Modern history

Planters Tighten Control

Fears of rebellion led to stricter regulations of black life, and actual uprisings temporarily reinforced white solidarity. Yet yeomen farmers, poor whites, and middle-class professionals all voiced some doubts about the ways in which human bondage affected southern society. To unite these disparate groups, planters wielded their economic and political authority, highlighted bonds of kinship and religious fellowship, and promoted an ideology of white supremacy. Their efforts intensified as northern states and other nations began eradicating slavery.

Harsher Treatment for Southern Blacks

Slave revolts led many southern states to impose harsher controls; however, Nat Turner’s rebellion led some white Virginians to question slavery itself. In December 1831, the state Assembly established a special committee to consider the crisis. Representatives from western counties, where slavery was never profitable, argued for the gradual abolition of slavery and the colonization of the state’s black population in Africa. Hundreds of women in the region sent petitions to the Virginia legislature supporting these positions. But slaveholders from eastern districts claimed that even discussing emancipation might encourage blacks who observed the Assembly’s debates to rebel.

Advocates of colonization gained significant support, but the state’s leading intellectuals spoke out adamantly for the benefits of slavery. Professor Thomas Dew, president of the College of William and Mary, emphasized the advantages for planters and slaves alike. Dew claimed that slaveholders performed godly work in raising Africans from the status of brute beast to civilized Christian. Dew’s proslavery argument turned the tide, and in the fall of 1832 the Virginia legislature rejected gradual emancipation and imposed new restrictions on slaves and free blacks.

From the 1820s to the 1840s, more stringent codes were passed across the South. Most southern legislatures prohibited owners from manumitting their slaves, made it illegal for whites to teach slaves to read or write, limited the size and number of independent black churches, abolished slaves’ already-limited access to courts, outlawed slave marriage, banned antislavery literature as obscene, defined rape as a crime only against white women, and outlawed assemblies of more than three blacks without a white person present.

States also regulated the lives of free blacks. Some prohibited free blacks from residing within their borders, others required large bonds to ensure good behavior, and most forbade free blacks who left the state from returning. The homes of free blacks could be raided at any time on suspicion of possessing stolen goods or harboring runaways, and the children of free black women were subject to stringent apprenticeship laws that kept many in virtual slavery.

Planters, aided by state legislatures and local authorities, proved largely successful in controlling slaves, but there was a price to pay. Laws to regulate black life tended to restrict education, mobility, and urban development for southern whites as well. Such laws also characterized the region’s primary labor force as savage, heathen, and lazy, hardly a basis for sustained economic development. And the regulations increased tensions between poorer whites, who were often responsible for enforcement, and wealthy whites, who benefited most clearly from their imposition.

White Southerners without Slaves

Yeomen farmers, independent landowners who did not own any slaves, had a complex relationship with the South’s plantation economy. Many were related to slave owners, and they often depended on planters to ship their crops to market. Some hoped to rise into the ranks of slaveholders one day, and others made extra money by hiring themselves out to planters. Yet yeomen farmers also recognized that their economic interests often diverged from those of planters. As growing numbers gained the right to vote in the 1820s and 1830s, they voiced their concerns in county and state legislatures.

Most yeomen farmers believed in slavery, but they sometimes challenged planters’ authority and assumptions. In the Virginia slavery debates, small farmers from western districts advocated gradual abolition. In other states, they advocated more liberal policies toward debtors and the protection of fishing rights. Yeomen farmers also questioned certain ideals embraced by elites. Although plantation mistresses considered manual labor beneath them, the wives and daughters of many small farmers had to work in the fields, haul water, chop wood, and perform other arduous tasks. Still, yeomen farmers’ ability to diminish planter control was limited by the continued importance of cotton to the southern economy.

In their daily life, however, many small farmers depended more on friends and neighbors than on the planter class. Barn raisings, corn shuckings, quilting bees, and other collective endeavors offered them the chance to combine labor with sociability. Church services and church socials also brought communities together. Farmers lost such ties when they sought better land on the frontier. There, families struggled to establish new crops and new lives in relative isolation but hoped that fertile fields might offer the best chance to rise within the South’s rigid class hierarchy.

One step below the yeomen farmers were the even larger numbers ofwhite Southerners who owned no property at all. These poor whites depended on hunting and fishing in frontier areas, performing day labor on farms and plantations, or working on docks or as servants in southern cities. Poor whites competed with free blacks and slaves for employment and often harbored resentments as a result. Yet they also built alliances based on their shared economic plight. Poor immigrants from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland were especially hostile to American planters, who reminded them of English landlords.

Some poor whites remained in the same community for decades, establishing themselves on the margins of society. They attended church regularly, performed day labor for affluent families, and taught their children to defer to their betters. In Savannah and other southern cities, wealthy families organized benevolent associations and more affluent immigrants established mutual aid societies to help poorer members of their community in hard times. It was the most respectable among this downtrodden class who had the best chance of securing assistance.

Other poor whites moved frequently and survived by combining legal and illegal ventures. Some rejected laws and customs established by elites and joined forces with blacks or other poor whites. These men and women often had few ties to local communities, little religious training or education, and settled scores with violence. Although poor whites unnerved southern elites by flouting the law and sometimes befriending poor blacks, they could not mount any significant challenge to planter control.

Unlike poor whites, the South’s small but growing middle class sought stability and respectability. These middle-class Southerners, who worked as doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and shopkeepers, often looked to the North for models to emulate. Many were educated in northern schools and developed ties with their commercial or professional counterparts in northern cities. They were avid readers of newspapers, religious tracts, and literary periodicals published in the North. And like middle-class Northerners, southern businessmen often depended on their wives’ social and financial skills to succeed.

Nonetheless, middle-class southern men shared many of the social attitudes and political priorities of slave owners. They participated alongside planters in benevolent associations, literary and temperance (antialcohol) societies, and agricultural reform organizations. Most middle-class Southerners also adamantly supported slavery and benefited from planters’ demands for goods and services. In fact, some suggested that bound labor might be as useful to industry as it was to agriculture, and they sought to expand the institution further. Despite the emergence of a small middle class, however, the gap between rich and poor continued to expand in the South.

Planters Seek to Unify Southern Whites

Planters faced another challenge as nations in Europe and South America began to abolish slavery. Antislavery views, first expressed by a few Enlightenment thinkers and Quakers, gained growing support among evangelical Protestants in Great Britain and the United States and among political radicals in Europe. Slave rebellions in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and the British West Indies in the early nineteenth century intensified these efforts. In 1807 the British Parliament forbade the sale of slaves within its empire and in 1834 emancipated all those who remained enslaved. France followed suit in 1848. As Spanish colonies such as Mexico and Nicaragua gained their independence in the 1820s and 1830s, they, too, eradicated the institution. Meanwhile gradual abolition laws in the northern United States slowly eliminated slavery there. Although slavery continued in Brazil and in Spanish colonies such as Cuba and serfdom remained in Russia, international attitudes toward human bondage were shifting.

In response, planters wielded their political and economic power to forge tighter bonds among white Southerners. According to the three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution, areas with large slave populations gained more representatives in Congress than those without. The pattern held for state elections, too. In addition, well-educated planters and their allies were the likeliest candidates for office and the most successful. Planters also used their resources to provide credit for those in need, offer seasonal employment for poorer whites, transport crops to market for yeomen farmers, and contribute food, clothing, and other goods in times of crisis. Few poorer whites could afford to antagonize these affluent benefactors.

Wealthy planters also emphasized ties of family and faith. James Hammond, for example, assisted his siblings and other family members financially throughout their lives. Many slave owners also worshipped alongside their less well-to-do neighbors, and both the pastor and the congregation benefited from maintaining good relations with the wealthiest congregants. Many church members, like many relatives and neighbors, genuinely admired and respected planter elites who looked out for them.

Still, planters did not take white solidarity for granted. From the 1830s on, they relied on the ideology of white supremacy to cement the belief that all whites, regardless of class or education, were superior to all blacks. Following on Thomas Dew, southern elites argued with growing vehemence that the moral and intellectual failings of blacks meant that slavery was not just a necessary evil but actually a positive good. At the same time, they insisted that blacks harbored deep animosity toward whites, which could be controlled only by regulating every aspect of their lives. Combining racial fear and racial pride, planters forged bonds with poor and middling whites to guarantee their continued dominance. They also sought support from officials in the nation’s capital.


• What groups made up white southern society? How did their interests overlap? How did they diverge?

• How and why did the planter elite seek to reinforce white solidarity?

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