Economic Bonanza, 1850–1860

Since revolutionaries must risk life, fortune, and honor, only a plight perceived to be horrendous inspires the gamble. The perceived prerevolutionary horror may take many forms: threats to one’s life, one’s family, one’s reputation, one’s psyche, one’s religion, one’s sacred rights. But economic travail provides the most common goad to revolution.

In only one respect, albeit a crucial one, did economic crisis cause the disunion revolution. Those exceptions to everything normally southern, South Carolina’s exceptionally secessionist aristocrats, often faced exceptional economic affliction in the 1850s. Southerners everywhere else usually enjoyed a decade of economic boom. Yet prosperity had its unsettling aspect. Better economic times helped worsen southern social divisions, thereby threatening King Cotton’s suddenly well-heeled army of fanciers.

– 1 –

Like most capitalists, slaveholders tended to do better or worse depending on the era, the locale, and the enterprise. Because they exported staple crops, their fortunes fluctuated according to national and world economic conditions. Two American banking panics, first in 1819 and then in 1837, each ushered in more than a decade of dismal markets for southern agricultural producers. For a few years in the mid-1830s, southern farmers enjoyed better prices. Otherwise, agrarian life after 1820 featured exhausting struggles with poor markets, lashing storms, and pressing bankers.

Battles began in the tobacco-exporting Upper South and especially in Virginia. Eighteenth-century Virginia tobacco planters ranked among the wealthiest Americans. Then, late in the century, the Virginia Dynasty’s leaders’ economic power shrank while their political power swelled. The George Washingtons, James Madisons, Thomas Jeffersons, and James Monroes watched prices for their tobacco sink, thanks to worldwide overproduction. Their tobacco yields also sank, thanks to depleted soil. In response, many Virginians moved west, to virgin soil beyond their declining commonwealth. As for stalwarts who loyally remained in debilitated Virginia, they had to retrench, diversify crops, fertilize soils, and sell some slaves. A limping economic endurance ensued.

More financial problems haunted coastal South Carolina, eighteenth-century domain of aristocrats even richer than the Virginians. Off the South Carolina coast, gentlemen’s slaves usually planted Sea Island cotton. That luxurious fiber, while normally commanding lucrative returns, periodically suffered from erratic prices and savage hurricanes. Storms also occasionally decimated the main business on South Carolina’s coastal mainland, rice production. The unsteady weather helps explain why rice planters, who until the 1850s enjoyed tolerably steady prices and yields, had been economically stressed since the Panic of 1819.

Poor managerial practices compounded rice planters’ economic difficulty. Since South Carolina coastal swamps spawned malarial mosquitoes, rich men often fled the area in the April–October growing season. Absentees seldom efficiently managed intricate rice operations. Inefficient plantations seldom sufficiently financed six-month vacations.

South Carolina planters of the coarser short-staple cotton, situated above the sickly coastal swamps on the rolling hills of the piedmont, had long been better managers, yet more imperiled entrepreneurs. South Carolina’s healthy upcountry habitat yielded less planter absenteeism and therefore more intensive slaveholder direction than did the state’s dank lowcountry. But upcountry producers of crude cotton, compared to lowcountry producers of rice and Sea Island cotton, suffered from worse prices and yields during the period from 1820 to 1850. Upcountry South Carolina, America’s first shortstaple cotton kingdom, had also been the first to exhaust its soil. In the 1820s and early 1830s, then again in the late 1830s and 1840s, when poor cotton prices compounded poor yields, South Carolinians by the tens of thousands deserted their state. South Carolina, home of the South’s densest concentration of blacks and thickest concentration of disunionist reactionaries, thus became the only Lower South state to lose population.

Deserters from South Carolina often brought disunion aspirations to that great land of hustle: the lush river valleys of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. In the virgin Southwest but not in aging South Carolina, booming yields compensated for lagging prices. Thus a cotton planter’s contest against the elements had usually seemed narrowly winnable. During the terrible depression of the early 1840s, however, the entire Cotton Kingdom seemed imperiled. In that dismal period, difficulties also afflicted producers of the South’s subsidiary exports, including hemp growers in Missouri, sugar planters in Louisiana, and tobacco farmers in Virginia.

Smaller farmers suffered fewer anxieties. Slaveless yeomen farmers, when living in the cotton belt, sometimes grew and sold a few bales. More often, they exclusively cultivated food for their families. Beyond the plantation regions, particularly up in mountain habitats, fluctuating worldwide markets even less afflicted self-sufficient yeomen.

Fear of the plantation South’s market vulnerability climaxed in 1844 when Mississippi’s U.S. Senator Robert J. Walker urged that Texas must be annexed to the United States. Virgin Texas acres, Walker argued, would give hard-pressed planters a safety valve for superfluous blacks. Without Texas’s safety valve, Walker gloomed, multiplying and starving black barbarians would inundate the South. Southern entrepreneurs bought into Walker’s dismal vision. With that shudder at racial and economic claustrophobia, rich and poor brought to climax their thirty years of struggle, struggle, struggle.

– 2 –

Then, at midcentury, struggle largely vanished. Cotton prices, sugar prices, tobacco prices shot up, despite extravagant increases in crop production. The big southern cash crop, short-staple cotton, which had sold for some $74,000,000 a year in the 1840s, sold for some $169,000,000 yearly in the 1850s. In the four years before the Civil War, the crop yearly averaged some $207,000,000 in value, almost three times more than the average figure a decade earlier.1 So too, in the 1850s compared to the 1840s, the Sea Island cotton crop increased 200 percent in value, the sugar crop 150 percent, and the tobacco crop 67 percent.2 In comfortable contrast, the southern cost of living during the 1850s eased up less than 33 percent.3

Only those politically crucial gentlemen, South Carolina rice planters, still suffered under dreary economic skies. These squires’ debts had multiplied faster than their assets even in the 1820s, when rice yields and prices had remained more immune than cotton figures from the worldwide economic downturn. In the 1850s, rice planters’ immunity from market caprices and soil exhaustion ended. Meanwhile, their absentee mismanagement continued. Rice prices increased 6 percent during the 1850s, not beginning to offset the 24 percent decline in rice produced. The average yearly worth of the crop dived from some $2,500,000 in the 1840s to some $1,900,000 in the 1850s. In the year of secession, the value of these incensed gentlemen’s exports plunged under $1,400,000, an all-time low. The lowcountry’s careful entrepreneurs could still profit with rice production. But care became all the more necessary.4

While economic disaster honed a new edge on many South Carolina coastal squires’ desire for disunion, entrepreneurs elsewhere sought a fortune rather than a revolution. Southerners developed almost 30,000,000 previously untouched acres during the 1850s, increasing the land under cultivation by over a third. Southern farmland doubled in value during the decade;5 southern railroad lines more than tripled in length;6 and southern industrial receipts swelled 66 percent.7 Compared to the North, the South remained poorly developed industrially and ill connected by railroads. But in the late 1850s, the rate of new development in Dixie surpassed Yankee standards.

In one area, the South set records that Yankees scorned. The price of slaves took off in the 1850s. The average price for a Lower South slave, after hovering around $925 from 1830 to 1850, averaged $1240 in 1851–55 and $1658 in 1856–60, a 79 percent rise in the South’s largest capital investment.8 After the national Panic of 1857, when the North fell into prolonged depression and the South quickly recovered, Southerners gloated about getting rich quicker than money-mad Yankees.9

That fresh swaggering exemplified the new tone in the newest South. Vanished from the Lower South, except from aging South Carolina, were gloomings about stagnating profits, superfluous slaves, and a diseased economy trapped without a safety valve. Omnipresent were visions of new beginnings, of expanding slave empires, even, in some quarters, of importing fresh Africans. What a time this was, in the land where cotton became, almost overnight, a very wealthy king.

– 3 –

But the true American monarch remained King Numbers, with that sovereign’s potential dominion over King Cotton. Since the North possessed more citizens than the South, and the South more nonslaveholders than slaveholders, the slaveholders needed double minority dominion: over sectional and national majorities. Unless southern nonslaveholders cared more about preserving slavery and/or about defying the Yankees than about anything else, other priorities—to the Union, to peace, to prosperity—could bend poor folks’ allegiance. Then nonslaveholder nonzeal could yield congressional compromises on slavery or civil war collaboration with Yankee armies.

Unfortunately for the slavocracy’s southerly core areas, the better economic times of the 1850s nudged the northerly peripheral areas toward becoming more culturally Yankee. One fact was paramount: Slaves grew dramatically more expensive, almost twice as expensive in 1860 as in 1850. One result was omnipresent: Slaveless farmers could not often afford $1600 slaves, while big planters could profitably pay the price. One consequence was troublesome: The relative proportion of slaveholders to nonslaveholders shrank fastest in slaveholders’ least committed spot, the Border South.

In the whole South during the presecession decade, slaveholding families sank from 43 percent to 37 percent of all southern white families. Meanwhile, the number of white families owning twenty or more slaves boomed six times faster than the number owning one to four slaves. While large slaveholders’ holdings grew faster, white belt areas grew whiter. Slaves generated profits faster in Lower South tropical cotton and sugar kingdoms than on Upper South tobacco or grain farms. Fugitive slaves also escaped easiest from the border areas, where slave labor generated smallest profits. So during the 1850s, Border South masters sold some 53,000 slaves and Middle South masters some 84,000 to Lower South capitalists.10

As blacks drained out of the more northern South, white immigrants from foreign nations poured in. Between 1850 and 1860, the Border South attracted some 142,000 foreign immigrants, almost three times more laborers than the blacks it lost. Meanwhile, the Middle South gained some 31,000 foreign immigrants, over one-third of the blacks it lost.11 The resulting percentage of slaveowning white families dropped in the Middle South from 30 percent to 25 percent and plunged in the Border South from 23 percent to 16 percent. If nonslaveholder percentages continued to plummet at those rates, the most northern South, within a decade or two, would have the same relatively paltry proportion of slaves, circa 5 percent, as the colonial North had had in 1776, when the area had begun its fifty-year creep toward abolishing slavery.

In one key way, the 1860 Border South was already too Yankee. By 1860, the Border South contained some 419,000 immigrants and free blacks, compared to barely more slaves—some 429,000. In 1860, Maryland contained almost as many foreign immigrants (some 77,000) as it contained free blacks (some 84,000) or slaves (some 87,000). In 1860, Missouri contained 40 percent more foreign immigrants than slaves. The Lower South, in contrast, contained almost fourteen times more slaves than foreign immigrants. As the Border South slowly became less dependent on slave labor and more dependent on immigrant and free black workers, the Lower South became a blacker, more enslaved society—and a culture where higher slave prices made slaveless white yeomen and tenants increasingly less likely to become slaveholders.

While the economic boom drained more slaves from the most northern to the most southern South, South Carolina lost its people at a more alarming pace than ever. Some 7000 whites and 70,000 slaves trooped from South Carolina to the virgin Southwest during the 1850s. The hemorrhage somewhat afflicted upcountry South Carolina cotton planters. These squires’ better times, while a relief from previous awful times, could not match booming times on the Lower South frontier. But the stagnating coastal rice fields pressed more people out of debilitated South Carolina. Charleston, mecca of the rice gentry, lost a third of its slaves, with foreign immigrants replacing enslaved laborers. Charleston, to the alarm of its crusty aristocracy, was becoming, of all things, a little like a Yankee free labor city.12

Here, as usual, Charlestonians took southern apprehensions to an abnormal extreme. But whether in Charleston, Mobile, or New Orleans, southern cities displayed a new normality: cheap immigrant wage earners replacing expensive black slaves.13 So too, not only the contracting South Carolina lowcountry but also the prosperous Upper South tobacco kingdoms extensively dispatched slaves to southwestern cotton and sugar lands. The Southwest, that most prosperous Southland, grew ever more confident, ever more black with slaves, and ever more alienated from the increasingly Yankee-like northern South and the increasingly afflicted Charleston environs.

Such differential prosperity somewhat aided the disunionists. The Lower South area most falling behind, South Carolina, had the classic economic desperation to start a revolution. The Lower South area most marching ahead, the lush Southwest, had the classic economic confidence to consider war winnable, if South Carolina should start one. How, after all, could the North whip the South in a civil war, when Southerners had routed Northerners at Yankees’ own game, getting rich quick? Meanwhile the declining South Carolinians and the ascending Southwesterners, together the core of the plantation South, harbored a cultural center’s classic concern about its periphery. The Border South, while still containing 400,000 slaves and very few abolitionists, was drifting toward becoming more a periphery of the North. Why not strike for a southern nation when the Border South periphery might still go along—and before South Carolinians lost the nerve to do any striking at all?

In part because the National Democratic Party still existed and might still protect the slavocracy in the Union. Moreover, in the midst of their newly discovered prosperity, most Southerners, whether inside or outside the Democracy, preferred to get rich quick inside the Union. The ever more Yankee Border South demonstrated especial loathing for disunion.

How could all these increasingly different folk be rallied behind a dangerous revolution? Worse, how could slaveholders forge a single world when their great weapon of social control over blacks, coercive terror, could not generate universal white conformity? Lower South planters could, did, lynch some dissenters in their neighborhoods. But the southern core areas could not invade their peripheral areas, to lynch uncommitted or heretical Border South citizens.

So forging a single southern culture had to begin the democratic way, with fashioning an ideology and building a consensus. All Southerners had to consider slavery a blessing—and dearer than any other blessing. But what proslavery idea could unify the South’s ideological superstructure, with the civilization’s material substructure more divided than ever?

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!