The Peculiar Institution
A single overriding issue exacerbated the regional and economic differences between North and South: slavery. Resenting the large profits amassed by Northern businessmen from marketing the cotton crop, many Southerners attributed the backwardness of their own section to Northern aggrandizement. Many Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery — the “peculiar institution” that the South regarded as essential to its economy — was largely responsible for the region’s relative financial and industrial backwardness.
About twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere from 1619 to 1850. Of this number, only about five percent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States from Africa, most of them arriving between 1680 and 1808. Varied forms of bonded labor had existed in Europe and Africa, but as the need for labor grew in the New World's plantations and mines, the importation of unwilling Africans also grew. In early North America, the system of lifetime servitude, or slavery, was supported by an elaborate and severe legal code based on race. A few Africans slipped through that legal net and were free, but not many.
Slavery in the United States was called The Peculiar Institution. It was not only peculiar, but unique. Human slavery had always existed somewhere, in some shape, but never elsewhere under the same conditions that were impressed upon it by American civilization. It was a wonder that it should have existed at all, or even though inherited, should have endured so long among a people, professedly Christian, and boasting free institutions. Few of those who used this phrase really considered how unspeakably peculiar it was. In an age when all privileged classes were generally considered indefensible anomalies, the white men of the South were absolute lords and masters of millions of men. Peculiar and wonderful, was the institution, in relation to time; but far more wonderful was it, viewed in relation to the people who maintained it. Where would the thinker of abstract thoughts look for slavery with as few limitations as that of the South? Would he expect to find it among a humane, a refined, a gentle, and a generally pious people?
In the Old South there existed the most thoroughly organized system of servitude that perhaps the world had ever known, upheld by law, approved by religious teachers, and sustained and defended to the last extremity by noble, humane, and gentle men. It could not be otherwise than that this strange condition was a powerful factor in forming the character and in molding the traits of the people of the South. It could not be otherwise than that a people, living under different conditions from all other people, should show the effect of their unique environment and be different from other people.
The term “South,” meant a people apart. This tremendous force, slavery, was all the more effective too, by reason of the isolation it produced. For truly the South was isolated—isolated in the matter of things material, and isolated in its habits of thought. The stuendous anachronism of slavery, like a rock-bound coast, beat back the tide of immigration.
Southern planters were in desperate need of a way to make the growing of cotton profitable. Long-staple cotton, which was easy to separate from its seeds, could be grown only along the coast. The one variety that grew inland had sticky green seeds that were time-consuming to pick out of the fluffy white cotton bolls. Slavery was in decline. The profitably of crops grown with slave labor, such as rice, tobacco, indigo and cotton was steadily decreasing. Some slaveholders began freeing their slaves in response.
Eli Whitney left New England and headed South in 1792, and patented ithe cotton in in 1794. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.
Because of the cotton gin, slaves now labored on ever-larger plantations where work was more regimented and relentless. As large plantations spread into the Southwest, the price of slaves and land inhibited the growth of cities and industries. In the 1850s seven-eighths of all immigrants settled in the North, where they found 72% of the nation's manufacturing capacity. The growth of the "peculiar institution" was affecting many aspects of Southern life.
While Eli Whitney is best remembered as the inventor of the cotton gin, it is often forgotten that he was also the father of the mass production method. In 1798 he figured out how to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable. It was as a manufacturer of muskets that Whitney finally became rich. If his genius led King Cotton to triumph in the South, it also created the technology with which the North won the Civil War.
After the invention of the cotton gin, the yield of raw cotton doubled each decade after 1800. Demand was fueled by other inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as the machines to spin and weave it and the steamboat to transport it. By midcentury America was growing three-quarters of the world's supply of cotton, most of it shipped to England or New England where it was manufactured into cloth.
As far back as the Missouri Compromise in 1819, sectional lines had been steadily hardening on the slavery question. In the North, sentiment for outright abolition grew increasingly powerful. Southerners in general felt little guilt about slavery and defended it vehemently. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region.
Although the 1860 census showed that there were nearly four million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states, only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. There were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families. Fifty percent of these slave owners owned no more than five slaves. Twelve percent owned 20 or more slaves, the number defined as turning a farmer into a planter. Three-quarters of Southern white families, including the “poor whites,” those on the lowest rung of Southern society, owned no slaves.
It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.
As they fought the weight of Northern opinion, political leaders of the South, the professional classes, and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but championed it. Southern publicists insisted, for example, that the relationship between capital and labor was more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the North. Nearly every slave State was legislating the free colored men out of their bounds, as a “disturbing element” which their people are determined no longer to tolerate.
Before 1830 the old patriarchal system of plantation government, with its personal supervision of the slaves by their owners or masters, was still characteristic. Gradually, however, with the introduction of large-scale cotton production in the lower South, the master gradually ceased to exercise close personal supervision over his slaves, and employed professional overseers charged with exacting from slaves a maximum amount of work. In such circumstances, slavery could become a system of brutality and coercion in which beatings and the breakup of families through the sale of individuals were commonplace. In other settings, however, it could be much milder.
In the end, however, the most trenchant criticism of slavery was not the behavior of individual masters and overseers. Systematically treating African-American laborers as if they were domestic animals, slavery, the abolitionists pointed out, violated every human being’s inalienable right to be free.
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