Between 1830 and 1860 the South developed into the world’s largest slaveholding society. Southerners¾white and black, slaveholders and nonslaveholders¾developed a culture quite different from their northern counterparts. Slavery influenced not only southern economics values, customs, and laws, but also the region’s relationship to the nation.
II. The “Peculiar” South?
A. South-North Similarity
North and South were similar in geographic size. Both regions shared the experience of the American Revolution, had a common language, lived under the same Constitution, and believed in the American mission. Both regions also shared in the economic booms and busts of the nation.
B. South-North Dissimilarity
North and South had different climates and growing seasons. The South emerged as an agrarian society with low population density and few of the amenities associated with urban life. The North was far ahead of the South in industrial growth.
C. A Southern World-View and the Proslavery Argument
The southern world-view was one of its most peculiar characteristics. At the heart of the South’s defense of slavery was a deep and abiding racism.
D. A Slave Society
By the 1830s the South had become a slave society as opposed to merely a society with slaves.
III. Free Southerners: Farmers, Planters, and Free Blacks
A. Yeoman Farmers
Yeoman farmers made up the majority of the white southern population. Although a numerical majority, they did not control the political or economic direction of the South.
B. Yeoman Folk Culture
Yeoman folk culture was based on family, church, and local region.
C. Yeoman Livelihoods
John F. Flintoff serves as an example of a yeoman farmer who aspired to become a slave owner. Ferdinand L. Steel serves as an example of a more typical yeoman farmer. He never became a slaveowner, the family and religion remained the focus of his life.
D. Landless Whites
Depending on the state, some 25 to 40 percent of white southerners owned no land.
E. Free Blacks
The lives of free blacks were worse than that of yeomen and little better than that of slaves.
F. Free Black Communities
In some regions the mulatto population was recognized as a distinct class, and in many southern cities free black communities formed.
The planter class stood at the top of the social pyramid in the South.
H. Southern Paternalism
Slaveholding men accepted a paternalistic ideology to justify their dominance of southern society.
I. Plantation Mistresses
Women of the planter class were raised to be wives, mothers, and subordinate companions to men.
J. Marriage and Family
Young white women often approached marriage and child-bearing with anxiety. Women also had to play “the ostrich game” with regard to sexual liaisons between white men and slave women.
IV. Slave Life and Labor
A. Slaves’ Everyday Conditions
Although slaves usually received adequate nourishment, they had a plain and monotonous diet. They owned few clothes, and typically they lived in small, one-room cabins.
B. Slaves’ Work Routine
Long hours in large work gangs characterized the slave work regime. Planters aimed to keep their hands busy all the time, but many slaves resisted overwork by slacking off whenever they could.
C. Violence Against Slaves
Whippings occurred throughout the South, although generally more so on large farms than on small ones. The mental cruelty of slavery¾the hopeless sense of bondage and coercion with no hope for the future¾provided the cruelest element of the system.
D. Slave-Master Relationships
Most slaves felt antagonism and hatred toward whites, feelings that bred resistance, bitterness, and distrust.
V. Slave Culture
A. African Cultural Survival
African influence remained strong in the slave community, with slaves’ appearance, entertainment, and superstitions helping to provide them with a sense of their past.
B. Slaves’ Religion and Music
Christianity offered slaves an important means of coping with bondage, and their faith helped them attain a sense of racial identity. Music, with its rhythm and with physical movement, became central to slaves’ religious experience.
C. The Slave Trade and Separation
Family provided a central part of slaves’ existence, and they lived in the fear that members of their families might be sold to other masters.
D. The Black Family in Slavery
Despite the fear of separation, slaves attempted and often succeeded in forming stable and healthy families.
VI. Slave Resistance and Rebellion
A. Strategies of Resistance
Despite some examples of violent rebellions, most slaves practiced nonviolent forms of resistance, such as occasionally stealing food, negotiating for better working conditions, or temporarily running away.
B. Nat Turner’s Insurrection
An educated black preacher, Nat Turner led a bloody but unsuccessful rebellion. In the aftermath of this rebellion, the state of Virginia held a legislative and public debate over the possibility of gradual emancipation.
VII. Harmony and Tension in a Slave Society
A. Slavery, Wealth, and Social Standing
Slavery served as the basis of wealth and social standing, and the institution therefore had a profound influence on southern values and mores.
B. Aristocratic Values and Frontier Individualism
The aristocratic values of lineage, privilege, pride, and refinement gained a substantial foothold among all levels of southern society. In the recently settled areas, however, frontier values of courage and self-reliance remained the norm.
C. Yeoman Demands for Political Reform
In the 1820s and 1830s many small farmers worked to enact electoral and other reforms in the planter-dominated government. As a result, southern government became more democratic.
D. Antebellum White Class Relations
Despite the unequal distribution of wealth, southern society suffered little class conflict.
E. Hardening of Class Lines
After 1830, the gap between the classes widened. Although urban southerners suffered economic problems, planters remained relatively secure because of their control over government in the Old South.