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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.

[Picture of a wagon load of cotton]

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."

[Picture of slaves working on a plantation]

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."

[Picture of a slave with extensive scars from being beaten]

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.

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