Slavery and the Old South

Chapter 11 Study Guide

The theme of Chapter 11 is the economic, institutional, and social development of southern society between 1815 and 1860. At the center of those patterns was the institution of slavery, which affected not only economics but values, customs, laws, class structure, and the region's relationship to the nation and the world. The transition of the South from a society with slaves to a slave society occurred in a Western world that was moving quickly toward a free-market economy based on the free-wage-labor system. Therefore, the South, out of step with the rest of the Western world, assumed a defensive posture toward anyone who spoke even one word against its peculiar institution. By doing so, a conservative South hardened into a reactionary South, with slavery as the catalyst.

Although the South was similar to the North in some respects, its commitment to slavery and its rural and agrarian character made it distinct. As southerners began to expand into the Old Southwest, an expansion that gave rise to the Cotton South, slavery became even more firmly entrenched than before. While this expansion gave rise to a new plantation elite, the South remained an agrarian society with a thin population distribution, weak institutions, and few urban centers or factories. Within this society, southerners increasingly offered arguments to defend their slave-based labor system. While some used the Bible and history to defend slavery, others defended the institution in practical economic terms. Furthermore, the defenders of slavery expressed the belief that not only had the social order been ordained by nature and God, but that any change in society should be slow and incremental. Although southerners expressed a variety of arguments to defend slavery, a deep and abiding racism was at the heart of the proslavery defense.

Groups that collectively made up southern society: (1) yeoman farmers, (2) landless whites, (3) free blacks, (4) slaveowners, and (5) slaves. Frequent moves characterized the lives of many yeomen, and most yeomen stressed the values of hard work, self-reliance, and personal liberty. Whether striving to become planters or content with their lives as small landowners, most yeomen derived some sense of security from land-ownership. This was not true of landless whites and free blacks. Despite the distance between slaveowners and non-slaveowners, the South for a variety of reasons had been relatively free of class conflict. But between 1830 and 1860, the hardening of class lines, the widening of the gap between rich and poor, and the under representation of yeomen farmers in state legislatures began to create more tension between slaveholders and non-slaveholders.

The general conditions of slave life and the emergence of slave culture. We learn about the slave diet, housing conditions, work routines, and the physical and mental abuses present in the slave system. The theme that runs through the sections on slave life and culture is the variety of ways in which slaves strove to retain a sense of mental independence and self-respect despite their bondage. For all the paternalism of the whites, tension was clearly the determining factor in the relationship between slave and master. Indeed, black culture was born of the refusal of blacks to accept slavery or to give up their struggle against it. This constant resistance to slavery manifested itself in a variety of covert ways; yet, as may be seen in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy and in the Nat Turner rebellion, resistance was sometimes overt. Because the major fear in a slave society is the fear of a slave insurrection, such overt resistance almost always led to more laws of control being enacted and, thus, to a further hardening of the institution of slavery. In fact, in the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion, the Virginia legislature debated a law that would have gradually abolished slavery in the state. However, that law was defeated and Virginia, instead, opted to do nothing except reinforce its own moral and economic defenses of slavery.

American Diversity: Race is the central fact of American slavery. Social and legal constructs were necessary to separate and define racial groups maintaining slavery in America.

Culture: To cope with the harsh burdens of slavery, blacks supported a culture that assimilated their African, Caribbean, and American heritages. These traditions continue today in song, religion, family, and language, but have remained largely out of the cultural mainstream until recently.

Economic Transformations:   The growing differentiation between the Northern industrial and Southern agricultural economies is more sharply delineated in this period. As the Southern economy grew with cotton at its core, it also became more dependent on outside economic forces. Southerners recognized this, and came to fear its consequences.

Environment: The migration into the Southwest cotton kingdom gives a clear view of a movement that occurs throughout United States history: westward movement. Wasteful agricultural techniques exhausted the soil, and Americans abandoned that land and sought new lands to the west.

Slavery and Its Legacies in North America:   This theme is central. An important element is recognizing the two viewpoints represented in slave accounts. While whites observed laziness and incompetence in slave work, slaves often did this deliberately as a form of resistance.


Digital History

The Pre-Civil War South

In the decades before the Civil War, northern and southern development followed increasingly different paths. By 1860, the North contained 50 percent more people than the South. It was more urbanized and attracted many more European immigrants. The northern economy was more diversified into agricultural, commercial, manufacturing, financial, and transportation sectors. In contrast, the South had smaller and fewer cities and a third of its population lived in slavery. In the South, slavery impeded the development of industry and cities and discouraged technological innovation. Nevertheless, the South was wealthy and its economy was rapidly growing. The southern economy largely financed the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and stimulated the development of industries in the North to service southern agriculture.      

Biography of America

Slavery (series 9)

While the North develops an industrial economy and culture, the South develops a slave culture and economy, and the great rift between the regions becomes unbreachable. Professor Masur looks at the human side of the history of the mid-1800s by sketching a portrait of the lives of slave and master. 

Lecture Outlines

The Peculiar Institution 1

The Peculiar Institution


A Slaveholders Dilemma