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HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- Southern Society: Slavery, King Cotton, and Antebellum America's "Peculiar" Region
Professor Blight offers a number of approaches to the question of southern distinctiveness. The lecture offers a survey of that manner in which commentators–American, foreign, northern, and southern–have sought to make sense of the nature of southern society and southern history. The lecture analyzes the society and culture of the Old South, with special emphasis on the aspects of southern life that made the region distinct from the antebellum North. The most lasting and influential sources of Old South distinctiveness, Blight suggests, were that society’s anti-modernism, its emphasis on honor, and the booming slave economy that developed in the South from the 1820s to the 1860s.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 2 - Southern Society: Slavery, King Cotton, and Antebellum America's "Peculiar" Region
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Southern Memory of the Civil War [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: Well, go South with me today. We’re going to take up this question initially of — it’s an old, old, old American question — how peculiar, or distinctive, or different is the American South? That used to be a question you could ask in quite some comfort. The “Dixie difference,” as a recent book title called it, or “Dixie rising” as another recent book title called it. The South, of course, is many, many, many things and many, many, many peoples. There are so many South’s today that it has rendered this question in some ways almost irrelevant, but, in other ways, of course not. We still keep finding our presidential elections won or lost in the South. Name me a modern American president who won the presidency without at least some success in the states of the old Confederacy. Look at the great realignments in American political history. They’ve had a great deal to do with the way the South would go, or parts of the South would go. We’re on the verge now of the first southern primary in this year’s election, in South Carolina, and everybody is wondering, is there a new modern South Carolina or not?
Now, this question is fun to have fun with in some ways because it’s fraught with stereotypes, isn’t it? The South: hot, slow, long vowels, great storytellers, and so on. Oh, and they love violence and football and stockcar racing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Well I grew up in Michigan and I can assure you that Michiganders love all those things too and probably even more. But the idea of Southern stereotypes is very, very old. It isn’t a product of the Civil War by any means. The South as an idea, the South and its distinctiveness was very much there even in the Colonial Period. Travelers from England and elsewhere, France, who would come to the American colonies and would travel throughout the colonies, would often comment on this, that somehow Southerners were different culturally, attitudinally, behaviorally.
And none other than Thomas Jefferson himself left this famous description of characterizations of Southerners and Northerners. He wrote this in the mid-1780s. He was writing to a foreign — a French — correspondent. And Thomas Jefferson described the people of the North — this was in the 1780s now, this is before the cotton boom and all that — he described the people of the North this way. Jefferson: “Northerners are cool, sober, laborious, persevering, independent, jealous of their own liberties, chicaning, superstitious, and hypocritical in their religion.” Take that Yankees. But Southerners, he said, “they are fiery, voluptuous, indolent, unsteady, independent, zealous of their own liberties” — he changed jealous to zealous there. If we’re doing close readings we might go into that for twenty minutes, but we’re not. He’s not over: “zealous of their own liberties but trampling on those of others, generous, candid and without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of their own heart.” Now we can debate what Jefferson got right or wrong there, or what’s held up, but do note how he said both sides were either jealous or zealous of their own liberties. That could be an epigraph on this course, if you like, because in the end when this Civil War will finally come both sides will say over and over and over again that they are only fighting for liberty. Everybody in the Civil War will say they’re fighting for liberty.
In one of the greatest books ever written on the South, by a Southerner, in particular Wilbur Cash’s great classic in 1940 called The Mind of the South, he did something similar to Jefferson, although he’s focusing only on Southerners here. Cash was a great journalist, intellectual historian in his own right, deeply critical of his beloved South. In fact it was Cash who wrote a book called The Mind of the South in which he argued, in part, that the South had no mind. He didn’t really mean it. He said Southerners are “proud, brave, honorable by its” — The South is “proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its actions. Such was the South at its best,” said Cash, “and such at its best it remains today.” Then comes a “but.” But the South, he says, is also characterized by, quote, “violence, intolerance, aversion, suspicion toward new ideas, an incapability for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice.”
Some of the South’s greatest critics, of course, have been Southerners. What’s distinctive about the South, especially this Old South? There’s Shelby Foote to comment on this. None other than Shelby the star of Ken Burns’ film series on the Civil War, that lovely, lovely, lovely geriatric in a blue shirt that American women fell in love with in a documentary film. It’s the only time in recorded history that anyone fell in love with anybody in a documentary. Shelby Foote said this — and who is he speaking for? “I’m not aware that there is such a thing as Southern art,” said Shelby, “at least not if you’re defining it by technique. If there’s something distinct about it” — Southern art — “it’s subject matter and also inner heritage. All Southerners who try to express themselves in art are very much aware that they are party to a defeat.” Now, that’s Shelby Foote speaking for white Southerners. And when Shelby Foote uses the term ‘Southerner’ he means white Southerners. But party to a defeat. Or as Walker Percy, the great Southern writer, was once asked — he was asked, in effect, “why do Southerners have such long memories? They don’t seem to forget anything.” And he gave a simple, straight, declarative answer. He said, “Because we lost the war.” We lost. Loss always, I think, almost always, especially in modern history, has led to longer, deeper, troubled memories.
But Shelby wasn’t speaking for all Southerners there. Toni Morrison was speaking for black Southerners in that, I think, fantastic line in her novel Beloved — which I know many of you’ve read because it’s taught all the time — but there’s that marvelous little exchange at one point between Paul D and Sethe. And Paul D and Sethe are trying to imagine a new life out of the horror of their past, and at one point Paul D simply says to Sethe — Sethe, of course, is a former slave woman who birthed this child which becomes this extraordinary ghost called Beloved, and Paul D was a former slave who survived the worst brutalities of slavery and worse than chain gangs and so on and so forth. But at one point he just says to her, “Me and you Sethe, we got too much yesterday, we need more tomorrow.” Too much yesterday, we need more tomorrow.
Why does the South have such a long memory? Why is history and memory sometimes a deep family matter, to Southerners? Whereas it isn’t necessarily to Northerners, or so it seems. Faulkner captured this, Faulkner captured this all over the place. But I have a favorite line in his novel called The Hamlet, where Faulkner has one of his characters say, and I quote: “Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to cure.” Can’t cure it, can’t solve it, can’t get rid of it? Forget it. Or try to forget it, or work on forgetting it, or create a structure of forgetting; which is, of course, always a structure of remembering at the same time.
And then lastly there’s Allan Gurganus, that wonderful Modern Southern writer who wrote that book called The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, you know that bizarre — it’s a wonderful read. We’ve always been looking for the oldest Confederate widow, in case you haven’t noticed. They keep finding one. The latest was just found another five years or so. She was, I don’t know, ninety and she married some sixty-year-old Confederate veteran at some point in time. We’re always finding some woman alive who claims she was married to a Confederate soldier. I don’t know precisely why. That’s one for an anthropologist to figure out. But Allan Gurganus, he actually said this in The New York Times in a commentary he wrote on the Confederate flag, where as a Southern writer back during — oh about five to six years ago — during the worst of the controversies over the Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina capitol and so on, Gurganus wrote this wonderfully witty, wry, brilliant op-ed piece, long op-ed in The New York Times where he talked about the depth of Southern memory and why Southerners have such deep memories, and then he begged his fellow Southerners to fold that battle flag and put it in museums. But the line I wrote down out of that piece was this. What’s distinctive about the South: “The South has a tradition,” said Gurganus, “of attempting the impossible at great cost, proudly celebrating the failure, and in gaining admiration for the performance.” Trying something, failing gloriously at it, and then getting everybody’s admiration. If that’s not a novelist’s description of what a lost cause is I’ve never read one.
One could go on and on here. In some ways the most distinctive literature America has is a kind of Southern literature, white and black. Every major African-American writer of the twentieth century, at least until your lifetime, when black writers in this country are now born and raised in cities, in California or Minneapolis or New York or — and in modern Atlanta and they come from all the same places other Americas do. Sometimes they come from the Caribbean and become Americans. But that’s recent. Every major African-American poet and writer and artist from frankly the mid-nineteenth century on has always been reflecting on this nexus of North and South. South to a Very Old Place as in Albert Murray’s famous book. Trouble the Water; a novel about growing up in the South by Melvin Dixon, a great novel that gets little attention, and his lifelong struggle to understand just how Southern he was in New York. Ralph Ellison’s famous musings on being a Southerner come to Harlem; and on and on and on.
Chapter 2. Similarities and Differences between the Antebellum North and South [00:14:22]
But let’s go back to the Old South, this Old South that got the United States in so much trouble. Although it wasn’t all their fault. First of all, it’s worth remembering there are a lot of clear, undeniable similarities of all kinds, things you can measure, between South and North in the 40 years before the Civil War. The North and the South had roughly, as the Northern and Southern states, the Free states and Slave states, had roughly the same geographic size. They spoke the same language, English, although in very different regional dialects, of course. They had common heroes and common customs and a certain common heritage of the American Revolution; make no mistake.
John C. Calhoun, one of the great intellectual architects of Southern distinctiveness or Southern sectionalism, and certainly of Southern States’ Rights doctrine, was very much an American nationalist, at least in the early parts of his career. Northerners and Southerners shared basically the same Protestant Christianity, although they used it in different ways. They had very similar political ideologies, borne of the republicanism, they all kind of breathed in- that was breathed into them, and they inherited from the age of the American Revolution. A fierce belief in individual liberty. When you hear a slaveholder preach about his individual liberty and his rights, you sometimes wonder, “come on, where do you get off?” But as many of you know, and certainly you will find out here, they had pretty clear ideas of who ought to have those individual liberties and who would not, who indeed were born equal and who were not.
Both shared, both sides, the leadership of both sides, shared a rich kind of nationalism about this American experiment. You can find a whole- you can sort of find a deep and abiding kind of American nationalism still in a lot of these budding Southern patriots, even by the 1850s, especially when they get scared about what secession might actually mean. You could argue that both Southerners and Northerners shared a certain degree of old-fashioned American localism, attachment to place. New Englanders know something about attachment to place, and so did people from the low country, South Carolina. States’ Rights was nothing that the South owned either, of course. Some of the most open exercises of states’ rights, of course, before the 1850s, were conducted by Northerners, like in the Hartford Convention of 1814, like in personal liberty laws that we’ll come to a bit later. In resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act the state of Wisconsin enacted a Personal Liberty Law that said they were not going to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and turn in fugitive slaves, and the justification was that it was their state’s right to do so. So it isn’t just States’ Rights that’s distinctively Southern. Southerners shared with Northerners a faith in progress, if you breathed the air in American in the 1840s and ’50s. The idea that America stood for some kind of progress, that America meant a prosperous future was just common coin. And both Southerners and Northerners shared both the reality and the spirit of that westward movement. Both had participated in what David Donald used to call the great American practice or custom, tradition actually he called it, of compromise.
And both sides, both North and South, in their political leadership, in their economic leadership, were led by hard-boiled, believing, practicing, capitalists. Southern slave-holders were not pre-capitalists. There’s historical scholarship that used to argue that a couple of generations ago, but not anymore. And throw this statistic up. You could argue that both sides had essentially the same kind of oligarchies. Less than one percent, less than one percent of the real and personal property, in both South and North by the 1850s, was held by approximately fifty percent of free adult males. The richest one percent in both sections, put another way, held twenty-seven percent of all the wealth. The North had budding oligarchies, just like the South did. Now those oligarchies were based on different things, and that’s where the rub came.
A little more on this distinct South. I said earlier that this is an old idea, I mean it goes back into the eighteenth — you can find all kinds of examples of these stereotypical conceptions of the South in French, British visitors. One of the most famous, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who in his famous fictional letters, Letters from an American Farmer, he invented a character, if you’ve ever read that great text, called Farmer James. His typical American farmer, Farmer James, was of course a Pennsylvanian — sturdy, probably had some German blood in him. Crèvecoeur made the North the site of the true essence of what he saw as this new American man being born in America, not in the South. He traveled in the South. He likened Charleston, South Carolina though — this was in the 1780s — he likened Charleston, South Carolina to what he called, quote, “the barbarous institutions and traits, especially slavery, the self-indulgence of the planters” — and then he concludes — “just like Lima, Peru.” That’s the only known comparison of Charleston to Lima, Peru that I’m aware of. Oh and on and on and on.
There were travelers from Europe who came and would write these stereotypic stories. There’s one by an English traveler, he entitled it, “A Georgia Planter’s Method of Spending Time.” And it’s this litany of how a Georgia planter gets up early, has his first draught of whiskey, talks to his overseer, has another draught of whiskey, eight o’clock has breakfast, another draught of whiskey, and the day goes on — talks to his overseer again, gets things started on the plantation that day, and then he goes into the village, to the tavern, to start drinking. Lots of these.
Most importantly, seriously, the idea of the South as exotic, different, and dangerous is an old idea. A new layer of danger sort of was put on top of images of the South — not just in Northerners’ minds, for that matter — after the great Haitian Revolution, after the slave rebels of San Domingue made Haiti the first black republic in modern history, and some of those Haitian rebels ended up in the American south. In the imagination of white Southerners there were a lot more Haitian rebels coming into the South than actually ever got here.
But then if you look at the writings of New Englanders, by the early nineteenth century. Take Jedidiah Morse, for example, the great geographer. He called the North a, quote, “happy state of mediocrity, a hardy race of free, independent republicans.” And isn’t that the image that New Englanders always want of themselves? They don’t share anything, but they’re free and independent. When my wife and I first moved to Amherst, Massachusetts — I took a job there once — we took some baked goods over to our neighbors. And we’d been warned about New Englanders and all that. But we delivered the baked goods and said, “Hi, how are you? We’re here now.” And the woman said in effect, “Why have you brought this?” Anyway.
Sorry. Jedidiah Morse described Southerners however as, “disconsolent” — “represented,” he said, by, quote, “disconsolent wildness and popular ignorance.” Noah Webster, of the great dictionary fame, said famously, “Oh New England, how superior are thy habits in morals, literature, civility and industry.” So, comparing the North and the South, try and understand how difference eventually does boil into political crisis, which eventually boils into conflict, which eventually boils into disunion, which eventually boils into war, does have some root back in these kinds of perceived differences. As one of my favorite historians warned me once, “don’t leave out the politics.” Don’t leave out politics.
Chapter 3. Reputation and Honor - Characteristics of Old South Society [00:24:44]
Now, if I could hang your hat on one kind of Southern distinctiveness, perhaps above all — it’s fun to play with all these stereotypes and realize that if so many people were writing this way, from personal observation, yes, there must be something to all these differences. But what eventually evolved in the South — and we will return to this a good deal next Tuesday when I’ll devote an entire lecture to this kind of slaveholder worldview and the pro-slavery argument — the pro-slavery defense — and how that evolved into a political culture. But if there’s one thing — and this is a little risky because there are always holes in any claim like this — but if there’s one distinct feature of the Old South society and indeed its leadership and most of its people, it would be what we might label anti-modernism.
It was a society that eventually developed a disdain for what they perceived as the corruptions of modern commercialism. Southern slaveholding leadership, in particular, were very suspicious of the spread of literacy. They were very suspicious of the democratic tendencies, or so it seemed, the democratic tendencies of that northern society which was spreading literacy more widely, and eventually the right to vote more widely, at least among white people. It is a society where the leadership for sure, and much of the non-leadership, were suspicious of reform, suspicious of change, suspicious of democracy itself. Democracy, the slaveholding class of the South came to see — small d — as a dangerous thing. It was a threat to hierarchy and the South became quite distinctively a very hierarchical society — more on that in just a second. It became a hierarchical society rooted very deeply in open conceptions of class and obviously open conceptions of race. Some were born to rule. In the overall attitude of the planter class and the leadership class of the American South by the 1840s and 1850s, some were born to rule and some born to be ruled. Deal with it, was their attitude.
They became deeply protective and insistent upon their own peculiar sense — and there’s a great scholarship on this — their own peculiar sense of honor. Honor. That old-fashioned concept — it’s an old-fashioned word. How many of you even use that word anymore? “Do the honorable thing.” Ah. “Oh, I didn’t act today with much honor did I?” We’re more likely to — we have other words for it now. What would the — ? We might say class — “we did that with class.” Or being effective. I don’t know, what would a synonym today be for honor? Anyone? A good synonym for honor. “A person of character.” Oh, I don’t know. Work on that, will you? A synonym for honor.
Well, honor in the Old South. There’s a whole vast scholarship on this and two or three of the teaching assistants in this class are real experts on it. So check it out with Steve and Sam and others. But it was essentially a set of values, and it was a deeply rooted set of values in the planters’ worldview. It was a form of behavior, demeanor. Yes, it meant a certain kind of gentleman’s understanding of behavior. It was the idea that a gentleman must be honest. A gentleman must be trustworthy. A gentleman was a man of entitlement. A gentleman was a man of property. A gentleman had class, rank, and status, and you better recognize it. And the most important thing in the Southern code of honor, I think, safe to say, was reputation. A man of honor must be recognized, must be acknowledged. And indeed there must be virtually a ritual of that recognition.
Now, honor’s alive and well around the world today, make no mistake. It’s alive and well in diplomacy, it’s alive and well in many, many cultures. I was part of a huge conference last summer in West Africa on the end of the slave-trade in Ghana, and we had representatives — we had people participating in that conference from 15 or 16 different African countries. We had African chieftains involved, we had the Vice-President of Ghana and the President of Togo and on and on and on. We spent an entire day doing nothing but bowing and doing honor. And for Americans, all our democratic experience and do I have to put a tie on for this event or not? This kind of ritual honor all the time — I mean after all we have a president who just likes to speak like a Texan, he doesn’t do all that honor stuff. I’m sorry, if I’m going to do Bush I got to work on that, don’t I? That’s terrible. Who’s that guy that does those commercials? He’s brilliant at Bush. Forget it, anyway.
James Henry Hammond of South Carolina once said, I quote, “Reputation is everything. Everything with me depends upon the estimation in which I am held.” That’s honor, personal honor. For many Southerners it was more important than law, more important than conscience. And when they started encountering these Northerners, whether they were from Massachusetts or Ohio, who started talking about a politics of conscience, or a politics of law, they’re not always talking on the same page.
Chapter 4. The “Burden” of Southern History [00:31:27]
So anti-modernism and honor are two hooks you can hang your hats on. There are all those other claims. The South is distinctive because of its climate, hot weather, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There’s book after book after book on this, like Clarence Cason’s famous book, 90 Degrees in the Shade, which is supposed to explain all Southern behavior and ideas. Ruralness is often used to explain the distinctiveness of Southern writing and art and so on. I do love Eudora Welty’s description of this. She didn’t just say it’s all because the South is rural. But Eudora Welty was once asked why Southerners can be such great writers, or such good storytellers — and she was a wonderful storyteller. Her answer was this — and it’s got something to do with how a lost cause took hold too — but she said, “Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers and letter savers, history tracers and debaters, and outstaying all the rest they are just great talkers.” Now I’ve met a few New Englanders who were good talkers too.
Then there’s this issue of conservatism. Why is the South the seat of American conservatism? Why did a Southern strategy in modern American political history re-invent the Republican Party? Even though some defenders of that particular movement claim it didn’t happen, like David Brooks tried to claim in The New York Times. David Brooks is a revisionist. Well, the taproot of conservatism you could say is right there in the Old South. It’s exactly what Wilbur Cash once said. He said, “If you want to understand the South,” he said, “its taproot is back there in the Old South.” We so long had this game of sort of always looking for the central theme of Southern history, the central theme of the South. And so often it does come back to this overall claim of a kind of anti-reform, sometimes even anti-intellectual, conservative defense of a hierarchical civilization rooted in white supremacy and originally, indeed, in one of the biggest slave systems the world had ever created.
And there’s the old business about violence. You can go way — there’s lots of books on this and articles on this; why cockfighting was more popular in the South, why country fighting and eye-gouging was — . Elliott Gorn, a wonderful historian up at Brown, wrote a brilliant, fascinating, half-crazy essay once about eye-gouging and Southern fighting. And I don’t know, I used to love to quote from it but then I began to realize I’m only quoting that because it’s about a guy’s eye being gouged out. So that’s — I’m not going to do that anymore.
Now, C. Vann Woodward weighed in on this, a great historian, worked here much of his life. But he said, you know, finally the South — he said, finally the South got liberated from being the place that America always dumped its sins. In his famous book of essays, The Burden of Southern History. among many other things he argued that the South actually had the chance to finally be liberated from being the seat of all of America’s sins, by three things. And he didn’t live long enough quite to — well he actually lived long enough but he didn’t really write about what I would add as a fourth one — but he said the Civil Rights revolution finally began to liberate the South. And concomitantly a second reason is that that Civil Rights revolution also brought, through its process, a huge discovery at the same time of Northern racism, when Martin Luther King brought the movement to Chicago and nearly got killed doing it. And in a thousand other ways Americans realized racism isn’t a Southern thing, it’s everywhere, belongs to everyone.
And then Woodward argued quite directly that the loss of the Vietnam War began to liberate the South, in a sense that the South, Southerners, white Southerners, were the only Americans other than — we always forget Native Americans — who had ever lost a war. And that a burden was taken off the South by the loss of that Vietnam War. Now, that’s a debatable subject, isn’t it? Because there’s a broad revisionism about Vietnam. Ronald Reagan argued it was our noble cause in Vietnam. We could’ve won, should’ve won, were winning, and so on and so forth. There’s even a fourth idea you might add to how the South may have been a little bit liberated from this past by what has happened in just the last twenty to twenty-five years of American political history, and economic history, with Sunbelt migration, with Southern industrialization and post-industrialization, with massive immigration now from around the world; large Vietnamese populations in Louisiana, large Hispanic populations in North Carolina, a huge Cuban and other Hispanic populations in Florida. You have a very, very changing demographic situation in the American South and its political culture has to respond to that. So we may live, in your lifetime, to a time when this burden of Southern history may get all but lifted altogether from Southerners, unless we don’t forget the Civil War. And we don’t seem to forget it. As I said the other day if that Confederate flag would just go away, just vanish, just stick it in the basement of museums and no one would ever care about it anymore, maybe, maybe the South’s burden would go away.
Chapter 5. The South’s Cotton Economy [00:38:15]
But there’s another kind of burden, and again Woodward and many others have written about this. One of the most distinctive things about Southern — the South, is of course its history, not just its culture, not just its attitudes, not just its behavior; not the kind of stuff that what’s his name, John Shelton Reed, the great sociologist, is always doing these surveys of attitudes about Southerners, of Southerners, by Southerners. But let’s remember the South had a distinctive history. The antebellum Southern economy became by the 1820s, without any question, a slave economy. And by the 1820s and 1830s the American South became what I think you could safely say was the fifth slave society in human history; maybe the sixth. This is debatable.
Now, for a long time in American scholarship and in American classrooms one of the deep mythologies about this whole story of the era of the American Civil War in the Old South is that the Old South’s plantation economy was dying out. Soil was being eroded and wasted along the Eastern seaboard, and they were using up the great soils of the Mississippi Valley and over time that slave system just somehow wasn’t going to work out. Now Ulrich Phillips argued this years and years and years ago. Others argued it from real research, but along came Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman and a generation of other scholars from the 1960s on, and there were people even before them who looked at the Southern economy through cleometrics and statistics and a broad swath of new economic historical methods and analyses, and they discovered that — sorry folks — slavery was extremely profitable. The Southern economy, thank you very much, was booming.
The South had its greatest cotton crop ever in 1860. It was affected by the major American depressions of 1837, 1857, but not as much as the North. And, lo and behold, that idea we had of the Southern planter as this — oh, you know, kind of anti-modern — don’t give up entirely on the anti-modern label, I think there’s still something to that — but that anti-modern kind of backward-looking planter who — he didn’t really like world markets, he didn’t like railroads and trains and all that stuff, he just wanted to make a decent little living if he could off growing some hemp and some tobacco and some indigo and some rice and some cotton, and he was good to his slaves. They had a bad break coming from Africa but that’s the way it goes. Uh-uh.
We now know, if we know anything about the Old South, the average American planter, the average American slaveholder, small ones and big ones, were raging capitalists. They understood markets, they understood profits. They were men of rational choice, and the way to wealth in the American South — the way to wealth, even before the cotton gin but especially after Eli Whitney’s cotton gin; and by the way folks, everybody knows Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and it was originally this little box, smaller than this lectern. If you don’t know that — somebody should’ve taught you that in the 6th Grade or the 4th Grade or the 1st Grade or somewhere. Good old Eli Whitney, it’s his fault we had the cotton boom and slavery grew, and you get sort of Eli Whitney to the Civil War. And then we have a great war for weeks and it’s all Eli Whitney. He’s buried right across the street. Go into Grove Street Cemetery some — go visit his grave and say, “It’s not your fault Eli.” “It’s okay, ‘cuz them planters, they were raging capitalists just waitin’ for you. All you did is give ‘em a machine.”
The way to wealth. Faulkner wrote about this too in that immortal character he created in Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! Who was Thomas Sutpen? Thomas Sutpen is that guy who arrives out in Alabama with a group of Haitian slaves with him. He treats them like an absolute tyrant. He carves down the forest, he begins to cultivate the land and he declares what you got to have for success in the South is “a house, some land and some niggers.” That’s another one of those sentences by Faulkner that sort of captured this spirit of Alabama Fever, as it was called, in the 1820s and ’30s, and Mississippi Fever in the 1830s, Louisiana/Texas Fever by the 18 — well Louisiana Fever is even earlier — but Texas Fever by the 1840s. The land was so rich and it was really cheap at first.
Now, how powerful was the cotton boom once it took hold? This powerful. Sea Island cotton, the kind of cotton grown down there in the Georgia — where it was first grown in North America — in the Georgia, South Carolina islands, was a kind of long and silky kind of cotton. They weren’t very successful in growing it in huge amounts, but that short stapled cotton that eventually was the form of cotton that the cotton gin made into such a massive, marketable world product, is what made the cotton boom boom. By the 1820s, already, within a decade of the War of 1812 and the opening of the frontier, cotton’s future seemed limitless. And one of the best analogies you can think of is the oil rich nations of the world in post-World War Two, in the post-World War Two era, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, the Emirates, or Venezuela, name — today Russia. If you’re an oil rich country today, as long as that oil lasts, you got the world kind of at your knees. You’re in OPEC. And that is exactly what the South began to see itself as, at least Southern leadership began to see itself as, as early as the 1820s and 1830s.
The cotton crop nearly doubled every decade from 1820 to 1860. Four decades in a row the production of American cotton nearly doubled. Now think of another product in American history that doubled every decade for four decades, and then imagine that that product became the country’s, without question, absolute largest export. General Motors at its height, when I was growing up in Flint, Michigan, in boom times, would’ve wished it could’ve said that. Already by 1825 — that early — the South was the world’s largest supplier of cotton and fueling now this Industrial Revolution in textile production in Great Britain and other places. And think of it this way. I need a map for this, excuse me.
I don’t know if you can see those colors much at all, sorry about that. But what you’ve got at the top are the early 1790s and I think 1820 in terms of slave population in the American south. But if you look at 1860, the bottom map, if you can vaguely see those deep, dark, red areas, you can see where cotton moved, where slavery moved in the domestic slave trade, and then where Southern political power moved. And you will find, as we will in the next few weeks, the Southern political power by the 1850s and 1860s is really no longer in Virginia, or even South Carolina, it’s out in the Mississippi Valley. There’s a very good reason Jefferson Davis becomes president of the confederacy in 1860. It’s because he’s from Mississippi.
Now, fortunes were made overnight; new wealth, overnight. A number of men, as one historian has written, I think quite effectively, “mounted from log cabin to mansion” — and I quote — “on a stairway of cotton bales accumulating slaves as they went.” If you had five slaves and a good piece of land in Alabama in 1820, you might very likely have fifty slaves and a hell of a lot more land a decade later. But it’s also worth knowing that that slaveholding population was also fluid, people moved in and out of it. There were approximately 400,000 slaveholders, white slaveholders, in the American South by 1860. About one-third of Southern white families at one time or another had at least a toehold in slave ownership. That means two-thirds did not, of course. Two-thirds of the white South remained in those classes we’ve come to call the yeoman farmers, the poor whites, or the sand hill farmers, as they were sometimes called. In certain regions of the South, the yeoman farmer — non-slaveholding, but land owning, usually — and the poor white farmer — non-slaveholding, but usually not even land-owning, usually renting or working for wage labor — were forty, fifty, and even sixty percent of the white population in a given region.
Jefferson Davis is, in fact, a classic example of the cotton boom planter. He was born in relatively meager and humble circumstances in Kentucky, not what, about 80 miles from where Abraham Lincoln was born, in even meagerer circumstances. But his older brother, Joseph, went out to Mississippi and struck it rich in cotton. And Jefferson Davis went out to join him, and Jefferson Davis became a millionaire. On cotton. Of course Jefferson Davis really preferred to be a military officer and went to West Point and on and on and on, and the rest is history.
Chapter 6. Conclusion [00:49:57]
My watch says I’ve run out of time. Now let me leave you with this. How successful was the cotton boom, how important was the cotton boom, what is the relationship between the spread of slavery, the spread of cotton, and power? By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society — slave population — in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close.
But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars — that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America. If you’re looking to begin to understand why the South will begin to defend this system, and defend this society, and worry about it shrinking, and worry about a political culture from the North that is really beginning to criticize them, think three and a half billion dollars and the largest financial asset in American society, and what you might even try to compare that to today. Now I’ll pick up with this next Tuesday; it’s a perfect transition into the pro-slavery argument an the southern worldview. Thank you.
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