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The society of the South in the early republic

Overview

  • 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)
Pie chart showing percentage of slaveowning whites in US South by number of people they enslaved:
50+ people 7929 20-49 people 29733 10-19 people 54595 5-9 people 80765 2-4 people 105683 1 person 68820 Did not enslave any people 1042575
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.”start superscript, 1, end superscript
Painting showing a plantation in Louisiana. Fenced areas surround gardens and a large house sits near many outbuildings, including a cotton press.
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.”squared
An illustration from 1841 showing an idealized vision of plantation life, in which caring slaveowners provided for enslaved people from infancy to old age. The old man at left says “God Bless you massa! you feed and clothe us. When we are sick you nurse us, and when too old to work, you provide for us!" The white man at right says "These poor creatures are a sacred legacy from my ancestors and while a dollar is left me, nothing shall be spared to increase their comfort and happiness."
An illustration from 1841 showing an idealized vision of plantation life, in which caring slaveowners provided for enslaved people from infancy to old age. The old man at left says “God Bless you massa! you feed and clothe us. When we are sick you nurse us, and when too old to work, you provide for us!" The white man at right says "These poor creatures are a sacred legacy from my ancestors and while a dollar is left me, nothing shall be spared to increase their comfort and happiness." Image credit: Library of Congress
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?

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