Exercise 1: Investigating cotton monoculture in the antebellum South

Historians have long portrayed the antebellum South as a region dedicated to the cultivation of cash-crops such as cotton.  “King Cotton,” they have maintained, shaped the political, social, and cultural life of the South.  It fostered plantations on which millions of African Americans endured lives in bondage, and it promoted a class of wealthy planters to political leadership of the South, and in many ways the nation.

While the South thrived on cash-crop cultivation, it could not live off it.  From where came the basic staple foodstuffs that sustained the southern population?  Did plantations themselves take up precious land to grow the food required by slave laborers and southern whites?  Or did the region rely on other sources for staple crops – perhaps less productive lands on the margins of the plantation? 

These questions are significant for what they reveal about the class structure of the antebellum South.  Historians such as Eugene Genovese have long described a region dominated by large planters, who “set the tone” for the entire region.  Underneath the large planters’ hegemony, however, other southern whites – small slaveholders or non-slaveholders – struggled to have their interests addressed.  These class tensions emerged with stark clarity during debates over secession in late 1860 and early 1861, and may have played a profound role in the failure of the Confederate war effort in 1865.

Historical census data provide information that helps us explore these questions.  This exercise will guide you through an analysis of crop cultivation patterns in the South and what they can tell us about Southern class tensions.


1. Let’s start by examining the presence of enslaved African Americans in 1850, at the height of the cotton boom. 



2. Now consider another measure of slaves' importance in the Southern population.


3. There is another way we can begin to find the most important cash-crop regions of the South. Presumably, planters chose cash crop over staple crop production because staple crops were more profitable. If so, we would expect the average value of farms to rise where cash-crop cultivation was most intensive.Consider the following map:


4. Below, we have combined information from the previous two maps to identify the portions of the South that were likely to be dedicated to cash-crop agriculture. (We took counties with a slave population that constituted at least forty percent of the total county population, and combined them with counties where the average farm value was at least $1,000.) We can refer to these counties collectively as the “black belt,” for the rich soil that favored cash-crop agriculture.


5. Now we need to find a way to map agricultural activities that were secondary to cash crop production.  When we have this, we can compare the regions of primary (i.e., cash crop) production and secondary production.  In the census data, there is no single guage of secondary crop production.  We will use just one measure -- the value of animals slaughtered in each county.  We are assuming that farms concerned with raising livestock for sale as food were unlikely to be engaged in intensive production of the primary cash crops such as cotton, rice, and sugar.  Here is our map:



6. The final step in our comparison is to map both the black belt and the meat belt, and see how distinct they are.  If there is much overlap, then we have evidence that primary and secondary agricultural activities were often combined in relatively close areas – within the boundaries of counties.  If there is not much overlap, we have evidence that primary and secondary agricultural activities were spacially distinct.


7. Let’s zoom in to consider the state of Alabama -- a smaller area that illustrates the general trend of the data. 


This maps overlays one indicator of primary agriculture (the average value of farms) with one indicator of secondary agriculture (the value of animals slaughtered).  Areas of strong overlap will appear purple. 

 


8. Now that we’ve located an area of study, let’s remind ourselves of the central problem:  does the evidence suggest that cash-crop production was so profitable that it pushed out staple crop production?  In other words, did growing profitable crops such as cotton spacially stratify southern society, segregating wealthy planters from the southern white rank-and-file?

The evidence from Alabama suggests a mixed picture.  In some areas – Dallas County stands out – farmers both produced a high value of meat and oversaw a high concentration of slaves.  In others, like Mobile or Pike Counties, meat production was high but slave concentrations lower.  In still others -- like Wilcox, Russell, and Washington Counties – slave concentrations were high but meat production low.  It is thus difficult to generalize about the consequences of cash-crop agriculture based on our data.  It is likely that areas of intensive cash-crop agriculture were served by nearby surrounding areas that practiced either mixed agriculture or were largely dedicated to growing the staples that supplied the plantations.  These counties likely contained generally poorer quality land unsuitable to intensive cultivation of cotton, rice, or sugar.