Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What major social divisions segmented the white South?

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In the nineteenth century antebellum South, society was highly stratified. Among the 13 states that constituted the Confederacy in 1861, Texas is usually considered part of the Southwest and Missouri, part of the Midwest. The Jackson Administration’s forced resettlement of Native peoples in the 1830s had greatly reduced the percentage of indigenous people in the Southern states. Among the white population, one of the major divisions was national heritage and another was religion; the two tended to be closely correlated.

While many of the states had been settled by Protestants from the United Kingdom, the European colonizers of several states had come from France and Spain. Louisiana, which had entered the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, had been settled by the French, and the majority of its population were of French heritage. As the area, including Mississippi, had also been a Spanish colony, the population had many people of Spanish descent. Catholicism was the primary religion there and in Maryland, which had been established as a Catholic colony. Florida, a former Spanish colony, also included a high percentage of people of Spanish heritage, who were largely Catholic. South Carolina had many Catholics of Spanish origin, but Irish Catholics had also formed a large portion of its settlers.

Landownership was a major factor that supported divisions between rich and poor. A small percentage of plantation owners, who relied heavily on African American enslaved laborers, owned a large percent of the land. Poor white people rarely owned their own small farms but leased them through various debt peonage arrangements. Another division was rural contrasted to urban. The North was far more industrialized and urbanized than the South—there were only a few sizable cities in the South. New Orleans, with almost 170,000 residents in 1860, had more people than the next four combined; Charleston, South Carolina was next, with just under 40,000 people, and Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, had about 38,000 residents. (In contrast, New York, including Brooklyn, had over one million people, and the next six cities each numbered more than 100,000).

The relatively low rate of urbanization meant that skilled trades and wage-labor separated urban from rural dwellers to some extent, but many plantations had their own skilled artisans, many of whom were black. The cities also tended to cluster along the Atlantic and Gulf coast, so the interior states had much higher rural populations; their livelihoods included mining along with agriculture.

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