Maier: And how amazing it is, however, that that southern frontier
developed in such a different way than the northern frontier did. They're both
Miller: That's one of the most interesting things, I think, about the
country, that you have pioneers--similar pioneers--going in, at the same time
going into two regions of the country.
Maier: But creating very different economies, and very different
Miller: Tremendously different political cultures, yeah.
Maier: I mean, you didn't get any cities, except New Orleans,
developing like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, or St. Louis, Louisville. These were
manufacturing centers. They were retail centers. You just didn't get that in
the Cotton South.
Miller: What explains that?
Ambrose: Eli Whitney.
Miller: Eli Whitney. Yeah.
Ambrose: Explains a lot of it.
Maier: Well, that explains why you had the growth of cotton into that
Ambrose: And the ability to grow cotton, and the fertility of the soil,
and the heat in the South, and all of these combined, meaning you could grow
the hell out of cotton there. And because of Eli Whitney, you could make that
cotton available on the market, and then you could ship it off to England, and
they couldn't get enough of it in England.
Miller: But the problem was, of course, that...
Ambrose: Getting the seed out.
Miller: Getting the seed out. When Whitney invents his gin, a slave
could do that work in a half a day, whereas before it took 33 days to do. And
that invention, of course, is what, 1793. And he does it on a Savannah
plantation, and everybody steals it.
Ambrose: It had an effect that cannot be fully measured. It made that
land more valuable. It made the slave system much more valuable. It meant
that someone like Thomas Jefferson, for example, could make his living not
by--Virginia soil was pretty well worn out by this time.
Maier: Peat moss, not too good.
Ambrose: But you could sell those excess slaves, because they had to
have those slaves in Alabama, they had to have them in Mississippi, they had to
have them in Louisiana. And the value of slaves went like this. And you had
excess slaves, all the time, on these Virginia plantations. And so slavery
became the key to Virginia's economy, not because of what the slaves could
grow, so much as what you could sell the slaves for.
Miller: Slave breeding.
Ambrose: Sell them down the river.
Miller: New Orleans and Natchez were the two big slave markets down
there. So you didn't have to bring your slaves with you when you settled out
there. The slave traders were there. And as soon as you had any capital--I
mean, that was the key. The land was so cheap. There were land grants in both
areas: in the Northwest as well as in the Southeast, and Southwest. And you
Maier: But think of the difference. If your family, to use Jefferson's
term, included a large contingent of slaves, those slaves, even as adults,
aren't going to be part of a market economy. They're not going to be going to
the local store to buy something. So you don't need retailing centers in the
same way you did need them in the Ohio territory, where the income went to
families in a more nuclear sense. So that you had retailing centers, you had
processing centers. You clearly need a different kind of a population than the
mass of those who are in the Cotton South. You need people who are educated.
And people in the West are investing much more heavily in schools, in
libraries. You have very different cultures, very different economies.
Miller: Yeah, the capital's all tied up in land and slaves in the
Maier: And it's not a bad investment, we know. The return on it wasn't
bad. But the long-term prognosis wasn't very promising.
Miller: Where you're saying, in the North it's a more mixed system.
Maier: You get a more mixed economy than you're getting in the South.
Miller: But here's a question, though. In this period there's kind of
a transition. From about 1800 to 1820 slavery is just getting established in
the South -- most of the southerners are yeomen farmers. But by the 1830s, you
start to get a so-called 'Solid South.'
Ambrose: I think that's absolutely right. And the original arguments
against slavery come from Thomas Jefferson and other southerners, who looked
around them and saw this is an evil system and we've got to get rid of it. But
by the time you get to the 1830s and cotton has become king, all of a sudden
it's a very profitable system, or so it appears to them, and the Jefferson
arguments lose their way.
Miller: And there's land hunger, hunger for more slaves, pressure to
reopen the slave trade, and all of a sudden, at the same time, the abolitionist
movement arises, and you've got two separate sections. The South really is so
much part of America in 1800, and then just kind of pulls away. It just pulls
Maier: Well, it also becomes more economically isolated, if you think
about it; that the West is trading primarily with the Northeast; the South is
selling abroad. It is, in some ways, the most independent economy within the
regional economies of the United States.
Miller: The only place they really had ties to, ironically, were in New
York, and they thought those were exploitative ties, because those New York
manufacturers and merchants came in and took over, and made sure that cotton
went through New York. And there was a kind of triangular trade, New York to
Liverpool, back to New York, back to Charleston, places like that. And there's
talk of secession already in the 30s.
Maier: Hey, and you got a little bit of it in Thomas Jefferson, at the
time of the Alien and Sedition Acts, his nullification. And of course, at the
time of the Missouri Crisis, even more, he really thinks that the crisis over
slavery is going to lead to a dismemberment of the union.
But the anticipations of secession or that the Union would fall apart, those
weren't the kind of things you memorialize. The idea that resistance and
revolution was a continuing resort for people who were disaffected within the
Union, or for states.
Miller: But here's a question I've never been able to answer for myself
satisfactorily. A lot of northerners went south. Steven Duncan is a planter
in Mississippi, who's probably the largest plantation owner, the richest man in
Mississippi. He's from Pennsylvania. He supports slavery but he also supports
the Union, and he leaves the South at the outbreak of the Civil War. Was there
any difference, moral difference, between the people who settled in the Ohio
Valley and out toward Illinois, and people who settled in Mississippi and
Maier: That's an interesting question.
Miller: See what I mean? Is it slavery that turns them in this way? I
mean, we often think that the Civil War is this Manichaean struggle between
good and evil, obviously, those who held slaves and those who were opposed to
Maier: Well, we'd like to think there was a moral difference, but
racism was a national institution.
Miller: That's what -- these guys were all frontier, and they take
advantage of what the frontier gives them, I mean in terms of what soil's
Ambrose: I would insist that there is a fundamental difference. And
that is, in Illinois, even in southern Illinois, in Wisconsin, in Iowa, going
out further west, or--you can't own another man. Period. You cannot own
another man. Now, you can discriminate against him, you can use him, you can
be racist in many of them--you can't own them, you can't sell them. And there
were a lot of people in the South that felt that way, to be sure. A lot of
small farmers in the South who didn't own their own slaves and who thought,
we're on the wrong track here, or who could not make it work economically for
them. But the people that controlled the society in the South came up with a
justification for slavery, in it's the best of all possible systems, and the
blacks are way better off under slavery than they would be if they were under
wage slavery up north, and so on. We all know the arguments of the pro-slavery
people. And it was accepted. And it became a part of the fiber of the being
of a very large number of white southerners. And that was not the case up
North. And that is a difference.
Miller: What causes the difference? We know there's a difference.
Ambrose: The economic basis of society, and the way in which you
Miller: The way you can make money.
Ambrose: That's right, the way you make money. And that you can be a
white man in the South. And it used to be -- it's not the case anymore, but it
used to be -- when I first started going south, segregation was still in place.
It was wonderful to be a white man in the South in those days. You never had
to think about what you were doing to the other half of the population; you
just did it, and you benefited from it. And it gnawed its way into your soul.
There isn't any way around it. You can't deny it.
Miller: That's what I'm finding with these historical characters. I'm
coming across in my own research how quickly northerners become southerners,
adopting the ways of the South, accepting slavery, and defending slavery.
Ambrose: You read the Civil War letters, and...
Miller: The metamorphosis is quick.
Ambrose: An awful lot of the Union troops, who were campaigning in
Mississippi, in the Vicksburg campaign, and they get to be the most violent
anti-Negro people, and cursing them, and bringing them into camp and using them
as their own slaves, their own personal slaves. Listen, it's wonderful to be
on top, it's wonderful to be the master. Or so it seems. In the end, people
up north and eventually in the whole country realize no, it's not wonderful; it
really is terrible, and it ruins not only the people that you're subjecting to
your whims and your wishes, it ruins you. It has this effect that, in the end,
is going to destroy you. But boy, it takes a long time to come to that view.