Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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Was the southern economy dependent on slavery?

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The Southern economy was heavily dependent upon slave labor. The Southern economy was agrarian; agriculture was its lifeblood, and being able to cultivate fields through the use of slaves was instrumental to the region's growth. While many Southerners of the time believed that there existed a moral imperative to own...

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The Southern economy was heavily dependent upon slave labor. The Southern economy was agrarian; agriculture was its lifeblood, and being able to cultivate fields through the use of slaves was instrumental to the region's growth. While many Southerners of the time believed that there existed a moral imperative to own slaves based upon a multitude of Biblical references to slaves, and most possessed an ingrained sense of racial superiority, there is no question that the ability to operate large plantations while minimizing the cost of labor was a powerful incentive to resist the growing abolitionist movement in the North. Cotton and tobacco were major commodities vitally important to the South, and slave labor made their cultivation far more profitable than otherwise would have been the case. A sense of the importance of agriculture to the South's economy and of slavery to the growth of that economy is offered early in James McPherson's seminal history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom:

Slave-grown crops sustained part of the era's economic growth and much of its territorial expansion. The cascade of cotton from the American South dominated the world market, paced the industrial revolution in England and New England, and fastened the shackles of slavery more securely than ever on Afro-Americans.

The South’s was an economy built on slavery and sustained through its continuation. The South’s decision to secede from the Union rather than acquiesce in the demise of the economy and culture it had known for decades was testament to the relationship between slavery and the region’s growth.

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Yes, the southern economy was dependent on slave labor. Rather than industrializing like the northern states, the southern states were primarily agriculture. Before the American Revolution, the southern colonies mainly relied on growing tobacco as a cash crop, which, in turn, depended on slave labor to be profitable and make fortunes for the plantation owners. After the invention of the cotton gin, the southern states relied most heavily on growing cotton, again a labor intensive form of agriculture that remained profitable because of the low-cost labor provided by slaves. Slaves also were important to sugar plantations in Louisiana and to growing wheat and hemp in many southern states. The United States suffered from a labor shortage at this time and hired help was more expensive and considered more unreliable than slaves, as free people could quit at any time. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the southern economy suffered and the wealthy plantations could no longer flourish. 

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