The Southern Economy

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Southern Economy

The agricultural South and the industrial North had so little in common that the United States was in many ways two separate countries. Their climates and topography were different, their sources of income were different, the businesses in which people worked were different, and their ideas on the subject of slave labor and their notions of how the federal government should be run were poles apart.

The primary difference between the South and North was that the North maintained a mercantile economy and the South did not. In the North, people bought and sold goods; in the South, people generally produced everything they needed. If they could not produce it, they did without it. Wealthy southerners did purchase luxury goods, but these were almost always purchased in the North or imported from Europe because there was very little manufacturing in the South. Instead, the economy was based on growing, harvesting, and exporting crops. There were four social and economic classes in the South: the wealthy planters, the small farmers, the poor whites, and the slaves.

The Planters

Rich planters who owned fifty or more slaves were relatively few in number. They might own hundreds or thousands of acres of land on which they grew cotton, and sometimes rice or sugar cane as well. With a vast number of slaves and also with paid employees, a plantation owner was like a medieval lord. He and his wife, and often their grown sons and daughters, worked together to oversee the day-to-day operations of their land. The planter ran his estate like any other business; he had accounts to keep, correspondence to write, and trades to broker. The planter’s lady was responsible for the general welfare of everyone who lived on the plantation; she ran the household, looked after and treated the sick, and managed the staff of house slaves. A typical southern estate was almost entirely self-sufficient; owners and slaves between them either grew or made everything they needed.

The Small Farmers

Small farmers might or might not own a few slaves. They were largely self- sufficient, growing what they needed for themselves and trading their surplus crops for cash and for goods they could not grow or make, such as spices, tea, or tools.

The “Poor Whites”

The “poor white” class was poor because its members lived on barren soil. When a farmer could not coax a good crop from his land, his or her family was bound to suffer. The poorest southern whites owned no slaves. They lived in log cabins and subsisted on what crops they could grow. They had no leisure for education and nowhere to go to get it. Many of them were illiterate. They had very little hope of improving their lot in life.

The Slaves

Slaves were paid nothing for their work, although they were on call every hour of every day. The civil contract required that the plantation owner feed and house them and provide care for them when they fell ill. Since the plantation owner wanted to make the greatest possible profit, he provided no luxuries and very few comforts to his slaves. They were housed in shacks, given the poorest-quality food and not much of it, and clothed either in castoffs from the owner’s family or in clothing that they made themselves from the poorest and roughest fabrics. They knew better than to appeal for medical care unless they were seriously ill; no slave wanted to be branded as a troublemaker or a complainer. Plantation owners knew that they had to maintain a healthy and strong workforce in order to turn a profit, but they convinced themselves that African slaves could thrive on a starvation diet and a seven-day workweek.

Somehow, despite the nightmare conditions under which they were forced to live, slaves maintained a rich and picturesque culture of their own. It was a patchwork quilt of memories of a variety of cultures from their home continent of Africa, blended with European-derived elements they had acquired in the New World. Spirituals, for instance, combine African musical elements with biblical lyrics. Slaves told stories, sang, and danced to entertain themselves and one another. Many slave women became skilled in the art of using herbs to heal the sick. Although it was a crime to teach a slave to read or write, many slaves managed to learn anyway; during the mid-1800s, the slave narrative became a popular and widely read genre of autobiography. Escaped slaves, most famously Frederick Douglass, wrote of their experiences in the South: starvation, brutal physical punishment, unceasing hard labor, and constant restraints on their liberty. Slave narratives shocked many readers and converted them to the cause of abolition.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

American Economic Development Practice Test

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