What was the economic and political culture of the Antebellum South?

The economic culture of the Antebellum South was overwhelmingly agrarian during and marked by great wealth inequality. The political culture was dominated by a small coterie of wealthy white male planters who were heavily invested in defending slavery.

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The Antebellum or pre–Civil War period is usually defined as running from the end of the Revolutionary War, which established the United States, to the start of the Civil War, a roughly 80 year period stretching from 1783 to 1861.

The economic culture of the South was overwhelmingly agricultural. Before the start of the Civil War, the South had only two factories and only two major cities, Baltimore and New Orleans. This economic culture was hierarchical: sexist and racist. The ideal plantation was the model, in which everyone knew their place based on their sex and race, and did their jobs accordingly, leading to harmonious, happy, and prosperous society. This culture was largely mythic, meaning in reality it did not work to produce harmony or happiness, except perhaps for the few white men at the very top of the pyramid.

The agricultural culture consisted primarily of subsistence farms where a family eked out a survival, while a relatively small number of wealthy plantations led to great wealth inequality. The wealthy plantations, run on a very low cost and stable supply of slave labor, grew cash crops such as tobacco, sugar, and cotton. White planters, especially after he invention of the cotton gin, grew very wealthy supplying cotton to the textile mills in the industrial Northern states and England.

The political system was largely dominated by wealthy Southern planters. These comprised two groups: a hereditary elite who, by the turn of the nineteenth century, had owned and passed down large agricultural estates since the seventeenth century, and a new group that during the early nineteenth century had grown extremely wealthy on cotton. Both groups of wealthy planters were white and male, as any other group was excluded from political power, and both used their wealth and influence to keep the status quo in place so that they could maintain their wealth and privilege. Over the course of the Antebellum period, these planters became increasingly vocal and strident in their defense of slavery, the only way to maintain a highly profitable agrarian culture. Defense of slavery moved from the idea of it as a "necessary evil" to the defense of it as a positive good and a better system for the lower classes than the factory system of the north.

The wealthy planter could, however, only maintain power by aligning themselves with the many small white farmers who actually had many more votes than they did. They did so successfully through use of racism, pulling in the small and even poor white farmers by identifying with them as a cohesive racial group that deserved special privileges because of perceived innate superiority to Black people.

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