Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

Start Free Trial

Was the southern economy dependent on slavery?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Southern economy was heavily dependent upon slave labor. The Southern economy was agrarian; agriculture was its lifeblood, and being able to cultivate fields through the use of slaves was instrumental to the region's growth. While many Southerners of the time believed that there existed a moral imperative to own slaves based upon a multitude of Biblical references to slaves, and most possessed an ingrained sense of racial superiority, there is no question that the ability to operate large plantations while minimizing the cost of labor was a powerful incentive to resist the growing abolitionist movement in the North. Cotton and tobacco were major commodities vitally important to the South, and slave labor made their cultivation far more profitable than otherwise would have been the case. A sense of the importance of agriculture to the South's economy and of slavery to the growth of that economy is offered early in James McPherson's seminal history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom:

Slave-grown crops sustained part of the era's economic growth and much of its territorial expansion. The cascade of cotton from the American South dominated the world market, paced the industrial revolution in England and New England, and fastened the shackles of slavery more securely than ever on Afro-Americans.

The South’s was an economy built on slavery and sustained through its continuation. The South’s decision to secede from the Union rather than acquiesce in the demise of the economy and culture it had known for decades was testament to the relationship between slavery and the region’s growth.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Yes, the southern economy was dependent on slave labor. Rather than industrializing like the northern states, the southern states were primarily agriculture. Before the American Revolution, the southern colonies mainly relied on growing tobacco as a cash crop, which, in turn, depended on slave labor to be profitable and make fortunes for the plantation owners. After the invention of the cotton gin, the southern states relied most heavily on growing cotton, again a labor intensive form of agriculture that remained profitable because of the low-cost labor provided by slaves. Slaves also were important to sugar plantations in Louisiana and to growing wheat and hemp in many southern states. The United States suffered from a labor shortage at this time and hired help was more expensive and considered more unreliable than slaves, as free people could quit at any time. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the southern economy suffered and the wealthy plantations could no longer flourish. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the southern economy?

Slavery had a stranglehold on the Southern economy.  The agrarian culture of the South made it a necessity to have manpower to work and harvest the crops of the fields.  When Whitney's invention of the cotton gin was introduced to the South, more cotton could be picked and produced.  This increased production, but also increased the need for more slaves to work the fields.  As more slaves were present, more cotton was produced, leading to more more money being generated, increasing the ability to purchase more slaves.  The cycle continued for decades in the South, leading to a greater dependency on slaves and slave labor.  This might be one of the reasons why the support of slavery was more economic than anything else.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the southern economy?

Slavery was very important to the southern economy. The majority of slaves worked in plantation agriculture but many had other occupations such as butlers, maids, seamstresses, carriage drivers and stable hands. These are jobs that white people would not do-slaves kept the economy going. They made little or no money while the plantation owners became wealthy.

The cotton gin was also significant to slavery and the economy:

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery a new life in the United States. Between 1800 and 1860, slave-produced cotton expanded from South Carolina and Georgia to newly colonized lands west of the Mississippi. This shift of the slave economy from the upper South (Virginia and Maryland) to the lower South was accompanied by a comparable shift of the enslaved African population to the lower South and West.

I am posting a link below that you should definitely read. It has a lot detailed information regarding the impact of slavery on the economy.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the southern economy?

The economy of the South was dependent upon slave labor.  There were not enough whites willing to do the grueling work required to grow the cash crops (tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo) that enabled the Southern economy to grow. It was the dependency of the South upon slavery that in part led to the Civil War; they were incapable of giving up their labor while maintaining a profit.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the southern economy?

It also depends on what time frame you are referring to, as colonial slavery prior to 1750 was much different than than the King Cotton slave economy of 1800 - 1865.  In both cases though, reliance on slave labor for agriculture prevented the South from diversifying economically and put them at a growing disadvantage with the North.

We also have to admit that slavery created a small but very wealthy and powerful class of landowners in southern states that were to have a huge effect on the formation of the country in the early years (many of the Founding Fathers were Virginia slaveholders) and the direction of expansion and sectional tension in the 1800s.

With cotton becoming the dominant crop in the South by 1820, the US became the leading exporter of the crop to England's textile mills, giving the South a steady supply of income, and a potential ally when the Civil War came.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the southern economy?

The obvious answer is that slavery was the basis of the southern economy.  Most of the wealth of the South came from the crops that the slaves grew.

Beyond that, there is a great deal of controversy.  Historians disagree as to whether slavery was good or bad, economically speaking.  Some historians argue that slavery actually retarded the growth of the South's economy.  They say that it encouraged farming over industry and that it discouraged the invention of labor saving devices that would have made the plantations more productive and the South richer.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the economy of the South as well as its impact on Southern society and politics?

The agricultural rise of the South was heavily bolstered by the institution of slavery. Cotton, known in the pre-Civil War South as "King Cotton," was the primary resource grown and slave labor advanced the amount of production. In fact, the South produced nearly two thirds of the world's supply. Because of their drastic lag in manufacturing compared to the North, the South focused on agricultural advances and increased production to recoup. Throughout the Civil War, the southern economy declined rapidly as plantations fell into despair and most men were enlisted. However, it is important to note that not all slave labor dealt with agriculture. Many slaves had to work as carpenters, house servants, and blacksmiths—all of which contributed to the Southern economy.


Because of the rural and agrarian elements of the area, slavery was a staple of the Southern society. Plantations began to rise. Multiple families, enslaved and free, lived together on these large properties with many homes. Large parties and gatherings, served by slaves, were central to the way of life. With the drastic gains in wealth, mostly because of the free labor, many planter families were able to send their children to higher education in both the South and the North. This perpetuated an increase in the value Southern society with education.


As one would expect, political power would follow the increase in wealth and education. Family plantations became the centers of Southern voting blocs advocating for the continuation of their way of life. Prominent Southerners, including Andrew Jackson, rose to the very top of the political spectrum. The Jacksonian Democrats valued states' rights above all. The obvious reason for this was the protection of slavery, which the South had come to rely on. Without it, the vast amounts of wealth, which built the Southern society itself, would vanish and the Southern way of life altogether.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the impact of slavery on the economy of the South as well as its impact on Southern society and politics?

The fact that slavery existed came to dominate the economy, the politics, and the society of the South.  It caused the South to become very different from the North in significant ways.  These helped to cause the Civil War.  Let us look at the most important impact of slavery in each of these categories.

Economically, slavery helped to ensure that the economy of the South would remain agrarian and would not progress as much as it might otherwise have.  The South’s capital was largely tied up in slaves.  This made it very hard for Southerners to have the kind of money that would have been needed to invest in other kinds of economic ventures.  Moreover, labor-saving machinery was not something that was useful to the South.  It would simply have made their slaves redundant, and they would have had a hard time getting any money for them.  Thus, slavery caused the South’s economy to remain somewhat stagnant.

Socially, slavery is said to have helped keep the South together.  There were massive differences in wealth in the South, but slavery helped poor whites to identify with the rich whites.  It helped them to feel that they were all white and were all superior to the African Americans.  That helped the whites feel more solidarity with one another.

Politically, slavery helped make the South more aristocratic.  Only a few families could afford the huge plantations that made the most money.  This gave these families a great deal of political power.  This was very different from the conditions in the more egalitarian North.

Thus, slavery had a significant impact on many aspects of life in the South.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on