance of servility, contributed mightily to survival of the honor ethic in the South.

Amidst this intensely patriarchal society, southern women carved out fruitful and fulfilling lives. Most white women labored rigorously at household tasks including child rearing, cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Plantation mistresses possessed some leisure, but they also worked hard at supervising servants and nursing sick children. Even more than in the rest of the United States, the lives of southern women were closely linked to the household. Wage-earning opportunities were fewer than in northern states. There was little separation between office and home, as the locus of agricultural production remained in the household. Although free white women sometimes complained about loneliness and hard work, few were neo-abolitionists, itching to escape white male domination. Sharing the racial suppositions of their society and enjoying the advantages of property and freedom, most tended to identify with husbands and fathers, not with slaves.

Even in trying conditions of servitude and racial oppression, African Americans were able to resist many of the dehumanizing aspects of their condition. Only rarely did their resistance result in outright rebellion. Southern slave revolts were short-lived and small in scale compared to those in other slave societies. Individual acts of defiance, including flight, arson, even murder, were somewhat more common, but such actions almost always had grievous consequences for those who participated in them. Most slaves knew firsthand the harshness of plantation discipline and tried to avoid it, and few were prepared to challenge their masters directly or to fight to overthrow the system. They did, however, engage in subtler forms of resistance such as feigning sickness, breaking tools, and pilfering plantation livestock.

Furthermore, African Americans were able to maintain their human dignity by building communities and families. On plantations, the slave quarters were small villages. Living close together, residents provided one another with mutual support and participated in communal rituals, including dances, funerals, weddings, and holiday celebrations. Though unrecognized by law, marriage was normal for slave adults, and after marriage, monogamy was expected. Nuclear families, with a father, mother, and children residing together under one roof, were common but not universal. Fathers sometimes served different masters and were unable to reside with their families. Slave families could not establish truly independent households, for their domestic arrangements were always subject to a master's whim. No laws protected families from being broken up or prevented sexual abuse by the slave owner. Polite society frowned on these practices, but such mistreatment occurred rather frequently.

In 1860, 250,000 free blacks lived in the slave states; the great majority of them lived in the Upper South. Such individuals lived in difficult circumstances, typically eking out small incomes as farm workers. They also suffered social persecution, as they did not possess full civil rights, generally being unable to testify in trials or to vote. Free blacks in the Deep South were fewer in number but usually more prosperous. Often the mulatto off spring of slaveholding fathers, these free people of color frequently worked as skilled artisans for wealthy whites. A small number even became substantial slave owners.


By 1860, southern states typically allowed all adult white males to vote. With Andrew Jackson elected president in 1828, democracy had become increasingly real for the region but was specifically limited to white men. Riches and refinement faded in importance as criteria for political success. Some social deference toward wealth and education remained, but planters and prominent politicians usually felt obliged to court the goodwill of unlettered yeomen farmers and poor whites. Those excluded from this democracy, however, often sufferedas in the forced westward removal of American Indians. Southern politicians also repeatedly argued that white freedom demanded black slavery, that the reduction of African Americans to the permanent status of manual laborers averted the growth of invidious class distinctions among whites.

Perhaps more than in any other period of southern history, partisan politics thrived in the antebellum era. Voter interest was intense. After 1840, 65 to 75 percent of eligible voters regularly turned out for statewide elections. Democrats and Whigs in the South differed on many issues, especially regarding banks and tariffs, but on slavery there was little difference between the parties. In fact, both parties played games of one-upmanship to see which could pose as the most dedicated defender of slavery. To appear less than ardent in support of the South's peculiar institution meant political death in most of the region. Even association with antislavery forces outside the region was problematic, as each party portrayed the other's northern wing as tainted with abolitionism. Such party rhetoric helped heat sectional animosity to fever pitch.

Yet this virtually unanimous defense of slavery by southern politicians did not automatically translate into rabid secessionism or into consistent advocacy of states' rights. Even John C. Calhoun, the great theorist of states' rights, viewed secession as a last resort and proposed political solutions that would allow the South to protect its interests as a minority within the Union. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the nation's leading advocate of high tariffs and internal improvements, was a slaveholding southerner who, as an avid unionist, had many followers in the region. Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana cotton planter and the last antebellum southern president, was an even stronger nationalist than Clay. Perhaps more popular with southern voters was the position championed by Andrew Jackson, which argued for reducing the scope of the federal government, but disapproved of letting states veto federal action. As late as the final secession crisis of 18601861, advocates of disunion had to overcome strong opposition even in the Deep South.

Religious and Intellectual Life

For blacks and whites, religious belief provided psychological sustenance and helped to make sense of the world. Most southern believers were evangelical Protestants. Methodists and Baptists far surpassed other denominations in membership, but Presbyterians and Episcopalians possessed significant social prestige. By the 1820s, on the eve of the antebellum era, southern churches began to attract increasing numbers of people from all social classes, including planters and slaves. Church membership, as a percentage of total population, grew throughout the antebellum era but never comprised a majority of the southern population, either black or white. Many churches had strict behavioral requirements and expelled members for all sorts of moral lapses.

In the 1840s, southern believers created the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Both groups broke with their northern counterparts in disputes related to slavery. Both worked energetically to win black converts, through funding missions to the slaves. These missions began in South Carolina in the late 1820s and soon spread across the region. Initially greeted suspiciously by planters, mission advocates eventually convinced slave owners that their message was consistent with maintaining slavery.

Such missionaries had to please both masters and slaves. To maintain access to the slave population, missionaries often preached a message of obedience. On the other hand, church membership remained voluntary so the missionaries had to tailor their message to African American tastes. They therefore addressed a variety of Christian themes, including those that offered solace and psychological liberation to their audiences. Meanwhile, southern churches provided flexible solutions to some problems associated with slavery, allowing, for example, de facto divorces to slave spouses separated by sale.

This evangelizing sank deep roots into the black community, and religion became a vital part of the identity of many black southerners. African Americans often worshiped in biracial churches, in which members attended services together but sat in segregated sections. Even after emancipation, African American believers generally remained loyal to the Baptist and Methodist church traditions, though not to the southern denominations themselves. Religion became one of the most powerful means by which African Americans resisted the dehumanizing effects of slavery. At least privately, southern blacks claimed a moral superiority over masters who disobeyed the tenets of their own religion. They also took solace in God's promises, for individual glory in heaven and for eventual deliverance as a people from bondage on earth.

Simultaneously, southern whites used religion for their own purposes. In frequent debates with northern churches, they championed a nonpolitical church focused on winning converts and getting believers to heaven. For a church to adopt an abolitionist political agenda, they argued, distorted the Christian message and imposed conditions on believers scripture did not justify. Yet such believers saw the Christian message as egalitarian in that God's offer of salvation extended to allrich or poor, white or black, male or female. Southern churches practiced organized philanthropy, by building colleges, sponsoring missions, publishing tracts, and supporting temperance legislation, but they rarely challenged the South's dominant social order. In fact, religious arguments provided some of the most popular defenses of slavery. These ideas sometimes dealt with Old Testament themes, depicting biblical patriarchs as slave owners who were the chosen instruments of God. More frequently, southern clergymen focused on New Testament notions. They argued that Jesus had not condemned slavery and that human bondage was therefore allowable in Christian society.

Other southern thinkers broke free of scripture. The antebellum South generated one of the most original episodes in American intellectual history, sometimes labeled as the Reactionary Enlightenment. Perhaps more forcefully than any other group in American history, some southern thinkers severed connections with principles of natural rights and the social contract. Sociological theorists, such as George Fitzhugh of Virginia and Henry Hughes of Mississippi, upheld the virtues of inequality, tradition, and social duty. Well-read in contemporary scholarship, these men argued that slavery was a beneficial system that protected workers from the vicious competition of free society, providing them with protection from well-meaning owners. Also part of the pro-slavery argument were racial theories, propounded by such scientists as Josiah Nott of Alabama, which argued that blacks and whites belonged to different species.


The antebellum South was the most prosperous and self-confident slave society of modern times. White southerners were ferociously protective of their own liberty, and most, whether slaveholders or not, believed their independence and economic self-interest best served by the preservation of human bondage. Their politicians, ministers, philosophers, and scientistsoften able and articulate menassured them of the righteousness of their way of life. Critical outside voices were ignored. Slaves knew the cruel side of the South, experiencing the special sting of servitude in a land that prided itself on freedom, but they were not allowed to speak. Only the bitter dregs of defeat would humble this proud society and set its captives free.


Ambrose, Douglas. Henry Hughes and Proslavery Thought in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Bauer, K. Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York: Norton, 1989. Controversial classic which showed that plantations were successful business operations.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Nuanced and thoroughly researched, it is much the best book on southern women's history.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. Masterpiece that portrays African Americans as actors in southern history, not mere victims.

Horsman, Reginald. Josiah Nott of Mobile: Southerner, Physician, and Racial Theorist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Kolchin, Peter. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1988.

McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Quist, John W. Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Christopher Owen

See also Civil War ; Confederate States of America ; Cotton ; p> Plantation System of the South ; Slavery ; States' Rights in the Confederacy ; Underground Railroad ; and vol. 9: Sociology for the South ; The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It ; South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession .

The New South

The expression "New South" has been used and reused in a variety of contexts; in contemporary usage it connotes an emphasis on economic modernization as a cure for regional ills. In historical literature, however, the term has a more precise meaning; it refers to the campaign by journalists and others after Reconstruction for a new orientation for the southern economy. The New South promoters called for a program of economic diversification and industrial development, based on overt solicitation of outside investment.

The New South concept wasn't that new; even in the antebellum South there had been calls for economic diversification and industrialization. A series of commercial conventions, along with manifestoes by southern nationalist sources such as De Bow's Review, urged industrialization. During the Civil War the Confederate government's prodigies of wartime production demonstrated the possibility of sweeping industrialization. Defeat, moreover, encouraged a regional reappraisal and demands for economic change. But the political bitterness of Reconstruction distracted public attention; it stilled southern white enthusiasm for an economic program that involved cooperation with northern investors. Only after Redemption, the restoration of white supremacy in 1877, did southern opinion leaders turn their full attention to regaining commercial prosperity. As the national economy boomed in the early 1880s, the improved prospects stirred calls for action. Slavery and the vast financial investment it represented were gone, and, while the plantation system had stabilized after the ruin of Civil War and emancipation, agriculture showed little prospect of growth. But northern industry was expanding dramatically, and Southern journalists and spokespeople rhetorically embraced the national trend.

Even with the losses that the elimination of slavery represented for plantation owners, those envisioning a New South could discern some benefits from ruin. Before the war, the slave states had been notoriously resistant to industrial and urban growth, especially the Deep South region. The profitability of staple crop production under slavery had long discouraged alternative investments. The most striking example of this tendency was in textile production, for while the raw material was near at hand, cotton mills nonetheless remained few. Before the war, the northern states demonstrated marked economic development and consequent transportation and educational advances. For southerners, the sectional controversy with the North had limited the appeal of outside immigration and the entrepreneurial values that would facilitate industrial growth. Both the mores of the slaveholding elite and the structure of the economy had kept industrial development at a rudimentary level, and much of what had existed perished in the war. But the elimination of slavery and the overthrow of the plantation elite eliminated these obstructions to economic diversification. Furthermore, Reconstruction, whatever the cost, had encouraged the spread of a railroad network that could facilitate economic diversification. The region's low wages, weak unions, and the practice of leasing prison inmates to private individuals as laborers had obvious appeal for outside investors as well.

Economic diversification became a priority once Reconstruction ended, at least from the point of view of the region's dominant classes. Investment capital was scarce in the still-impoverished South, however, and the bankrupt and downsized southern governments were incapable of spearheading economic development after Redemption. Outside investment was imperative if industrialization was to happen, and this could take place only with the aid of northern investors and the benign encouragement of the Republican-dominated Federal government. There was also a growing understanding that Republican high-tariff policieswrong as they were by states' rights principlesmight nonetheless facilitate southern industrial development.

Given the partisanship remaining from the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction, selling collaboration with the Yankee foe was a sensitive matter. The calls for a New South provided an intellectually respectable rationale. The priority was to persuade skeptical northern investors and the southern dominant classes that they could profit by cooperation, and with positive, or at least defensible, results. The general theme was that the nation must move beyond the bitterness of the war to embrace a new era of industrial prosperity and progress. For civic leaders and promoters of growing urban railroad and industrial centers like Atlanta and Birmingham, this rhetoric had obvious appeal. In the Georgia piedmont, the public campaign for investment textile mills took on evangelical overtones, touting industrialization as the salvation of the white laboring class.

Henry Grady (18501889), the youthful editor of the Atlanta Constitution, popularized the term "New South" and was its premier spokesman. Grady was troubled by the national public's negative response to Confederate rhetoric, but with the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland as president, a more conciliatory and optimistic approach seemed opportune. In 1886, Grady attracted public attention for his program of national reconciliation before a northern business audience. Before the war, he observed, slavery and agriculture could not sustain healthy economic development. In contrast, "the new South provides a perfect democracy," with "a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palaceand a diversified industry that meets the complex need of this complex age" (Bryan, Henry Grady or Tom Watson? The Rhetorical Struggle for the New South, 18801890, p. 105). Grady also hoped to demonstrate that practical southerners had moved beyond the bitterness of the war. In Grady's words, "we have sowed towns and cities in place of theories, and put business above politics." New leaders in rising cities would provide the flexibility needed for a region reborn.

Grady, and similar spokesmen, like Henry Watterson of the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, performed a difficult balancing act. For northern audiences, Grady conceded that it was just as well that the Confederacy lost. The aristocratic ethos of the slave regime had yielded an economically stagnant, caste-ridden society. Grady argued that only economic prosperity could move the region beyond its heritage of sectional bitterness. He urged northerners and southerners to cooperate to move into the future together. This conciliatory rhetoric assured Yankee businessmen that they could make a positive contribution through their investments, and that they would not be subjected to northern criticism for funding sectional extremism. For white southerners, Grady praised the nobility of the departed culture of the old plantation South, and he praised the heroism of the lost cause and its adherents. However, his major emphasis was on the economic limitations of the slave system, and the degree to which it inhibited needed diversification. Grady sentimentalized the values of the Old South, but only to laud an urban, industrial New South in which these values had little place.

To forestall regional criticism, Grady assured southerners that economic modernization would not damage plantation agriculture or challenge the racial order too drastically. The distinctive New South enterprise, cotton textile production, was concentrated in the piedmont areas of the Carolinas and Georgia, well outside the Cotton Belt. Textile production was promoted as suitable work for white laborers, and planters were assured that African American labor would not be sought. This New South promise, at least, was borne out; textile laborers remained overwhelmingly white until after the civil rights era. On the other hand, industries like the coal and steel production around Birmingham featured a significantly biracial workforce.

Perhaps the most sensitive obstacle to the New South program of sectional reconciliation, given the Civil War legacy, was the future status of the African American population. It was in this area that the underlying contradictions of the New South approach were most obvious. Before southern audiences, Grady openly proclaimed himself a white supremacist and depicted social segregation as the cornerstone of southern society. He also engaged in a heated press debate with the South's most well-known racial liberal, George Washington Cable. In Grady's tautological formulation, "the supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazardsbecause the white race is the superior race" (Ibid., p. 49). He repeatedly denounced the proponents of Radical Reconstruction in their efforts to interfere with southern racial practices, maintaining that the concept of social equality was "monstrous" and "impossible."

Despite these racist statements, and within the context of segregation and white supremacy, New South rhetoric tended to emphasize its relative moderation. As Grady pointed out, "we have planted the schoolhouse on the hilltop and made it free to white and black." Grady and his fellow publicists did not target their rhetoric toward the African American population, but it was important to them that their northern audience see proponents of the New South as reasonableat least in terms of the lowered national expectations after Redemption. The New South model thus encouraged a certain businesslike decorum on racial matters, with proponents predicting that prosperity would improve race relations. Grady and his colleagues emphasized that economic diversification would provide opportunities for black people as well as white, and they tended to oppose lynching, disfranchisement, and other forms of overt racial persecution. Race riots and disorder, after all, would deter outside investment. Ironically, it was only the emergence of African American Booker T. Washington, an educator whose conservative views on civil rights for blacks attracted the support of wealthy white businessmen and politicians, that papered over the inconsistencies of the New South rhetoric on race and gave the whole approach a persuasive spokesman.

The 1880s saw the heyday of the New South movement, aided by northern public willingness to view the new regional emphasis as a positive development. This acceptance presented a plausible rationale for the post-Redemption southern social order, and many former critics of the South endorsed it. For example, the exRadical Republican William D. "Pig Iron" Kelley of Pennsylvania, himself the near-victim of a Reconstruction riot, now hailed the New South as finishing the work of national reunion. Northerners, moreover, were mollified by the open admission of the failings of the Old South, which paralleled many of the criticisms of the antebellum free labor critique of slave society. Aided by a widespread sense that the Reconstruction intervention had failed, the national press was generally supportive of the New South vision, seeing it as part of the wider process of reconciliation. Inevitably, however, southern criticism of the priorities of the movement gathered from a variety of directions.

From the beginning, there was dissent against the New South priorities from those most invested in the memory of the Old South and the rebellion. Former leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stevens, for example, opposed dilution of traditional southern political values, especially states' rights. Various ex-Confederate generals weighed in against forgetting the great struggles of the war in the rush toward interregional commercial cooperation. The battle to lead southern opinion took on a generational quality, as the leaders of the Old South confronted younger, urban New South publicists. The Old South dissenters, often elitists identified with the plantation regime, were articulate and had strong emotional appeal but they were clearly doomed to diminishing relevance. In social terms, the greater challenge was the gathering agrarian revolt that directly opposed the priorities of the New South publicists.

After the late 1870s, dissident activity had grown among the hard-pressed farmers of the hill districts, who were faring badly in the postwar decades. Local protest movements often took the form of "green backer" candidacies opposing the dominant Democratic leadership, most spectacularly the "Readjuster" party, which gained power in Virginia. These dissidents tended toward anti-corporate, antimonopoly sentiments, and they demanded inflation of the currency to aid debtors. Agrarian discontent spread across the southern (and western) states in the late 1880s; it took the form first of the Farmer's Alliance and, eventually, the Populists of the 1890s, a full-scale third-party challenge to Democratic rule. The agrarian movement demanded aggressive government action to provide for the needs of farmers through inflationary economic policy, direct federal loans to farmers, and regulation, or even nationalization, of railroads and other corporations. Though the Populist revolt was beaten back by the late 1890saided by electoral fraud and an improving economythe agrarian movement permanently redirected discourse away from the New South priorities.

After the defeat of the Populists, emerging southern "demagogues" voiced a class-based rhetoric of hostility toward outside business interests, along with a flamboyant racist discourse in defiance of national norms. Populist rhetoric imbued turn-of-the-century Democratic politics, which substituted agrarian symbolism and white supremacy in place of the drastic reform the real Populists had demanded. Still, the rhetorical climate had changed by the Progressive era. Plebeian tribunes like Senator Jeff Davis of Arkansas, for example, emphasized hostility toward northern insurance companies in his electoral campaigns. South Carolina's Ben Tillman favored higher taxes and rate regulation for railroads, as well as some limitations on child labor. Similarly, demagogues such as James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi favored raising taxes on corporations to pay for Progressive regulation and government expenditures to benefit the white rural poor. Other leaders, like Cole Blease of South Carolina, spoke more directly to the class resentments of white textile workers. These leaders were often less hostile toward northern corporations in private than their public statements might suggest. Still, by the early twentieth century, southern political discourse became less enthusiastic about promoting northern corporate expansion than had characterized the New South heyday.

Nevertheless, the general New South concept and terminology of outside investment and economic growth as a regional remedy, and specifically as a means of over-coming the legacy of slavery and racism, has remained in the political discourse to the present day.


Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bryan, Ferald Joseph. Henry Grady or Tom Watson? The Rhetorical Struggle for the New South, 18801890. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1994.

Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 18651913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Gaston, Paul M. The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Myth-Making. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 18771913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. Savannah, Ga.: Beehive Press, 1973.

Michael Fitzgerald

See also Civil War ; Reconstruction ; Slavery ; South, the: The Antebellum South ; and vol. 9: Black Code of Mississippi, November, 1865 ; Police Regulations of Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana .

The South

views updated May 08 2018

The South

One of the most popular books written about the American South, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), begins with a barbecue. To the 80 million people who live in the region, it would seem only appropriate. Food, like music or a syrupy drawl, has always been one of the cultural touchstones that sets the South apart.

Some of the best-known regional dishes in American cookery come from the great crescent that stretches from Virginia to eastern Texas. The South is home to a groaning table of famously down-home foods, like fried chicken, skillet cornbread, pork barbecue, pecan pie, catfish and hushpuppies, bourbon whiskey, and greens and pot likker (which refers not to real liquor but to the aromatic juices of boiled greens).

When Americans speak of the South, they usually mean the eleven states of the old Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) plus parts of border states, like Kentucky and Maryland, that lean toward Dixie culturally. It is a varied landscape that takes in multiple mountain ranges, a spacious swath of hill country, broad coastal plains, vast alluvial flatlands, and three thousand miles of shoreline. Historians have called it the closest thing to a nation within a nation in the United States, and it has spawned a collection of foods and foodways as varied as the landscape.

The First Southerners

When Europeans began to arrive during the 1500s, they found the land well populated by American Indians whose ancestors had dwelled there for thousands of years. The natives fished, hunted game, gathered berries and nuts (like the indigenous pecan), and cultivated crops, especially beans, squash, and maize (corn). Early European settlers were struck by the bounty. Captain John Smith, who helped found the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, wrote of "an abundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying-pan" (quoted in Ketchum, 1964). The place-names spoke of plenty; for example, Chesapeake is an Indian word meaning "great shellfish bay."

At least one of the cornerstones of southern food was already in place when the Europeans came, that is, corn. The Powhatan tribe of Virginia showed the English how to plant, harvest, soak, and hull the native grain, which they ground into a gritty meal called rockahominy. They also made a bread of it, appone. Both names stuck, and southerners have enjoyed corn pone and hominy grits ever since.

Many of the foods that came to be associated with the South are not native. The Spanish, who explored the region during the 1500s and colonized Florida, introduced oranges, peaches, sugar cane, pigs, and chickens. The French, who planted their tricolor along the Gulf Coast from Mobile to New Orleans, brought their cooking techniques and used local ingredients to create new dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. The Scotch-Irish, who poured into the southern Appalachian mountains, squeezed a new distilled spirit out of corn. According to legend, a Baptist preacher by the name of Elijiah Craig was the first to make bourbon whiskey in the 1780s in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

But the dominant strains of southern cooking, as of southern life, are English and African. The English who settled the region brought their own livestock and fruits (apples chief among them), a direct, earnest style of cooking, and a taste for stews, puddings, and pies.

The African slaves who were imported to work the fields starting in the 1620s brought some of the most quintessentially southern foods with them, including okra, peanuts, watermelons, and black-eyed peas. Some of these foods, peanuts, for instance, actually originated in South America but did not take root in North America until they were taken to Africa and brought back across the Atlantic in the slave trade. Slave cooks also enlivened the southern kitchen by using peppers and spices they had either known in Africa or picked up in the Caribbean, the first stop in the New World for many of them. This forced collaboration between black and white newcomers laid the foundation for the region's cooking.

Southern Hospitality

By the time of the American Revolution in the 1770s, the southern Atlantic colonies were developing an economic system dominated by the large-scale cultivation of single cash crops, such as tobacco and rice. The plantation system spread west after independence, as cotton bolls blanketed the region and sugar cane sprouted through the lower Mississippi River valley.

The plantations developed a reputation for lavish entertaining that led to one of the enduring legends of the young country, southern hospitality. In 1746 a correspondent for London magazine compared the Virginia planters' lifestyle to that of English country squires: "All over the Colony, a universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention, speak somewhat like the old Roast-beef Ages of our Forefathers. . . . Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited."

Company was so routine at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, that the first president once complained in a letter that he and Martha had not dined by themselves in twenty years. The first lady evidently made a custom of large meals. The recipe for Martha Washington's Great Cake in the files at Mount Vernon begins "Take 40 eggs."

The apotheosis of this grand spirit was Thomas Jefferson, the third president and first epicure, who brought vanilla, macaroni, and wine making to the hills of the Virginia Piedmont. Jefferson loved to entertain at the White House and at his neoclassical mansion Monticello. His lavish entertaining was largely responsible for his dying $40,000 in debt.

Hard Times

Few southerners could afford to set a table like Jefferson or Washington. Before the Civil War the great majority were slaves or yeoman farmers. After the war ended slavery and bankrupted the plantation system, millions became tenant farmers or sharecroppers, working fields they rented by giving landlords a large portion of what they grew.

These new American peasants were fueled by a monotonous diet of salt pork, cornbread, molasses, and whatever vegetables they were able to grow or gather. The most commonly eaten vegetables were green beans, black-eyed peas, and leafy greens (turnips in the Upper South, collards in the Lower South), usually boiled for at least an hour with ham hocks or some other pork flavoring. Sweet potatoes joined the plate in late summer, when they were harvested and stored in earthen mounds for consumption through the winter.

Humble though these foods may have been, they could summon powerful emotions among those raised on them. In Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952) the narrator, a young man from the South, practically bursts into homesick tears when he smells Carolina sweet potatoes roasting at a vendor's stand on the sidewalks of New York.

Decades after the devastation of the Civil War, hunger and malnutrition lingered in the South. In the early 1900s federal doctors investigated the widespread listlessnesssome called it lazinessthat many had noticed among the region's poor. Much of it was blamed on pellagra, a disease of vitamin deficiency caused by a grossly unbalanced diet. Pellagra did not recede until a nutritional campaign was launched during the 1930s and cornmeal, the bulk of so many diets, was enriched with vitamin B12.

Many southern foods have long been linked with poverty. Mark Twain makes the connection in his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), when Huck tells Jim he would rather eat wheat bread because that's "what the quality eatnone of your low-down corn pone."

Indeed, southerners used to regard wheat bread as somehow elevated, calling it "light bread" to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill cornmeal. Baking with wheat did not catch on until commercially milled flour and baking powder became widely available in the late 1800s. Then southern cooks made up for lost time, making light, fluffy biscuits part of their daily routines, especially at breakfast. Kinky Friedman, a country musician from Texas, once wrote a song titled "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed." Most of his listeners no doubt approved of his priorities. In the South, hot bread always comes first.

Some Special Foods

Many distinctively southern dishes are associated with special events, including holidays, family reunions, community fundraisers, and the like. On New Year's Day, for example, a peas and rice dish called hoppin' John is eaten for good luck, often with a side serving of greens to foretell money. Reunions bring out cauldrons of Brunswick stew, Frogmore stew, burgoo, or muddlehearty concoctions made in particular areas of the South with vegetables and pork, seafood, mutton, or fish respectively. Churches and athletic leagues raise money with plates of catfish and hushpuppies, fried dollops of cornmeal whose name probably derives from the way cooks used to keep dogs at bay by tossing them some batter. Funerals and homecomings produce an amazing variety of pies and cakes, a reflection of the region's pronounced sweet tooth. And some people think it would not be Christmas without ambrosia, a dessert made of grated coconut and orange sections that is virtually unseen the rest of the year.

No matter what the occasion or month, it is considered perfectly normal to accompany any meal with iced tea. Given its hot, humid climate, the South has a powerful thirst for cold beverages. Among the many soft drinks that originated in the region are the world's two most popular, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, both created by pharmacists (the first in Georgia, the latter in North Carolina) in the late 1800s.

Fried chicken, perhaps the most renowned of southern dishes, may have begun as a seasonal specialty. Its genealogy is uncertain. Among the settlers of the South, both Africans and Scots have a tradition of frying poultry. However it got there, fried chicken was already established by 1828, when Mary Randolph included a recipe for it in one of the earliest American cookbooks, The Virginia House-wife. She specified all the essentials, chicken parts dredged in flour, seasoned, and fried in hot fat.

In the nineteenth century fried chicken was usually eaten during the warm months, when hens hatched the chicks that grew into tender young fryers. By the mid-1900s a huge poultry industry that could supply fryers year-round had developed in Georgia, Arkansas, and the Carolinas. Poultry consumption rose throughout the calendar.

Traditionally fried chicken was a Sunday treat reserved for after-church dinners and special company, like the preacher or the in-laws. The dish gradually spread into other days of the week, spurred on by the rise of fast-food franchising after World War II. The first and largest of the chicken chains, Kentucky Fried Chicken, once advertised "Sunday dinner seven days a week." Harland Sanders, who went by the honorary title "colonel," started the business in the 1930s at a roadside cafe in Corbin, Kentucky. By the end of the twentieth century the empire that bears his goateed image was selling a taste of Dixie at nearly eleven thousand outposts around the world.

An Enduring Love Affair

Another food that strongly evokes the South is barbecue. While much of the rest of the United States uses the term to refer to a backyard cookout, southerners use it quite particularly to mean the slow smoking of meat over hardwood coals. The meat is almost always pork.

Southerners have long had a thing about swine. William Byrd, a Virginia planter, observed in the early 1700s that his neighbors were eating so much pig flesh that they "seem to grunt rather than speak." Before refrigeration became common, pigs were usually slaughtered when the weather turned cold in late autumn"hog-killing time"and the meat was preserved as bacon, sausage, salt pork, or hams rubbed in spices and allowed to cure for months in a smokehouse. Little of the hog was wasted. The small intestines were breaded and fried or boiled as chitlins, and the fat was rendered into cracklins that flavored cracklin cornbread.

Of all the uses of pork, barbecue is probably the most popular. In the beginning the dish was usually served at political rallies and other community get-togethers. By the end of the twentieth century it was more commonly served at casual restaurants, universally known as barbecue joints, where everyone from blue-collar laborers to white-collar professionals sit cheek by jowl mopping barbecue sauce from their lips.

Southerners love to argue the merits of different barbecue styles. Two areas are particularly known for their expertise. In the Carolinas pit masters smoke whole hogs at gatherings called "pig pickin's" and serve the meat pulled from the bone with a spiced vinegar sauce that, unlike most barbecue dressings, contains no tomatoes or ketchup. In parts of South Carolina the sauce is mustard-based. Meanwhile in Memphis, Tennessee, the self-described "pork barbecue capital of the world," pork ribs or chopped pork shoulders are served in sandwiches with creamy coleslaw. People in Memphis love barbecue so much that some restaurants serve barbeque-topped pizza and barbecue spaghetti, pasta tossed with barbecue sauce.

Changing Tastes

The last half of the twentieth century brought rapid change to the South. The civil rights movement engineered a revolution in race relations, business and government invested heavily in the region, and air conditioning made it more comfortable to live there. Millions of outsiders moved south for jobs or retirement, bringing their tastes and customs with them. In fast-growing areas like Atlanta, Georgia, or Charlotte, North Carolina, it is almost as easy to find a bagel as a biscuit.

In the midst of this evolution southern cooking enjoyed something of a revival, as natives and newcomers alike came to regard it as another ethnic cuisine to be discovered or rediscovered. Native sons and daughters like Craig Claiborne, Edna Lewis, and Nathalie Dupree celebrated the region's foods in cookbooks and television cooking shows. A new generation of chefs lavished their talents on the old cuisine at high-end restaurants from Arkansas to Virginia. Popular road-food guides told travelers where to find the best barbecue joints, seafood shacks, produce stands, ladies' tea rooms, and meat-and-three-plate lunch emporiums.

Even so, traditional southern home cooking seemed to be fading. Fewer people had time to make messy, demanding dishes like fried chicken. Some avoided them altogether out of concern for fat and cholesterol. Oldfashioned southern food was increasingly left to restaurant kitchens or rolled out only on special occasions.

Yet southerners remain deeply attached to their foods and rituals. In a nation that relentlessly wears down regional distinctions, their shared foodways are one of the few things that knits them together and reminds them who they are. How else to explain the enduring appeal of grits, the unremarkable cornmeal porridge that is one of the region's most joked about icons?

Shelby Foote, the Mississippi-born novelist and historian, takes his culinary heritage seriously. Once, when he was staying in a hotel, he hung a breakfast order on his doorknob asking for grits. Room service brought him hash browns instead. Yankees eat hash browns with breakfast. He put out the card again, this time with a note: "This morning you brought me potatoes. Do not commit this outrage again."

See also Barbecue; Biscuits; Chitlins (Chitterlings); Maize; Pig; Sensation and the Senses.


Belk, Sarah. Around the Southern Table. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Dabney, Joseph E. Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking. Nashville: Cumberland House, 1998.

Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Ketchum, Richard M., ed. The American Heritage Cookbook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Rogers, Mara Reid, and Jim Auchmutey. The South the Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the American South. San Francisco: Collins, 1996.

Taylor, Joe Gray. Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Walter, Eugene. American Cooking: Southern Style. New York: Time-Life Books, 1971.

Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Jim Auchmutey

All the King's Pone

Back in the 1930s Huey Long, the pot-bellied potentate of Louisiana, tried to show his common touch by talking up the health benefits of cornbread and pot likker, a modest dish enjoyed by southerners everywhere. "The Kingfish" decreed that it was classier to dunk the bread into the likker, the savory juice left behind by boiled greens, instead of crumbling it. Julian Harris, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, disagreed. Thus started the Great Corn Pone Debate of 1931.

For weeks the mock controversy raged in newspapers, as Harris accused Long of closet crumbling and Long charged Harris with yellow-corn journalism in telegrams fired off to the Constitution 's Pot Likker and Corn Pone Department. Long even offered a jesting recipe called Pot Likker à le Dictator.

The future president Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually weighed in, proposing that the important question be referred to the 1932 Democratic National Convention. "I must admit that I crumble mine," he wrote, perhaps belying a bias from all the time he spent at the spa in Warm Springs, Georgia.


views updated May 23 2018


A southern migration, commencing during the American Revolution and producing six states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri) by 1821, led to great changes in the westernmost parts of the southern United States. The result was the growth of not one South, but a set of discrete subregions.

climate, topography, soil, and crops

"Let us begin by discussing the weather," wrote the eminent southern historian, Ulrich B. Phillips, as the first words of the best-known book on the South, "for that has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive." Certainly, the South's sultry climate has always set it apart from the rest of the nation. Lying roughly between thirty-nine and thirty degrees north latitude (thus covering some five hundred miles from north to south) aside from Florida, the summer temperatures in much of the South stay consistently over ninety degrees during the summer months, with nearly 90 percent relative humidity in the Lower South states. While the border area receives nearly the same amount of precipitation—twenty-four inches—as the southern Piedmont during the warm seasons, it receives between ten and fifteen inches less precipitation, so vital to most staple crops, than do most of the Deep South states in their warm seasons. Conversely, the South's winters vary more widely in degree: while the Upper South has at best two hundred frost-free growing days per year (even less west of the Appalachians, which shelters Virginia and Maryland from the driving cold fronts that chill the Middle Border subregion), the Deep South boasts some forty or fifty more than that, allowing the Deep South states an extra six growing weeks or more between the last killing frosts in spring and first killing frosts in the fall. The average minimum temperature in the Upper South is as much as thirty degrees colder than in much of the Lower South (even more than in the coastal Sea Islands area and Florida), meaning nearly twenty more inches of frost penetration into the soil. Although western migrants who began moving to the border states as early as the 1770s may have attempted to replicate or even better the society of their former homes, the distinctive climate of the Upper South forced adaptations upon the social landscape.

The South's topography varies as widely as its climate, and it influenced migratory patterns that resulted in distinct intraregional cultures. The Appalachian Mountains slash southward through the easternmost southern states, forming a barrier of sorts between the Atlantic seaboard and the country further west that influenced migratory patterns. Settlers who moved westward from the Upper Chesapeake along with those from the mid-Atlantic states most often used the Ohio River for westward transportation, settling predominantly in the border regions of Kentucky and Missouri and creating a cultural admixture of northern and southern influences. Settlers from southwestern Virginia and North Carolina more often traveled through the Cumberland Gap, settling Tennessee and central and southern Kentucky, while settlers from South Carolina and Georgia avoided the mountains completely by migrating to the Gulf States. The Appalachians themselves, along with the Ozarks, became a destination for later settlers, often Scots-Irish, who set up distinctive and often isolated communities separated by mountain valleys. The Lower Mississippi Valley was a place apart from the rest of the South, largely as a result of its French and Spanish heritage (the area did not become a part of the United States until 1803), but this Latin South had a slave population that was far more Africanized in the nineteenth century than in other parts of the South.

The South's soils vary widely as well: rich loess in the Missouri and Ohio River valleys; rich alluvial soil in the Mississippi Delta; flinty limestone in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountain highlands; sandy loam in the Tidewater and coastal lowlands; and distinctive red clay in the Appalachian Piedmont. While soil did not in itself influence the resulting economy as much as did climate, the thin soils of the mountain and sand-hill areas proved less capable of producing the staple crops that characterized large subregions of the South. Those crops, in many historians' estimation, and more specifically the cultures that evolved from their prolonged production, gave the South its most distinctive character. Tobacco, colonial North America's first export crop, dominated in southern Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri, ultimately sharing preeminence there with hemp as well as wheat, the latter of which by the 1820s had replaced tobacco as the subregion's largest export crop. Farther south, rice dominated the South Carolina and Georgia low country, while sugar reigned over much of lower Louisiana. Cotton, which became the South's signature cash crop after 1810, extended through the Piedmont plantation belt and between the too-cool tobacco belt and the too-wet rice and sugar belts, extending westward by 1830 into the Old Southwest. Needing 180 growing days, and with cultivation periods that complemented those for food crops such as corn (thus maximizing labor efficiency), cotton had by the 1820s already become the nation's leading export, earning it the designation King Cotton. Remarkably, the output of cotton doubled every decade after 1800, the largest growth rate of any agricultural commodity in the nation; by 1830, southern cotton constituted two-thirds of the value of the nation's exported commodities.

manufacturing and cities

Though more agricultural in nature than much of the North, the South developed its own manufacturing base, one that illustrated the stark differences between the Border and Upper Souths on the one hand and the Lower South on the other. Eighty percent of the South's manufacturing capacity lay in the Border South. The industrial growth of the Border South drove urbanization and stimulated the growth of the area's population. By 1830, three of the South's five largest cities—Baltimore, St. Louis, and Richmond—lay in the Border and Upper Souths, their populations eclipsing all other southern cities save New Orleans and Charleston. Their trade networks extended northward and eastward by rail lines far more than by any traditional river or ocean links with the Lower South and Europe. Some 45 percent of the South's population lived in the Border States alone.


The South's religious heritage profoundly influenced its distinctive culture away from the cultures that characterized the northern states. Nowhere was this more evident than in the intense revivals that erupted throughout the region, especially in the Border and Upper Souths, at the outset of the nineteenth century, reshaping these subregions' religious contours and helping to develop their unique character. Where the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century had introduced a class-based evangelicalism that emplaced the Baptist and Methodist sects as egalitarian alternatives to the elitism of the Anglican church in Virginia, the Revolutionary era and its aftermath empowered them (along with Presbyterians) as denominations throughout the South. The rapid rise of the western states and the proliferation of a slavebased, staple crop economy soon brought on personal uncertainties about material advancement just as rampant secularism caused church attendance to decline precipitously. Initially suspect, itinerant ministers soon softened their condemnations of such "declension" as they sought communicants. Meanwhile, western settlers, and especially women, were seeking relief from the burdens and vicissitudes of frontier life. What resulted was a series of revivals that swept the Border and Upper Souths over several decades, the largest of which occurred at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, when some twenty thousand persons assembled for an immense outdoor, interdenominational camp meeting marked by emotional preaching and mass conversions. This religious fervor soon spread and swelled the congregations of the evangelical churches throughout the entire South as they eagerly reached out to black and white, male and female converts. Ironically, evangelical religion set down the rhythms of southern religious culture just as it linked the new subregions of the South with the older seaboard states and helped to distinguish all of them from the culture of the North.


Above all other regional aspects, and in tandem with the development of the staple crop economy, slavery shaped the South's distinctiveness from other regions of the country. Yet the "peculiar institution" also magnified the South's intraregional variances. Between 1790 and 1830, as the South's overall white population nearly tripled from 1.3 million to 3.7 million, its slave population kept pace, increasing from 675,000 to more than two million. As the Border and Upper Souths' transition from staple crops to food crops and industry changed their economic bases, so the population density of slaves shifted southward. Where in 1790 slaves comprised onethird of the Upper and Border Souths' populations (including the District of Columbia), by 1830 that figure had fallen to 30 percent; meanwhile, the Lower South's slave population increased from 41 percent of the subregion's whole to more than 47 percent. The proportion was lowest in the Border and mountain Souths, where but 14 percent and less than 5 percent of their overall populations, respectively, were bondpeople. Though it boasted only a quarter of the South's white population in 1830, slaves in the Lower South comprised 47 percent of its states' populations; in some coastal areas, slaves constituted as much as 90 percent of the residents. Facilitated by the internal slave trade, which would move some half-million slaves southwestward from the Border and Upper Souths, and the economic transitions underway in those subregions, the South was fast becoming a region comprised of white belts and black belts, with the blackest belts in the Lower South, the Mississippi Valley, and the Tidewater area of Virginia (where slavery had begun in the early seventeenth century).

Subregional variation. Although slaves labored in the South's factories, on its docks, and in its fashionable homes, agricultural labor chained some 90 percent of its bondspeople to the southern countryside. The Lower, Upper, and Border Souths had remarkably different slave cultures, depending on their staple crops. The dependency on slavery varied greatly, distinguishing the regions, as the historian Ira Berlin has argued, as being either slave societies or a societies with slaves. The Lower South was clearly a slave society. Its plantations often encompassed thousands of acres and held as many as a hundred slaves each, often working in gangs (especially on cotton plantations) and living apart from their owners' homes in discrete, concentrated slave quarters. Conversely, in the Upper and Border Souths, plantations and farms (as they were invariably referred to west of the mountains) were often smaller and boasted far fewer slaves, who commonly worked side by side with masters and hired white workers in the fields, even living in their masters' homesteads.

Slavery and power. Slaveholding created a unique culture of power in the South. Planters, or those who owned substantial holdings of land and slaves, dominated the economy and the society of the region. Many were sons and grandsons of men in the colonial era who had made substantial beginnings on the family position and fortunes by way of staple production as well as, especially in the Upper South, mercantile and banking activities. Always few in number, such planters held disproportionate shares of political and economic influence, especially in the Lower South and the Tidewater, and zealously protected them through intermarriage with other gentry families and by largesse offered to the white lower classes. Below the planters were the yeomanry, independent landholders and small slaveholders who sought upward mobility but who clung doggedly to their hard-won freehold status, even above slave ownership. Most numerous among the populations of the Upper and Border Souths, these yeomen acceded to the local planters' political dominance in part for the economic advantages the latter afforded them in return, but more as a check against those below them in their respective subregions, namely restless and landless poor whites and black slaves. Indeed, the South's most notorious (and by the 1830s regionally distinct) cultural ritual—the duel—not only reflected all of these social constructs of power (patriarchy, class status, masculinity, personal honor, clannishness, and violence) but was itself dying out in all but the Lower South.

After the colonial period, few class upheavals occurred in the South, in contrast to the North, where they grew more common. Historians generally explain this phenomenon as a product of the South's "herrenvolk democracy," which guaranteed white men equal access to political participation (especially after the decline of property requirements in the 1820s) while excluding African Americans, free and slave, from the rights of full citizenship. This entire social system, based upon deference, patriarchy, reciprocal rights, obligations, coercive violence, and perhaps above all racial hierarchy and chattel slavery, sustained the South uncomfortably as it matured in the years of the early Republic.


The last decade of the early national period witnessed the emergence of national and even intraregional divisions that would soon come to be characterized as "sectionalism." As the nation reeled from its first national economic downturn beginning in 1819 (and felt particularly by cotton-growing states like South Carolina, where the Panic of 1919 severely depressed cotton prices), the congressional debate of 1819–1820 over Missouri statehood revealed that national politics had begun to sectionalize over the issue of slavery. In 1822 South Carolina was shocked by the discovery of a widespread rebellion planned by Charleston slaves and led by a literate free black named Denmark Vesey. The plot was aborted and during subsequent trials, testimony implicated northern antislavery politicians as having influenced Vesey by way of printed speeches. An "Old Republican" states' rights political stance was articulated by leading Virginians such as John Randolph. They sought to curb the nationalizing tendencies of the Virginia Dynasty—presidents from Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe as well as Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall)—which had strengthened the power of the national government, presumably at the expense of the states and, more specifically, the southern states. Like the members of that dynasty, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Henry Clay of Kentucky stood as conflicting symbols to southerners. They were at once large slaveholders and "southern" leaders, but they were also principled advocates of a nationalism that seemed to ignore states' rights principles. The Tariff of 1816, decried by southerners as favoring northern industries at the expense of southern exporters, provided a powerful and enduring symbol for southern anger. In 1828, when Congress raised the tariff to its highest level yet (earning for it the southern epithet "Tariff of Abominations"), John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Jackson's vice president, secretly authored a sectional response. His South Carolina Exposition and Protest reinvigorated the doctrine of states' rights (originally articulated by Jefferson and Madison in their Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions [1798]) by offering a mechanism through which a state could check federal power: conventions that would "nullify" within their states' borders any harmful actions by the federal government. Although white southerners had not yet fashioned strong polemical defenses of slavery such as those that would emerge immediately after 1830, political and social events during the last decade of the early national period shaped the emerging proslavery ideology that would ultimately most characterize the South as a distinct region.

See alsoAgriculture: Overview; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Proslavery Thought; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism; Sectionalism and Disunion; Slavery: Overview; States' Rights .


Abernethy, Thomas P. The South in the New Nation, 1789–1819. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961.

Aron, Stephen. How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Boles, John B. The South Through Time: A History of an American Region. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Cashin, Joan E. A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Cooper, William J., Jr., and Thomas E. Terrill. The American South: A History. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Phillips, Ulrich B. Life and Labor in the Old South. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1929; repr., 1963.

Christopher Phillips

South, The (USA)

views updated May 14 2018

South, The (USA)


Historically and culturally, the South is the most distinctive region of the United States. Once a center for African American slavery, the South is the only U.S. region to have fought for a separate national existence. Following defeat in the Civil War (18611865), poverty and legalized racial discrimination marked the southern states until the last decades of the twentieth century. While slavery and racial strife never dominated all parts of the South, they contributed to the economic, political, social, and cultural isolation of the entire region. As a result, W. J. Cash expressed a broad consensus when he called the South not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it (1941, p. xlviii).

Like many other world regions, the South has no precise definition. It includes a variety of climates and geographical features, ranging from subtropical coastal swamps to the Appalachian Mountains, which include the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. The border between Pennsylvania and Maryland (the Mason-Dixon Line) divides North from South traditionally, but does not define the entire region. Eleven states seceded to form the Confederate States of America in 1861: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Four other slave states did not secede: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. The modern state of West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War, creating lasting disagreement over whether it should be considered southern. The U.S. Census defines the South as the former slave states (minus Missouri), plus Oklahoma and the District of Columbia. Accepting the reality that state lines have never circumscribed the cultural patterns of speech, food, politics, religion, and race relations that are widely associated with the South, the authoritative Encyclopedia of Southern Culture falls back on a circular definition: The South is found wherever southern culture is found (Wilson and Ferris 1989, p. xv).

The South became a discrete region by an extended process linked to African American slavery. Slaves worked in all the American colonies, but especially on plantations growing tobacco in Virginia and rice in South Carolina. By the time of the first federal census in 1790, slaves comprised 31 percent of the U.S. population south of Pennsylvania, but less than 2 percent elsewhere. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cultivation of the fiber expanded widely south of Virginia, spreading slavery and the plantation system across the southern interior and gradually tying the South together as the Cotton Kingdom.

Representatives of the free and slave states clashed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but regional selfconsciousness did not spread widely until after 1820, as southern whites reacted to a growing abolition movement in the North and to northern opposition to slaverys expansion. In 1860 a northern majority elected an avowedly antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln (18091865), prompting eleven slave states to leave the Union and form the Confederacy. Southern defeat in the ensuing Civil War brought the abolition of slavery, first by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and more fully by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865).

During Reconstruction (18651877), native southern whites used violence and intimidation to regain power over their state governments and the ex-slaves. The plantation system continued under tenancy arrangements that left blacks and many whites largely impoverished and uneducated. Beginning in the 1890s, white Democrats used poll taxes and literacy tests to strip most black men of the right to vote, followed by laws requiring the strict segregation of the races in all public facilities. In response, millions of black southerners fled to find better opportunities in the North and West. Until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought new federal legislation, widespread poverty, legal segregation, black disfranchisement, and exclusive control by an all-white Democratic Party characterized the so-called Solid South. Before these reforms, unique social and political institutionsand the prolonged struggle to maintain themmade the South unmistakably different from the rest of the United States, and fed a strong regional identity, especially among whites.

Despite these dominant regional patterns, diverse regional subcultures have long flourished in the South. The Appalachians and similar patches of hill country did not support plantations, but sustained a distinct white folk culture that became the seedbed of modern country-and-western music. Equally distinct African American cultures developed in the largely black plantation districts. African cultural survivals, including the unique Gullah language, marked the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, while other black communities developed special musical traditions, especially New Orleans jazz and the Mississippi Delta blues. Lying between the mountains and the coastal lowlands, the Piedmont South fostered industrial development with urban centers like Atlanta and Charlotte.

Isolation and distinctiveness have encouraged southern stereotypes. Racial prejudice and exploitation encouraged images of both black inferiority and universal white racism. Violence, ignorance, and laziness have been attributed to southern whites and blacks alike. Plantation owners have been credited with aristocratic gentility, and poor whites scorned for hopeless degradation. The roots of these stereotypes are slowly giving way, but popular images only die gradually.

The South has changed rapidly since the end of World War II (19391945). Vigorous industrial recruitment, often founded on low wages, weak regulations, and hostility to labor unions, attracted outside industry and led to massive urban and suburban growth. The civil rights movement ended legalized segregation and stimulated a two-party political system, as millions of new black voters entered the Democratic Party while many whites switched to the resurgent Republicans. Southerners of both parties acquired leading roles in national politics, as Democrats won presidential elections with Jimmy Carter (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) and came close with Al Gore (2000), while southern Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Jesse Helms exercised a powerful conservative influence on Congress from the 1990s onward. Black migration reversed direction, lifting the regions black population by 7.2 million between 1970 and 2000. Prosperity attracted millions of other newcomers as well, including northern-born whites and Hispanic immigrants, but the offshore flight of low-wage manufacturing has distressed many southern industrial communities.

Recent changes have led some observers to worry that the South may disappear as a distinct region, but change has come on top of deep-seated historical experiences that are likely to give distinct characteristics to southern development for a long time to come.

SEE ALSO Benjamin, Judah P.; Bluegrass; Blues; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Confederate States of America; Davis, Jefferson; Democratic Party, U.S.; Desegregation; Jazz; Jim Crow; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Kefauver, Estes; Key, V. O., Jr.; Lincoln, Abraham; Migration; Politics; Politics, Southern; Poll Tax; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Republican Party; Segregation; Slavery; Southern Bloc; Southern Strategy; Stereotypes; Supreme Court, U.S.; Thurmond, Strom; U.S. Civil War


Cash, W. J. 1941. The Mind of the South. New York: Knopf.

Cobb, James C. 2005. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cooper, William J., Jr., and Thomas E. Terrill. 2002. The American South: A History. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reed, John Shelton. 1974. The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. 1989. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Harry L. Watson


views updated May 21 2018


The United Nations Earth Summit , held in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992, illuminated some major differences among the nations of the world, differences that are summarized in the terms North and South. The latter term refers to nations of the Southern Hemispherenations that have significantly different environmental concerns from those of their northern neighbors. These concerns arise primarily from rapid population growth ; low levels of technological and industrial development; and generally difficult living conditions.

The distinction between North and South did not originate with the Rio conference. It was popularized by a report delivered in 1980 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations by a commission headed by Willy Brandt (1913-1992), the former Chancellor of West Germany. The report, which was entitled To Ensure SurvivalCommon Interests of the Industrial and Developing Countries, is sometimes referred to as the Brandt Report. It recommended a marked rise in development assistance from the developed countries to the countries of the South. The rich countries were to increase their official development assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of their gross national product (GNP) by 1985, and to 1% by 2000. The Brandt Report was followed by a second study in 1983, Common Crisis NorthSouth: Cooperation for World Recovery. This report predicted conflict and catastrophe if the imbalance between North and South were not corrected.

An important conclusion that was drawn from the Rio conference is that the marked differences between North and South must somehow be reduced if global problems are ever to be solved. Twenty years after the Brandt Report, however, the results are discouraging. Instead of an increase in ODA, there has been a marked decrease, in terms of both absolute dollar amounts and GNP percentages. As of 2002, financing for the development of the South is in serious crisis. ODA contributions by all OECD countries fell from a high of $59.6 billion (in US dollars) in 1994 to an estimated $56.0 billion in 1999. ODAs share of the North's GNP fell accordingly from 0.300.24%. Policy recommendations that were made in 2001 included a proposal to finance the costs of development by an international tax on energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

[Rebecca J. Frey Ph.D. ]



Kaul, Inge, Isabelle Grunberg, and Marc A. Stern. Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Reid, David. Sustainable Development: An Introductory Guide. London, UK: Earthscan, 1995.


Martens, Jens. Overcoming the Crisis of ODAThe Case for a Global Development Partnership Agreement. Presentation to the Civil Society Hearings at the United Nations, November 7, 2000.


Dante B. Fascell NorthSouth Center, University of Miami., 1500 Monza Avenue, Coral Gables, FL USA 33146 (305) 284-6868, Fax: (305) 284-6370, Email: [email protected],


views updated Jun 11 2018

south / sou[unvoicedth]/ • n. (usu. the south) 1. the direction toward the point of the horizon 90° clockwise from east, or the point on the horizon itself: the breeze came from the south they trade with the countries to the south. ∎  the compass point corresponding to this. 2. the southern part of the world or of a specified country, region, or town: he was staying in the south of France. ∎  (usu. the South) the southern states of the U.S. 3. (South) Bridge the player sitting opposite and partnering North.• adj. 1. lying toward, near, or facing the south: the south coast. ∎  (of a wind) blowing from the south. 2. of or denoting the southern part of a specified area, city, or country or its inhabitants: Telegraph Hill in South Boston.• adv. to or toward the south: they journeyed south along the valley it is handily located ten miles south of Baltimore.• v. [intr.] move toward the south: the wind southed a point or two. ∎  (of a celestial body) cross the meridian.PHRASES: down south inf. to or in the south of a country.south by east (or west) between south and south-southeast (or south-southwest).


views updated May 09 2018

south the direction towards the point of the horizon 90° clockwise from east, or the point on the horizon itself. In literary contexts, it is often contrasted as a region with the more temperate north. From the late 20th century, south has been used as a collective term for the industrially and economically less advanced countries of the world, typically situated to the south of the industrialized nations.
go south (chiefly in US usage) deteriorate, fail, or fall in value.
South Bank the southern bank of the Thames, noted for the cultural complexes and public gardens developed between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges for and since the Festival of Britain in 1951. South Bank is also used with reference to the policy of the Anglican diocese of Southwark to re-express traditional beliefs and practices in ways that would make them better suited to contemporary life.
South Park an American cartoon series (1998– ), featuring the (often scatological humour) of a group of third-grade boys, Waspy Stan, Kenny, Eric, and Kyle. Despite compulsory late-night showing for its strong language, the series became a popular hit with young viewers.
South Sea Bubble a speculative boom in the shares of the South Sea Company in 1720 which ended with the failure of the company and a general financial collapse.

See also South Pole at pole2, the solid South.


views updated May 29 2018

South / sou[unvoicedth]/ (the South) in the U.S., a term with several definitions, most commonly the 11 states of the 1861–65 Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. DERIVATIVES: South·ern adj.


views updated May 14 2018

south·ing / ˈsou[voicedth]ing/ • n. distance traveled or measured southward, esp. at sea. ∎  a figure or line representing southward distance on a map. ∎  Astron. the transit of a celestial object, esp. the sun, across the meridian due south of the observer. ∎  Astron. the angular distance of a star or other object south of the celestial equator.


views updated May 29 2018

south adv., adj. OE.; sb XIII. OE. sūð = OS. sūth (LG. sud), OHG. sunt, ON. (with r-suffix) suð (:- *sunþr).
So southerly (-LY1) XVI. southern. OE. sūðerne. Also comp. southeast, southwest, southward(s) OE.

About this article

the South

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic