The Antebellum 1%: Greed, Slavery, and the Economic Foundation of the American Civil War

Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.

- Thomas Jefferson (a hypocrite)

Peter beaten by overseer, Baton Rouge, La., April 2nd, 1863.
Peter beaten by overseer, Baton Rouge, La., April 2nd, 1863. | Source

North and South

During the annexation of each new state in the mid 1800s, the question of whether the new state would condone or banish slavery had national implications. Though the residents of the two regions engaged in the same political system and spoke the same language, two distinct cultures had long since developed. The economies of the two regions reflected this fact. Southern gentlemen defending their honor in financial squabbles with duels, while in the North women were beginning to forge a new identity, earning medical degrees and entering the workforce. While both the North and South contributed to the economic and geographical expansion of the United States, the cultural differences between the industrial North and the agricultural South divided the two sections from one another.

In the antebellum period, both the North and the South experienced stunning economic growth. Spurred on by the development of new technologies, primarily in textiles, the industrialization of the North and the agriculture of the South was given new life. The rapid development and expansion of railways and canals in the North provided an infrastructure for the spread of manufactured goods westwards and for the creation of new urban hubs of industry. Through the advances in manufacturing and the creation of large companies and corporations, a true middle class arose. With so many opportunities opening up, the number of workers moving from unskilled to white-collar labor increased from one in ten in 1840 to one in five by 1860. Meanwhile, Southern cotton plantations and the trade of slaves boomed after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. More than half of the U.S. export earnings were due to Southern cotton, and the wealthiest one-percent of US citizens lived in the South.

Depiction of a slave with his master, Confederate States of America $10 (1861)
Depiction of a slave with his master, Confederate States of America $10 (1861) | Source

Though the perception of a land filled with massive plantations is false, the South was one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the world at that time. In the South, where slaves were expensive and a sign of social status, only one-forth of White southerners owned slaves by 1860, and many impoverished white farmers were forced to leave the countryside and move to cities to find work. Though the antebellum South was a society built on agriculture, a significant portion of the White population did not own land. Nearly two-thirds of the cotton farming land in the South was owned by 17% of the farming population.

While the South existed as a relic of feudalism, the North had its own morality issues with labor. Starting in the late 1780s, the North began to transition from an agricultural to industrial economy. In 1800, 12% of the North's citizens earned their money from wages. That proportion more than tripled within 60 years, even with a drastic increase in population. Despite the emergence of a middle class in the North, wages of the working class remained stagnate. Yet, there was plenty of profits to go around. The wealthiest 1% managed to acquire 27% of the North’s wealth. What made this possible? In part, a flood of cheap labor poured from ships escaping persecution in Germany, Ireland, and other European nations. These immigrants were the working poor of the North, and they lived in urban slums, sent their children to work in factories, and could barely afford to survive. They floated from one location to another, seeking factory work, begging for change, and built the industrial North with starving hands.

"Miners in the Sierras" (1851-1852) by Charles Christian Nahl
"Miners in the Sierras" (1851-1852) by Charles Christian Nahl | Source

Going West and Going Under

Both regions of the country attempted to gain their fortunes in the expansion towards the Pacific Ocean. The ways and means of each region were quite different. Northern settlers expected financial prosperity would come through their own hard labor in the American west. '49er Luzena Stanley Wilson explained, "we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever." A wrench in this dream of unskilled labor churning out riches was the migration of slave holders. Southerners, also seeking riches, brought with them their slaves in order to do work that would otherwise have to be done by wage earners. In a famous example, gold miners in California rallied together to ban slavery after Texans arrived with slaves to work the mines for free. This movement was intended to protect the interests of white laborers first and foremost. The economic issue of slavery in during westward expansion resulted in annexation of new states occurring only in pairs; when a slave state wanted admittance to the union, a free state must be created and admitted.

Picking cotton while the overseer rides a horse  (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)
Picking cotton while the overseer rides a horse (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895) | Source

In the combined efforts of the North’s industrial prosperity and the South’s agricultural success, the United States maintained its position as a major world power in the antebellum period. However, the North’s prosperity was a result of a broad base industrial revolution and a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor. In contrast, the South financial gains were primarily due to a single, export product culled by the hands of enslaved humans. The North had population 50 percent greater than that of the South, and only half of that total worked in farming. In contrast, the South’s prosperity relied on the growing and exporting cotton. The two major sources of income for southerners was the sale of slaves within the region (where most slaves where field hands), and the sale of cotton to textile mills, predominantly located in the Northeast and in England. Though industry existed in the South, there were only 110,000 workers in that field in 1860, contrasted with 1.3 million industrial workers in the North. This figure would become crucially important when the American Civil War finally erupted in 1861.

The South was doomed before the Civil War broke out. With an illiteracy rate of 20%, almost three times the national average, and profound financial disparity, the economy of the South would not have survived into the 20th century. With their heavily reliance on just a few agricultural crops for the entire region's financial prosperity, there was little for hope for the South to exist as anything more than a resource for industrializing nations. The exploitation of African and Asian colonies by Britain, France, and other European nations would have eventually sealed the South's fate, if the North's industrialization and rapidly expanding population hadn't done it already.

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Comments 4 comments

Healthy Pursuits profile image

Healthy Pursuits 4 years ago from Oregon

Excellent hub! You gathered some very interesting details, and presented them well.


brackenb profile image

brackenb 4 years ago

Very interesting and well written hub. I learned a great deal that I didn't know.


HubPages profile image

HubPages 4 years ago from San Francisco, CA

What an interesting take on the swelling interest in income disparity. I had never before considered just how fascinating the antebellum period was- with two such disparate economies (and mindsets) existing right next to each other.

Heheh... Just more evidence indicating why our country is so dreadfully fascinating and diverse.


graceomalley profile image

graceomalley 4 years ago

Excellent hub, combining facts with clear analysis.

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