The institution of slavery in America’s southern states was based primarily in economics rather than some inherent adoration of the practice itself. When the Mason-Dixon line was created in the 1760s, Eli Whitney’s revolutionary cotton gin (which would eventually solidify slavery in the South) has not yet been created. Still, despite this fact, there were lines being drawn between the more industrial-based economy of the North and the agricultural economy of the South. Slavery formed the backbone of the South economically and as it became more widespread after Whitney’s invention, it became just as much the political and social basis of Southern identity as well. Although there are cases of early abolitionist movements rooted in the Southern states, it was primarily a Northern political goal that despite all efforts wasn’t realized until after the devastation of the Civil War and eventually with the Thirteenth Amendment. Without the ability to have a large force of unpaid and very inexpensive bodies to cultivate the fields, it seems quite certain that the South would have never enjoyed the kind of economic success that was present before the Civil War.
The treatment of slaves was generally deplorable and even the kindest plantation masters were more concerned with making a profit than making sure their slaves were treated well. With only a minimal amount of money required to actually purchase and maintain slaves, this became the best from of labor and allowed many owners of plantations to become very wealthy. Without slavery however, it is more likely that these plantation owners would be too busy working the fields to have the time to go off to defend the practice politically.
Contrary to what many might believe, the principal crop in the South during the beginning of the practice of slavery was not cotton, but was rather based on a host of other agricultural products that would eventually fall by the wayside in terms of mass cultivation. Although cotton was a part of the agricultural yield, crops such as rice, indigo, and tobacco were the most cultivated and although tobacco remained a primary crop as well, the need for cotton eventually replaced the reliance on tobacco as a main product. It wasn’t until the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin that the Southern cotton industry began to boom. With this invention, southern plantations were able to produce far more in a shorter amount of time. This led to more slaves being required to keep up with the ever-present demand for cotton, particularly by the Northern states. Along with this greater potential to yield more cotton came a growing economic dependence on slavery since without such free labor there would never have been a cotton industry as powerful as the one that had developed in the years following the 1793 introduction of the cotton gin.
Due to the practice of slavery (and even a reported rise in the number of new slaves being born into bondage as opposed to being brought in from African countries) Southern states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were able to have solid economies that were directly based in the production and export of cotton and some less principal items such as tobacco and rice. This led to an economic strength that made these states even more adamant about defending the right to own slaves. There was no question that without slavery the antebellum would crumble and thus the South was able to weather the growing number of revolts, rebellions, and northern political opposition that was mounting. Edicts such as the Fugitive Slaves Law attempted to curb the flight of slaves to the Northern states and the Underground Railroad became a serious threat to Southern plantation owners who needed ever more assistance from this free work force to maintain their economic prowess. The Nat Turner revolt as well as the outspoken writings and speeches of the former slave Frederick Douglass contributed to the growing dissent but the South defended their claim to economic security through slavery until it became legally impossible for the to do so after the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment formally declared an end to slavery and despite the amount of money and political effort spent defending the right to use slavery, the South was left behind the desires of the North, which was growing economically as a result of industrialization and was home to ever-growing numbers of abolitionist movements.
After 1860 the South seceded from the Union and the Civil War began. The importance of slavery in the South was an important reason for this war to occur in the first place and it eventually led to the decline of the practice in an area that had so vehemently supported it. With Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was thought that that slavery in the South would be abolished. Although the Proclamation went far in condemning the practice, it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was constitutionally (as opposed to morally) declared illegal. After this war the South was decimated politically, socially, and most importantly economically. Without the free labor to cultivate the fields, the former antebellum South fell into complete ruin. It cannot be underestimated how large the financial impact was after the removal of slavery as a Southern institution and even though theReconstruction Era attempted to build the South back up to its formerly successful state, this was never quite realized and even today, the legacy of the South’s failed slavery and consequent economic success is felt. The Northern cities had control and dominance in the industrial sector, which proved to be more successful than agriculture—especially after mass imports and exports became commonplace and South’s eventually decline was imminent.
Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include : The Emancipation Proclamation: Savior or Rhetoric? • Discussion of “Black Majority: Negroes in South Carolina From 1670 to the Stono Rebellion“ by Peter Wood • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • The Kansas-Nebraska Act Controversy • Overview of the Reconstruction Era • Black Thunder by Arna Bontemps: Heroes, History, and Narrative • Freedom, Liberty, and Meaning in the Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Olaudah Equiano