2. Southern Society: Slavery, King Cotton, and Antebellum America’s “Peculiar” Region


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.
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. 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. 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.
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 6^(th) Grade or the 4^(th) Grade or the 1^(st)
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.
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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