The Slave South
The greatest difference between the regions, of course, was slavery. But we
must take care not to characterize the North as progressive on the issue of
race. Even as slavery was coming under attack, some 200,000 free blacks were
losing their rights. Tocqueville, always the acute commentator, observed that
"the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished
slavery than in those where it still exists. And nowhere is it so intolerant
as in those states where servitude has never been known."
The slave South consisted of 15 states. Of the 11 million inhabitants in the
South, 7 million were free, 4 million were enslaved. One third of all Southern
whites owned slaves, most of them four to five bondsmen. Less than 1 percent
of the white population owned more than 50 slaves. But this number accounted
for one fourth of the nation's slaves.
These planters, while a minority in terms of population, exercised considerable
political power and control in society. Over the course of the early
nineteenth century, slavery expanded into Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and
Texas. Migration was as much a Southern obsession as Northern--moving on to
fertile land, reaching out for new territories.
Cotton, in particular, becomes the obsession of the South. It accounted for
half of all American exports, and production of cotton accelerated from 700,000
bales in 1830 to over 5 million in 1860. Southerners exported their cotton to
England, where the factories would turn it into woven goods and send it out
into the world. Southerners truly believed that cotton exercised power in the
transatlantic economy. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina declared, "You
dare not make war on cotton; no power on earth dares to make war upon it.
Cotton is king."
The monarchical language was suggestive of another aspect of Southern society.
The plantation South was a bastion of patriarchal authority and power. It
meant that the lives of women were often particularly difficult and
challenging, especially in the slave-holding household. One woman proclaimed,
"It is the slaves who own me." Women were expected to be chaste and pure, but men
often took liberties with the enslaved.
Mary Chestnut, who kept a diary, wrote, "Ours is a monstrous system. Any lady
is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in every
household but her own. Those, she seems to think, dropped from the clouds."
The reputation of families mattered deeply to Southern men, and honor was a key
to Southern identity. Status in the South was public and relational, not
private and solitary.
We could talk about the difference between the South as a culture of shame,
whereas Northern evangelical culture was increasingly driven by internalized
notions of guilt. The defense of honor meant vindication through bloodshed.
Andrew Jackson carried a bullet from a duel he had had early in life. And a
friend once told Henry Clay that he would have rather have heard of his death
than that he'd backed down in a duel.
The myth of the plantation slave-holding South is a persistent one, but
non-slaveholders accounted for three-fourths of the population. These were
yeomen farmers. Some, especially those in the western parts of the Southern
states, opposed the policies of the plantation elite.
But despite their differences, they came to the defense of the social
structure. John C. Calhoun offered an explanation as to why. "With us," he
said, "the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and
black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper
class and are respected and treated as equals."
The enslaved numbered 4 million souls. More than 75 percent of them worked the
land cultivating cotton, tobacco, sugar, and rice. About 15 percent served as
domestic servants in households, and 10 percent or so worked in factories and
industry. The typical Southern slaveholder may have owned several slaves, but
most of the enslaved lived on plantations with twenty or more bondsmen.
Slave Life and Culture
Slaveholders repeatedly praised the institution as paternalistic and proclaimed
that the enslaved were contented. But one Southern jurist made clear the rule
of law that under-girded the system. "The power of the master," he said, "must
be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect."
A photograph taken during the Civil War captures the absolute power of the
master, but it also conveys the humanity and agency of the enslaved. The man's
posture suggests pride, defiance, survival. His name was Gordon, and he took
advantage of the dislocations of war to run away from a Mississippi plantation
into Union lines. An assistant Surgeon General took his photograph and
circulated it as evidence of the barbarity and cruelty of the slaveholding
class. The image appeared as well in Harper's Weekly magazine, where it was
used as a recruitment poster to enlist black soldiers. In exposing himself, in
allowing his picture to be taken, Gordon pushed the cause of emancipation.
In the campaign against slavery, words could be every bit as potent as images.
Prior to the Civil War, another runaway slave published a book that introduced
readers to the horrors of slavery and explained the nature of slave culture.
In his narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, the
runaway recounted his journey from enslavement in Maryland to freedom in New
England. Douglass exploded the myth of the happy, docile, deferential slave, a
stereotype that slaveholders used repeatedly to defend the institution.
He examined, for example, the meaning of slave songs. The singing of the
enslaved marked the persistence of oral West African traditions that offered
spiritual hope for salvation, not only in the eternal life but in the temporal
one as well. Some of the songs contained coded messages. In the lyrics, "O
Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan," singers were not just
bound for heaven but for the North.
Douglass claimed to be utterly astonished to find people in the North speak of
the singing among slaves as evidence of their contentment and their happiness.
"It is impossible," he screamed, "to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves
sing most when they are most unhappy." The songs of the slave, he thought,
represent the sorrows of his heart, and he is relieved by them only as an
aching heart is relieved by its tears.
Consider another story Douglass told. Colonel Lloyd, a wealthy slave owner, is
out riding one day and comes upon a group of slaves working. He asked one of
them to whom did he belong? "Colonel Lloyd," the slave answered. "Does the
Colonel treat you well?" "No, Sir," was the reply. A few weeks later that
slave was sold to a Georgia slave trader for having found fault with his
master. And to be sold into the Deep South was to be sold to an area where the
institution of slavery was in its most violent and least paternalistic form.
The story helped explain to a Northern audience why it was that slaves might
act as if they were happy and contented.
Douglass's narrative was eye opening. It revealed to an unknowing public the
nature of slavery. It explained that no matter how docile slaves appeared, no
matter how brutal and repressive the institution, the slaves also found ways to
resist their enslavement.