More than two decades before the Civil War, a planter in Edgefield, South Carolina, contemplated the languishing cotton prices and the plummeting value of his slaves—which by some accounts were worth less than a third of their value before the Panic of 1837.
“Every day, I look forward to the future with more anxiety,” James Henry Hammond confided to his diary in 1841. “Cotton is falling, falling never to rise again.” But his fortunes did improve, and Hammond earned the admiration of influential South Carolinians, who eventually sent him to the U.S. Senate—where, during an 1858 debate with William Seward of New York, Hammond argued the South’s agricultural riches could bring the world to its feet in event of war with the North. “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?” Hammond asked. “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King.”
But if your image of the South’s plantation economy is a refined, agrarian ideal that changed little in two-and-a-half centuries, before the loathsome Yankees put an end to it, well, that moonlight and magnolias picture isn’t quite right.
In fact, the only constant in the South’s plantation economy was change—as reflected in the way Hammond’s fortunes varied over those 17 years. The South’s crops evolved—from tobacco and indigo to rice and sugar and then, only relatively late in the game, to cotton.
The lands being farmed evolved—from coastal plains linked by rivers and bays, to interior regions connected by rail and canals.
The states with the most promising crops evolved—from the old Atlantic seaboard states of the Carolinas and Virginia, west and south to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and eastern Texas.
And the labor evolved—from a situation where enslaved blacks and whites essentially were both pioneers struggling to eke out an existence in a new world, to a system of chattel slavery in which the slaves were as much an asset as the land.
As England struggled for its own foothold in the New World, one of the few surviving settlers from the London Company planted a powerful seed around 1612 in what is now Virginia’s coastal plain. The tobacco John Rolfe planted wasn’t the harsh strain grown by the natives, but a milder seed that Spanish colonists were growing in the Caribbean and South America.
Bad relations with the American Indians had plagued the colonists, who were struggling simply to keep themselves fed—much less earn the riches they had hoped to earn in this new land.
Rolfe’s seed would change all that.
When the first of Rolfe’s new tobacco crop was sold in London, the essential framework of the Southern plantation economy was put in place. The building blocks included colonists and planters eager for riches, seeds of crops from other places, a wealthy European market and a complicated gumbo of human relations that would breed both invention and cruelty.
Rolfe found good ways to grow and cure the Spanish tobacco, possibly with advice from his new bride, Pocahontas. Seven years after Rolfe first planted his tobacco, Jamestown had exported 10 tons of it to Europe. This luxury crop eventually gave colonists needed income to buy African slaves.
The tobacco not only increased the colonists’ wealth, but the crown got its cut as well—a steady stream of income as the plant grew in popularity in London and beyond. At times, the colony had to force its residents to plant food.
Within three decades, Jamestown was shipping 750 tons of tobacco back across the Atlantic, making tobacco the largest export in the American colonies. But the crop wore out the soil, so there was a scramble across the Chesapeake Bay waterways for fresh, suitable lands.
England’s foothold was now secure, nonetheless, as the South learned that great prosperity could be gained through the cultivation of the right cash crop.
The story of Southern agriculture isn’t confined to the South. Not only were European markets essential; precedents in the Caribbean colonies influenced its development. French and Spanish colonists established sugar plantations on several islands, and English colonists got in on the action in Barbados. By the 1640s, the small island was divided into large plantations.
To do the demanding work, colonists imported African slaves in such numbers that there were three for every one planter, as wealthy planters eclipsed the poorer ones, some of whom would leave for a new colony called Carolina.
As the Virginia colonists were establishing wealth with tobacco, another English ship came ashore farther South in 1670 to create a new colony that eventually would surpass Virginia in cultivation of cash crops.
The ship Carolina arrived via Barbados, and unlike the first settlers in Virginia, the colonists arrived with African slaves, though they were more like indentured servants.
The Barbadian notion that a white planter considered all persons in his household as family helped shape the colony’s early slavery practices. In his definitive history of South Carolina, author Walter Edgar writes, “Everyone, white and black, was a pioneer.”
The colonists tried tobacco first, without much luck—partly because the European market was saturated, forcing prices down. But by 1685, the Carolina colonists found a different crop that made many of them fortunes a few decades later: rice. The slaves’ knowledge of growing rice in their native Africa is increasingly understood to be an important part of the rice crop’s success. South Carolina planters valued slaves from rice-growing regions; Henry Laurens, a merchant slave trader and one of the wealthiest men in all of the American colonies, distinguished between slaves based on skills they learned in their native lands.
“The Slaves from the River Gambia are preferred to all others with us, save the Gold Coast,” he would write. “Gold Coast or Gambia are best…next to them the Windward Coast are prefer’d to Angolas.”
The kind of wealth Lowcountry planters could amass is illustrated by the case of Peter Manigault, a planter, lawyer and legislator, born in 1731, who eventually held a 1,300-acre plantation west of Charles Towne, a 2,476-acre plantation in Port Royal and more than 2,000 acres of rice plantations along the Santee River, and another working plantation outside Columbia. His son Gabriel would inherit about 25,000 acres, enough wealth to allow him to pursue architecture and design some of Charleston’s most imposing buildings at the dawn of the 19th century.
There was always a scramble for the next big crop. Eliza Lucas Pinckney of Charles Towne loved to experiment with crops—including indigo, a blue dye now commonly used for jeans but created a rare and valuable color in the 18th century; so valuable England was willing to subsidize its production.
The indigo market—and subsidy—effectively ended with the Revolutionary War, but rice would survive and find lucrative markets in Europe. After all, people can do without smoke or blue-colored garments, but everyone needs to eat. In Louisiana, French and Spanish settlers had moderate success with sugar, but indigo also was the major crop there in the late 18th century, before the region was part of the United States.
The balance started to shift after a French nobleman, Etienne de Bore, returned to his native Louisiana. At his plantation about six miles north of New Orleans, de Bore became frustrated by insects gobbling up his indigo, so he began tinkering with sugar cane and in 1795, pioneered production of granulated sugar. He was helped by the expertise of other sugar makers who moved to Louisiana after the bloody 1791 slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti.
At the peak in the early 19th century, Louisiana planters got yields from 16 to 20 tons of cane per acre and harvested 300,000 tons of sugar per year, helping support half a million people.
Had a South Carolinian kept his promise in 1793 to pay a Yale-educated tutor 100 guineas a year, the Southern economy as most know it today might have looked a whole lot different. But the deal fell through, and Eli Whitney headed south to Savannah instead, accepting an offer from the widow of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene to stay at her plantation and continue his studies. A handful of planters produced cotton in Georgia, but extracting the valuable lint from the worthless seed was a time-consuming chore that could easily wipe away any meaningful profit. Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas Miller—also a Yale alumnus—was familiar with the difficulties of processing cotton.
At their urging, Whitney concocted a series of wires to hold the seed while a drum with hook-shaped wires pulled the fiber out and a rotating brush cleaned the lint off the hooks.
Cotton was by no means a new crop: Planters had grown Sea Island cotton, a long-staple variety, in the sandy soils along the South Carolina and Georgia coast since the early 1700s. But like tobacco, it depleted the soil and often was challenging to market.
Whitney’s gin changed the game; the market for it spread faster than he could control or profit from. Demand for cotton, including the short-staple variety, exploded as England and France built new textile mills that craved the raw material. By 1804, Southern cotton production ballooned eight-fold from the decade before. Unlike Sea Island cotton, short-staple cotton could grow in upland areas, giving planters in vast swaths of the South a chance at riches previously confined to the coast.
The War of 1812 disrupted trade with England, but entrepreneurial Northerners stepped into the breach. While a few cotton and wool spinning mills had been built in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut by 1805, scores more sprang up in the following decade. The number of mills within a 30-mile radius of Providence, R.I., doubled between 1812 and 1815, spurred by the same hopes of riches that induced Southerners to plant the cotton. The revolution was on.
The lucrative short-staple cotton trade helped create two Souths: An upper South of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina that began moving away from the plantation model, selling their slaves to owners in the lower South—states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, where cotton planters desperately needed the labor.
Land planted with cotton or tobacco and nothing else eventually was exhausted, and planters pushed west in search of fresh land and profits. South Carolina planter Wade Hampton is just one example.
Hampton first journeyed west as an Army colonel and quickly saw the potential there, University of South Carolina history professor Lacy Ford notes. By 1812, he had acquired 38,000 acres and 285 slaves in Louisiana and Mississippi. “Ultimately, he produced more cotton there than he did in South Carolina,” Ford says. “He became one of the four or five richest people in the South on the basis of his extensive holdings.”
William Hamilton, a North Carolina native and one of Hampton’s top aides, wrote to his family about the new areas’ possibilities: “An acre of ground, well prepared, can yield 2,000 pounds of sugar and one good negro can make five bales of cotton worth $500 and 40 prime field hands can till 200 acres and produce $10,000 of cotton annually,” a huge fortune then.
Ford says there was both a push and pull in the move west: The push was spent fields in the Carolinas and Virginia, and the pull was the promise of riches on new land.
“A lot of people didn’t pick up and go, but a lot of people did,” he notes. In 1801, South Carolina produced half of the nation’s cotton. By 1821, the margin had dropped to 29 percent. Half of all whites born in South Carolina between 1800 and 1860 eventually left the state.
Natchez, Miss., became a new boomtown, and New Orleans soon overtook Charleston in shipping and population. The Cotton kingdom extended into eastern Texas and hundreds of miles up the Mississippi River. The flight west also created a big political problem as the abolition movement geared up and the nation quarreled over which new states should be permitted to have slaves and which should not.
Big bucks were on the line. The South produced about three-fourths of the cotton that fed the textile mills in England and France.
By one estimate, more than 20 percent of England’s economy depended in some way on the textile industry, and the United States’ domestic textile plants produced about $100 million worth of cloth each year; its ships transported cotton and cotton products across the globe. By 1860, two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton came from the states that would soon constitute the Confederacy.
Cotton didn’t receive its coronation easily. Richard Porcher and Sarah Fick note in The Story of Sea Island Cotton, a recent history, the turbulence Lowcountry planters faced. “Even with skilled slaves and the special care taken with the plants, sea island cotton was an uncertain crop, succumbing to unseasonable rains, storms, insect pests and a fluctuating market,” they write.
The drive west meant a second “Middle Passage” for many slaves. After Congress outlawed the international slave trade in 1808, the only way planters could get new slaves was to buy them on the domestic market, and the push west meant thousands of slaves were sold and relocated—and often torn away from their families.
Meanwhile, pressure built to free the slaves—and it wasn’t coming only from the North. Two of Charleston’s elite, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, became abolitionists in 1830. With Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, they published Slavery As It Is: The Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The book included published excerpts from Southern newspapers that spoke to the institution’s cruelty: In The Raleigh Standard, they found this bit from Nash County, N.C., slave owner Micajah Ricks: “Ran away, a negro woman and two children, a few days before she went off, I burnt her face with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make a letter M.” Slaves also were always resisting, trying to find ways to lighten their workload, get better provisions and more autonomy. As industrialization seemed increasingly likely, Southerners began to debate whether slaves or freed men should work in their emerging factories.
Planters who owned large numbers of slaves produced most goods for export, but the South had many more small farmers, mostly whites, who farmed the upland areas—the lucky ones producing a small surplus of cotton for market while managing to feed their families.
In 1850, the average South Carolina farm covered 541 acres, and that would drop to 488 acres by 1860. There were 33,171 farms, some wealthy but many less so. Meanwhile, cotton prices oscillated wildly over the decades; prices were high until 1819 and then down, rose again until a crisis low in 1837 and then climbed back in 1848 with another dip coming in 1851.
Some worried that cotton was dominating to the South’s detriment. Cotton “starves everything else,” warned W.J. Grayson, an outspoken unionist. “The farmer curtails and neglects all other crops. He buys from distant places not only the simplest manufactured articles, his brooms and buckets, but farm products, grain, meat, ham, butter, all of which he could make at home.” And there soon would be a need to make them.
Ford, author of Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, says the single biggest misunderstanding about the Southern plantation economy is how diverse and ever-changing it was. By the beginning of the Civil War, the cotton gin had been around only as long as computers have been today.
“It was a much more dynamic economy than most people realize,” he says. “It was newer, fresher and under constant strain. Cotton production was only in its third generation when the Civil War came, and there were many people still alive who could remember when the first meaningful amount of cotton was grown in the South.
“In the larger sense, in dealing with the lower Cotton South as a whole, it’s always important to remember the upper South—North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, is really a different kettle of fish. They planted almost no cotton, and they’re having a very different experience and reacting to circumstances differently as well.”
Some Southerners might have accepted the coming Civil War because they had little land, slaves or anything else to lose, but others had significant sums at stake. “Throughout the lower south as a whole, the cotton boom of the 1850s and the prosperity that the boom created for the region gave it the self-confidence and belief that it had a system that would work,” Ford says, “and that probably enhanced people’s willingness to secede.”
And though the coming war eventually would end slavery and the plantation economy it supported, the South would continue to plant and profit from cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco well into the 20th century. Of course, it wasn’t the same, but on the other hand, the South’s plantation economy never stood still.