Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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Compare and contrast the slaves' experiences in the upper South and the lower South.  

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In the nineteenth century, the experience of a slave in the upper South differed in some respects from that of a slave in the lower South because the two regions had different economies. The farms and plantations of the lower South were mostly involved in growing cash crops. Cotton made...

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In the nineteenth century, the experience of a slave in the upper South differed in some respects from that of a slave in the lower South because the two regions had different economies. The farms and plantations of the lower South were mostly involved in growing cash crops. Cotton made up the majority of this, although sugar cane, rice, indigo, and tobacco were also grown there. The long growing season of the lower South meant that a slave there spent long days throughout the year planting, harvesting, and processing these crops.

By the nineteenth century, slavery had been well ingrained in the culture of the lower South. Policies aimed at preventing the ever-feared slave revolt were well established. This meant that slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. They were not allowed to assemble under most circumstances and could not be out alone without a pass. While we often imagine large plantations with hundreds of slaves, this was not the norm, and most plantations actually had fewer than fifty. It was a common fear among slaveowners that having too many slaves in one place was asking for an uprising. Discipline was strict, and any violation could result in severe physical punishment.

The upper South had much less in the way of large-scale farming. Therefore, while slavery did exist, it did not happen on the same scale as it did further south. Many slaves there were employed in a specific trade and could actually earn very meager wages. Policies varied state by state, but some places, such as Arkansas, did not forbid teaching slaves literacy. That state even had a law guaranteeing equal treatment under the law for slaves. In practice, though, the slave experience in the upper South was still a harsh one. Severe punishments for attempted escapes were still practiced, and a slave could be sold away from his or her family at any time. Indeed, as there was a higher demand for slave labor in the lower South, it was not uncommon for cash-strapped slave owners in the upper South to sell their slaves to lower South plantations, where they could fetch a higher price.

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In both the Upper and Lower South, slaves were generally treated poorly.  They were not allowed to read on many plantations, and their families could be sold at any time.  The Upper South had more diverse crops such as tobacco and corn for the slaves to work.  While these were labor-intensive crops, at least it was not as hard as cotton, which involved repetitive labor and a longer season.  Slaves in the Upper South also had more opportunities to get into trades, especially if they had lenient masters who would allow their slaves the opportunity to buy their freedom.  

In the Lower South, most slaves were either field hands or house slaves.  They worked larger plantations, as cotton was very hard on the soil, and the cotton planters in the Lower South were generally richer than in the North.  It was also harder for a slave in the Lower South to escape to freedom, and there was less sympathy for slavery than in the Upper South.  

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In the Lower South, there were a greater number of cotton plantations that required a large number of slaves. In these areas, slaves often comprised a large proportion of the population (up to about 50%), and slavery was generally brutal, as slave owners feared revolts. In the Upper South, slaves comprised a lower percentage of the population (about 25%-33%) and worked to harvest a variety of crops, which included cotton, grains, hemp, and tobacco. In addition, some slaves (such as Frederick Douglass before he escaped north) worked as artisans or in other trades. They gave a portion of their earnings to their masters, and there were also some free slaves in Maryland, Delaware, and other border states. The slavery that existed in the Upper South was for the most part less harsh than that of the Lower South.

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By the nineteenth century, there were considerable differences between slavery in the upper South (Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky) and the Lower South (south of South Carolina and west to Texas). For one thing, the economy of this region tended to be more diversified, a trend that continued until the Civil War. Enslaved people worked on plantations that produced wheat, hemp, orchard fruit, and many other crops. In the Deep South, the economy was far more oriented toward cotton, with some exceptions. These crops were somewhat less labor-intensive, but from a slave's perspective, they had longer growing seasons, which meant less time off. Moreover, as the cotton economy boomed, so did the value of field hands. So selling enslaved people southward became a major business in the Upper South. Over one million people are estimated to have been sold southward in this internal slave trade that ripped families apart even as it fueled the continued expansion of the cotton economy in the Deep South. As for points of comparison, the vast majority of enslaved people lived and worked in agriculture, and as the Civil War neared, more and more were the property of men who owned dozens of people. The misery of slavery was universal.

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