Antebellum South

  1. Introduction to Puritanism and Expansionism
  2. Antebellum South
  3. Life in the Plantations
  4. USA: North and South
  5. O’Sullivan’s Manifest Destiny
  6. The social context of America in the early 19th century
  7. The American Civil War: 1861-1865
  8. America: The New Nation
  9. After the American Civil War: The Reconstruction
  10. America: West to the Pacific
  11. Years of Growth


The South had developed a unique society and a sense of Southern nationalism. The conflict with the North and the secession were an attempt to create an independent nation.

Also a contrast, the South had developed a class system whereas the North was characterized by a social structure.

Antebellum South

A Southern ideology – based on aristocracy – justified slavery. Many (crazy) explanations were put forward like: “the African race is biologically inferior” or “physically and mentally under-developed”.

Through slavery, they could adjust to a better kind of life, and be taught new morals and the “true religion”. All that was part of the Southern ideology: “Some people must work and sweat to provide those in charge with leadership”.

Southern society is hedonistic when the North advocates the Puritan ethic (moral – virtue – hard work, according to the Bible).

After 1830, abolitionist societies began violent campaigns against slavery. Garrison was an extremist abolitionist who printed/invented sensational stories about how cruelly black slaves were treated in the South.

Slaveholders were depicted as monsters and, in the North, slavery was seen as a sin against God (move on to the religious ground). Garrison wanted the “purification of the Nation from the guilt of slavery”.

Slavery was the apparent cause of the Civil War: it was the spark that ignited the powder keg. Yet, it should be obvious that the real cause of the conflict was the incompatible and irreconcilable economic, political, social, and ideological differences between the two sections.

The South’s economy relied on agriculture. The North kept taxing the Southern imports from Europe, hoping that the South would buy Northern products that were overpriced and more poorly manufactured.

In retaliation, Europe raised prices on its imports, making it very expensive to purchase Southern cotton and tobacco. Since the US Government had a Northern majority in the legislature, the South could do nothing except to be taxed.

Before the outbreak of the war, Southern planters were paying 87% taxes on their goods. Enraged by only being able to keep 13% of their profits, the Southerners knew the government would not help and that they had to act.

As the 19th century slipped by, North and South drifted further and further away until the moment they had nothing left in common, not even a President. This is when the war broke out.

Five years later, the South was defeated, conquered, occupied, Southerners were humiliated and slavery was at last abolished.

The situation of the South was not unlike that of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. Southerners were despised and shamed.

The same questions were asked: how could people be slaveholders/nazis? Hence a feeling of guilt in the South.

On the other hand, many Southerners did not acknowledge their inhumanity and monstrosity. To justify themselves, they idealized the “Old South”.

This theme will later be picked up in literature, for instance in Gone with the Wind or in the personality of Faulkner”s characters, who cannot overcome their guilt but who realize they are the descendants of a cursed race.

Events leading to secession

In response to the events in Kansas (with the creation of the Republican Party), extremist parties began to emerge. Before the KKK, there was a party with a strange name, the “Know-Nothings”, which originated from secret political orders.

The movement originated in New York in 1843 when it was called the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845.

In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party. The origin of the “Know-Nothings” term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, “I know nothing.”

They were organized to oppose the political influence of immigrants (mainly Irish and Germans) and the political machine allowing such immigrants to vote.

As a nationalist anti-foreign movement, it was organized later under the name “American Party”. It was hoped it would become a national party but as a matter of fact, it disintegrated after the elections of 1856.

In 1856, the Democrat James Buchanan was elected President. He favoured popular sovereignty and won an easy victory over his opponent.

Several events during the Buchanan administration convinced the Southerners they would not be able to protect their interests any longer against the majority of Northerners. Secession seemed to be the solution.

The Dred Scott case of 1857 and the Missouri Compromise judged unconstitutional delighted the South. The Republicans denounced it as partyism since several justices in the Court were Democrats. As the decision had no legal justification, the North refused to accept it. It alarmed the South.

1857: panic, sharp depression. The South suffered much less than the industrial North, gained confidence and asserted that this proved the “superiority of the Southern economy”.

During the elections of 1857, the North strongly voted Republican and gave this party the lead in the House of Representatives.

The series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas for the senate elections centred on the slavery question. Douglas was the incumbent senator and Lincoln the challenger.

At Freeport, Lincoln tried to embarrass Douglas by asking if the people of the territories could legally exclude slavery. Douglas, in his response called the “Freeport Doctrine”, replied that people of the territories could keep slavery out by not passing local police regulations, necessary for its existence.

Douglas won but his answer did not satisfy the South and helped to widen the growing split between North and South Democrats.

Thanks to these debates, Lincoln was popularized and won the presidential nomination in 1860. 1859: John Brown’s raid. After his execution, the North made a martyr of him.

1860: the elections were the last event before the war. The Democrats met in the Supreme Court. There, the Southern extremists demanded that the party ask Congress to guarantee slave property in the territories. The North under Douglas defeated the demand and adopted Douglas” policy of popular sovereignty. The South made a clash.

The Republicans met in Chicago. Lincoln was chosen because he was the most moderate candidate. His platforms promised to exclude slavery from the territories.


Lincoln won every state in the North (except New Jersey) but he gained only a minority of popular votes. Another candidate won a state in the lower South. The rest was won by extremist candidates.

The South declared that Lincoln’s election would be the signal for secession. Lincoln was elected and the South proceeded to secede.

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2 pensées sur “Antebellum South”

  1. Most Southerners saw slavery as a necessary evil. I think all Christians can agree that owning another person is extremely morally wrong. Southerners were no less Christian, but they used examples from the Bible to justify slavery. However bad slavery was and the conditions they worked under, historically they lived in a better environment than those sharecroppers after slavery.

    The biggest misconception about slavery is that their masters used to beat them and hang them for no reason. These misconceptions on the whole are basic falsehoods spread by radical abolitionists and fictional books such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. A normal slave cost around $1,600 per person (think about how much money that equates to today’s money) making them very expensive to buy. Less than 5% of the Southern population had more than two. While I’m not disputing masters did beat their slaves for infractions such as stealing or running away, I only ask why would a slave master beat to death something that cost him $1,600? That’s similar to buying a $1,600 tractor and then destroying it. Doesn’t make much sense does it? Instead what they did was that they clothed, sheltered, fed, bathed, and even medically tended to the slaves to make sure their investment didn’t die or was in vain. They even encouraged slaves to get married so that they could produce more slaves to work. Once the slaves were freed, they were left without land and without food, clothing, shelter or money. Most ex-slaves went into sharecropping because manual labor and working on fields were the only things they knew. Resentful, Southern land owners either paid them next to nothing to work on their fields or charged outrageous prices for renting the land so that the ex-slaves wouldn’t not make much or any profit. Many sharecroppers are quoted as saying times were harder under sharecropping than under slavery. Some slaves even refused to leave their masters after the Civil War because the masters were so kind and they did not want to leave.

  2. According to Slave Prices and The Economy of the Lower South, 1722-1809, the price of a slave in the early 19th century was $381, not $1600. That seems a huge figure.