Exercise 1: Investigating
cotton monoculture in the antebellum South
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.
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?
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.
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.
Let’s start by examining the presence of enslaved African Americans in
1850, at the height of the cotton boom.
- What does the map depict?
- What states feature the
highest number of slaves?
- Why is it not very useful
to consider the distribution of the slave population entirely in terms of
- Are there any ways in
which this map is limited in what it reveals about the importance of the slave
population in various parts of the South?
2. Now consider another measure of slaves' importance
in the Southern population.
- How does this map differ
from the previous map?
- What advantages does
this map offer over the previous one?
- How does this map change
your conclusions about where slavery was most significant in the South?
- What are some advantages
and disadvantages of using the presence of slaves as indicators of the most
intensive cash-crop production in the South?
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:
comparing this map with the previous map, do the two maps generally seem to
depict the same counties of the South? In other words, do the maps reinforce
or undermine each other as descriptions of the most cash-crop intensive counties
of the South? Can we locate a set of counties in the South that may
have been largely dedicated to cash-crop agriculture?
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.
do you conclude from this map? Try to describe your findings in terms
that are general yet accurate.
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.
- Which counties seem to
have been mostly concerned with cash-crop agriculture, as evidenced by a high
concentration of slaves?
- Which counties seem to
have been mostly concerned with secondary agriculture, as evidenced by a high
production of meat?
- Which counties seem to
combine primary and secondary agriculture?
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
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.
- In further exploring
this problem, what other variables would you like to be able to map?
other kinds of historical evidence might help you resolve the problem?