The South

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The South includes the eleven states that made up the Confederate States of America which consisted of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. The South is currently defined by the US Census as these states, as well as Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. [1] The Deep South consists of the states most "southern" in culture: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and parts of Georgia and Louisiana.


The Ante-Bellum South comprised the slave states before the American Civil War started in 1861; all the northern states had abolished slavery. The social history is considered in terms of large plantations with more than 20 slaves that grew cotton and other crops for export, and the "plain folk", who owned few or no slaves.

18th century

Historians and archaeologists in recent years have rediscovered a great deal about the pre-1800 South. [2] Thomas Jefferson's parents operated Shadwell, a plantation in the 1740-70 period. The Jeffersons led lives of comparative cultural refinement, although Shadwellwas at the extreme western edge of the Virginia frontier. They created a personal "island" of gentrified culture in the Piedmont region, a homestead that virtually replicated the finer domestic accommodations and routines as well as "institutional structures, patterns of slaveholding and agriculture, and slave life" existing in the eastern Tidewater region at the time. Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas) was a successful planter, slaveholder, surveyor, and government officeholder. Jane (the mother of Thomas) was the educated daughter of a successful merchant; they shared a value system that focused their energy and talents on financial success and acquiring status. Shadwell's proximity to the Rivanna River, physical layout, main house and outbuilding construction, household furnishings, and the documentary record of the family's domestic and business activities reveal an extraordinary blend of rugged individualism and the social expectations of the planter class.

Plantation System

The ante-bellum economy was dominated by plantations owned by rich white families and using slave labor. Historians define a plantation as having 20 or more slaves (of all ages). Cotton was the main crop in a broad swath (called the "Black Belt") that included most of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Other plantations grew tobacco (in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Kentucky), hemp (Kentucky and Missouri), rice (South Carolina) or sugar (Louisiana). Most slaves were owned by plantations, and slave culture has been extensively studied. The great majority of whites did NOT live on plantations, and farmed on a smaller scale or on a subsistence scale. The plantation South had few large cities; the most notable were Charleston, SC, and Natchez, Mississippi. In general the plantation owners invested all their profits in new lands and new slaves.

The system survived the Civil War, as the emanciapted Freedmen continued to work on plantation land, as hired hands, tenents or sharecroppers. Aiken (1998) notes the plantation after 1865 had scattered sharecropper huts (compared to concentrated location before). There were few towns so plantation owners provided a crossroads central place that provided a "furnish" store (to advance tenants seed, tools, food staples, against their share of the harvest) and other town-like services. The blacks set up their own Baptist and Methodist churches; the preachers became both religious and political leaders.

The system of cotton plantations collapsed in the 1940s as cotton picking machines drastically reduced the need for labor.[3]

Plantation Historiography


Anderson (2005) shows that after the Civil War a wave of nostalgia created an image of the plantation South that endured for a century, most notably typified in the novel and movie, "Gone with the Wind" (1936, 1939). Memoirs and fiction by former white plantation residents indicate "that nostalgia occurs most forcibly after a profound split in remembered events and experiences." These literary strategies "reveal a potent change in elite white southern consciousness after the Civil War." By 1900, plantation reminiscences that described the Old South as a place of wealth, self-sufficiency, honor, hospitality, and happy master-slave relationships had gained regional, national, and international popularity. The nostalgic memories of Southerners helped them triumph over defeat and create a sense of continuity with the splintered past.

Serious scholarship began in 1900 with Ulrich B. Phillips. He studied slavery not so much as a political issue between North and South but as a social and economic system. He focused on the large plantations that dominated the South.

Phillips's addressed the unprofitability of slave labor and slavery's ill effects on the southern economy. Phillips systematically hunted down and opened plantation and other southern manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods inspired the "Phillips school" of slavery studies between 1900 and 1950.

Phillips argued that large-scale plantation slavery was inefficient and not progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power, that is, Slave Power).

Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well and his views were rejected most sharply by neoabolitionist historian Kenneth M. Stampp in the 1950s. However, Marxist historian Eugene Genovese revived many of Phillips' ideas in the 1960s. Phillips' economic conclusions about the decline of slavery were challenged by Robert Fogel in the 1960s, who argued that slavery was both efficient and profitable as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn Fogel came under attack.

Plain folk of the South

The Plain Folk of the Old South, often called yeomen, were the middling white Southerners before 1860 who owned few slaves or none. The term has been extended to include the poor and middling whites in the South into the early 20th century. Historians have long debated the social, economic and political roles. Terms used by scholars include "common people", "yeomen" and "Crackers." The term favored in Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy was "yeoman", which emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.

From the travel accounts of Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1850s through the early-twentieth-century interpretations of historians William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips, common southerners were portrayed as minor players in the antebellum period.

Romantic portrayals, especially Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1937) and its 1939 film ignored them. Novelist Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, portrayed the degraded condition of whites dwelling beyond the great plantations.

Owsley as historian of Plan Folk

The major challenge came from historian Frank Owsley in Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). It ignited a long historiographical debate. Owsley started with the writings of Daniel R. Hundley who in 1860 had defined the southern middle class as "farmers, planters, traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, a few manufacturers, a goodly number of country school teachers, and a host of half-fledged country lawyers, doctors, parsons, and the like." To find these people Owsley turned to the name-by-name files on the manuscript federal census. Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South, says Vernon Burton, is, one of the most influential works on southern history ever written. Using their own newly invented codes they turned into data bases the manuscript federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. Plain Folk argued that southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role in it. The religion, language, and culture of these common people created a democratic "plain folk" society. Critics say he overemphasized the size of the southern landholding middle class while excluding the large class of poor landless and slaveless white southerners.[4] Owsley assumed that shared economic interests united southern farmers without considering the vast difference inherent in the planters' commercial agriculture versus the yeomen's subsistence life style.

Recent scholarship: Burton and others

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Orville Vernon Burton classified white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite.[5] A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was never very distinct. Stephanie McCurry argues, yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of land (real property). Yeomen were "self-working farmers," distinct from the elite because they worked their land themselves alongside any slaves they owned. Ownership of large numbers of slaves made the work of planters completely managerial.

Wetherington (2005) argues the plain folk (of Georgia) supported secession to defend their families, homes, and notions of white liberty. During the war the established patriarchy continued to control the home front and kept it functioning even though growing numbers of plain folk joined the new wartime poor.

Wetherington suggests that their localism and racism dovetailed with a republican ideology founded on Jeffersonian notions of an "economically independent yeomanry sharing common interests" (p. 12). Plain folk during the war raised subsistence crops and vegetables, and relied on a free and open range to hunt hogs. Before the war they became more active in the cotton and slave markets, but plain folk remained unwilling to jeopardize their self-sufficiency and the stability of their neighborhoods for the economic interests of planters.

The soldiers had their own reasons for fighting. First and foremost, they sought to protect hearth and home from Yankee threats. White supremacy and masculinity depended on slavery, which Lincoln's Republicans threatened. Plain folk concepts of masculinity explains why so many men enlisted: they wanted to be worthy of the privileges of men, including the affections of female patriots. (p. 145). By March 1862, the piney woods region had a 60 percent enlistment rate, comparable to that found in planter areas.

As the war dragged on, hardship became a way of life; Wetherington reports that enough men remained home to preserve the paternalistic social order, yet there were too few to prevent mounting deprivation. Wartime shortages increased the economic divide between planters and yeoman farmers; nevertheless, some planters took seriously their paternalistic obligations by selling their corn to plain folks at the official Confederate rate "out of a spirit of patriotism." (p. 171). Wetherington's argument weakens other scholars' suggestions that class conflict led to Confederate defeat. More damaging to Confederate nationalism was the localism that grew as areas had to fend for themselves as Sherman's forces came nearer. During Reconstruction, plain folk viewed freedmen as the greatest affront and humiliating symbol of Yankee victory, so they turned their hatred against Carpetbaggers (Republicans from the North) and refused to tolerate Scalawags (white Republicans from the South).

Civil War and Reconstruction

The story of "Gone with the Wind" (1936 novel, 1939 film) is intensely anti-war, showing how rebel hot-heads (repeatedly ridiculed by Rhett Butler) take the highly prosperous South into a needless war and destroy their whole way of life.

None of the characters is profoundly changed by the war, except for Scarlett O'Hara. She moves from the frivolous lover of leisure to a Yankee-like shred, hard-driving business leader. It takes a very hard-headed Scarlett to whip the underperforming traditionalistic menfolk into shape to deal with the modern postwar economy.[6] Rhett, although Southern-born is a war profiteer who is hated by the men because he resembles a mercenary money-grubbing Yankee. Only prostitutes like him. At first Scarlett finds the war merely tiresome as the foolish young men rush out to get killed, spoiling her parties. Scarlett only loves Ashley; she can't have him so she marries a series of men for the money to save Tara, her home. That motivation marks her transformation. As the the first female capitalist of the New South, she resists Rhett's overtures even after marriage showing her choice of money and power over sex and romantic love. In Shakespearian terms, she is a shrew who will not be tamed.

Age of Jim Crow

Jim Crow was the system of racial segregation in the Southern U.S. from the 1880s to 1964 in which African Americans were segregated (separated) in public schools and public places, so that they did not mingle in public with whites on equal terms. It also means that blacks had little or no political power. It was a low point in Black history after the euphoria of Reconstruction. The most prominent black leader was Booker T. Washington.

The Supreme Court of the United States held in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment did NOT give the federal government the power to outlaw private discrimination. In an even more important decision the Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that Jim Crow laws were constitutional as long as they allowed for "separate but equal" facilities. Everyone knew that the "equal" in "separate but equal" was a technicality, and that great inequality was tolerated in practice.

Today conservatives and liberals alike denounce the policy of Jim Crow as an unacceptable violation of the principle of equal rights for all.

Post 1960

After 1945, the Civil Rights movement gained momentum and used federal courts to attack Jim Crow. The Supreme Court declared legal, or de jure, public school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, and it ended in practice in the 1970s.[7] The court ruling did not stop de facto or informal school segregation, which continued in large cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson, building a coalition of liberal northern Democrats and conservative Northern Republicans, pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which immediately ended Jim Crow laws that segregated restaurants, hotels and theatres; these facilities (with rare exceptions) immediately dropped racial segregation. In 1965 the federal Voting Rights Act ended discrimination in voting for all federal, state and local elections.

Presidential politics

The South favored the Democratic-Republican Party or Jeffersonian Republicans during the First Party System, from the 1790s to 1820s. However during the Second Party System, 1830-1854, the region was closely balanced between Democrats and the Whig Party, with the Democrats gaining after 1848.

Political parties were in disarray in the late 1850s and were suspended during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, 1863-1877, the dominant Republican Party was a coalition of Freedmen (freed slaves), Carpetbaggers (new arrivals from the North), and Scalawags (white southerners), all supported by the U.S. Army. Violent confrontations led to the collapse of the Republican state governments in the 1870s; the last three fell in 1877. They were replaced by the Redeemers, conservative white Democrats allied to the Bourbon Democrats of the North.

The Democrats repressed a Populist movement in the 1890s, and dominated every state with rare exceptions down to 1964. The "Solid South" as political pundits called it, nearly always supported Democratic prfesidential candidates, except in 1928, 1952 and 1956.

1964 to 1992

Since 1964, the South has been highly competitive. The Solid South began to break down in the 1964 election, when all of the states in the deep south (with the exceptions of Florida and Texas) voted for Republican Barry Goldwater. President Johnson's homestate, Texas, remained Democratic. In 1965 blacks were given the vote for the first time since the 1890s, and most of them voted Democratic. In 1968, Richard Nixon and Independent George Wallace split the region, with the exception of Texas, which remained Democratic.

In the 1976 election, Democratic contender Jimmy Carter.[8] swept the region combining the black vote with a majority of evangelical whites. Beginning in 1972, candidates Richard Nixon (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976), Ronald Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (1988) carried every southern state.[9]

1992 to 2008

In 1992 Democratic candidate Bill Clinton reassembled Carter's coalition and carried Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia in 1992, but lost Georgia in 1996.[10] George W. Bush (2000 and 2004) carried every Southern state including Democratic challenger and incumbent Vice President Al Gore's home state of Tennessee.

In 2008 Barack Obama broke through, carrying Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, leaving the GOP base in disarray.


Large numbers of Southerners have served in the U.S. military. During the Civil War southerners did not volunteer in large enough numbers to match the military needs of the south. Approximately twenty percent of all Confederate soldiers were therefore draftees (compared to eight percent in the Union armies), and they were subject to “compulsory reenlistment.”[11]



  • Aiken, Charles S. The Cotton Plantation South Since the Civil War 1998; geographical study
  • Anderson, David. "Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-civil War Plantation Reminiscences." Journal of Southern History 2005 71(1): 105-136. Issn: 0022-4642 Fulltext: in Ebsco and online edition
  • Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. 2004. 206 pp.
  • Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South 1988 online edition
  • Genovese, Eugene, Roll, Jordan Roll (1975), the most important study of slavery.
  • Isaac, Rhys. Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation (2004), re: late 18th century
  • Kern, Susan. "The Material World of the Jeffersons at Shadwell." William and Mary Quarterly 2005 62(2): 213-242. Issn: 0043-5597 Fulltext: at History Cooperative
  • Kulikoff
  • Lowe, Richard G. and Randolph B. Campbell, Planters and Plain Folk: Agriculture in Antebellum Texas (1987)
  • McBride, David. "'Slavery as it Is': Medicine and Slaves of the Plantation South." Magazine of History 2005 19(5): 36-39. Issn: 0882-228x Fulltext in Ebsco
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery; a Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime. (1918)online at Project Gutenberg
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. Life and Labor in the Old South. (1929).
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt," Political Science Quarterly 20#2 (Jun., 1905), pp. 257-275 in JSTOR
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Origin and Growth of the Southern Black Belts." American Historical Review, 11 (July, 1906): 798-816. in JSTOR
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Decadence of the Plantation System." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 35 (January, 1910): 37-41. in JSTOR
  • Joseph P. Reidy; From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800-1880 1992 online edition
  • Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (2005),
  • Ruef, Martin. "The Demise of an Organizational Form: Emancipation and Plantation Agriculture in the American South, 1860-1880." American Journal of Sociology 2004 109(6): 1365-1410. Issn: 0002-9602 Fulltext: at Ebsco
  • Savitt, Todd L. "Black Health on the Plantation: Owners, the Enslaved, and Physicians." Magazine of History 2005 19(5): 14-16. Issn: 0882-228x Fulltext in Ebsco
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South (1956)
  • Virts, Nancy. "Change in the Plantation System: American South, 1910-1945." Explorations in Economic History 2006 43(1): 153-176. Issn: 0014-4983
  • Volo, James M., and Dorothy Denneen Volo. The Antebellum Period. (2004), popular culture online edition
  • Weiner, Marli F. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-80. 1998
  • White, Deborah Gray. Ar'nt I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999) online edition
  • Woodman, Harold D. "The Political Economy of the New South: Retrospects and Prospects." Journal of Southern History. 67#4 2001. pp 789+. online edition, covers 1877 to 1914
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951). classic survey of the region online at ACLS e-books
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern honor: ethics and behavior in the old South (1982) online at ACLS e-books

Plain Folk

  • Ash, Stephen V. "Poor Whites in the Occupied South, 1861-1865," Journal of Southern History, 57 (February 1991), JSTOR
  • Bruce Jr., Dickson D. And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800-1845 (1974) online edition
  • Bolton, Charles C. Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1994) excerpt and text search
  • Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985) online edition
  • Campbell, Randolph B. "Planters and Plain Folks: The Social Structure of the Antebellum South," in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, eds., Interpreting Southern History(1987), 48-77;
  • Carey, Anthony Gene. "Frank L. Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South after Fifty Years," in Glenn Feldman, ed., Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations (2001)
  • Cash, Wilbur J. The Mind of the South (1941), famous classic excerpt and text search
  • Cecil-Fronsman, Bill. Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina (1992)
  • Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (1983) excerpt and text search
  • Harris, J. William. Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta's Hinterlands (1985)
  • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition." Journal of Southern History. 71#4 (2005) pp 803+.
  • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. "Plain Folk Yeomanry in the Antebellum South," in Boles, ed., Companion to the American South, 139-55.
  • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. ed., Plain Folk of the South Revisited (1997).
    • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition" Journal of Southern History (Nov 2005) vol 71#4
  • Hundley, Daniel R. Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860) complete text online
  • Linden, Fabian. "Economic Democracy in the Slave South: An Appraisal of Some Recent Views," Journal of Negro History, 31 (April 1946), 140-89; emphasizes statistical inequality in JSTOR
  • Lowe, Richard G. and Randolph B. Campbell, Planters and Plain Folk: Agriculture in Antebellum Texas (1987)
  • McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995),
  • McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988) online edition, by a leading conservative
  • Nobles, Gregory H. "The Transformation of the Other Virginia." Reviews in American History, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 506-511 in JSTOR
  • Osthaus, Carl R. "The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk: Labor and Religion in the Old South." Journal of Southern History (2004) v. 70#4, 745-82.
  • Otto, John Solomon. "The Migration of the Southern Plain Folk: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis," Journal of Southern History, 51 (May 1985), 183-200. in JSTOR
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence. Plain Folk of the Old South (1949), the classic study
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence. with Harriet C. Owsley, "The Economic Basis of Society in the Late Ante-Bellum South," Journal of Southern History 6 (Feb. 1940): 24-25, in JSTOR
  • Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Wetherington, Mark V. Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia. 2005.
  • Winters, Donald L. "'Plain Folk' of the Old South Reexamined: Economic Democracy in Tennessee," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Nov., 1987), pp. 565-586 in JSTOR
  • Wright, Gavin. "'Economic Democracy' and the Concentration of Agricultural Wealth in the Cotton South, 1850-1860," Agricultural History, 44 (January 1970), 63-93 in JSTOR, a statistical critique of Owsley

Primary sources

  • Phillips, Ulrich B. ed. Plantation and Frontier Documents, 1649-1863; Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial and Antebellum South: Collected from MSS. and Other Rare Sources. 2 Volumes. (1909). vol 1 online and vol 2 online


  2. See Isaac (2004) and Kern (2005)
  3. See Virts (2006); Aiken (1998) notes plantations never entirely disappeared.
  4. Hyde (2005)
  5. Burton (1985)
  6. Scarlett's transformation is exactly what they Yankees had planned for the Southern white men during Reconstruction. See C. Vann Woodward, "The Southern Ethic in a Puritan World," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 344-370 in JSTOR
  7. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (2006)
  8. 1976 Electoral Distribution.
  9. In 1980 Carter carried his home state of Georgia.
  11. Tinadall & Shi, America: A Narrative History, 7th ed.(New York Norton, 2007):616-618.