Describe the major social groups within southern white society, and explain why each group was committed to the continuation and expansion of slavery.
Southern white society during the antebellum years—that is, the years before the Civil War—mimicked classical Greek and Roman societies in terms of strict class stratification. The only difference is that there was hardly any mobility from one group to another (black slave owners, for example, did exist, but they were very few).
Southern planters demonstrated this admiration of the classical world through their architectural choices. Plantation homes, with their Doric columns and entablatures, were emblems of Neoclassical design. Planters would also give their slaves names like Pompey or Caesar, which mimicked the glory of those ancient societies.
Like the patricians of the ancient Roman world, the large planter class represented the aristocracy of the Old South. Large planters were those who held one thousand acres or more. They were the wealthiest class in all of the United States, and they only comprised about one percent of the white population. They had great political power—some even held office—and owned at least 50 slaves.
Second to them were more modest planters. This was still a rather select group, comprising only three percent of the white population. They owned between 100–1,000 acres and between 20–49 slaves. This class was also comprised of political leaders.
Beyond the planters, we reach the plebeians or commoners, of the time. However, even this group had a hierarchy. At the top were the small planters. This group made up around 20 percent of the white population and owned fewer than 20 slaves. They were small farmers, but they made a good living. Some even made additional profits as merchants. It was also common to loan out skilled slaves (e.g., blacksmiths) or to sell their wares for additional income.
Most whites, however, were not slave owners. More than three-quarters of all white people belonged to this class. They may have owned their own small piece of land which they or a handful of slaves would have farmed. Some were day laborers. Others were squatters. Sundry others were employed as overseers on plantations.
It is easy to understand why planters wanted to maintain the slave system. They amassed great profits due to not having to pay laborers. Small slaveholders, in many instances, probably had the ambition of becoming major landholders. They, too, would have had little incentive to oppose slavery. Moreover, they probably valued the slaves they could afford to buy and retain. What is more difficult is understanding why many poor whites were committed to the perpetuation and expansion of slavery.
In the late seventeenth century, when slavery became a race-based system, the lives of both slaves and free blacks became more circumscribed. For example, in Virginia, black slaves were less likely to be allowed their own plots of land and livestock; free blacks were no longer permitted the right to testify in court. What now determined a free person from a non-free person was skin color. Some poor whites took advantage of their newly elevated status. One way was to seek employment on plantations as overseers.
Though slavery limited poor whites' job opportunities, many remained committed to and supportive of a system that gave them privilege due to being white. No matter how poor or desperate many were, they took comfort in the fact that they were not black; they were still free.