The True Story of the American South

Most of images of Old South are stereotypes that are not true.

· One stereotype was promoted by the South while the civil war was still fresh; of the kindly Plantation owner, "ol’ Massa" sitting on his white-columned porch sipping a mint julep; "darkies" happily singing in the fields, young ladies being wowed by slender gallant young men with long side burns. This is the "Gone With the Wind" image.

· Another myth was of the poor white trash, crackers, hillbillies, etc. The "God’s Little Acre" image.

· Others showed a cruel, arrogant master who abused his slaves, kept a slave mistress, bred them like cattle, sold them down the river with abandon, while their wives who disapproved, dare not speak up. The "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" image.

Like all myths, all of these have some basis in fact, but are largely overstated, and do not represent the complete truth.

The South was different from other parts of the country in many respects, including but not limited to its diverse population, both white and black, its distinctive agriculture, and its social ideals.

Staple Crops: Cotton was king, but was a latecomer to the staple category. Earlier, tobacco, rice, indigo, etc. had held sway. In Louisiana, Sugar had been a staple crop. Also, Hemp in some areas for use in making rope, cotton bailing, and sail canvas.

Cotton became prominent in the early 1800’s. In 1812, production was less than 150,000 bales; by 1860, it was 4 million bales. Two things pushed its progress:

Over time the Cotton belt slowly moved West, into Texas and the Mississippi River Valley.

Southern Agriculture was diverse; cotton was not its only crop. The South fed itself and much of the U.S. Although it had only 30 per cent of the country’s land area in 1860, and 39 per cent of the population, the slave states produced:

Also, in 1860, the South produced:

Even so, agriculture in the South was not altogether prosperous. Soils were often eroded and depleted. Result, a sense of crisis developed: Some diversification and trade developed.

Manufacturing and Trade: Thesis statement: The South became economically if not formally a kind of colonial dependency of the North.

As the south grew more dependent on cotton, sold to British mills, it became more and more dependent upon Northern manufactures. Not only that, cotton (as well as tobacco) were shipped out on Northern vessels. Although the South bought many imported goods from Europe, they depended upon Northern merchants to provide these items.

Southerners realized their dependency, and there was a call to diversify, and make use of the various raw materials available.

Richmond, Virginia, the Tredegar Iron Works opened, manufactured munitions, axes, bridges, even steam engines. Much of the labor was slave labor.

Slaves were often used in manufacturing enterprises. Factory owners either bought their own slaves, or hired them from slave owners. A number of slaves even became overseers in factories.

Slaves proved to be a valuable investment. The average return on the cost of a slave was about 10 per cent annually. That’s good return even today; in that time, it was phenomenal. Slaves were also a good investment, as slave prices tended to go up. So in a cruel sense, slaves were a source of wealth. 

From Tindall and Shi: If an understanding of the Old South must begin with a knowledge of social myths, it must end with a sense of tragedy. White southerners had won short-term gains at the costs of both long-term development and moral isolation in the eyes of the world. The concentration on land and slaves, and the paucity of cities and immigrants, deprived the South of the dynamic bases of innovation. The slaveholding South hitched its wagon not to a star but to the world, (largely British,) demand for cotton, which had not slackened from the start of the industrial revolution. During the late 1850’s, it seemed that prosperity would never end. The South "safely entrenched behind her cotton bags…can defy the world—for the civilized world depends on the cotton of the South," said a Vicksburg newspaper in 1860. " No power on earth dares to make war upon it," said James H. Hammond of South Carolina. "Cotton is king." The only perceived threat to King Cotton was the growing anti-slavery sentiment. What southern boosters could not perceive was an imminent slackening of the cotton market. The heyday of expansion in British textiles was over by 1860’s but by then the Deep South was locked into cotton production for generations to come.

Planters: Plantations separated from farms by large labor force used to grow staple crops, such as cotton, tobacco, rice, etc. for profit. Small farmers might own a few slaves, but if he did so, he worked side by side in the fields with his slaves; the planter did not dirty his hands if he could help it.

To qualify as a planter, one had to own at least 20 slaves. Fewer than one in 30 qualified in 1860. Only 11 owned over 500 slaves; about 2300 owned 100 slaves.

Planter group, four per cent of population, owned over 50 per cent of slaves, and controlled the market for staple crops. They considered their welfare to be the welfare of the South as a whole, and no one ever challenged that notion, because every small farmer had dreams of becoming a planter.

Plantation homes were often quite modest, with large facades in front to make them appear opulent. There were some few large mansions.

Planter was something of a full time manager. He had very little leisure time; but spent most of his time managing his estate. Disputes between workers and foremen often came to him for resolution, and although there were laws dealing with slaves, "slave codes," they were often ignored, and the master had life and death power over slaves.

The Plantation Mistress: Did NOT lead life of idle leisure. She was responsible for supervising the household, meal preparation, caring for the sick, etc.

They were also responsible for supervising the slaves when they were not in the field. As a result, they often worked quite hard, sometimes harder than the slaves themselves, just keeping the household running. She had precious little personal freedom or leisure time. If a slave were in labor, the woman of the house was expected to help deliver the child, as well as care for the sick.

The myth is that women couldn’t dirty their hands with such things; that it would be "handled" by other slaves. In fact, slaves were too valuable an investment to be ignored, or trusted to someone not capable, and the planter himself was too busy running the plantation, so the wife was stuck with the domestic chores.

One white woman stayed up all night delivering a slaves baby. Afterwards, when she was tending to her daily responsibilities, she said to a friend, "It is the slaves who own me. Morning, noon, and night, I’m obliged to look after them, to doctor them, and attend to them in every way.

White women faced a double standard of moral and sexual behavior. She was supposed to be a chaste example of Christian piety; and loyal to her husband, while every man in the house, including the sons, believed it their right to have their way with any woman in the slave quarters.

One woman wrote in her dairy, "God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system. Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own  These, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.

Although it was demoralizing, most women kept quiet about it. The husband ruled as lord and master over his household.

The Middle Class: Some middle class people worked for planters, often as overseers. Most aspired to become planters themselves one day, but few succeeded. Almost all were white; slaves could only hope to become in charge of a small group of slaves, and was known as a slave driver.

Most numerous were small farmers, the yeomen whom Thomas Jefferson thought were the salt of the earth. They lived in small two-room cabins, grew a few crops, raised a few hogs and chickens’ they traded more with neighbors than with open market.

Wives often worked side by side with husbands in the fields. Some few owned a handful of slaves, but most did not.

Middle class would pull up stakes and move quickly if opportunity seemed to beckon west.

They were fiercely independent, mostly Jackson Democrats, and evangelical Protestants. Some were jealous of planters, but all supported slavery. They feared if slaves were freed, they would compete with them for the land.

Middle class whites also enjoyed the fact that they could consider themselves the social superior of black slaves. For this reason, whites in the South overwhelmingly supported slavery, even when the majority owned no slaves.

The "Poor Whites:" They were easy to spot, most were thin and lanky, pale features, spent time fishing, hunting with hound dogs and making moonshine whiskey.

Tendency to classify people socially led some to say that the poor whites were descendents of indentured servants, and were all lazy. In fact, their poor diet often made them susceptible to diseases such as malaria, hookworm, pellagra, which made them quite lethargic; and thus appear lazy and shiftless.

They had a diet deficiency that often made them chew clay for its mineral content. As a result, they were often nicknamed "dirt eaters." Medicine did not detect cause of problem until early 1900’s and many of problems disappeared after that time.

Professionals: Often treated on par with planters.

Although the South did seem to have its own social stratification, there were very few "cotton snobs" who lorded their wealth over everyone else, particularly if they wanted to hold a public office. Every Southern state supported universal male suffrage by 1860, and no one dared offend the voters.

Southern Honor and Violence: Southerners had a keen sense of "honor." It closely resembled medieval chivalry.

Tindall and Shi: It’s elements included a combative sensitivity to slights, loyalty to family, locality, state and region, deference to elders and social "betters," and an almost theatrical hospitality. It manifested itself in a fierce defense of female purity, and a propensity to magnify personal insults into capital offenses,

Southern women were important in the Southern code of honor. They were the object of "masculine chivalry and the objects of male rule." Says one writer, "While men cultivated and defended their honor, women paraded and protected their virtue.

A Southern lady was to be "sexually pure, spiritually pious, and domestically submissive—all the while she managed the household.

Women ready embraced the idea of honor carried by the man of the house.:

Sam Houston had been born in the South. When he joined the army to fight in the war of 1812, his mother handed him the family musket, and said, "Never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave than that one of them should turn his back to save his life." After that, she gave him a ring with the word "honor" inscribed on it.

When the Civil War broke out, one young lady broke her engagement to a young man who refused to enlist in the Confederate Army before the wedding. She then sent him a skirt and female underwear, and told him, "wear these, or volunteer."

Violence was a necessary element of the Southern code of honor, and found outlets several ways, gambling (cards, dice), horse racing, cock fights, which also provided opportunities for masculine camaraderie. It was also a rite of passage for young males. When one was old enough to attend these events, then he was truly a man.

The importance of these events is evidenced by the fact that often schools and courthouses closed down when there was a horse race.

Gambling, etc. were considered more reputable than even business transactions. Said one gentleman, "A gambling debt is a debt of honor, but a debt due a tradesman is not."

The duel became the most obvious place for one to demonstrate his devotion to honor above all else. Dueling occurred in all states, but more often in the South than anywhere else. Dueling was outlawed in the North after Burr killed Hamilton in 1804, but in the South it either was not outlawed, or the law was not enforced.

Since many arguments turned on political issues, such as abolition, nullification, slavery in the West, etc., often duels were fought over political quarrels. In Virginia, a state representative and state senator managed to kill each other in a duel. Many prominent Southerners participated in duels, including Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston, and even Henry Clay.

It didn’t take much to provoke a Southerner and get him ready for a duel. The slightest breach of courtesy, no matter how unintentional, the slightest suggestion that one had been unfair to another in a business deal, was enough for a challenge.

Some people argued the fact that one could be so easily provoked to mortal combat was reason enough for gentlemen to be especially careful in their conduct and choice of words. Southerners assumed that a dueling society was a more polite—and honorable—society.

Strict rules of conduct attended dueling. Only "Gentlemen" were allowed to settle their disputes in that fashion. No slaves, no mechanics, certainly no blacks.

Personal honor was so important it sometimes superceded survival. In 1826, there was a duel between Henry Clay and Congressman John Randolph of Virginia. (Clay was Sec. of State). The dispute was over American foreign policy. Randolph was a bachelor, and the night before the duel said he was resolved "to receive without returning Clay’s fire, nothing shall induce me to harm a hair of his head. I will not make his wife a widow, or his children orphans. Their tears would be shed over his grave, but when the sod of Virginia rests on my boson, there is not in this wide world one individual to pay his tribute upon me."

True to his word, Randolph fired first, and shot a stump behind Clay. Clay also missed, and then demanded a second round. He then shot first, and pierced Randolph’s coat, but didn’t wound him. Randolph fired into the air, and although the rules said "no talking," he said, "I will not fire at you, Mr. Clay, You owe me a coat." Clay said, "I am glad the debt is no more," they shook hands and the quarrel was over. Yet ten minutes before, they were ready to kill each other!

So many people were killed in duels that anti-dueling societies developed. States passed laws against duels, but few people were convicted. Judges were reluctant to convict their fellow "gentlemen."

Dueling only fell into disrepute after the civil war. Mark Twain made a humorous comment about it. Said he: "If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand, and lead him into a quiet place, and kill him."  

Slaves were freed sometimes as a reward for service in the military, or upon the death of a master by will, or occasionally because of a fit of conscience. More often than not, they were able to buy their freedom by working.

Many freed blacks were mulattos, usually the offspring of an illicit relationship between a master and a female slave. Some owned businesses, and even owned slaves themselves.

Freedmen, particularly mulattoes, displayed a certain degree of snobbishness and distanced themselves from slaves; as if they were ashamed to be associated with them. They also tended to make great mention of gradations of color; the lighter one’s complexion, the more "acceptable" he was in polite free black society.

Freedmen often bought members of their family in order to free them, while others bought slaves indiscriminately to free them. Some engaged in slave trade as a regular business, and were as heartless about buying and selling slaves, or chasing runaways as whites.

The Slave Trade: Slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder; even below Indians.

In fact, some Indians, notably the Cherokee, owned slaves and worked them in their fields. The practice was so widespread that during the Civil War, most Southern Indian tribes supported the Confederacy.

It was originally thought that the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 would cause the slave trade to gradually die away. Actually, slaves multiplied as rapidly as the free population, such that by 1860, the slave population had grown from 498,000 (1790) to 4 million. This was quite an increase for just 70 years.

1790’s – a prime field hand sold for $300.00 – 400.00

1830’s $1,000 – 1300.00

1860’s $1,500.00 – 2,000.00

Slaves with special skills would command an even higher price.

It was because of the value of a good slave that they were often cared for rather well; there was too much to lose otherwise. They were not pampered, but were rather treated about the way one would treat a prize cow or horse.

One slave commented that his master was pretty good to him; he treated him about as good as he would a good mule.

Slaves were bought and sold regularly. There were slave brokers, dealers, and auctioneers. The largest firm in Alexandria Va. kept "slave pens" in which slaves were fattened up and spruced up, again just like prime livestock. The similarities were too obvious to be ignored.

Almost every town of any size had slave auctions and dealers.

Slaves were routinely separated from their families; as slave marriages had no legal standing. There were a few slave codes that prohibited separating a young child from its mother before a certain age, but as a rule, families were broken up whenever one slave was sold.

The end effect was traumatic damage to the morale of the slaves.

On the plantation, slaves normally specialized in assigned work. Some were house servants (the preferred work), others might be carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. Others were general field hands to work in the fields.

Slaves were typically given two changes of clothes per year. They were given shoes only in the winter. They had their own quarters, and often had an infirmary where they could go if sick; again because of their investment value. Even so, medical care was not good. Over half slave babies died in the first year of life; a mortality rate twice that of whites.

Field hands worked approx 15 hours per day; sometimes from before daylight until after dark. (The common phrase was "from kin (see) to kaint.") Almost all owners used the whip to punish slaves; the primary difference between good and bad masters was the degree of punishment he inflicted.

Some slaves considered rebellion or flight as recourse for mistreatment. Most did not even consider such; as it seemed hopeless, particularly for women with children or pregnant.

Only three slave revolts drew attention, and two never got off the ground:

· Gabriel revolt, Richmond Va. (1800) – 25 slaves executed for participation; never got anywhere.

· Denmark Vesey, Charleston, S.C. (1822) – planned to kill all whites. Seize ships and head for Santo Domingo. Someone ratted him out; 34 slaves were executed.

· Nat Turner, Southhampton, Va. (1834) – only one to get beyond planning stage. Turner claimed to be on a divine mission; He and others killed everyone in his master’s household, and started down the road, killing whites. He ended up killing 54 whites before he was captured. Seventeen slaves were hanged as a result.

A more reliable method of retaliation was work slowdown or sabotage. Masters could usually get around this easily enough, because the slaves who worked well ate better.

Slave Communities: Slavery was the ultimate melting pot. All slaves came from diverse tribal and ethnic origins, but managed to fuse together a slave society. Many words from their native tongue were incorporated into their English; hence the Gullah language.

Slave Religion and Folklore: Slaves readily accepted Christianity, as it had some similarities to African religions. They found a great deal of solace in the church; particularly the stories of Moses freeing the Israelites from bondage.

Many slave tunes reflect that: Go Down, Moses

There is a Balm in Gilead

Folk stories came over from Africa also, often about weaker animals outwitting larger more powerful ones. Often the heroes in the stories were rabbits, tortoises, etc.

A Classic example of this would be the "Uncle Remus" stories of B’rer Rabbit, and B’rer Fox. B’rer standing for "brother."

Family Life: Slave marriages had no legal standing, but most owners recognized that marriage was a stabilizing force, and encouraged marriage. Often they performed the marriage themselves, or had a minister do it.

One feature of slave weddings was the "broomstick" wedding, in which the bride and groom jumped over the Broomstick. Its origin is unknown.

In slave families, the father was recognized as the head of the household, and slaves had a keen sense of their extended family; cousins, etc.

Despite marriages, white men quite often had their way with black women. They justified this by avowing that black women were promiscuous by nature; and that this actually protected white female chastity, since a man had an opportunity to vent his spleen elsewhere without getting into trouble.

Between the Revolution and 1830’s most people never tried to defend it. The most common defense was that without slavery, there would be interracial marriage, which was considered the ultimate catastrophe, and possibly even race war.

First serious movement against slavery was the American Colonization Society (1817): It proposed to send them all back to Africa. Among those supporting it were James Madison, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, James Monroe.

Even some slave supporters were in favor of the idea; they thought it would be a good way to get rid of blacks who caused problems. Black spokesmen almost uniformly condemned the idea. They said that America was now their home, and there they wished to stay. Many of them had been born in America.

In 1822, land was purchased in Africa, and became the Republic of Liberia. Its capital was named for James Monroe; Monrovia. It never had more than the slightest success; the number of slaves returned to Africa was less than the birth rate among slaves in America.

Efforts to this point had been to gradually end slavery; but the movement suddenly took a new twist; that slavery should be immediately ended forever; it should be utterly abolished, hence the Abolition Movement.

1831: William Lloyd Garrison: began publishing The Liberator. In his first edition he denounced the "popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual emancipation," and said, "I will be harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice."

The Liberator produced outrage in the South, which was even more pronounced following the Nat Turner rebellion. Garrison was even accused of helping Turner, although it is hardly likely, as Garrison was a pacifist.

1832, Garrison and followers organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society. It was succeeded by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Their plan was to convince state legislatures that slavery was a sin in the sight of god and the state’s best interests was its immediate abandonment.

Prominent abolitionist was Theodore Dwight Weld. He was a convert of Charles Grandison Finney, and Student at Lane Theological Seminary, headed by Lyman Beecher. Beecher expelled him because he insisted on discussing abolition, so he and other students started a seminary at Oberlin College.

The Abolitionist movement split in 1840. Garrison had been a virtual anarchist, who wanted to abolish all vestiges. He even called the U.S. Constitution "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." He was a standard bearer who adopted every new cause to come along, including women’s rights, temperance, etc.

The split came over women’s rights. Two sisters from South Carolina, the Grimke sisters, had begun holding meetings speaking against slavery. This was considered unladylike, and a number of people told them so. Garrison’s group favored their participation, others said it was not a woman’s place; so the movements split.

Black Antislavery Activity: White abolitionists were not crazy about blacks participating in the movement. Whites seemed more inclined to want to strike a moral victory; black activists were for freedom now.

Most famous:

· Frederick Douglass. Douglas was a runaway slave; went to England on a lecture tour, earned enough money to purchase his freedom, and began a Black Abolitionist newspaper, the North Star.

· Sojourner Truth: Renamed herself after a mystical vision from God. She was an eloquent speaker with a deep, commanding voice. (Barbara Jordan?) She also was an escaped slave; but added women’s rights to the appeal.

Among her more famous remarks were those made to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1837: I have plowed, and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen’em most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard, -- and ain’t I a woman?

Reactions to the Antislavery Movement: Crowds were often hostile to the antislavery people, North and South. In Alton Illinois in 1837, a newspaper editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered by a mob. He became the first martyr of the movement as well as of freedom of the Press.

A mob in Charleston destroyed sacks of mail containing abolitionist literature. The postmaster said he wouldn’t deliver it, and Andrew Jackson asked Congress to pass a law that the post office could not deliver "incendiary" literature. They didn’t give it to him.

Abolitionists tried sending antislavery petitions to Congress, most of which were introduced by John Quincy Adams; but the House passed a rule that immediately tabled all such petitions. This move killed them.

The Defense of Slavery: Slavery was presented as a "Positive Good." Evangelical churches which had opposed slavery, now argued it was not a sin, and in fact was God’s will. They quoted the Bible, the slaves that appear there; as well as the story of Noah and Ham contained in Genesis. They also cited Paul’s admonition for servants to obey their masters; and his Epistle to Philemon in which he sent back a runaway slave to his master.

The Methodist and Baptist Churches split over the issue: Baptists in the South became the Southern Baptists; and the Methodists became the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The Methodist Church remained separate until 1937; the Baptists are still separate.

Another argument was that blacks were naturally inferior. Science even offered it’s own "evidence" of the inferiority of the black race. Needless to say, it only told people what they wanted to hear.

Others argued that slavery was a practical necessity. Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia had argued that blacks and whites could not live together peaceably, the result would be a race war.

Not only that, everyone knew that blacks were basically lazy and shiftless, and couldn’t be expected to work under conditions of freedom. They would be a danger to themselves.

Whites also worried about the competition from blacks for work; and were also terrified at the prospect of a race war similar to one that had broken out in Santo Domingo, which was quite bloody.

By 1850, the argument was made that it was better for Blacks, as it gave them job security. They were better off than the "wage slaves" of the North, who worked under dangerous conditions, and were cast off when they were too old, or too sick to work; slaves were cared for until they died. (Although most died at a young age.)

The idea of slavery as a positive good actually took root in the South; but was soon lost in the nationwide obsession with the slavery issue.