The Antebellum South
The History Cat Classroom
On the Plantation: The Master
Picture in your mind a long brick driveway surrounded on either side with graceful oak trees. Everywhere you look slaves are in the fields picking cotton. As you drive up to the “Big House” you see a beautiful white brick mansion, two stories tall, with Greek columns and a wraparound porch. Women in beautiful hoop skirts sit drinking mint julep tea served by attentive, well-mannered slaves. This may surprise you, but this not the home of the typical Southern slave owner. In reality, this mansion belongs to an elite group of southerners who make up the aristocracy of the South. In 1860, at the start of the Civil War, less than 5% of whites owned slaves and less than 1% of those slave owners owned 100 or more slaves. So, Scarlet O’Hara came from a family who made up .01% of southern whites. Your typical slave owner owned less than 20 slaves, lived in a simple wooden house, nicer than that of a poor farmer but nowhere close to the grand mansions in the film Gone With the Wind.
At the bottom of the barrel of white society were the majority of people who owned no slaves–either they were against it or were just too poor. These people lived in wooden shacks with tin roofs. They worked small plots of land growing corn, beans, and a little cotton or tobacco. What kept the whole slave system alive and well was the dreams of the poor of striking it rich and owning that Big White House someday. They probably would have a better chance of finding a fairy godmother and marrying a prince than become a wealthy southern aristocrat.
The plantation itself was run like a medieval fief. Plantations were nothing more than huge farms, often located far from the city, and miles from your nearest neighbor. People living on a plantation were not going to run to the store every time they need something like we do today, so a plantation had to produce most of what it needed. Aside from the Big House and slaves quarters, plantations included mills for grinding grain, warehouses for storing the harvest, a blacksmith for repairing tools, several barns, wine cellars, chicken coops, a smokehouse for preserving meat, and a separate kitchen building where the families meals would be prepared.
It’s easy to see why many whites wanted to dream big, even if it was foolishly impossible. Southern aristocrats lived a life of leisure where they mimicked the lifestyles of the Royals in Europe; after all many of them were decendants of the European Noble Class. Their clothes were made of fine silks and their furniture hand made in London or Italy. They drove in fancy carriages.
Nearly every day was a social event spent visiting neighboring plantations for tea, dancing, or dinner. The aristocracy sent their kids to fancy boarding schools or hired private tutors. Therefore, there was no need to spend tax money on public education for the poor. These people held the real power in society. They were the judges, the governors, the legislatures and the doctors. In the antebellum South, preserving their way of life was all that mattered.
Southern politicians and preachers argued that slavery was defended in the Bible. They often quoted the book of Ephesians 6:5 that said: "...slaves obey your earthly masters..." Southerners saw slaves were happy children who often sang during their work. This was proof that slavery was not so bad, after all why would slaves sing if they were unhappy. Of course, had they wanted to learn the truth they would have only had to ask people like Frederick Douglass who, after escaping slavery himself, wrote in a Narrative of Frederick Douglass:
"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. "
Plus, slavery was too profitable to be abolished. They argued that if slavery ended then cotton prices would soar which would hurt the northern textile industry. Few people believed that ending slavery could be achieved without destroying the American economy. Plus, abolitionism rarely had the support of powerful American leaders. Consider this: 13 of the first 18 presidents had owned slaves. For these reasons, the government worked to compromise rather than solve the problem of slavery.
In the South it was illegal to own or distribute copies of the Liberator or other abolitionist propaganda. Southern postmasters refused to deliver letters and books written by abolitionists. Southern states offered rewards for the arrest of abolitionists. Garrison had a $5,000 reward for his arrest by the State of Georgia. Harriet Tubman was once said to have a reward as high as $40,000. Tubman's reward would be the equivalent of over $1 million in today's money. This goes to show how much of a threat abolitionists were to the southern planters and their way of life.
No matter where they came from, slave owners shared a few things in common: filthy rich and pampered.
The photo above shows a Brazilian lady being carried in a litter.
The oil painting below is of two southern belles from 1860.
"Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."
- John C. Calhoun Pro Slavery Senator from South Carolina, arguing for the virtues of slavery.