King Cotton


*Slavery had existed in the English colonies that became the United States since 1619, and became important after Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia and the colonisation of Carolina by Caribbean planters in the late 1600s. 


*In different regions, slaves worked in different ways.  Most were employed in agriculture, whether growing food on the estates of the patroons of New York, tobacco in the Chesapeake, or rice in the Deep South.  Others, however, were craftsmen or house servants.


*On tobacco plantations, slaves typically worked in the 'gang system' in which gangs of slaves worked specified shifts under the control of an overseer or driver.  Their shifts were as long as they could bear (with gangs being composed of slaves of similar strength, so that a gang of strong workers could all work together longer than a gang of weaker ones), and they had little free time of their own.  It was viewed as a particularly harsh system.  As tobacco plantations declined in profitability, extra slaves were often sold, even if that meant breaking up families.


*On the rice plantations of the Deep South, slaves worked according to a task system, in which different slaves or groups of slaves would be assigned a particular task and they would work until it was finished.  Sometimes this did make for very punishing hours, but at other times, it allowed for quite a bit of free time in the evening, and at all times it allowed at least some (and occasionally quite a bit) of flexibility in how a task was completed.  Because the task system could allow more free time than that gang system, slaves employed in this way often grew their own gardens and often sold or traded some produce and in general enjoyed stronger communities and families, although slave marriages were generally not recognised and family connexions counted for little if the master decided to sell a slave.


*There were laws, however, forbidding masters from freeing the old, the ill, and the infirm so that they would have to feed and house slaves who could not take care of themselves.  Such laws were mostly followed, but certainly not always.


*Slaves could also look forward to a few holidays, although only a few.  At Christmas, for example, slaves were given at least the day off, as well as a new suit of clothes and a gift of liquor to let them celebrate.  Such holidays were rare, however, particularly for field hands.


*Some slaves did work as house servants, either in the homes of plantation owners who had many slaves or in some cases as the only slaves a family might own.  In general, this was viewed as a higher status among slaves, and house servants' treatment, food, clothing, and shelter were generally better, although this was not guaranteed.  Female house servants (like all female slaves) also had to worry about the attention of male members of their owners' family, as it was pretty much impossible to refuse their advances.  Mixed-race children remained slaves, thanks to the 'one drop rule' that declared that even one drop of Black blood left someone black, and thus bound as a slave.


*Other slaves were craftsmen, working on a plantation or in a shop in town.  Those who worked in town made a profit for their masters' businesses, and even some plantation owners rented their skilled slaves out on short- or long-term contracts.  Craftsmen like this, as well as house servants, were the main types of slaves found in the North before slavery was abolished there.


*In some cases, skilled craftsmen or even other slaves could earn some wages or keep a share of the value of what they sold (especially if they worked extra in their spare time, as some craftsmen and some slaves working on the task system did), and by saving up this money, some slaves could purchase their freedom.


*In any case, by the time the Constitution was written, slavery seemed to be in decline.  Ideological opposition to it existed in all thirteen states that had declared their belief that all men are created equal, and a number of Northern states had already begun schemes of gradual emancipation, while slavery had been excluded from any new states created from the Northwest Territory.  The importation of slaves to the United States was outlawed in 1808, the earliest date allowed by the Constitution (thanks to an alliance of opponents of slavery and of slave-owners, who saw the value of their investment increase once the supply of slaves was limited).  The British Royal Navy also tried to stop the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the British Empire had declared illegal in 1807.


*Economically, slavery seemed less important, too, particularly in tobacco-growing areas, where the tobacco was exhausting the land and tobacco planters were looking for new crops to grow--George Washington and a few other Virginia planters began to switch to growing wheat, or at least to consider doing so (later, the McCormick Reaper would be invented in Virginia, even if the McCormick company soon relocated to Chicago).  As wheat production was less labour-intensive that tobacco cultivation, Virginia even considered abolishing slavery in the late 18th Century.


*Slavery was also a potential threat to American virtue.  Owning slaves was not just bad for slaves, but also for their owners, at least according to some writers.  Thomas Jefferson said that because slavery required slave-owners to exercise brutality over their slaves, it tended to make them brutal.  The former slave Frederick Douglass later described how he was bought by a man whose wife had never owned a slave, and who treated him very kindly at first, until the inherent tyranny of slavery transformed her into a harsh mistress.  Booker T. Washington, a former slave, later said that Whites could not hold Blacks in a ditch without getting down there with them.


*Furthermore, a large, servile underclass was not conducive republican virtue, as only independent citizens could be counted on to vote in a disinterested way.


*Slavery was even a threat to security, as the danger of a slave uprising was always in the back of the minds of slave owners (especially after the Haitian Revolution), even though actual slave revolts were very rare in America.  Thomas Jefferson compared the having a large population of slaves to holding a wolf by the ears:  you don't like it, but you don't dare let it go.


*In 1793, however, the invention of the cotton gin changed everything for slavery.  With the processing of cotton now possible on a large scale, thousands of acres of land were devoted to growing cotton, an unpleasant and labour-intensive practise that was best suited for slaves (at least in the minds of free men).  These slaves worked in a gang system, and work on a big cotton plantation was considered to be the worst type of work a slave could do. 


*Slaves on small farms in the Upper South were often seen as having it as good as a field hand could have it (aside from house servants and craftsmen) except that small farms might not need many slaves or might not be able to afford to keep many of them, and the Upper South often sold its surplus slaves 'down the river.'  This internal slave trade more than made up for the end of the international slave trade.


*After the invention of the cotton gin, Southern states would cling to slavery for both economic and social reasons.


*As the Industrial Revolution began, the mills' need for cotton matched the South's ability to produce it and ship it both to the North and to Britain.  Both its use in the North and its sale to Britain led to America's great economic boom in the mid-1800s.  After 1840, cotton accounted for over half the value of all American exports, and 75% of British cotton came from America.  Southerners were so confident in the importance of cotton that some described it as 'white gold' while in 1858, Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina would say that 'Cotton is king' believing that cotton gave the South so much political and economic power that the United States and even British governments would ultimately have to give in to Southern demands.


*The wealth that slavery brought to the South created an aristocracy of sorts, as only a few Southerners had the wealth to invest in the land and slaves required to operate a large plantation.  In 1850, only 1,733 families owned more than one hundred slaves each, and they formed the basis of the political, economic, and cultural leadership of the South. 


*Some Southerners pointed to the Roman Republic and its slaves as evidence that slavery and republicanism could go together, and even free the slave-owning class from manual labour so that they could devote their time to culture, philosophy, and politics. 


*Other Southerners saw themselves as preserving a mediæval society of gallantry and honour, one reason that duelling remained prevalent in the South much longer than it did in the North.  Mark Twain went so far as to blame the Civil War on the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott, believing that reading too much of his romanticised tales of the Middle Ages convinced Southerners of the 19th Century that they were a new generation of knights.


*Even these lords of the manor had problems, however, as they were often in debt to bankers who helped them buy the land and gins for their plantations and to the agents who traded the cotton they produced because the traders would often give credit to the planters while waiting for the cotton they held to rise in value.

*While plantation owners were away at New Orleans or Memphis or another major cotton trading centre, their wives often ran their plantations for them, supervising everything from the kitchen and gardens to the account books and the overseers who managed the slaves.


*If there were fewer than 2,000 families that owned one hundred slaves, there were many more Whites who supported the system of slavery.  Among these were owners of a small or moderate number of slaves.  Before they were removed, some Cherokee Indians had owned slaves, and in some places free Blacks even owned slaves.   At any given point, at least one fourth of Southerners owned at least one slave, although not all Southerners who owned a slave always did so--it was a status that one might lose, or gain, as one's fortunes changed, so that perhaps as many as half of all Southerners owned a slave at some point.  Therefore, because slave ownership was within the reach of almost anyone, even people who did not own a slave—yet—often supported the system in hopes that one day they could be a part of it.


*Furthermore, for even the poorest Whites, having a lower class to look down on gave them some sense of value, and even a sort of equality with the plantation aristocracy.  This was sometimes called the 'mudsill theory' of society, that there always has to be someone at the bottom to do the worst work, and for everyone else to look down upon.  Whatever else could be said of poor Whites, at least they were not Black (although some were so poor that even slaves looked down on them, such as the 'clay-eaters' along the Mississippi River who were so poor that they actually ate clay). 


*The poor mountain Whites of Southern Appalachia also rarely owned slaves, and none owned a large number of them, so many of these 'hillbillies' resented the 'slavocracy' that seemed to rule the South without concern for them, although they generally did not like the slaves, either.  Andrew Johnson of Greeneville, who served as governor of Tennessee and then a senator, vice-president, and president hated both the rich White men of the south and the Black mudsill.


*Of course, for many people, having someone even worse off to be superior to was not enough.  Many poor southerners left for the West or the Midwest, so that by 1860 for every white Southerner (about 5.5 million) there were four (22 million) Whites in other parts of the country.


*Likewise, there was not much incentive for immigrants to come to the South when there was more available land and more factory jobs in the North, and when Southern planters would only hire an Irishman for a job too dangerous for a slave or a mule to do.  This lack of immigration also kept the South's population fairly stagnant.


*With relatively few people available to work in factories and little interest by the wealthy to invest in them, the South never developed much industry.  There were a few exceptions, particularly in Middle Tennessee, but even there, the largest ironworks employed primarily slave labour (even under the management of other slaves in the case of at least one entire factory).  This may (or may not) disprove an historical theory that slavery is only good for agricultural work, and that moving into an industrial age naturally brings about an end to slavery.


*Enslaving such a large number of people--by 1860 about one third of Southerners were slaves--required harsh treatment, as few people would willingly do the work that most slaves had to do, so whipping was common and other forms of mutilation were possible, although a slave was such a valuable investment that most slave-owners did not beat their slaves casually. 


*Furthermore, laws in each Southern state known as slave codes' limited the rights of slaves.  In most places they could not own firearms, travel off their owners' land without permission, meet in large numbers after dark, or in some cases even be taught to read.  Slave marriages had no legal force, and did not prevent the separation of families or the violation of slave women by their owners.  Slaves could not typically testify in court or serve on a jury, and while they had some legal protections against violence from whites who were not their owners, this was mainly to protect their owners' investment in them.


*Slaves sometimes tried to escape, although the penalties for doing so could be harsh.  There were professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and their bloodhounds might maul them when they caught them, or they might be badly injured or even killed in being retaken.  Even escaping across state lines was no guarantee of safety, as the Constitution included requirements that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters (although many Northern states did not always enforce these rules).  Recaptured runaways might be chained up for a long period once back home, or made to work in heavy chains, or might have a collar with bells or even a cage with bells or spikes put over their heads.


*Some slaves, former slaves (often escaped slaves), and anti-slavery whites did help runaways to escape.  Eventually this become somewhat formalised as the 'Underground Railroad' with guides known as 'conductors' and safe places to hide known as 'stations.'  One of the most famous conductors was the escaped slave Harriet Tubman, known as the Black Moses, who helped lead escaped slaves out of eastern Maryland to freedom in Pennsylvania.


*Another escaped slave who gained national fame was Henry Brown who mailed himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a crate in 1849, earning the nickname Henry 'Box' Brown.


*Other forms of resistance were more subtle.  Slaves might work as slowly or sloppily as they could get away with as a form of passive resistance.  Many of them found solace in religion, as the Great Awakening and especially the Second Great Awakening had affected Black Southerners as well as Whites. 


*African-American religion tended to focus on the aspects of the Bible that spoke of liberation, particularly the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom and out of slavery in Egypt.  Of course, this made many slave-owners suspicious of Black religious leaders, and sometimes they tried to prevent African-Americans from preaching, preferring white ministers to remind slaves of the passages in the Bible that tell slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5 for example). 


*This particularly was true after a Black preacher named Nat Turner organised the deadliest slave rebellion in American history. 


*In August, 1831, he led Turner’s Rebellion.  70 slaves attacked white families and killed over 50 white men, women, and children in Southeastern Virginia.  Eventually the local militia captured and hanged Turner and about 20 of his followers.  Other angry whites rioted, and killed about an hundred more blacks, none of whom had (probably) had anything to do with the rebellion.


*As a result of these rebellions, Southerners grew increasingly afraid of their own slaves.  Although Virginia again briefly considered ending slavery, she decided not to, and all Southern states made laws about slaves much tougher.  It became much harder to free a slave so there would not be so many free blacks to serve as a dangerous example to slaves.  It became illegal to send anti-slavery literature through the mail in much of the South and it became illegal to teach slaves to read in some states.  Tennessee wrote a new constitution in 1835 that, among other things, took the right to vote away from even free Blacks.  Slave codes became stricter in general, as the movements of slaves were restricted further, to make it harder for them to meet together. 


*This harshness in turn encouraged the growing abolitionist movement (of which John Quincy Adams was an eloquent advocate in Congress) to push harder for the end of slavery.  The South responded to this attack on its peculiar institution with increasing hostility of its own.

AP United States History Practice Exam and Notes

This page last updated 6 November, 2015.
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