Describe the structure of Antebellum Southern Society. Who dominated its economy and politics? How did its reality differ from post-war image?

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The antebellum South was largely governed by plantation owners who had most of their wealth in crops and slaves. They were the only ones who had access to quality education, and they had the leisure time to devote to politics.

Directly under them was a small middle class of smaller...

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farmers who might have employed a few slaves during busy agricultural seasons. A small group of professionals also inhabited this social strata, but they were not as common as they would be in Northern cities.

The South also had a large population of poor whites who had little hope of ever owning their own land, let alone climbing into the upper social strata. The poor whites looked down on the slaves as people who took potential jobs from them. Many of these poor whites would go on to become infantry for the Confederate army, where they would die for a social and political system that did not serve their best economic interests.

Plantation owners would not devote land to industrial interests or infrastructure developments, thus keeping industrial investment out of the region until after the Civil War. This also ensured that the poor whites would remain poor and not compete with the planter class for land.

Southern historians have attempted to gloss over slavery as a positive for both the plantation owner and the slave. They depict this world as peaceful since everyone "had their place" and did not aspire to move upward socially. In this world, the planters did the thinking and leading, and the poor whites and black slaves were happy to serve them either through the votes of poor whites or the backbreaking labor of the slaves. This view has been referred to as part of the myth of the "Lost Cause" by current historians who are working on bringing change to the historiography of the antebellum and postwar South.

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The antebellum society of the South was built around the institution of slavery. The most prominent, influential, and affluent members of that society were those men who owned at least twenty slaves. Because a slave was worth about $1,000.00, a man who possessed twenty or more was extremely wealthy. After the South left the Union, the Confederate legislature was dominated by slave owners.

Most of the South's men were small farmers who did not own slaves. Their main crop was corn, not cotton. Although there was some resentment of the rich, slave-owning aristocracy, the typical Southerner aspired to it. There was little social mobility in the antebellum South, though.

The antebellum South was a rural and agrarian in spite of its wealth. Its only really large city was New Orleans. Its economy and its population were less diversified than those of the North. Although the South as a whole was rich, the overwhelming majority of its people were poor. Illiteracy was far higher in the South than in the North. Moreover, few slaves could read, and their masters did not want them to acquire that skill.

Slavery dominated the antebellum South. Almost all Southerners believed that their society could not function without it. They lived in fear of a slave revolt and believed slavery was the only way to "control" blacks. Very few whites in the antebellum South were willing to criticize slavery or its barbarous effects on the people it enslaved. After the war, Southerners believed the loss of the antebellum South was a great tragedy. They wanted to believe that that society was honorable and noble. The novel Gone With the Wind and the film it inspired do not portray slavery accurately, but the story it told resonated among many Americans.

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Society in the antebellum south was based on agriculture. The south produced two-thirds of the world's cotton supply, which was its major agricultural product, and it also grew much sugar, tobacco, and rice. All of these were labor intensive crops that relied on slavery to be profitable.

As a result, ante-bellum society was highly stratified, meaning it had a rigid class system. A handful of white male owners of large plantations dominated the economic and political structures of the region. As abolitionist sentiments grew in the north, the large southern landowners dug their heels in and became increasingly determined to protect the institution of slavery in their region and spread it as far as they could.

Beneath the few people who owned huge plantations and large numbers of slaves lived a much greater number of middle class and poor whites who owned few or no slaves. On the bottom were the slaves themselves, who had no rights or status in society.

This was a system of social and economic organization that was on the way out as industrialism spread and produced far more wealth than agriculture, and as notions of human rights grew across society. Observers who visited the south commented on an oppressive system that kept everyone, included whites, in fear. Slaves feared their masters, and white feared a slave uprising.

After the war, however, a mythology of the happy plantation arose. The antebellum south was pictured as place full of gracious, columned plantations where well-fed, well-cared for slaved lived in harmony with their masters. This was in contrast to the reality that most whites didn't own slaves and that slaves were not well treated on the whole.

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