- The Second Great Awakening - origins and major ideas
- The Second Great Awakening - influence of the Market Revolution
- The Second Great Awakening - reform and religious movements
- The development of an American culture
- Antebellum communal experiments
- The early temperance movement - origins
- The early temperance movement - spread and temporary decline
- Women's labor
- Women's rights and the Seneca Falls Convention
- African Americans in the Early Republic
- The Cotton Kingdom
- The society of the South in the early republic
- Culture and reform in the early nineteenth century
- Although three-quarters of the white population of the South did not own any enslaved people, a culture of white supremacy ensured that poor whites identified more with rich slaveholders than with enslaved African Americans.
- Influential southern writers defended slavery as a “positive good,” projecting a false image of happy enslaved people that contrasted sharply with reality.
The society of the South in the early republic
The great planters, as families that owned more than 100 people were known, dominated southern society and politics, even though they were few in number.
Only about 2,000 families across the entire South belonged to that class. The vast majority of slaveholders owned fewer than five people. But slaveholding itself was far from the norm: 75 percent of southern whites owned no enslaved people at all. Yeoman farmers scraped by, working the land with their families, dreaming of entering the ranks of the planter aristocracy.
Percentage of whites who enslaved African Americans in the US South, 1850 (by number of people they enslaved)
Wealthy slaveowners devoted their time to leisure and consumption. They attended balls, horse races, and election days. They built stately mansions and furnished them with manufactured goods imported from the North and Europe. Unlike in the urban North, where there were many community institutions and voluntary associations, plantations were isolated estates, separated from each other by miles of farm and forest. Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved as a child and young man, described the plantation as “a little nation by itself, having its own language, its own rules, regulations, and customs.”
The “master” of a plantation, as the white male head of a slaveowning family was known, was to be a stern and loving father figure to his own family and the people he enslaved. According to this notion of paternalism, women, children, and enslaved people were incapable of reason or moral behavior without the strict discipline and occasional mercy the master doled out. Southern society also prescribed that white men adhere to a code of honor, defending their reputation and that of their family by challenging anyone who insulted them to a duel.
The “mistress” of a plantation (the master’s wife) strove to embody an ideal of femininity that valued helplessness, submission, virtue, and good taste, while she also managed a significant part of the estate. While white women were themselves confined to a narrow domestic sphere, they also participated in the system of slavery, directing the labor of enslaved people and often persecuting the enslaved women whom their husbands exploited.
In many ways, poor white farmers and enslaved African Americans had more in common than poor whites and the planter elite did; they both survived in the margins of southern society. But a shared belief in their own racial superiority tied whites together. Although most white families in the South did not own slaves, yeoman farmers hired the labor of enslaved workers from slaveowners, served on slave patrols to capture runaways, and voted slaveowners into office.
Rather than finding common cause with African Americans, white farmers aspired to earn enough money to purchase their own slaves and climb the social and economic ladder.
Slavery as a “positive good”
Over the course of the nineteenth century, as northern states and European nations abolished slavery, the slaveholding class of the South began to fear that public opinion was turning against its “peculiar institution.” Previous generations of slaveholders in the United States had characterized slavery as a necessary evil, a shameful exception to the principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
But as critiques of slavery in the northern press increased in the 1820s and 1830s, southern writers and politicians stopped apologizing for slavery and began to promote it as the ideal social arrangement.
According to its defenders, slavery was a “positive good,” which benefitted both races. Slavery provided lifelong care and protection for African Americans, who were incapable of caring for themselves, and delegating menial labor to enslaved people allowed whites to dedicate themselves to higher pursuits of science, art, and politics.
Slaveholders even began to argue that Thomas Jefferson’s assertions in the Declaration of Independence were wrong. In 1840, John C. Calhoun wrote that “it is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike . . . not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it.”
The most prominent pro-slavery writer was George Fitzhugh, whose book Sociology for the South argued that enslaved people in the South were happier and better situated than northern industrial workers. Fitzhugh described an idealized, paternalistic system of slavery, in which slaveowners lovingly cared for enslaved people from childhood through old age and saved their immortal souls by converting them to Christianity. In comparison, cold-hearted northern factory owners dismissed employees if they were unable to work. Fitzhugh even went so far as to suggest that slavery should not be solely based on race; he argued that the white northern workers would be happier as slaves.
In reality, these intellectual defenses of slavery bore little or no resemblance to the lived experience of enslaved people, who were subject to a brutal and dehumanizing system that was every bit as profit-driven as northern industry.
What do you think?
Why did poor white farmers identify more closely with slaveowners than with enslaved African Americans?
What arguments did pro-slavery writers make? Why did they question the ideas of the Declaration of Independence?
Want to join the conversation?
- why did wealthy slave owners have slaves if they devoted their time to other things(4 votes)
- Wealthy slave owners needed slaves to keep them wealthy. THe massive plantations that these people owned weren't going to harvest themselves.(11 votes)
- What arguments did pro-slavery writers make to support the idea that slavery was a “positive good”?(3 votes)
- This is from ushistory.org, where there's an article entitled "The Southern Argument for Slavery" that details several of the arguments. I paste this one here to show you how little political argumentation has changed in 160 years: "JAMES THORNWELL, a minister, wrote in 1860, "The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other."(6 votes)
- wait, soooo would child slaves be beaten and tortured and sent to the chain gang too? or would that only be for adults?(5 votes)
- What deemed a slavery writer "pro" and how much did they make writing.(2 votes)
- "Pro" in this usage does not mean "professional" (like the pro golfer at the country club or a pro wrestler on Television). "pro" here means "supportive of the cause".(4 votes)
- slaves were a bad thing(1 vote)
- Slaves were people, and like all people, there were good and bad among them. Slavery (enslavement) was uniformly bad, though.(5 votes)
- why did this happen(1 vote)
- Slavery dates back to ancient times and has been a part of many different cultures, nationalities and religions. Some researchers believe that slavery began during the Neolithic Revolution, when some began farming rather than hunting and gathering. Farming requires a lot of labor also because we were able to stay in one place due to farming the populations began to grow. This meant that more housing and infrastructure was necessary, which also requires labor. Slavery also occurred as a result of wars. Those that were captured during the battles would be used as slaves to enrich those that came out victorious.(2 votes)