CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
An Introduction to Slavery & The Economy of The South

At the time of the American revolution, slavery was a national institution; although the number of slaves was small, they lived and worked in every colony. Even before the Constitution was ratified, however, states in the North were either abolishing slavery outright or passing laws providing for gradual emancipation. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 barred slavery from the new territories of that period, so rather quickly, slavery effectively existed only in the South and became that region's “peculiar institution.”


Between the first federal census in 1790 and the eve of the Civil War, the slave population in the United States increased from approximately seven hundred thousand to almost four million. The formal end to the foreign slave trade in 1808 had no impact—the smuggling of slaves was common—and in any event, natural increase accounted for practically all of the slave‐population growth in the United States. The nationwide distribution of slaves also changed during this time span. Around 1820, slavery was concentrated in the tobacco‐growing areas of Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky and along the coasts of South Carolina and northern Georgia. By 1860, it had significantly expanded into the Deep South, particularly Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, following the spread of cotton production. Had slavery somehow ceased during that expansion, it would have been impossible for the South to meet the worldwide demand for its products.


Cotton production was originally limited because separating the seeds from the fiber of the particular plant variety that grew well across most of the South was a time‐consuming process. The introduction of the cotton gin resolved this problem and made the use of large numbers of field hands to work the crop economical. The invention came along just as the soil in the older tobacco‐growing regions of the South was nearly depleted but about the time the removal of Native Americans from the very lands where cotton grew best had begun.

The principal source of slaves for the Cotton Kingdom was the Upper South, which included the states traditionally considered to be border states—Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky—as well as Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Agriculture in this part of the South was diversifying, and although tobacco and rice remained staple cash crops, more and more acreage was being devoted to wheat, corn, rye, and oats for local consumption. Half of the country's corn was grown in the South. These cereal grains were not as labor intensive as cotton or tobacco, and planters in the region were finding themselves with more slaves than they needed. Alexandria, Virginia, became a major center of the internal slave trade, and according to one estimate, three hundred thousand slaves were sold from there into the Deep South in the two decades before the Civil War.


A small percentage of slaves were domestic servants, working in a planter's main house as cooks, nursemaids, seamstresses, and coachmen. An even smaller percentage worked as laborers or craftsmen—carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths. It was not unheard of for “spare” slaves to become mill or factory workers, and skilled artisans might be hired out to other plantations by their masters. But the overwhelming majority of slaves were field hands, picking cotton and planting and harvesting rice, tobacco, and sugar cane. The occupational distribution of slaves reflected the nature of the economy and society of the South, a region that was agricultural and rural with very little industrialization and urbanization compared to the North.

Irrespective of the jobs that slaves did, slavery on the whole was profitable. The expense to planters for housing, clothing, and feeding slaves was considerably less than the value they produced. Estimates vary, but expenses associated with the maintenance of one field hand were probably half the value of the revenue the master received from the slave's labor. Profitability increased steadily in the first half of the nineteenth century, as prices for cash crops rose and the cost of keeping slaves remained level. The slaves themselves became a good investment.

As cotton production expanded and the demand for slaves increased, their prices rose accordingly. The highest prices were paid for “prime field hands,” usually healthy young men in their late teens and twenties, but women with like agricultural skills were often sold for the same amounts. The enterprising slave owner bought and sold slaves for an additional source of income. 


The image of the South as a place where plantation adjoined plantation and the entire white population owned slaves is a myth. Three quarters of the southern whites owned no slaves at all, and among those that did, most owned fewer than ten. Although the planter class, those individuals who owned twenty or more slaves to work plantations of about a thousand acres, was extremely small, it comprised the southern elite. (A very few plantations were several thousand acres in size and used hundreds of slaves.) With the day‐to‐day routine of the plantation in the hands of an overseer, a planter had little contact with his slaves except for those working in his house. The planter was an agrarian businessman, deciding how much land to put into cash crops versus foodstuffs, debating whether to buy more slaves or invest in machinery, and always keeping an eye on the market prices of his crops.

Wealth, social position, and lifestyle separated the planter from the farmer who owned just a few slaves and usually labored alongside them in the fields. However, the goal of many small slaveholding farmers was to obtain more slaves and land so they could become planters themselves.

The “cult of domesticity” took root in the South as well as the North but with regional differences. A southern planter's wife had many more people to look after in her household than her immediate family. She supervised the work of the domestic slaves, looked after the upkeep of the slave quarters, served as nurse and seamstress (ready‐made clothes were less available in the South than in the North), and maintained the household accounts.

While southern women were expected to be models of virtue, the men were bound by no such standards. Southern women endured the disappointment and humiliation of seeing mulatto children on the plantation who had been fathered by their husbands and sons. No laws protected slaves from rape by their owners, nor did the white men face any social consequences for their actions.


The largest single group of southern whites were family farmers, the “yeoman” praised by Thomas Jefferson as the backbone of a free society. On farms of about one hundred acres or less, they raised livestock and grew corn and sweet potatoes for their own consumption, and perhaps tended a little cotton or tobacco to supply much‐needed hard currency. The yeoman families lived much more isolated lives than their counterparts in the North and, because of their chronic shortage of cash, lacked many of the amenities that northerners enjoyed. Some southern yeomen, particularly younger men, rented land or hired themselves out as agricultural workers.

Small farmers did not own slaves, and their prospect for acquiring enough land or money to do so was nil, but they still supported slavery out of strongly held views of racial superiority and because a large free black population would compete with them for a decent living.


The lowest rung on the white social ladder was occupied by people who lived on the most marginal lands in the South—the pine barrens, swamps, and sandy hill country. Poor whites, variously called “hillbillies,” “white trash,” “crackers,” or “clay eaters,” just barely survived as subsistence farmers, usually as squatters. Their reputed laziness was primarily due to an extremely inadequate diet; malnutrition left them susceptible to malaria, hookworm, and other diseases that produced lethargy. Slaves sometimes had better physical living conditions than poor whites.


Not all African Americans in the South before the Civil War were slaves. More than a quarter million “free persons of color” were concentrated in the states of Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia as well as the cities of Charleston and New Orleans. Blacks who managed to buy their freedom or were freed by their masters, a practice outlawed throughout the South during the 1830s, occupied a strange place in society. While a handful found financial success, even becoming landowners with slaves of their own, the majority were laborers, farm hands, domestics, factory workers, and craftsmen who never escaped poverty.

Religion played an important role in the lives of free blacks, as it did for slaves, and black evangelical churches, particularly Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME), flourished. Perhaps because planters felt sentimental toward children they had sired with slaves, "mulattos" accounted for a significant percentage of the free persons of color. As a group, "mulattos" tended to look down on those with darker skin, whether free or slave.