Although James Henry Hammond became one of the richest plantation owners in South Carolina, he began life more modestly. Born in 1807 near Newberry, South Carolina, he was the only one of six siblings to earn a college degree. Certain that a legal career would lead to wealth and power, James opened a law practice in Columbia, the state capital, in 1828. Two years later, bored by his profession, he established a newspaper, the Southern Times. Writing bold editorials that supported nullification of the "Tariff of Abominations," Hammond quickly gained attention and acclaim.
While launching his journalistic career, James courted Catherine Fitzsimmons, the daughter of a wealthy, politically connected family. When they married in June 1831, James became master of Silver Bluff, a 7,500-acre plantation worked by 147 slaves. Giving up his editorial career to focus on managing the estate, he quickly gained prominence as an agricultural reformer and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1834.
Hammond's political career was erratic. In 1836 he led a campaign that resulted in congressional passage of the so-called gag rule, ensuring that antislavery petitions would be tabled rather than read on the floor of the House. Soon afterward, he took ill and resigned from Congress, but he returned to politics in 1842 as governor of South Carolina. His ambitions were stymied once more, however, when Catherine discovered that James had made sexual advances on his four nieces, aged thirteen to sixteen. Fearing public exposure, Hammond withdrew from politics, but he soon joined southern intellectuals in arguing that slavery was a positive good rather than a necessary evil.
This proslavery argument intensified in the late 1840s as northern reformers sought to halt the spread of slavery into newly acquired lands in the West. In the early nineteenth century, a thriving trade in enslaved workers had developed between the Upper South and more fertile areas in the Lower South. It bolstered the economy in both regions but also highlighted the brutalities of bondage. With westward expansion, this internal trade in slaves burgeoned.
Solomon Northrup was among tens of thousands of African Americans who endured the ravages of the internal slave trade. Unlike the vast majority, however, Northrup was born free in Minerva, New York, in 1808. His father, Mintus, had been born into slavery but was freed by his owner's will. Once free, Mintus acquired sufficient property to qualify to vote, an impressive achievement for a former slave.
After his marriage to Anne Hampton at the age of twenty-one, Solomon found employment transporting goods along the region's waterways. He was also hired as a fiddle player for local dances, while Anne worked as a cook in neighborhood taverns. In 1834 the couple moved to Saratoga Springs, a tourist haven that provided more job opportunities. There they raised their three children until tragedy struck.
In March 1841, Solomon met two white circus performers who hired him to play fiddle for them on tour. They paid his wages up front and told him to obtain documents proving his free status. After reaching Washington, D.C., however, Northrup was drugged, chained, and sold to James Birch, a notorious slave trader. Northrup was resold in New Orleans to William Ford, whom he later described as a "kind, noble, candid Christian man" who was nonetheless blind "to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery." Ford gave Northrup a new name, Platt, and put him to work as a raftsman while Northrup tried unsuccessfully to get word to his wife.
In 1842 Ford sold "Platt" to a neighbor, John Tibeats, who whipped and abused his workers. When Tibeats attacked his newly acquired slave with an ax, Northrup fought back and fled to Ford's house. His former owner shielded him from Tibeats's wrath and arranged his sale to Edwin Epps, who owned a large cotton plantation. For the next ten years, Northrup worked the fields and played the fiddle at local dances.
Finally, in 1852 Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter who openly acknowledged his antislavery views, came to work on Epps's house. Northrup persuaded Bass to send a letter to his wife in Saratoga Springs. Anne Northrup, astonished to hear from her husband after more than a decade, took the letter to lawyer Henry Northrup, the son of Mintus's former owner. After months of legal efforts, Henry traveled to Louisiana and, with the help of a local judge, freed Solomon Northrup in January 1853.
South Carolina Plantation This wood engraving from the mid-nineteenth century depicts a planter's residence on the Cumbee River, South Carolina. When cotton prices began to rise after 1843, leading planters invested more of their profits in fancy houses and luxurious furnishings. They bought expensive clothing and jewelry for their wives and daughters and traveled abroad with their families. The Granger Collection, New York
THE AMERICAN HiSTORIES
of Solomon Northrup were both intertwined in the struggle over slavery. By 1850 slave labor had become central to the South’s and the nation’s economic success, even as slave ownership became concentrated in the hands of a smaller proportion of wealthy white families. The concentration of more slaves on each plantation created a stronger sense of community and a truly African American culture, although it did not negate the brutality of the institution. At the same time, the volatility of the cotton market fueled economic instability, which planters claimed could be resolved only by cultivating more cotton. In response, sympathetic administrations in Washington forcibly removed Indians from the Southeast, supported independence for Texas, and proclaimed war on Mexico. But these policies led to growing conflicts with western Indian nations and heightened political conflicts over slavery and the nation’s future.
The cotton gin, developed in the 1790s, ensured the growth of southern agriculture into the 1840s (see chapter 8). As the cotton kingdom spread west, planters forged a distinctive culture around the institution of slavery. But slavery limited the development of cities, technology, and educational institutions, leaving the South increasingly dependent on the North and West for food, industrial goods, commercial resources, books and magazines, and even higher education. In addition, westward expansion extended the trade in slaves within the South, shattering black families. Still, southern planters viewed themselves as national leaders, both the repository of traditional American values and the engine of economic progress.
A Plantation Society Develops in the South
Plantation slavery existed throughout the Americas in the early nineteenth century. British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies in the West Indies and South America all housed large numbers of slaves and extensive plantations. In the U.S. South, however, the volatile cotton market and a scarcity of fertile land kept most plantations relatively small before 1830. But from the early 1840s on, territorial expansion and profits from cotton, as well as from rice and sugar, fueled a period of conspicuous consumption. Successful southern planters now built grand houses and purchased a variety of luxury goods.
As plantations grew, especially in states like South Carolina and Mississippi where slaves outnumbered whites, a wealthy aristocracy sought to ensure productivity by employing harsh methods of discipline. Masters whipped slaves for a variety of offenses, from not picking enough cotton to breaking tools or running away. Although James Henry Hammond imagined himself a progressive master, he used the whip liberally, hoping thereby to ensure that his estate generated sufficient profits to purchase fancy furnishings, trips to Europe, fashionable clothing, and fine jewelry.
Increased attention to comfort and luxury helped make the heavy workload of plantation mistresses tolerable. Although mistresses were idealized for their beauty, piety, and grace, they took on considerable managerial responsibilities. They directed the domestic slaves as well as the feeding, clothing, and medical care of the entire labor force. They were expected to organize and preside over lavish social events, host relatives and friends for extended stays, and direct the plantation in their husband’s absence. When James was traveling, Catherine Hammond struggled to manage the estate while caring for their seven children.
Of course, plantation mistresses were relieved of the most arduous labor by enslaved women, who cooked, cleaned, and washed for the family, cared for the children, and even nursed the babies. Wealthy white women benefited from the best education, the greatest access to music and literature, and the finest clothes and furnishings to be had in the region. Yet the pedestal on which plantation mistresses stood was shaky, built on a patriarchal system in which husbands and fathers held substantial power. For example, most wives were forced to ignore the sexual relations that husbands initiated with female slaves. As Mary Boykin Chesnut explained in her diary, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends to think so.” In 1850, when Catherine Hammond discovered James’s sexual relations with an enslaved mother and daughter, she moved to Charleston with her two youngest daughters. Most wives, however, stayed put, and some took out their anger and frustration on slave women already victimized by their husbands. Moreover, some mistresses owned slaves themselves, traded them on the slave market, and gave them as gifts or bequests to family members and friends.
Not all slaveholders were wealthy planters like the Hammonds, with fifty or more slaves and extensive landholdings. Far more planters in the 1830s and 1840s owned between twenty and fifty slaves, and an even larger number of farmers owned just three to six slaves. These small planters and farmers could not afford to emulate the lives of the largest slave owners. Still, as Hammond wrote a friend in 1847, “The planters here are essentially what the nobility are in other countries. They stand at the head of society & politics.”
Urban Life in the slave south
The insistence on the supremacy of slave owners had broad repercussions. The richest men in the South invested in slaves, land, and household goods, with little left to develop industry, technology, or urban institutions. The largest factory in the South, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, was constructed in 1833, and by 1850 it employed several hundred free and enslaved African Americans. Most southern industrialists, however, like South Carolina textile manufacturer William Gregg, employed poor white women and children. But neither Tredegar nor a scattering of textile mills fundamentally reshaped the region’s economy.
The South also fell behind in urban development. The main exception was port cities, which boasted fine shops, a growing professional class, and ready access to national and international news. Yet even in Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah, commerce was often directed by northern agents, especially cotton brokers. In addition, nearly one-third of southern whites had no access to cash and instead bartered goods and services, further restricting the urban economy. In the South, only Baltimore and New Orleans reached a population of 100,000 by 1850.
Despite their relative scarcity, southern cities attracted many free blacks, providing them with the best hope of finding employment and distancing themselves from hostile planters. The growing demand for cheap domestic labor in urban areas and planters’ greater willingness to emancipate less valuable single female slaves meant that free black women generally outnumbered men in southern cities. These women worked mainly as washerwomen, cooks, and general domestics, while free black men labored as skilled artisans, dockworkers, or sailors in southern seaports. In these jobs, free blacks competed with slaves and with growing numbers of Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants who flocked to southern cities in the 1840s and 1850s. The presence of immigrants and free blacks and the reputation of ports as escape hatches for runaway slaves ensured that cities remained suspect in the South.
The scarcity of cities and industry also curtailed the development of transportation. State governments and private citizens invested little in roads, canals, and railroads. Most small farmers traded goods locally, and planters used the South’s extensive river system to ship goods to commercial hubs. Where rivers did not meet this need, rail lines were sometimes built. However, only Virginia and Maryland, with their proximity to the nation’s capital, developed extensive rail networks.
The consequences of slavery’s Expansion
Outside the South, industry and agriculture increasingly benefited from technological innovation. Indeed, the booming textile industry in New England fueled the demand for cotton and drove up prices during the 1840s and 1850s. Planters, however, continued to rely on intensive manual labor. Even reform-minded planters focused on fertilizer and crop rotation rather than machines to enhance productivity. The limited use of new technologies—such as iron plows or seed drills—resulted from a lack of investment capital and planters’ attitudes toward African American laborers. Believing them to be inherently lazy, ignorant, and untrustworthy, planters refused to purchase expensive equipment that might be broken or purposely sabotaged. Instead, they relied on continually expanding the acreage under cultivation.
One result of these practices was that a declining percentage of white Southerners came to control vast estates with large numbers of enslaved laborers. Between 1830 and 1850, the absolute number of both slaves and owners grew. But slave owners became a smaller proportion of all white Southerners because the white population grew faster than the number of slave owners. At the same time, distinctions among wealthy planters, small slaveholders, and whites who owned no slaves also increased.
The concern with productivity and profits and the concentration of more slaves on large plantations did have some benefits for black women and men. The end of the international slave trade in 1808 forced planters to rely more heavily on natural reproduction to increase their labor force. Thus many planters thought more carefully about how they treated their slaves, who were increasingly viewed as “valuable property.” It was no longer good business to work slaves to death, cripple them with severe whippings, or cut off fingers, ears, or other body parts.
Nonetheless, owners continued to whip slaves with regularity and made paltry investments in diet and health care for enslaved workers. Most slaves lived in small houses with dirt floors and minimal furniture and were given three or four suits of clothes a year despite laboring six days a week. They ate a diet high in calories, especially fats and carbohydrates, but with little meat, fish, fresh vegetables, or fruits. The high mortality rate among slave infants and children—more than twice that of white children to age five—reflected the limits of planters’ care.
The spread of slavery into Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, and Texas affected both white and black families, though again not equally. The younger sons of wealthy planters were often forced to move to the frontier, and their families generally lived in rough quarters on isolated plantations. Such moves were far more difficult for slaves, however. Between 1830 and 1850, more than 440,000 slaves were forced to move from the Upper South to the Lower South (Map 10.1). On the southern frontier, they endured especially harsh conditions as they carved out new cotton fields and rice paddies or planted and harvested sugarcane. Many of these frontier slaves had been torn away from their families and communities.
By the 1830s, slave markets blossomed in Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Natchez, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Solomon Northrup described one in Washington, D.C., in 1841 where a woman named Eliza watched as her son Randall was “won” by a planter from Baton Rouge. She promised “to be the most faithful slave that ever lived” if he would also buy her and her daughter. The slave trader threatened the desperate mother with a hundred lashes, but neither his threats nor her tears could change the outcome. As slavery spread westward, such scenes were repeated thousands of times.
The Spread of Slavery and Cotton, 1820-1860 While tobacco, rice, and sugar remained important crops in a few states, cotton became the South's and the nation's major export. The need to find more fertile fields led planters to migrate to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As a result of cotton's success, the number of enslaved people increased dramatically, the internal slave trade expanded, and labor demands intensified.
REVIEW & RELATE
• What role did the planter elite play in southern society and politics?
• What were the consequences of the dominant position of slave-based plantation agriculture in the southern economy?