The southern aristocracy of the ante bellum south consisted of the plantation owners. They are often portrayed as leading a life of luxury while slaves did all the work, and spending their time hunting, attending parties, etc. This is a myth. Most plantation owners worked hard, as it was necessary to handle the day to day affairs of the plantation. Disputes over work procedures, etc. came to him for resolution. Although many were cruel to the slaves who worked for them, most of them considered slaves an investment and treated them as such. They made them work hard, but seldom abused them recklessly.
The strength of the aristocracy was that they were considered the leaders of the community. They were generally the magistrates, legislators, judges, and even governors. As such, they had considerable political clout. They were often admired and looked up to by the yeoman farmers who aspired to be large plantation owners one day.
The primary weakness was that their station required them to present an image to the world and particularly their neighbors of a degree of affluence which they did not possess. Plantation homes often had very large facades but very little space inside. In order to keep up the appearance of affluence, most plantation owners borrowed against their expected harvests, and were heavily in debt. A second weakness was their dependence on slave labor. The plantations could not survive without free labor; in fact after the Civil War ended, almost all Plantations became bankrupt.