Slavery in the United States: Ante-Bellum Cotton Plantations

Figure 1.--Here is the view of slave quarters in Georgia during the mid-19th century. It was from a book published after the Civil War. It seems to have been an imaginative creation.

A plantation is an agiculture institution focused on the large-scale cultivation of a specific crop using slave or wage workers. Usually it does not involve cereal production or pasture. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had sharply contrasting views of America's future. It is the Jeffersonian image that caught the American imagination--the idea of a republic of virtue based on the yeoman farmer. Ironically it was the Hamiltonian vision of a commercial future that proved the most accurate. And Jefferson's vision hardly described Montecello and the the ruling class of Virginia and the other Southern states where plantations based on slave labor came to dominate society. Again ironically it was another Jeffersonian rival--John Adams--who was the archtypical yeoman farmer. The colonial plantation were often diverse operations growing a variety of crops. Tobacco was especially important, but the depletion of soils on many tobacco plantations led many to conclude that slavery was a dieing institution. Tobacco was not the only crop. otton was grown, but because of the labor intensive step of separating the seeds, not a particularly luctative crop. This changes in the late 18th century. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, demand for cotton was growing. Many thought that plantations and slave labor were an outmolded economic model. When Ely Whitney perfected the cotton gin (1793), the economics of cotton and plantation agriculture was transformed. Cotton plantations were opened in the new southern states beyond the Eastern seabord. They fed the voracious demand for cotton from English and other European textile mills. Huge fortunes were made. Cotton was the major American export product and essentially financed the industrialization of the United states. Historians for years focused more on northern agriculture and industrial development. Scholars today are giving ncfeasing attention to the abte-bellum plantantion. There is some debate over the politival dominance of the planter class. Interestingly there are many largely untapped resources about Southern cotton plantations. They were commercial enterprises and in many cases sizeable, sophisticalted operations. These operations required detailed record keepings and the records of many plantations in addition to diaries and letters have survived for scholarly research.


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Created: 3:44 AM 4/25/2006
Last updated: 3:44 AM 4/25/2006