Chapter 12: Cotton is King: The Antebellum South, 1800–1860


The Economics of Cotton

In the years before the Civil War, the South produced the bulk of the world’s supply of cotton. The Mississippi River Valley slave states became the epicenter of cotton production, an area of frantic economic activity where the landscape changed dramatically as land was transformed from pinewoods and swamps into cotton fields. Cotton’s profitability relied on the institution of slavery, which generated the product that fueled cotton mill profits in the North. When the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808, the domestic slave trade exploded, providing economic opportunities for Whites involved in many aspects of the trade and increasing the possibility of enslaved people’s dislocation and separation from kin and friends. Although the larger American and Atlantic markets relied on southern cotton in this era, the South depended on these other markets for food, manufactured goods, and loans. Thus, the market revolution transformed the South just as it had other regions.

African Americans in the Antebellum United States

Slave labor in the antebellum South generated great wealth for plantation owners. Enslaved people, in contrast, endured daily traumas as human property. Enslaved people resisted their condition in a variety of ways, and many found some solace in Christianity and the communities they created in the slave quarters. While some free Black people achieved economic prosperity and even became slaveholders themselves, the vast majority found themselves restricted by the same White-supremacist assumptions upon which the institution of slavery was based.

Wealth and Culture in the South

Although a small White elite owned the vast majority of enslaved people in the South, and most other White people could only aspire to slaveholders’ wealth and status, slavery shaped the social life of all White southerners in profound ways. Southern culture valued a behavioral code in which men’s honor, based on the domination of others and the protection of southern White womanhood, stood as the highest good. Slavery also decreased class tensions, binding Whites together on the basis of race despite their inequalities of wealth. Several defenses of slavery were prevalent in the antebellum era, including Calhoun’s argument that the South’s “concurrent majority” could overrule federal legislation deemed hostile to southern interests; the notion that slaveholders’ care of their chattel made the enslaved better off than wage workers in the North; and the profoundly racist ideas underlying polygenism.

The Filibuster and the Quest for New Slave States

The decade of the 1850s witnessed various schemes to expand the American empire of slavery. The Ostend Manifesto articulated the right of the United States to forcefully seize Cuba if Spain would not sell it, while filibuster expeditions attempted to annex new slave states without the benefit of governmental approval. Those who pursued the goal of expanding American slavery believed they embodied the true spirit of White racial superiority.


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