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American Negro Slavery
Chapter XVII Plantation Tendencies
by Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell


Every typical settlement in English America was in its first phase a bit of the frontier. Commerce was rudimentary, capital scant, and industry primitive. Each family had to suffice itself in the main with its own direct produce. No one could afford to specialize his calling, for the versatility of the individual was wellnigh a necessity of life. This phase lasted only until some staple of export was found which permitted the rise of external trade. Then the fruit of such energy as could be spared from the works of bodily sustenance was exchanged for the goods of the outer world; and finally in districts of special favor for staples, the bulk of the community became absorbed in the special industry and procured most of its consumption goods from without.

In the hidden coves of the Southern Alleghanies the primitive régime has proved permanent. In New England where it was but gradually replaced through the influence first of the fisheries and then of manufacturing, it survived long enough to leave an enduring spirit of versatile enterprise, evidenced in the plenitude of "Yankee notions." In the Southern lowlands and Piedmont, however, the pristine advantages of self-sufficing industry were so soon eclipsed by the profits to be had from tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar or cotton, that in large degree the whole community adopted a stereotyped economy with staple production as its cardinal feature. The earnings obtained by the more efficient producers brought an early accumulation of capital, and at the same time the peculiar adaptability of all the Southern staples to production on a large scale by unfree labor prompted the devotion of most of the capital to the purchase of servants and slaves. Thus in every district suited to any of these staples, the growth of an industrial and social system like that of Europe and the Northern States was cut short and the distinctive Southern scheme of things developed instead.

This régime was conditioned by its habitat, its products and the racial quality of its labor supply, as well as by the institution of slavery and the traditional predilections of the masters. The climate of the South was generally favorable to one or another of the staples except in the elevated tracts in and about the mountain ranges. The soil also was favorable except in the pine barrens which skirted the seaboard. Everywhere but in the alluvial districts, however, the land had only a surface fertility, and all the staples, as well as their great auxiliary Indian corn, required the fields to be kept clean and exposed to the weather; and the heavy rainfall of the region was prone to wash off the soil from the hillsides and to leach the fertile ingredients through the sands of the plains. But so spacious was the Southern area that the people never lacked fresh fields when their old ones were outworn. Hence, while public economy for the long run might well have suggested a conservation of soil at the expense of immediate crops, private economy for the time being dictated the opposite policy; and its dictation prevailed, as it has done in virtually all countries and all ages. Slaves working in squads might spread manure and sow soiling crops if so directed, as well as freemen working individually; and their failure to do so was fully paralleled by similar neglect at the North in the same period. New England, indeed, was only less noted than the South for exhausted fields and abandoned farms. The newness of the country, the sparseness of population and the cheapness of land conspired with crops, climate and geological conditions to promote exploitive methods. The planters were by no means alone in shaping their program to fit these circumstances.[1] The heightened speed of the consequences was in a sense merely an unwelcome proof of their system's efficiency. Their laborers, by reason of being slaves, must at word of command set forth on a trek of a hundred or a thousand miles. No racial inertia could hinder nor local attachments hold them. In the knowledge of this the masters were even more alert than other men of the time for advantageous new locations; and they were accordingly fain to be content with rude houses and flimsy fences in any place of sojourn, and to let their hills remain studded with stumps as well as to take the exhaustion of the soil as a matter of course.[2]
[Footnote 1 Edmund Ruffin, Address on the opposite results of exhausting and fertilizing systems of agriculture. Read before the South Carolina Institute, November 18, 1852 (Charleston, 1853), pp. 12, 13.]

[Footnote 2 W.L. Trenholm, "The Southern States, their social and industrial history, conditions and needs," in the Journal of Social Science, no. IX (January, 1878).]
Migration produced a more or less thorough segregation of types, for planters and farmers respectively tended to enter and remain in the districts most favorable to them.[3] The monopolization of the rice and sugar industries by the planters, has been described in previous chapters. At the other extreme the farming régime was without a rival throughout the mountain regions, in the Shenandoah and East Tennessee Valleys and in large parts of Kentucky and Missouri where the Southern staples would not flourish, and in great tracts of the pine barrens where the quality of the soil repelled all but the unambitious. The tobacco and cotton belts remained as the debatable ground in which the two systems might compete on more nearly even terms, though in some cotton districts the planters had always an overwhelming advantage. In the Mississippi bottoms, for example, the solid spread of the fields facilitated the supervision of large gangs at work, and the requirement of building and maintaining great levees on the river front virtually debarred operations by small proprietors. The extreme effects of this are illustrated in Issa-quena County, Mississippi, and Concordia Parish, Louisiana, where in 1860 the slaveholdings averaged thirty and fifty slaves each, and where except for plantation overseers and their families there were virtually no non-slaveholders present. The Alabama prairies, furthermore, showed a plantation predominance almost as complete. In the six counties of Dallas, Greene, Lowndes, Macon, Perry, Sumter and Wilcox, for example, the average slaveholdings ranged from seventeen to twenty-one each, and the slaveholding families were from twice to six times as numerous as the non-slaveholding ones. Even in the more rugged parts of the cotton belt and in the tobacco zone as well, the same tendency toward the engrossment of estates prevailed, though in milder degree and with lesser effects.
[Footnote 3 F.V. Emerson, "Geographical Influences in American Slavery," in the American Geographical Society Bulletin, XLIII (1911), 13-26, 106-118, 170-181.]
This widespread phenomenon did not escape the notice of contemporaries. Two members of the South Carolina legislature described it as early as 1805 in substance as follows: "As one man grows wealthy and thereby increases his stock of negroes, he wants more land to employ them on; and being fully able, he bids a large price for his less opulent neighbor's plantation, who by selling advantageously here can raise money enough to go into the back country, where he can be more on a level with the most forehanded, can get lands cheaper, and speculate or grow rich by industry as he pleases."[4] Some three decades afterward another South Carolinian spoke sadly "on the incompatibleness of large plantations with neighboring farms, and their uniform tendency to destroy the yeoman."[5] Similarly Dr. Basil Manly,[6] president of the University of Alabama, spoke in 1841 of the inveterate habit of Southern farmers to buy more land and slaves and plod on captive to the customs of their ancestors; and C.C. Clay, Senator from Alabama, said in 1855 of his native county of Madison, which lay on the Tennessee border: "I can show you ... the sad memorials of the artless and exhausting culture of cotton. Our small planters, after taking the cream off their lands, unable to restore them by rest, manures or otherwise, are going further west and south in search of other virgin lands which they may and will despoil and impoverish in like manner. Our wealthier planters, with greater means and no more skill, are buying out their poorer neighbors, extending their plantations and adding to their slave force. The wealthy few, who are able to live on smaller profits and to give their blasted fields some rest, are thus pushing off the many who are merely independent.... In traversing that county one will discover numerous farm houses, once the abode of industrious and intelligent freemen, now occupied by slaves, or tenantless, deserted and dilapidated; he will observe fields, once fertile, now unfenced, abandoned, and covered with those evil harbingers fox-tail and broomsedge; he will see the moss growing on the mouldering walls of once thrifty villages; and will find 'one only master grasps the whole domain' that once furnished happy homes for a dozen white families. Indeed, a country in its infancy, where fifty years ago scarce a forest tree had been felled by the axe of the pioneer, is already exhibiting the painful signs of senility and decay apparent in Virginia and the Carolinas; the freshness of its agricultural glory is gone, the vigor of its youth is extinct, and the spirit of desolation seems brooding over it."[7]
[Footnote 4: "Diary of Edward Hooker," in the American Historical Association Report for 1896, p. 878.]

[Footnote 5: Quoted in Francis Lieber, Slavery, Plantations and the Yeomanry (Loyal Publication Society, no. 29, New York, 1863), p. 5.]

[Footnote 6: Tuscaloosa Monitor, April 13, 1842.]

[Footnote 7: DeBow's Review, XIX, 727.]
The census returns for Madison County show that in 1830 when the gross population was at its maximum the whites and slaves were equally numerous, and that by 1860 while the whites had diminished by a fourth the slaves had increased only by a twentieth. This suggests that the farmers were drawn, not driven, away.

The same trend may be better studied in the uplands of eastern Georgia where earlier settlements gave a longer experience and where fuller statistics permit a more adequate analysis. In the county of Oglethorpe, typical of that area, the whites in the year 1800 were more than twice as many as the slaves, the non-slaveholding families were to the slaveholders in the ratio of 8 to 5, and slaveholders on the average had but 5 slaves each. In 1820 the county attained its maximum population for the ante-bellum period, and competition between the industrial types was already exerting its full effect. The whites were of the same number as twenty years before, but the slaves now exceeded them; the slaveholding families also slightly exceeded those who had none, and the scale of the average slaveholding had risen to 8.5. Then in the following forty years while the whites diminished and the number of slaves remained virtually constant, the scale of the average slaveholding rose to 12.2; the number of slaveholders shrank by a third and the non-slaveholders by two thirds.[8] The smaller slaveholders, those we will say with less than ten slaves each, ought of course to be classed among the farmers. When this is done the farmers of Oglethorpe appear to have been twice as many as the planters even in 1860. But this is properly offset by rating the average plantation there at four or five times the industrial scale of the average farm, which makes it clear that the plantation régime had grown dominant.
[Footnote 8: U.B. Phillips, "The Origin and Growth of the Southern Black Belts," in the American Historical Review, XI, 810-813 (July, 1906).]
In such a district virtually everyone was growing cotton to the top of his ability. When the price of the staple was high, both planters and farmers prospered in proportion to their scales. Those whose earnings were greatest would be eager to enlarge their fields, and would make offers for adjoining lands too tempting for some farmers to withstand. These would sell out and move west to resume cotton culture to better advantage than before. When cotton prices were low, however, the farmers, feeling the stress most keenly, would be inclined to forsake staple production. But in such case there was no occasion for them to continue cultivating lands best fit for cotton. The obvious policy would be to sell their homesteads to neighboring planters and move to cheaper fields beyond the range of planters' competition. Thus the farmers were constantly pioneering in districts of all sorts, while the plantation régime, whether by the prosperity and enlargement of the farms or by the immigration of planters, or both, was constantly replacing the farming scale in most of the staple areas.

In the oldest districts of all, however, the lowlands about the Chesapeake, the process went on to a final stage in which the bulk of the planters, after exhausting the soil for staple purposes, departed westward and were succeeded in their turn by farmers, partly native whites and free negroes and partly Northerners trickling in, who raised melons, peanuts, potatoes, and garden truck for the Northern city markets.

Throughout the Southern staple areas the plantations waxed and waned in a territorial progression. The régime was a broad billow moving irresistibly westward and leaving a trough behind. At the middle of the nineteenth century it was entering Texas, its last available province, whose cotton area it would have duly filled had its career escaped its catastrophic interruption. What would have occurred after that completion, without the war, it is interesting to surmise. Probably the crest of the billow would have subsided through the effect of an undertow setting eastward again. Belated immigrants, finding the good lands all engrossed, would have returned to their earlier homes, to hold their partially exhausted soils in higher esteem than before and to remedy the depletion by reformed cultivation. That the billow did not earlier give place to a level flood was partly due to the shortage of slaves; for the African trade was closed too soon for the stock to fill the country in these decades. To the same shortage was owing such opportunity as the white yeomanry had in staple production. The world offered a market, though not at high prices, for a greater volume of the crops than the plantation slaves could furnish; the farmers supplied the deficit.

Free workingmen in general, whether farmers, artisans or unskilled wage earners, merely filled the interstices in and about the slave plantations. One year in the eighteen-forties a planter near New Orleans, attempting to dispense with slave labor, assembled a force of about a hundred Irish and German immigrants for his crop routine. Things went smoothly until the midst of the grinding season, when with one accord the gang struck for double pay. Rejecting the demand the planter was unable to proceed with his harvest and lost some ten thousand dollars worth of his crop.[9] The generality of the planters realized, without such a demonstration, that each year must bring its crop crisis during which an overindulgence by the laborers in the privileges of liberty might bring ruin to the employers. To secure immunity from this they were the more fully reconciled to the limitations of their peculiar labor supply. Freemen white or black might be convenient as auxiliaries, and were indeed employed in many instances whether on annual contract as blacksmiths and the like or temporarily as emergency helpers in the fields; but negro slaves were the standard composition of the gangs. This brought it about that whithersoever the planters went they carried with them crowds of negro slaves and all the problems and influences to which the presence of negroes and the prevalence of slavery gave rise.
[Footnote 9: Sir Charles Lyell, Second Visit to the United States, (London, 1850), II, 162, 163.]
One of the consequences was to keep foreign immigration small. In the colonial period the trade in indentured servants recruited the white population, and most of those who came in that status remained as permanent citizens of the South; but such Europeans as came during the nineteenth century were free to follow their own reactions without submitting to a compulsory adjustment. Many of them found the wage-earning opportunity scant, for the slaves were given preference by their masters when steady occupations were to be filled, and odd jobs were often the only recourse for outsiders. This was an effect of the slavery system. Still more important, however, was the repugnance which the newcomers felt at working and living alongside the blacks; and this was a consequence not of the negroes being slaves so much as of the slaves being negroes. It was a racial antipathy which when added to the experience of industrial disadvantage pressed the bulk of the newcomers northwestward beyond the confines of the Southern staple belts, and pressed even many of the native whites in the same direction.

This intrenched the slave plantations yet more strongly in their local domination, and by that very fact it hampered industrial development. Great landed proprietors, it is true, have oftentimes been essential for making beneficial innovations. Thus the remodeling of English agriculture which Jethro Tull and Lord Townsend instituted in the eighteenth century could not have been set in progress by any who did not possess their combination of talent and capital.[10] In the ante-bellum South, likewise, it was the planters, and necessarily so, who introduced the new staples of sea-island cotton and sugar, the new devices of horizontal plowing and hillside terracing, the new practice of seed selection, and the new resource of commercial fertilizers. Yet their constant bondage to the staples debarred the whole community in large degree from agricultural diversification, and their dependence upon gangs of negro slaves kept the average of skill and assiduity at a low level.
[Footnote 10: R.E. Prothero, English Farming, past and present, (London, 1912), chap. 7.]
The negroes furnished inertly obeying minds and muscles; slavery provided a police; and the plantation system contributed the machinery of direction. The assignment of special functions to slaves of special aptitudes would enhance the general efficiency; the coördination of tasks would prevent waste of effort; and the conduct of a steady routine would lessen the mischiefs of irresponsibility. But in the work of a plantation squad no delicate implements could be employed, for they would be broken; and no discriminating care in the handling of crops could be had except at a cost of supervision which was generally prohibitive. The whole establishment would work with success only when the management fully recognized and allowed for the crudity of the labor.

The planters faced this fact with mingled resolution and resignation. The sluggishness of the bulk of their slaves they took as a racial trait to be conquered by discipline, even though their ineptitude was not to be eradicated; the talents and vigor of their exceptional negroes and mulattoes, on the other hand, they sought to foster by special training and rewards. But the prevalence of slavery which aided them in the one policy hampered them in the other, for it made the rewards arbitrary instead of automatic and it restricted the scope of the laborers' employments and of their ambitions as well. The device of hiring slaves to themselves, which had an invigorating effect here and there in the towns, could find little application in the country; and the paternalism of the planters could provide no fully effective substitute. Hence the achievements of the exceptional workmen were limited by the status of slavery as surely as the progress of the generality was restricted by the fact of their being negroes.

A further influence of the plantation system was to hamper the growth of towns. This worked in several ways. As for manufactures, the chronic demand of the planters for means with which to enlarge their scales of operations absorbed most of the capital which might otherwise have been available for factory promotion. A few cotton mills were built in the Piedmont where water power was abundant, and a few small ironworks and other industries; but the supremacy of agriculture was nowhere challenged. As for commerce, the planters plied the bulk of their trade with distant wholesale dealers, patronizing the local shopkeepers only for petty articles or in emergencies when transport could not be awaited; and the slaves for their part, while willing enough to buy of any merchant within reach, rarely had either money or credit.

Towns grew, of course, at points on the seaboard where harbors were good, and where rivers or railways brought commerce from the interior. Others rose where the fall line marked the heads of river navigation, and on the occasional bluffs of the Mississippi, and finally a few more at railroad junctions. All of these together numbered barely three score, some of which counted their population by hundreds rather than by thousands; and in the wide intervals between there was nothing but farms, plantations and thinly scattered villages. In the Piedmont, country towns of fairly respectable dimensions rose here and there, though many a Southern county-seat could boast little more than a court house and a hitching rack. Even as regards the seaports, the currents of trade were too thin and divergent to permit of large urban concentration, for the Appalachian water-shed shut off the Atlantic ports from the commerce of the central basin; and even the ambitious construction of railroads to the northwest, fostered by the seaboard cities, merely enabled the Piedmont planters to get their provisions overland, and barely affected the volume of the seaboard trade. New Orleans alone had a location promising commercial greatness; but her prospects were heavily diminished by the building of the far away Erie Canal and the Northern trunk line railroads which diverted the bulk of Northwestern trade from the Gulf outlet.

As conditions were, the slaveholding South could have realized a metropolitan life only through absentee proprietorships. In the Roman latifundia, which overspread central and southern Italy after the Hannibalic war, absenteeism was a chronic feature and a curse. The overseers there were commonly not helpers in the proprietors' daily routine, but sole managers charged with a paramount duty of procuring the greatest possible revenues and transmitting them to meet the urban expenditures of their patrician employers. The owners, having no more personal touch with their great gangs of slaves than modern stockholders have with the operatives in their mills, exploited them accordingly. Where humanity and profits were incompatible, business considerations were likely to prevail. Illustrations of the policy may be drawn from Cato the Elder's treatise on agriculture. Heavy work by day, he reasoned, would not only increase the crops but would cause deep slumber by night, valuable as a safeguard against conspiracy; discord was to be sown instead of harmony among the slaves, for the same purpose of hindering plots; capital sentences when imposed by law were to be administered in the presence of the whole corps for the sake of their terrorizing effect; while rations for the able-bodied were not to exceed a fixed rate, those for the sick were to be still more frugally stinted; and the old and sick slaves were to be sold along with other superfluities.[11] Now, Cato was a moralist of wide repute, a stoic it is true, but even so a man who had a strong sense of duty. If such were his maxims, the oppressions inflicted by his fellow proprietors and their slave drivers must have been stringent indeed.
[Footnote 11: A.H.J. Greenidge, History of Rome during the later Republic and the early Principate (New York, 1905), I, 64-85; M. Porcius Cato, De Agri Cultura, Keil ed. (Leipsig, 1882).]
The heartlessness of the Roman latifundiarii was the product partly of their absenteeism, partly of the cheapness of their slaves which were poured into the markets by conquests and raids in all quarters of the Mediterranean world, and partly of the lack of difference between masters and slaves in racial traits. In the ante-bellum South all these conditions were reversed: the planters were commonly resident; the slaves were costly; and the slaves were negroes, who for the most part were by racial quality submissive rather than defiant, light-hearted instead of gloomy, amiable and ingratiating instead of sullen, and whose very defects invited paternalism rather than repression. Many a city slave in Rome was the boon companion of his master, sharing his intellectual pleasures and his revels, while most of those on the latifundia were driven cattle. It was hard to maintain a middle adjustment for them. In the South, on the other hand, the medium course was the obvious thing. The bulk of the slaves, because they were negroes, because they were costly, and because they were in personal touch, were pupils and working wards, while the planters were teachers and guardians as well as masters and owners. There was plenty of coercion in the South; but in comparison with the harshness of the Roman system the American régime was essentially mild.

Every plantation of the standard Southern type was, in fact, a school constantly training and controlling pupils who were in a backward state of civilization. Slave youths of special promise, or when special purposes were in view, might be bound as apprentices to craftsmen at a distance. Thus James H. Hammond in 1859 apprenticed a fourteen-year-old mulatto boy, named Henderson, for four years to Charles Axt, of Crawfordville, Georgia, that he might be taught vine culture. Axt agreed in the indenture to feed and clothe the boy, pay for any necessary medical attention, teach him his trade, and treat him with proper kindness. Before six months were ended Alexander H. Stephens, who was a neighbor of Axt and a friend of Hammond, wrote the latter that Henderson had run away and that Axt was unfit to have the care of slaves, especially when on hire, and advised Hammond to take the boy home. Soon afterward Stephens reported that Henderson had returned and had been whipped, though not cruelly, by Axt.[12] The further history of this episode is not ascertainable. Enough of it is on record, however, to suggest reasons why for the generality of slaves home training was thought best.
[Footnote 12: MSS. among the Hammond papers in the Library of Congress.]
This, rudimentary as it necessarily was, was in fact just what the bulk of the negroes most needed. They were in an alien land, in an essentially slow process of transition from barbarism to civilization. New industrial methods of a simple sort they might learn from precepts and occasional demonstrations; the habits and standards of civilized life they could only acquire in the main through examples reinforced with discipline. These the plantation régime supplied. Each white family served very much the function of a modern social settlement, setting patterns of orderly, well bred conduct which the negroes were encouraged to emulate; and the planters furthermore were vested with a coercive power, salutary in the premises, of which settlement workers are deprived. The very aristocratic nature of the system permitted a vigor of discipline which democracy cannot possess. On the whole the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented. The lack of any regular provision for the discharge of pupils upon the completion of their training was, of course, a cardinal shortcoming which the laws of slavery imposed; but even in view of this, the slave plantation régime, after having wrought the initial and irreparable misfortune of causing the negroes to be imported, did at least as much as any system possible in the period could have done toward adapting the bulk of them to life in a civilized community.

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