Slavery in the SouthOnly one-fifth of Southern families owned slaves, and only a handful of Southerners owned more than 20 slaves. Yet the vast majority of Southern Whites supported the institution...

Slavery in the South

Only one-fifth of Southern families owned slaves, and only a handful of Southerners owned more than 20 slaves. Yet the vast majority of Southern Whites supported the institution of slavery and fought the Civil War to preserve the slave system.

Why did a large majority of White Southerners support the institution of slavery, even though fewer than a quarter of them owned slaves?

Expert Answers
geosc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Why southern nonslaveowners supported slavery: Since many slaves had never known any responsibility but working in the field and had never known any control but their masters' control, Southern whites feared that the many freed slaves would not be able to make a living except by stealing and that many more would not know how to either restrain themselves or discipline themselves to work, so that they would become a big social problem.Slaves were not allowed to vote.  So, in the South, most voters owned their own means of making a living, and by the experience of managing a farm or a business, they knew when acts of government were harmful to the ways that wealth is generated in a society, and, they were not dependent upon any big man for their living so they could not be told how to vote.  In the North, the common factory worker was able to vote and could (much of the time, not always) be told how to vote by the rich factory owners, and could thus be used by those rich factory owners to transfer wealth from other segments of the economy into the pockets of the rich factory owners; also, they had no experience that enabled them to recognize good acts of government from bad acts of government so that when they did not vote as their masters directed, they often voted in ways that were harmful to the over-all economy.  Southerners feared the end of slavery because that would give the vote to a large class of laboring people who would be no better qualified to vote than the northern factory workers.  Southerners did not like the easy divorce laws of the North, nor the prohibition laws, nor a host of other laws and movements that arose from both the common laboring class and the middle class of the North.  Southerners thought that if their own laboring class became free, worse things would happen in the South.


The social system of the South was dominated by plantation agriculture.  If a small farmer had extra produce or livestock for sale, his market was composed of the plantations and the middle-class professionals of the towns who served the interests of the planters.  If a small farmer or a middle-class professional needed to borrow money, he had to borrow it from a planter or from a bank that was likely to be owned by planters.  Everything in the South was linked to that one social system, and slavery was the labor system of that social system, so to over-turn slavery would destroy the wealth of the slaveowners and would make an anarchy of society.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Books usually give two answers here:

  • The whites who didn't own slaves aspired to be slaveowners.  They didn't hate the slaveowners -- they wanted to be like them.
  • Slavery gave even the poor whites a good feeling.  Because blacks were slaves, even the poorest whites had someone that they could look down on.  (I don't know how they think that they know this, since there weren't opinion polls or anything, but this is something you see quite often in history books.)
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many poor Southern whites were indentured servants who were not too much better off than slaves, so they were probably not really concerned one way or the other about the plight of the slaves.  In addition, as documents from the pre-Civil War era reveal, slaves were considered property, rather than veritable people, so attitudes about them were certainly different from contemporary times.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Slavery was a way of life in the South. It was deeply rooted in their culture. The slave owners may have been small in number, but remember that they were rich. They were the ones with the power, and it was generally not a good idea for the poor to defy them. If you didn't have slaves, it wasn't because you though slavery was immoral. It was because you couldn't afford them.
lrwilliams eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Slavery was a way of life in the South. Even if you were not a slave owner you still agreed with the right to have slaves and probably aspired to own slaves at some point. The non slave owners were willing to fight to protect this "right" to own slaves. Also you have to keep in mind that slavery was one of several issues leading up to a Civil War.

jax281 | Student

As has been stated slavery was deeply rooted into the economic and social life of the south, beyond people's memory. to understand a poor white person's point of view, you have to understand why they lived there in the first place. rather than live in a dirty city and work in a dirty factory they choose to live in a warmer climate, away from cities, try to put together a place just large enough to support his family, and with a little ambition build it large enough to hire slaves from owners, or maybe buy his own. this condition did not require regular or menial labor beyond what was necessary to survive, and could be improved with slave labor. the climate required less labor and was considered healthy. what hasn't been discussed is the religious aspect . southerners had, by the civil war, a deeply rooted religious aspect to their society. they thought themselves as special in the eyes of God. church was the center of social life, during the day, and served as a venue for information exchange. southern pastors, at the time, were preaching the sanctioning of slavery by God, and the good work of protecting the negro from himself and his pagan beliefs.

In the fall of 1860, John Townsend, owner of a cotton plantation on Edisto Island, authored a pamphlet that states the non-slave owners concerns. “It will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges,” he cautioned. “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro,” he reminded his readers. “In the Southern slaveholding States, where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.”

i take issue with historians like Shelby Foote, who say, when asked why they are fighting, a southerner would reply, "because the yanks are here". that may have been the case after 1st manasas but was not so prior to Sumter, and is not the underlying reason for general southern support for the war.

another reason not discussed is Lincoln. the south just hated him, and that, for many, was reason enough.

postcards | Student

Does anyone know the percentage of rich whites in the South that owned slaves? Did all wealthy farm owners own slaves in the South? What percentage did not?  My great grandfather was the richest man in a small town in Texas. He was also reported to be the richest man in Waco, until he lost most of his money in the Great Depression. Where did he get all his money, if he did not own slaves?  When I did some research about him, I found out he had sharecroppers on his huge farm after the slaves had been freed.  (Italian immigrants in those days were exploited like many Mexican immigrants are today.)  My family members challenge my view that Great Granddaddy (whom I briefly met when he was 98, int he 1950s when I was a child) had black sharecroppers. Did all rich whites in the South have black sharecroppers?  My family also challenges the idea that "that side of the family" owned slaves.  Great Granddaddy was born in 1856.  Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. 

slblondie | Student

i think that the poor white southerners didnt really know any better. they went to school but many had to work to help thier families with money.

therefor the majority of the south... which was NOT rich plantation owners. didnt have slaves, and supported the whole institution.

also the few whites that were not wealthy per se, but owned small plantations. saw the slaves as a major help (if they could afford one or two)

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