Much of the upper South continued in the nineteenth century to rely, as it always had, on the cultivation of tobacco.
But the market for that crop was notoriously unstable.
Tobacco prices were subject to frequent depressions, including a prolonged one that began in the 1820s and extended into the 1850s.
Tobacco also rapidly exhausted the land on which it grew; it was difficult for most growers to remain in business in the same place for very long.
Rice, however, demanded substantial irrigation and needed an exceptionally long growing season (nine months), so cultivation of that staple remained restricted to a relatively small area.
Sugar growers along the Gulf Coast, similarly, enjoyed a reasonably profitable market for their crop.
But sugar cultivation required intensive (and debilitating) labor and a long growing time
The decline of the tobacco economy in the upper South, and the limits of the sugar, rice, and long-staple cotton economies farther south, might have forced the region to shift its attention in the nineteenth century to other nonagricultural pursuits, had it not been for the growing importance of a new product that soon overshadowed all else: short-staple cotton
Demand for cotton was growing rapidly.
The growth of the textile industry in Britain in the 1820s and 1830s, and in New England in the 1840s and 1850s, created an enormous new demand for the crop
There were periodic fluctuations in cotton prices, resulting generally from overproduction; periods of boom frequently gave way to abrupt busts.
But the cotton economy continued to grow, even if in fits and starts.
By the time of the Civil War, cotton constituted nearly two thirds of the total export trade of the United States and was bringing in nearly $200 million a year.
The annual value of the rice crop, in contrast, was $2 million.
It was little wonder that southern politicians now proclaimed: “Cotton is king!”
Cotton production dominated the more recently settled areas of what came to be known as the “lower South” (or, in a later era, the “Deep South”).
Many people began to call this region the “Cotton Kingdom.”
Settlement of the area resembled in some ways the rush of gold seekers to a new strike
The wealthiest planters also maintained homes in towns or cities and spent several months of the year there, engaged in a glittering social life.
White southerners liked to compare their planter class to the old upper classes of England and Europe: true aristocracies, long entrenched.
Even many affluent planters lived modestly, their wealth so heavily invested in land and slaves that there was little left for personal comfort.
Perhaps that was why the defense of slavery and of the South’s “rights” was stronger in the new, booming regions of the lower South and weaker in the more established and less fl ourishing areas of the Tidewater.
Wealthy southern whites sustained their image of themselves as aristocrats in many ways.
They avoided such “coarse” occupations as trade and commerce; those who did not become planters often gravitated toward the military, a “suitable” career for men raised in a culture in which medieval knight
In some respects, affluent white women in the South occupied roles very similar to those of middle-class white women in the North.
Their lives generally centered in the home, where they served as companions to and hostesses for their husbands and as nurturing mothers for their children.
But the life of the “southern lady” was also in many ways very different from that of her northern counterpart
The vast majority of females in the region lived on farms, isolated from people outside their own families, with virtually no access to the “public world” and thus few opportunities to look beyond their roles as wives and mothers.
These women engaged in spinning, weaving, and other production; they participated in agricultural tasks; they helped supervise the slave workforce
On some of the larger plantations, however, even these limited roles were sometimes considered unsuitable for white women; and the “plantation mistress” became, in some cases, more an ornament for her husband than an active part of the economy or the society.
Nearly a quarter of all white women over twenty were completely illiterate; relatively few women had more than a rudimentary exposure to schooling.
Even wealthy planters were not interested in extensive schooling for their daughters.
The few female “academies” in the South trained women primarily to be suitable wives.
Southern white women had other special burdens as well.
The southern white birth rate remained nearly 20 percent higher than that of the nation as a whole, and infant mortality in the region remained higher than elsewhere; nearly half the children born in the South in 1860 died before they reached five years of age.
The slave-labor system had a mixed impact on white women.
It helped spare many of them from certain kinds of arduous labor, but it also threatened their relationships with their husbands.
Male slave owners had frequent sexual relationships with the female slaves on their plantations; the children of those unions became part of the plantation labor force and served as a constant reminder to white women of their husbands’ infidelity.
Black women (and men) were obviously the most important victims of such practices. But white women suffered too.
A few southern white women rebelled against their roles and against the prevailing assumptions of their region.
Some became outspoken abolitionists and joined northerners in the crusade to abolish slavery
The typical white southerner was not a great planter and slaveholder, but a modest yeoman farmer.
Some of these “plain folk,” as they have become known, owned a few slaves, with whom they worked and lived far more closely than did the larger planters.
One reason was the southern educational system, which provided poor whites with few opportunities to learn and thus limited their chances of advancement
To such men and women, slavery was unattractive for many of the same reasons it was unappealing to workers and small farmers in the North: because it threatened their sense of their own independence.
For white men, at least, the South was an unusually democratic society, in that participation in politics—both through voting and through attending campaign meetings and barbecues—was even more widespread than in the North, where participation was also high.
Men were the unquestioned masters of their homes; women and children, who were both family and workforce, were firmly under the master’s control.
“From childhood, the one thing in their condition which has made life valuable to the mass of whites has been that the niggers are yet their inferiors.”
The slave codes of the southern states forbade slaves to hold property, to leave their masters’ premises without permission, to be out after dark, to congregate with other slaves except at church, to carry firearms, or to strike a white person, even in self-defense. The codes of some states prohibited whites from teaching slaves to read or write and denied slaves the right to testify in court against white people.
If an owner killed a slave while punishing him, the act was generally not considered a crime.
Slaves, however, faced the death penalty for killing or even resisting a white person and for inciting revolt.
The codes also contained extraordinarily rigid provisions for defining a person’s race.
Anyone with even a trace of African ancestry was defined as black.
And anyone even rumored to possess any such trace was presumed to be black unless he or she could prove otherwise—which was, of course, almost impossible to do
Some slaves did acquire property, did learn to read and write, and did assemble with other slaves, in spite of laws to the contrary
White farmers with few slaves generally supervised their workers directly and often worked closely alongside them.
On such farms, blacks and whites developed a form of intimacy unknown on larger plantations.
The paternal relationship between such masters and their slaves could, like relationships between fathers and children, be warm and affectionate.
It could also be tyrannical and cruel.
In either case, it was a relationship based on the relative powerlessness of the slaves
One was the task system (most common in rice culture), under which slaves were assigned a particular task in the morning, for example, hoeing one acre; after completing the job, they were free for the rest of the day.
The other, far more common, was the gang system (employed on the cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations), under which slaves were simply divided into groups, each of them directed by a driver, and compelled to work for as many hours as the overseer considered a reasonable workday.
Slaves generally received at least enough necessities to enable them to live and work.
Their masters usually furnished them with an adequate, if mostly coarse, diet, consisting mainly of cornmeal, salt pork, molasses, and on special occasions fresh meat or poultry.
Many slaves cultivated gardens for their own use.
They received cheap clothing and shoes.
They lived in crude cabins, called slave quarters, usually clustered in a complex near the master’s house.
The plantation mistress or a doctor retained by the owner provided some medical care; but slave women themselves—as “healers” and midwives, or simply as mothers—were the more important source.
Slaves worked hard, beginning with light tasks as children.
Their workdays were longest at harvest time.
Slave women worked particularly hard.
They generally labored in the fields with the men, and they assumed as well the crucial chores traditionally reserved for women—cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing
Because slave families were often divided, with husbands and fathers frequently living on neighboring plantations (or, at times, sold to plantation owners far away), black women often found themselves acting in effect as single parents
Even so, according to some scholars, the actual material conditions of slavery may have been better than those of some northern factory workers and better than those of both peasants and industrial workers in much of nineteenth-century Europe.
The conditions of American slaves were certainly less severe than those of slaves in the Caribbean and South America crops, which required more arduous labor
Household servants had a somewhat easier life—physically at least—than did field hands.
On a small plantation, the same slaves might do both field work and housework.
But on a large estate, there would generally be a separate domestic staff: nursemaids, housemaids, cooks, butlers, coachmen.
These people lived close to the master and his family, eating the leftovers from the family table and in some cases even sleeping in the “big house.”
Female household servants were especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by their masters and white overseers, who sometimes pressured them into supposedly consensual sexual relationships and sometimes raped them.
In addition to unwanted sexual attention from white men, female slaves often received vindictive treatment from white women.
Plantation mistresses naturally resented the sexual liaisons between their husbands and female slaves.
Punishing their husbands was not usually possible, so they often punished the slaves instead—with arbitrary beatings, increased workloads, and various forms of psychological torment.
The conditions of slavery in the cities differed signifi cantly from those in the countryside
Urban slaves gained numerous opportunities to mingle with free blacks and with whites. In the cities, the line between slavery and freedom became increasingly indistinct
Even the poorest whites tended to prefer working on farms to doing ordinary labor, and so masters often hired out slaves for such tasks.
Slaves on contract worked in mining and lumbering (often far from cities); but others worked on the docks and on construction sites, drove wagons, and performed other unskilled jobs in cities and towns.
Slave women and children worked in the region’s few textile mills.
Particularly skilled workers such as blacksmiths or carpenters were also often hired out.
Many white southerners considered slavery to be incompatible with city life, and as southern cities grew the number of slaves in them declined, relatively if not absolutely
But it is clear that the vast majority of southern blacks were not content with being slaves, that they yearned for freedom even though most realized there was little they could do to secure it
In 1831, Nat Turner, a slave preacher, led a band of African Americans who armed themselves with guns and axes and, on a summer night, went from house to house in Southampton County, Virginia. They killed sixty white men, women, and children before being overpowered
For the most part, however, resistance to slavery took less drastic forms such as running away.
A small number of slaves managed to escape to the North or to Canada, especially after sympathetic whites began organizing the so-called underground railroad to assist them in flight.
But the odds against a successful escape, particularly from the Deep South, were almost impossibly high.
Without such a permit, slaves were presumed to be runaways and were taken captive.
Some slaves stole from their masters or from neighboring whites.
Some performed isolated acts of sabotage: losing or breaking tools (southern planters gradually began to buy unusually heavy hoes because so many of the lighter ones got broken) or performing tasks improperly
In many areas, slaves retained a language of their own, sometimes incorporating African speech patterns into English.
Having arrived in America speaking many different African languages, the first generations of slaves had as much difficulty communicating with one another as they did with white people.
To overcome these barriers, they learned a simple, common language (known to linguists as “pidgin”).
And while slave language grew more sophisticated as blacks spent more time in America—and as new generations grew up never having known African tongues—some features of this early pidgin survived in black speech for many generations.
Music was especially important in slave society.
In some ways, it was as important to African Americans as language.
Most important were voices and song
Field workers often used songs to pass the time in the fields; since they sang them in the presence of whites, they usually attached relatively innocuous words to them.
But African Americans also created emotionally rich and politically challenging music
Separate slave religion was not supposed to exist.
Almost all African Americans were Christians by the early nineteenth century.
Some had converted voluntarily, and some were coerced by their masters and by the Protestant missionaries who evangelized among them.
Masters expected their slaves to worship under the supervision of white ministers.
Indeed, autonomous black churches were banned by law; and many slaves became members of the same denominations as their owners—usually Baptist or Methodist
Nevertheless, blacks throughout the South developed their own version of Christianity, at times incorporating into it such practices as voodoo or other polytheistic religious traditions of Africa.
Or they simply bent religion to the special circumstances of bondage.
Natural leaders emerging within the slave community rose to the rank of preacher.
African American religion was often more emotional than that of its white counterparts and reflected the influence of African customs and practices.
Slave prayer meetings routinely involved fervent chanting, spontaneous exclamations from the congregation, and ecstatic conversion experiences.
Black religion was also more joyful and affirming than that of many white denominations.
And above all, African American religion emphasized the dream of freedom and deliverance.
In their prayers and songs and sermons, black Christians talked and sang of the day when the Lord would “call us home,” “deliver us to freedom,” “take us to the Promised Land.
In cities and towns in the South, some African Americans had their own churches, where free blacks occasionally worshiped alongside slaves.
In the countryside, however, slaves usually attended the same churches as their masters—sometimes a chapel on the plantation itself, sometimes a church serving a larger farm community.
Seating in such churches was usually segregated.
Slaves sat in the rear or on balconies. They held their own services later, often in secret, usually at night.
The slave family was the other crucial institution of black culture in the South
Nevertheless, what we now call the “nuclear family” consistently emerged as the dominant kinship model among African Americans.
Such families did not always operate according to white customs.
Black women generally began bearing children at younger ages than most white women, often as early as age fourteen or fifteen.
Slave communities did not condemn premarital pregnancy in the way white society did, and African American couples would often begin living together before marrying.
It was customary, however, for couples to marry—in a ceremony involving formal vows—soon after conceiving a child.
Often, marriages occurred between slaves living on neighboring plantations.
Husbands and wives sometimes visited each other with the permission of their masters, but often such visits had to be in secret, at night.
Family ties were no less strong than those of whites, and many slave marriages lasted throughout the course of long lifetimes.
When marriages did not survive, it was often because of circumstances over which blacks had no control.
Up to a third of all black families were broken apart by the slave trade; an average slave might expect during a lifetime to see ten or more relatives sold
A slave forced suddenly to move to a new area, far from his or her family, might create fictional kinship ties and become “adopted” by a family in the new community.
Even so, the impulse to maintain contact with a spouse and children remained strong long after the breakup of a family
It was not only by breaking up families through sale that whites intruded on black family life.
Black women, usually powerless to resist the sexual advances of their masters, often bore the children of whites—children whom the whites almost never recognized as their own and who were consigned to slavery from birth.
In addition to establishing social and cultural institutions of their own, slaves adapted themselves to slavery by forming complex relationships with their masters.
However many blacks resented their lack of freedom, they often found it difficult to maintain an entirely hostile attitude toward their owners.
Not only were they dependent on whites for the material means of existence—food, clothing, and shelter; they also often derived from their masters a sense of security and protection.