What were the different levels of the society in the antebellum American south?

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saintfester | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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Your place in antebellum southern society was determined by two factors; your wealth in land and slaves, and the color of your skin. These two determinants were constant throughout southern history up until the end of the Civil War.

So naturally, the wealthy planter elite were at the top of the social scale. Their political clout was considerable, and everyone aspired to live the relaxed life of the plantation owners. Below them were the white middle class, who generally lived on smaller farms or in cities. Even businessmen of considerable wealth and stature ranked second to the planters because of their lack of land.

Poor white farmers were on the lower level of society. They may only own one slave if any, and sometimes rented land from the planter class if they themselves couldn’t make payments or purchases.

Free blacks were below all whites, no matter how rich or prosperous they were. Many racist laws were passed in the south barring blacks from owning land or enjoying the same civil liberties as whites.

Slaves ranked lowest of all, which isn’t surprising. But what is surprising is that the lighter a slaves skin, the higher social rank he maintained. In many southern states, light skinned slaves were given more privileges than those of intensely dark skin. This was in part due to some southern slave owners fathering illegitimate children with their slaves.

Women occupied an interesting level of society. They ranked below men, but above slaves, but were not always treated any better. Until the rise of the women’s rights movement, most women were treated more or less like the property of their husbands or fathers. This was also true in the north, but was slower to change in the south.

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