How did cotton cultivation impact the population distribution and economy of the Old South? How did Northern and Southern self-images differ?

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Northern and Southern observers had vastly different perceptions of the culture of the South in the antebellum era. Many southern landowners and even many independent laborers viewed the Old South as a land that harbored legends and myths. In their view, the South was a stable agrarian society that was...

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benevolently managed by paternalistic plantation owners and their families. As one North Carolina editor put it, Southern people were

a mythological people, created half out of a dream and half out of slander, who live in a still legendary land.

Northerners, many of whom held strongly anti-slavery points of view, took a different stance on Southern plantation slavery and on its culture in general. Many Northern abolitionists harbored a much darker view of the South. The most famous example that characterized Southern culture as violent and racists is probably Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this novel, slave laborers are worked to the point of death, slave women are raped on a daily basis, and sadistic white plantation owners torture their human property just for kicks. In this view, slaves were bred just like cattle to be used and disposed of in the most dehumanizing of fashions.

Because it was primarily the North which drew a majority of immigrant workers from European ports, one of the distinctive characteristics of the South’s population distribution was its high proportion of native-born Americans (before the Revolution, that is). Southern plantation families overwhelmingly tended to be white and to have been born in the South itself. The overall population among non-slaves was relatively homogenous. Over time, the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery isolated its people more and more from the rest of the country until it became a self-consciously minority population.

The rise and proliferation of the cotton industry in the South brought about immediate economic benefits, but hurt the South’s ability to compete in a rapidly industrializing world. Southern plantation owners relied continuously more on their ability to grow and sell staple crops. They generally eschewed the use of new markets or the development of factory labor in their lands. Thus, over the course of the antebellum period, these same farmers grew to become singularly dependent on cotton, and to a lesser extent sugar and tobacco, for their livelihood. Plantation owners especially fought hard to maintain the systems that allowed them to grow and sell these cash crops. Slave labor was an integral part of the only economy most Southerners knew, and this inability to adapt to changing economic circumstances was perhaps the greatest reason for their unwillingness to embrace abolitionism.

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