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The Old South: Images and Realities Previous Next
Digital History ID 3557


Pre-Civil War Americans regarded Southerners as a distinct people, who possessed their own values and ways of life. It was widely mistakenly believed, however, that the North and South had originally been settled by two distinct groups of immigrants, each with its own ethos. Northerners were said to be the descendants of 17th century English Puritans, while Southerners were the descendants of England's country gentry.

In the eyes of many pre-Civil War Americans this contributed to the evolution of two distinct kinds of Americans: the aggressive, individualistic, money-grubbing Yankee and the southern cavalier. According to the popular stereotype, the cavalier, unlike the Yankee, was violently sensitive to insult, indifferent to money, and preoccupied with honor.

The Plantation Legend

During the three decades before the Civil War, popular writers created a stereotype, now known as the plantation legend, that described the South as a land of aristocratic planters, beautiful southern belles, poor white trash, faithful household slaves, and superstitious fieldhands. This image of the South as "a land of cotton where old times are not forgotten" received its most popular expression in 1859 in a song called "Dixie," written by a Northerner named Dan D. Emmett to enliven shows given by a troupe of black-faced minstrels on the New York stage.

In the eyes of many Northerners, uneasy with their increasingly urban, individualistic, commercial society, the culture of the South seemed to have many things absent from the North--a leisurely pace of life, a clear social hierarchy, and an indifference to money.

Despite the strength of the plantation stereotype, the South was, in reality, a diverse and complex region. Though Americans today often associate the old South with cotton plantations, large parts of the South were unsuitable for plantation life. In the mountainous regions of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, few plantations or slaves were to be found. Nor did southern farms and plantations devote their efforts exclusively to growing cotton or other cash crops, such as rice and tobacco. Unlike the slave societies of the Caribbean, which produced crops exclusively for export, the South devoted much of its energy to raising food and livestock.

The pre-Civil War South encompassed a wide variety of regions that differed geographically, economically, and politically. Such regions included the Piedmont, Tidewater, coastal plain, piney woods, Delta, Appalachian Mountains, upcountry, and a fertile black belt--regions that clashed repeatedly over such political questions as debt relief, taxes, apportionment of representation, and internal improvements.

The white South’s social structure was much more complex than the popular stereotype of proud aristocrats disdainful of honest work and ignorant, vicious, exploited poor whites. The old South’s intricate social structure included many small slaveowners and relatively few large ones.

Large slaveholders were extremely rare. In 1860 only 11,000 Southerners, three-quarters of one percent of the white population owned more than 50 slaves; a mere 2,358 owned as many as 100 slaves. However, although large slaveholders were few in number, they owned most of the South’s slaves. Over half of all slaves lived on plantations with 20 or more slaves and a quarter lived on plantations with more than 50 slaves.

Slave ownership was relatively widespread. In the first half of the 19th century, one-third of all southern white families owned slaves, and a majority of white southern families either owned slaves, had owned them, or expected to own them. These slaveowners were a diverse lot. A few were African American, mulatto, or Native American; one-tenth were women; and more than one in ten worked as artisans, businesspeople, or merchants rather than as farmers or planters. Few led lives of leisure or refinement.

The average slaveowner lived in a log cabin rather than a mansion and was a farmer rather than a planter. The average holding varied between four and six slaves, and most slaveholders possessed no more than five.

White women in the South, despite the image of the hoop-skirted southern belle, suffered under heavier burdens than their northern counterparts. They married earlier, bore more children, and were more likely to die young. They lived in greater isolation, had less access to the company of other women, and lacked the satisfactions of voluntary associations and reform movements. Their education was briefer and much less likely to result in opportunities for independent careers.

The plantation legend was misleading in still other respects. Slavery was neither dying nor unprofitable. In 1860 the South was richer than any country in Europe except England, and it had achieved a level of wealth unmatched by Italy or Spain until the eve of World War II.

The southern economy generated enormous wealth and was critical to the economic growth of the entire United States. Well over half of the richest 1 percent of Americans in 1860 lived in the South. Even more important, southern agriculture helped finance early 19th century American economic growth. Before the Civil War, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton, provided over half of all U.S. export earnings, and furnished 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Cotton exports paid for a substantial share of the capital and technology that laid the basis for America’s industrial revolution.

In addition, precisely because the South specialized in agricultural production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the southern states, including textile and meat processing industries and financial and commercial facilities.

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