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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Restoration of White Supremacy · CHAPTER XVI·»

The Economic Advance of the South

The Break-up of the Great Estates.—In the dissolution of chattel slavery it was inevitable that the great estate should give way before the small farm. The plantation was in fact founded on slavery. It was continued and expanded by slavery. Before the war the prosperous planter, either by inclination or necessity, invested his surplus in more land to add to his original domain. As his slaves increased in number, he was forced to increase his acreage or sell them, and he usually preferred the former, especially in the Far South. Still another element favored the large estate. Slave labor quickly exhausted the soil and of its own force compelled the cutting of the forests and the extension of the area under cultivation. Finally, the planter took a natural pride in his great estate; it was a sign of his prowess and his social prestige.

In 1865 the foundations of the planting system were gone. It was difficult to get efficient labor to till the vast plantations. The planters themselves were burdened with debts and handicapped by lack of capital. Negroes commonly preferred tilling plots of their own, rented or bought under mortgage, to the more irksome wage labor under white supervision. The land hunger of the white farmer, once checked by the planting system, reasserted itself. Before these forces the plantation broke up. The small farm became the unit of cultivation in the South as in the North. Between 1870 and 1900 the number of farms doubled in every state south of the line of the Potomac and Ohio rivers, except in Arkansas and Louisiana. From year to year the process of breaking up continued, with all that it implied in the creation of land-owning farmers.

The Diversification of Crops.—No less significant was the concurrent diversification of crops. Under slavery, tobacco, rice, and sugar were staples and “cotton was king.” These were standard crops. The methods of cultivation were simple and easily learned. They tested neither the skill nor the ingenuity of the slaves. As the returns were quick, they did not call for long-time investments of capital. After slavery was abolished, they still remained the staples, but far-sighted agriculturists saw the dangers of depending upon a few crops. The mild climate all the way around the coast from Virginia to Texas and the character of the alluvial soil invited the exercise of more imagination. Peaches, oranges, peanuts, and other fruits and vegetables were found to grow luxuriantly. Refrigeration for steamships and freight cars put the markets of great cities at the doors of Southern fruit and vegetable gardeners. The South, which in planting days had relied so heavily upon the Northwest for its foodstuffs, began to battle for independence. Between 1880 and the close of the century the value of its farm crops increased from $660,000,000 to $1,270,000,000.

The Industrial and Commercial Revolution.—On top of the radical changes in agriculture came an industrial and commercial revolution. The South had long been rich in natural resources, but the slave system had been unfavorable to their development. Rivers that would have turned millions of spindles tumbled unheeded to the seas. Coal and iron beds lay unopened. Timber was largely sacrificed in clearing lands for planting, or fell to earth in decay. Southern enterprise was consumed in planting. Slavery kept out the white immigrants who might have supplied the skilled labor for industry.

Steel Mills—Birmingham, Alabama
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Steel Mills—Birmingham, Alabama

After 1865, achievement and fortune no longer lay on the land alone. As soon as the paralysis of the war was over, the South caught the industrial spirit that had conquered feudal Europe and the agricultural North. In the development of mineral wealth, enormous strides were taken. Iron ore of every quality was found, the chief beds being in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. Five important coal basins were uncovered: in Virginia, North Carolina, the Appalachian chain from Maryland to Northern Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas. Oil pools were found in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. Within two decades, 1880 to 1900, the output of mineral wealth multiplied tenfold: from ten millions a year to one hundred millions. The iron industries of West Virginia and Alabama began to rival those of Pennsylvania. Birmingham became the Pittsburgh and Atlanta the Chicago of the South.

A Southern Cotton Mill in a Cotton Field
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
A Southern Cotton Mill in a Cotton Field

In other lines of industry, lumbering and cotton manufacturing took a high rank. The development of Southern timber resources was in every respect remarkable, particularly in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, primacy in lumber had passed from the Great Lakes region to the South. In 1913 eight Southern states produced nearly four times as much lumber as the Lake states and twice as much as the vast forests of Washington and Oregon.

The development of the cotton industry, in the meantime, was similarly astounding. In 1865 cotton spinning was a negligible matter in the Southern states. In 1880 they had one-fourth of the mills of the country. At the end of the century they had one-half the mills, the two Carolinas taking the lead by consuming more than one-third of their entire cotton crop. Having both the raw materials and the power at hand, they enjoyed many advantages over the New England rivals, and at the opening of the new century were outstripping the latter in the proportion of spindles annually put into operation. Moreover, the cotton planters, finding a market at the neighboring mills, began to look forward to a day when they would be somewhat emancipated from absolute dependence upon the cotton exchanges of New York, New Orleans, and Liverpool.

Transportation kept pace with industry. In 1860, the South had about ten thousand miles of railway. By 1880 the figure had doubled. During the next twenty years over thirty thousand miles were added, most of the increase being in Texas. About 1898 there opened a period of consolidation in which scores of short lines were united, mainly under the leadership of Northern capitalists, and new through service opened to the North and West. Thus Southern industries were given easy outlets to the markets of the nation and brought within the main currents of national business enterprise.

The Social Effects of the Economic Changes.—As long as the slave system lasted and planting was the major interest, the South was bound to be sectional in character. With slavery gone, crops diversified, natural resources developed, and industries promoted, the social order of the ante-bellum days inevitably dissolved; the South became more and more assimilated to the system of the North. In this process several lines of development are evident.

In the first place we see the steady rise of the small farmer. Even in the old days there had been a large class of white yeomen who owned no slaves and tilled the soil with their own hands, but they labored under severe handicaps. They found the fertile lands of the coast and river valleys nearly all monopolized by planters, and they were by the force of circumstances driven into the uplands where the soil was thin and the crops were light. Still they increased in numbers and zealously worked their freeholds.

The war proved to be their opportunity. With the break-up of the plantations, they managed to buy land more worthy of their plows. By intelligent labor and intensive cultivation they were able to restore much of the worn-out soil to its original fertility. In the meantime they rose with their prosperity in the social and political scale. It became common for the sons of white farmers to enter the professions, while their daughters went away to college and prepared for teaching. Thus a more democratic tone was given to the white society of the South. Moreover the migration to the North and West, which had formerly carried thousands of energetic sons and daughters to search for new homesteads, was materially reduced. The energy of the agricultural population went into rehabilitation.

The increase in the number of independent farmers was accompanied by the rise of small towns and villages which gave diversity to the life of the South. Before 1860 it was possible to travel through endless stretches of cotton and tobacco. The social affairs of the planter’s family centered in the homestead even if they were occasionally interrupted by trips to distant cities or abroad. Carpentry, bricklaying, and blacksmithing were usually done by slaves skilled in simple handicrafts. Supplies were bought wholesale. In this way there was little place in plantation economy for villages and towns with their stores and mechanics.

The abolition of slavery altered this. Small farms spread out where plantations had once stood. The skilled freedmen turned to agriculture rather than to handicrafts; white men of a business or mechanical bent found an opportunity to serve the needs of their communities. So local merchants and mechanics became an important element in the social system. In the county seats, once dominated by the planters, business and professional men assumed the leadership.

Another vital outcome of this revolution was the transference of a large part of planting enterprise to business. Mr. Bruce, a Southern historian of fine scholarship, has summed up this process in a single telling paragraph: “The higher planting class that under the old system gave so much distinction to rural life has, so far as it has survived at all, been concentrated in the cities. The families that in the time of slavery would have been found only in the country are now found, with a few exceptions, in the towns. The transplantation has been practically universal. The talent, the energy, the ambition that formerly sought expression in the management of great estates and the control of hosts of slaves, now seek a field of action in trade, in manufacturing enterprises, or in the general enterprises of development. This was for the ruling class of the South the natural outcome of the great economic revolution that followed the war.”

As in all other parts of the world, the mechanical revolution was attended by the growth of a population of industrial workers dependent not upon the soil but upon wages for their livelihood. When Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Southern Confederacy, there were approximately only one hundred thousand persons employed in Southern manufactures as against more than a million in Northern mills. Fifty years later, Georgia and Alabama alone had more than one hundred and fifty thousand wage-earners. Necessarily this meant also a material increase in urban population, although the wide dispersion of cotton spinning among small centers prevented the congestion that had accompanied the rise of the textile industry in New England. In 1910, New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Houston stood in the same relation to the New South that Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit had stood to the New West fifty years before. The problems of labor and capital and municipal administration, which the earlier writers boasted would never perplex the planting South, had come in full force.

Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
A Glimpse of Memphis, Tennessee

The Revolution in the Status of the Slaves.—No part of Southern society was so profoundly affected by the Civil War and economic reconstruction as the former slaves. On the day of emancipation, they stood free, but empty-handed, the owners of no tools or property, the masters of no trade and wholly inexperienced in the arts of self-help that characterized the whites in general. They had never been accustomed to looking out for themselves. The plantation bell had called them to labor and released them. Doles of food and clothing had been regularly made in given quantities. They did not understand wages, ownership, renting, contracts, mortgages, leases, bills, or accounts.

When they were emancipated, four courses were open to them. They could flee from the plantation to the nearest town or city, or to the distant North, to seek a livelihood. Thousands of them chose this way, overcrowding cities where disease mowed them down. They could remain where they, were in their cabins and work for daily wages instead of food, clothing, and shelter. This second course the major portion of them chose; but, as few masters had cash to dispense, the new relation was much like the old, in fact. It was still one of barter. The planter offered food, clothing, and shelter; the former slaves gave their labor in return. That was the best that many of them could do.

A third course open to freedmen was that of renting from the former master, paying him usually with a share of the produce of the land. This way a large number of them chose. It offered them a chance to become land owners in time and it afforded an easier life, the renter being, to a certain extent at least, master of his own hours of labor. The final and most difficult path was that to ownership of land. Many a master helped his former slaves to acquire small holdings by offering easy terms. The more enterprising and the more fortunate who started life as renters or wage-earners made their way upward to ownership in so many cases that by the end of the century, one-fourth of the colored laborers on the land owned the soil they tilled.

In the meantime, the South, though relatively poor, made relatively large expenditures for the education of the colored population. By the opening of the twentieth century, facilities were provided for more than one-half of the colored children of school age. While in many respects this progress was disappointing, its significance, to be appreciated, must be derived from a comparison with the total illiteracy which prevailed under slavery.

In spite of all that happened, however, the status of the negroes in the South continued to give a peculiar character to that section of the country. They were almost entirely excluded from the exercise of the suffrage, especially in the Far South. Special rooms were set aside for them at the railway stations and special cars on the railway lines. In the field of industry calling for technical skill, it appears, from the census figures, that they lost ground between 1890 and 1900—a condition which their friends ascribed to discriminations against them in law and in labor organizations and their critics ascribed to their lack of aptitude. Whatever may be the truth, the fact remained that at the opening of the twentieth century neither the hopes of the emancipators nor the fears of their opponents were realized. The marks of the “peculiar institution” were still largely impressed upon Southern society.

The situation, however, was by no means unchanging. On the contrary there was a decided drift in affairs. For one thing, the proportion of negroes in the South had slowly declined. By 1900 they were in a majority in only two states, South Carolina and Mississippi. In Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina the proportion of the white population was steadily growing. The colored migration northward increased while the westward movement of white farmers which characterized pioneer days declined. At the same time a part of the foreign immigration into the United States was diverted southward. As the years passed these tendencies gained momentum. The already huge colored quarters in some Northern cities were widely expanded, as whole counties in the South were stripped of their colored laborers. The race question, in its political and economic aspects, became less and less sectional, more and more national. The South was drawn into the main stream of national life. The separatist forces which produced the cataclysm of 1861 sank irresistibly into the background.


H.W. Grady, The New South (1890).

H.A. Herbert, Why the Solid South.

W.G. Brown, The Lower South.

E.G. Murphy, Problems of the Present South.

B.T. Washington, The Negro Problem; The Story of the Negro; The Future of the Negro.

A.B. Hart, The Southern South and R.S. Baker, Following the Color Line (two works by Northern writers).

T.N. Page, The Negro, the Southerner’s Problem.


1. Give the three main subdivisions of the chapter.

2. Compare the condition of the South in 1865 with that of the North. Compare with the condition of the United States at the close of the Revolutionary War. At the close of the World War in 1918.

3. Contrast the enfranchisement of the slaves with the enfranchisement of white men fifty years earlier.

4. What was the condition of the planters as compared with that of the Northern manufacturers?

5. How does money capital contribute to prosperity? Describe the plight of Southern finance.

6. Give the chief steps in the restoration of white supremacy.

7. Do you know of any other societies to compare with the Ku Klux Klan?

8. Give Lincoln’s plan for amnesty. What principles do you think should govern the granting of amnesty?

9. How were the “Force bills” overcome?

10. Compare the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments with regard to the suffrage provisions.

11. Explain how they may be circumvented.

12. Account for the Solid South. What was the situation before 1860?

13. In what ways did Southern agriculture tend to become like that of the North? What were the social results?

14. Name the chief results of an “industrial revolution” in general. In the South, in particular.

15. What courses were open to freedmen in 1865?

16. Give the main features in the economic and social status of the colored population in the South.

17. Explain why the race question is national now, rather than sectional.

Research Topics

Amnesty for Confederates.—Study carefully the provisions of the fourteenth amendment in the Appendix. Macdonald, Documentary Source Book of American History, pp. 470 and 564. A plea for amnesty in Harding, Select Orations Illustrating American History, pp. 467-488.

Political Conditions in the South in 1868.—Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic (American Nation Series), pp. 109-123; Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. IV, pp. 445-458, 497-500; Elson, History of the United States, pp. 799-805.

Movement for White Supremacy.—Dunning, Reconstruction, pp. 266-280; Paxson, The New Nation (Riverside Series), pp. 39-58; Beard, American Government and Politics, pp. 454-457.

The Withdrawal of Federal Troops from the South.—Sparks, National Development (American Nation Series), pp. 84-102; Rhodes, History of the United States, Vol. VIII, pp. 1-12.

Southern Industry.—Paxson, The New Nation, pp. 192-207; T.M. Young, The American Cotton Industry, pp. 54-99.

The Race Question.—B.T. Washington, Up From Slavery (sympathetic presentation); A.H. Stone, Studies in the American Race Problem (coldly analytical); Hart, Contemporaries, Vol. IV, pp. 647-649, 652-654, 663-669.

«·The Restoration of White Supremacy · CHAPTER XVI·»