The Two Nations
northern slaves southern free south slave hundred plantation slavery whites
In the mid-nineteenth century the growing industrial revolution pointed up the existence of two "nations" within each of the more progressive national states. In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli described the two figurative nations in England as being founded, one on industry, urbanization, and the exploitation of the working classes, the other on agriculture, the farmhouse and village, and established relations between squire and tenant.
Applying this concept to the United States at the middle of the century, one finds an important difference: the budding industry of America was based upon the championing of individual freedom, while a considerable portion of agrarian America seemed increasingly committed to preserving the institution of slavery. Between North and South a marked disagreement over fundamental principles served to demarcate an increasingly sharp boundary. Simultaneously, railroad construction rapidly increased, providing the foundation of a rapidly expanding national economy. Thus America revealed a contradictory image, with political disunity paralleled by the conditions for economic integration. The vast influx of immigrants (largely from Ireland and Germany) subsequent to 1845 accentuated political dislocations, but also supplied a large and growing reservoir of labor upon which industry, especially in the North, could draw. If a single word were needed to describe America's economic and political situation at the middle of the nineteenth century, the word would be flux; but as with most one-word generalizations, extensive analysis and explanation are required before the term flux may be fully and accurately comprehended in its present application.
The Southern Nation
In 1850, the fifteen states that comprised the cotton kingdom could hardly have been called a coherent entity. In the Upper South, as Calhoun recognized, loyalties had become increasingly muted as the nineteenth century wore on.
Poor Whites and Southern Aristocrats. The tiny state of Delaware actually had fewer slaves in 1850 than it had had ten years earlier. It seemed only a matter of time before the border areas would become free. As large numbers of Northerners settled in St. Louis, resentment flared against domination of Missouri by a handful of slave oligarchs. Similar conflicts existed in Kentucky and Tennessee; in the latter state, Andrew Johnson voiced the antagonism of the poor whites for Southern aristocrats. Throughout the South there were increasing signs of a burgeoning class conflict between the slave oligarchs and the yeomen farmers. Only the antipathy of the yeomanry to the Negro prevented an even more extreme conflict. All Southern whites seemed to agree upon one thing: the Negro had to be kept in subjugation. Often resentful under the domination of the wealthy slave owners, nonslaveholding whites were nevertheless kept in check by an overriding fear that disunity in the ranks of the whites would serve to advance the blacks to equality. In the end it was as a solution to the race problem rather than as a source of profit that slavery commanded a Southern consensus.
The Slave Population. In 1860, ownership of more than 3,600,000 slaves was concentrated in the hands of barely 384,000 slaveholders out of a total Southern population of more than 8,000,000 whites. But even these figures are deceptive. Some three hundred slaveholders owned more than two hundred slaves each; twenty-three hundred were masters of one hundred or more slaves; less than two hundred thousand owned more than ten slaves each; and seventy-seven thousand owned only one slave apiece. The concentration of wealth in the upper classes of Southern society permitted three-tenths of one per cent of the white population in Alabama, for instance, to own almost 130,000 slaves, one-third of all the slaves in that state, together with nearly a third of all cultivated lands and almost two hundred and fifty million dollars of the state's seven hundred million dollars in assessed valuation. The system had already created an opulent class, small in number, living among an overwhelming majority of depressed whites and slaves.
The South and Cotton. The census returns of 1860 indicated that in less than ten years the number of Southerners who drew their livelihood from some aspect of the plantation system had declined from one in three to one in four. Of this number only two hundred and fifty thousand enjoyed the full fruits of plantation life. The now legendary plantation was, therefore, the exception rather than the rule in the South. It provided a goal toward which the ambitious Southern youth aspired; but, by 1850, access into the ranks of the plantation elite had become nearly impossible. Profits from the plantation system remain a matter for acute debate, even today. While a number of plantation owners cleared $50,000 on a single crop, the average planter found that his staple, cotton, governed in price by distant and often indecipherable fluctuations of the market at Liverpool, provided only bare sustenance. And the system was wasteful: land was farmed until it was exhausted; the black laborer was often misused. The planter dismissed such charges with the argument that the Negro, not the land, was his true investment.
The Limitations of Slavery. Frederick Law Olmsted, a Northern observer traveling through the South shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, noted that Southerners frequently described slavery as a blight. "The Negroes are the weight continually pulling us down," complained one Southern housewife. "Will the time ever come for us to be free of them?" Slave conditions varied. On the larger plantations adequate, though rude, provision was made for them. Self-interest dictated such action since each slave constituted an investment with a cash valuation in the plantation roll book. Rather than risk the lives of their slaves, owners often hired white workers, usually Irish immigrants, to do the dangerous work of draining swamps and loading heavy bales of cotton on riverboats. There also existed a widespread custom of paternalism toward slaves which caused more than one mistress of a plantation to complain that instead of having the care of only one family, she was "the nurse, physician, and spiritual adviser to a whole settlement of careless slaves." More than one observer noted that the system was conducive to wholesale prodigality.
The Abuses of Slavery. But slavery also lent itself to vicious abuse. Fanny Kemble, an English actress of wide fame, recalled that "every Southern woman to whom I have spoken on the subject has admitted to me that they live in terror of their slaves." To keep slaves subjugated, laws were passed which denied slaves the opportunity to learn to read.
Night patrols roamed the countryside to make certain that the slave kept in his cabin and curfew was imposed on free Negroes and slaves alike. Mere misdemeanours were punished by flogging; capital crimes led almost invariably to lynch law, with roasting at the stake a frequent punishment. The sale of slaves split families and destroyed the most elemental base of personal stability for the Negro. The occasional sadistic master had his slaves utterly at his mercy. Slavery degraded not only the slave but also the master. Its corruption permeated every layer of Southern life. Most detrimental to the democratic ideal was the insidious association that came to be attached in the South to the word "free." One young Southerner complained: We have got to hating everything with the prefix free, from free Negroes down and up through the whole catalogue - free farms, free labor, free society, free will, free thinking, free children, and free schools - all belonging to the same brood of damnable isms.
The Economic Decline of the South. As the South drew apart from its association with the rest of the country, it expressed increasing alarm at its declining economic importance. Whole areas of the Virginia and Carolina tidewater had reverted to overgrown wilderness, while concentration on staple crops obliged the South to import large quantities of food. And the available supply of slaves retarded the introduction of farm machinery. The self-sustaining agriculture of the North, with its emphasis on careful husbandry, farm machinery, and scientific usage of the land, had scarcely any parallel in the South. Few travelers failed to make an adverse comparison between Northern and Southern agriculture. The absence of industry in the South made the region wholly dependent upon outside manufacturers. An Alabama journalist protested: Our slaves are clothed with Northern manufactured goods, have Northern hats and shoes, work with Northern hoes, ploughs, and other implements, are chastised with a Northern-made instrument, are working for Northern more than Southern profit. The slaveholder dresses in Northern goods, rides in a Northern saddle, . . . patronizes Northern newspapers, drinks Northern liquors, reads Northern books, spends his money at Northern watering places. . . . In Northern vessels his products are carried to market, his cotton is ginned with Northern gins, his sugar is crushed and preserved with Northern machinery; his rivers are navigated by Northern steamboats, his mails are carried in Northern stages, his Negroes are fed with Northern bacon, beef, flour, and corn; his land is cleared with a Northern axe, and a Yankee clock sits upon his mantelpiece; his floor is swept with a Northern broom, and is coyered with a Northern carpet; and his wife dresses herself in a Northern looking-glass; . . . his son is educated at a Northern college, his daughter receives the finishing polish at a Northern seminary, his schools are supplied with Northern teachers, and he is furnished with Northern inventions and notions.
Southern View of the North. Perversely, many Southerners drew the wrong conclusion from this relationship, assuming that it indicated the Northern need for a market rather than an involuntary Southern dependence. Though many Southerners preached the urgency of developing home industry, there existed an insurmountable obstacle: the Southern association of industry with Yankee pettiness and lack of chivalry. A South Carolina planter complained: Free society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moonstruck theorists? All the northern and especially the New England states, are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meets with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a southern gentleman's body servant.
The Southerner assigned to the Northerner a status beneath that of slaves. The bond of sentiment wore thin; the bond of affection had long since snapped.