In the essay, Maturation of the Plantation System 1776-1860, John B. Boles writes about the evolution of the Southern way of life from the end of the Revolutionary war to the beginning of the Civil war. Unlike the North, the South depended on agricultural products for revenue such as sugar, indigo, and tobacco, but mainly cotton in the later years. In order to produce these products, the plantation owners of the South used the cheapest labor available, which was slave labor. Slavery evolved to become the backbone of the South.
Slavery was upheld in the early stages of the United States because Southern slaveholders referred to their slaves as property. Slaves realized that all men aren’t created equal as stated in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Freedom was only a dream. Slavery increased because of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that doubled the size of the United States. In 1810, the Census reported that there were 1,163,854 slaves in the South, mainly due to the growing production of cotton and sugar.
England first realized the potential of black slaves when in 1775, Lord Dunmore granted freedom to all ?indented servants, Negroes, or others??(83). Southern whites did not like this proposition and they took emergency militia and police action to prevent a slave exodus to the British side. By 1777, the need for men forced the English and Colonials to rely on the use of black troops. However, although some blacks did fight side by side with their white counterparts, the majority of black involvement in the war was in a supporting role as cooks, wagoneers, and servants.
After the war, there was an industrial revolution in the production of cotton cloth in England. Several species of cotton were known in the South before the revolution, but it was not easy to produce. However, with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, the production of cotton in the South dramatically increased along with the demand for cotton overseas. Cotton employed the labor of almost three-fourths of all southern slaves. Cotton was now King in the South. With migration into the Southwest, rich black soil, experienced slaves, and hard work propelled many southern white plantation owners into very rich men.
Cotton requires a long growing season and thrives best with moderate springtime rains and dry autumns. Cotton harvest also required more intense labor than any other season of the year. Very cheap slave labor was used in the South to harvest this cotton. Slaves planted, cultivated, and grew more cotton than they could pick. Cotton was cheap to produce because of cheap slave labor and no expensive equipment was needed to harvest, no extensive and costly irrigation canals were required to bring a cotton field into production. Cotton did not rot or spoil after being picked and it could be easily stored until enough was required to head to the gin.
Cotton was also very well suited to the small farmer. Small farmers who didn’t have hundreds of slaves and thousands of acres could grow cotton profitably. However, Boles writes, ?the most significant economic advantage of slavery was that it allowed farm size to increase significantly? (100). The larger planters had a gin and cotton press to satisfy their own needs also helped out other farmers in need. What developed before the Civil War was a complex white slave owning society that depended on slave labor as a way of life.
In many areas of the South such as western Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky, there was no slavery at all. Small yeoman farmers owned their own land, grew most of their food, and lived self-sufficient with no outside help. However, in the Deep South of Alabama and Mississippi, almost half of the white families were slave owners. There were two societies to the South, slave holding and self-sufficient. Although, class conflict was largely absent by the 1840’s because of the regions where each society was most conspicuous were geologically separate. Thousands of small farmers with little tobacco or cotton could identify with local planters because they were both growing the same crop. An economic connection existed between the small farmers who marketed their surplus corn and hogs to planters and depended on them to gin and even market their bales of cotton. Although it was racial fear, not farmer brotherhood, that led to the southern determination to maintain slavery in the face of northern opposition.
The Slave society also evolved over the years before the Civil War. Historians argue that slave labor was not as productive as it has been portrayed. Some argue that one free farm laborer in the North outworked four slaves. However, slave labor was not a nine to five job. On most plantations, the cotton harvest was the period of greatest demand where every available hand worked all the daylight hours. Slaves were also forced to work by fear of punishment or hope of reward, but never freedom. Over the years, slaves learned to work at a less than feverish pace and eventually a certain rate of performance came to be considered the norm by slaveholders. A lifetime of labor with no rewards and little control over workplace duties must have set these early social values of early African-Americans.
Slaves did not have the liberty to relax, or to choose their jobs, or control over their lives. There was always the possibility of punishment ranging from the removal of small privileges to harsh whippings. Slave parents raised their children to fear the whip and taught them behavior to avoid it. However, slaves were not inherently lazy who performed just enough work to stay alive and away from punishment. Many became skilled farmers, gardeners, cooks, and house servants. In small, personal ways some slaves even gained a sense of fulfillment and even pleasure from the performance of their duties. Slaves knew that if the plantation was unsuccessful, they were sold and their families separated.
Overall, Slavery was the economic backbone of the South. Without slaves, the way of life for many Southerners was not obtainable. The evolution of the plantation system is really the evolution of the early black population of the United States.