One issue, however, exacerbated the regional and economic differences between North and South: slavery. Resenting the large profits amassed by Northern businessmen from marketing the cotton crop, Southerners attributed the backwardness of their own section to Northern aggrandizement. Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery -- the "peculiar institution," which the South regarded as essential to its economy -- was wholly responsible for the region's relative backwardness.
As far back as 1830, sectional lines had been steadily hardening on the slavery question. In the North, abolitionist feeling grew more and more powerful, abetted by a free-soil movement vigorously opposed to the extension of slavery into the Western regions not yet organized as states. To Southerners of 1850, slavery was a condition for which they felt no more responsible than for their English speech or their representative institutions. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region.
Only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. In 1860 there were a total of 46,274 planters throughout the slave-holding states, with a planter defined as someone who owned at least 20 slaves. More than half of all slaves worked on plantations. Some of the yeoman farmers, 70 percent of whom held less than 40 hectares, had a handful of slaves, but most had none. The "poor whites" lived on the lowest rung of Southern society and held no slaves. It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding -- they owned most of the slaves. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that if freed, blacks would compete with them for land. Equally important, the presence of slaves raised the standing of the yeomen and the poor whites on the social scale; they would not willingly relinquish this status.
As they fought the weight of Northern opinion, political leaders of the South, the professional classes and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but championed it. Southern publicists insisted, for example, that the relationship between capital and labor was more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the North.
Before 1830 the old patriarchal system of plantation government, with its personal supervision of the slaves by their masters, was still characteristic. Gradually, however, with the introduction of large-scale cotton production in the lower South, the master gradually ceased to exercise close personal supervision over his slaves, and employed professional overseers whose tenure depended upon their ability to exact from slaves a maximum amount of work.
Slavery was inherently a system of brutality and coercion in which beatings and the breakup of families through the sale of individuals were commonplace. In the end, however, the most trenchant criticism of slavery was not the behavior of individual masters and overseers toward the slaves, but slavery's fundamental violation of every human being's inalienable right to be free.