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Thu, 07.04.1776

The Antebellum South, a brief story

*On this date 1776, the Antebellum South is briefly described.  The Antebellum South (also known as the antebellum era or plantation era) was a period in the history of the Southern United States of America from the late 18th century until the start of the American Civil War in 1861.

This period in the South's history was marked by the economic growth of the region, largely due to its heavy reliance on slave labor, and of its political influence on the U.S. federal government. It was also characterized by the rise of abolition and the gradual polarization of the country between abolitionists and supporters of slavery.  This agrarian era saw large expansions in farming while manufacturing growth remained relatively slow. The then southern economy was characterized by a low level of capital accumulation (largely labor-based) and a shortage of liquid capital.  When forced by the need to concentrate on a few staples, the widespread anti-industrial, and anti-urban ideology, and the reduction of southern banking, led to an American South dependent on export trade. In contrast to the economies of the North and West, which relied primarily on their own domestic markets, because the southern domestic market consisted primarily of plantations, southern states imported sustenance commodities from the West and manufactured goods from the North.  

The plantation technique was a factory system applied to agriculture, with a concentration of slave labor under skilled management. But while the industrial manufacturing-based labor economy of the North was driven by growing demand, maintenance of the plantation economic system depended upon usage of slave labor that was both abundant and cheap.  The five major commodities of the southern agricultural economy were cotton, grain, tobacco, sugar, and rice, with the production of the leading cash crop, cotton, concentrated in the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana).  

One historian of this era was Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who studied slavery as a social and economic system focusing on the large plantations that dominated the South.  Phillips addressed the unprofitability of slave labor and slavery's ill effects on the southern economy. His methods inspired the "Phillips school" of slavery studies between 1900 and 1950.  He debated that large-scale plantation slavery was efficient and progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power. "Most farmers in the South had small to medium-sized farms with few slaves, but the large plantation owner’s wealth, often reflected in the number of slaves they owned, afforded them considerable prestige and political power."  

During the roughly 100-year Antebellum era the demand for slave labor and the U.S. ban on importing more slaves from Africa drove up prices for slaves.   This made it profitable for smaller farmers in older settled areas such as Virginia to sell their slaves further south and west.  The actuarial risk, or the potential loss in investment of owning slaves from death, disability, etc. was much greater for small plantation owners. Accentuated by the rise in price of slaves seen just prior to the American Civil War, the overall costs associated with owning slaves to the individual plantation owner led to the concentration of slave ownership seen at the eve of the American Civil War.  

Much of the antebellum South was rural and, in line with the plantation system, largely agricultural. With the exception of New Orleans and Baltimore, the slave states had no large cities, and the urban population of the South could not compare to that of the Northeast or even that of the agrarian West. This led to a sharp division in class in the southern states between the landowning, "master" class, poor whites, and Black slaves, while in the northern and western states, much of the social spectrum was dominated by a wide range of different laboring classes. Both the American North and the South were characterized by a high degree of inequality during the plantation era.  The profit distribution was much more unequal in the South than in the North shown primarily through land, slave labor and wealth distribution. Six percent of southern landowners ended up controlled one-third of the gross income and an even higher portion of the net income. The majority of landowners, who had smaller scale plantations, saw a disproportionately small portion in revenues generated by the slavery-driven plantation system.  While the two largest classes in the South included land and slave owners and slaves, various layers of social classes existed within and between the two.

In examining class relations and the banking system in the South, the economic exploitation of slave labor arose from a need to maintain certain conditions for maintaining slavery and a need for each of the remaining social layer to remain in status quo. In order for slavery to continue, white, landowning, slave-owners had to compete with other members of the master class.  This was to maximize the surplus labor extracted from slaves.  Likewise, in order to remain within the same class, white, landowning, slave-owners (and each subsumed class below) must expand their claim on revenues derived from the slave labor surplus.  Phillips also contended that masters treated slaves relatively well; his views on that issue were later sharply rejected by Kenneth M. Stampp.

His conclusions about the economic decline of slavery were also challenged in 1958 by Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer in a landmark study published in the Journal of Political Economy.  Their arguments were further developed by Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, who argued in their 1974 book, Time on the Cross, that slavery was both efficient and profitable, as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn, Fogel and Engerman came under attack from other historians of slavery.  As slavery began to displace indentured servitude as the principal supply of labor in the plantation systems of the South, the economic nature of the institution of slavery aided in the increased inequality of wealth seen in the Antebellum South.  


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