During the antebellum period (1800–65), the Southern economy was fundamentally tied to the institution of plantation slave labor. The Chesapeake region and the Southern states had always had land that was well-suited to the cultivation of sugar and tobacco, but it was throughout the 1830s that the cotton economy really took off. Growing and cleaning cotton is an extremely labor-intensive process, and agricultural reform and recovery during the period intensified the demand for slaves, many of whom had been transported to the South via the triangular trade with Africa.
Furthermore, unlike Northern businessman and industrialists, who had invested their time, energy, and resources into factories, railroads, and steamships, Southern plantations owners produced all of their profit from the land itself. Landowners did not invest in the construction of infrastructure or industrial enterprises with the same veracity as their Northern neighbors, and their livelihoods therefore depended almost entirely on their ability to extract raw materials from the land for sale to Northern markets and overseas, where these materials would be fashioned into finished goods.
Southern society experienced a kind of “gentrification” as a result. Committed to the survival of their estates at all costs and uninterested in the high-risk opportunism that characterized the capitalist markets of the North, Southern landowners became increasingly insulated from and suspicious of the outside world in the years leading up to the American Civil War.
Politically, Southern landowners fought for the expansion of slavery into newly acquired US territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed into law in 1854, effectively repealed the now-defunct Missouri Compromise, a law that had forbidden the introduction of slavery north of the thirty-sixth parallel. Senator David Rice Atchison and other Southern leaders refused to allow new territories to be added that would have been anti-slavery. The reasons for this were primarily centered around voting power, and Southern politicians did not want the balance in the Senate to skew in favor of the Republican abolitionists. In any case, the increasing radicalism to which Southern Democratic slave owners committed themselves in maintaining the political legitimacy of slavery would set the country on a course for war.