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The Old South and the Second Awakening Essay

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Updated: Dec 13th, 2021

In the time of the Second Awakening, America’s south was a place of turmoil and uncertainty. Class conflict, old traditions and economic uncertainty are three main areas covered in chapter 13. By reading the case studies and first hand accounts these three topics are seen to often overlap and create reactions felt through the other two. All three categories combined to create what is now referred to as the “Old South” (1820 through 1860). The pressure from changing times evolved the Old South quickly escalating into a tempest, later known as the Civil War.

Economic potential was limited for Southerners. Most of the economic potential lay in some sort of agriculture. Crops that sold well in the South included sugar, rice and wheat. However, there was one cash crop that profited more than others, cotton. The South lacked the big industries and sea boards that Northern states accessed; mixed with the lack of population and big city growth as seen in the rest of the nation, cotton soon became the South’s main production. Cotton was ideal for farmers and plantation owners since it did not require that new lands be continually purchased from soil depletion as other cash crops needed.

Lacking in industry and manufacturing, those who could afford to run a cotton field quickly grabbed lands previously inhabited by local Indian tribes to try their hand in the “Cotton Kingdom.” The South quickly became a global producer for cotton supplying not only the North, but most of Europe with the product.

To keep their “kingdom” secure, Southerners needed people to work the cotton fields, and with no massive populations, like those in the Northern cities, Southern white plantation owners turned to slaves as a workforce. The Old South was one of the last regions to continue in the slave trade, despite numerous previous attempts to end the practice. Northern states had previously banned bringing new slaves in for their states, but never made serious attempts to stop the trade in Southern lands until the early 1820s. Northern states and European countries who had also banned the practice gave little thought to condemning the practice of enslaving Africans by the South, yet never hesitated to continue the purchase of cotton imports. Most large slave plantations were located in western and southern areas, some which had previously been inhabited by local Native Indian tribes, before they were removed. As additional lands became available southern families tried their hand in the cotton fortune.

While the population of slaves grew, not many other areas in the South experienced the same increase. Cities and population growth was limited. Those who did not partake in the cotton industry chose other forms of agriculture. This required obtaining new land often as other cash crops, such as sugar, needed new land frequently to be replanted having exhausted the soil being used initially.

The class system in the Old South was comprised of several levels in a pyramid represented structure. At the very top in a large minority were the white plantation owners. Only one white Southerner in four was part of this elite group. To qualify as higher class qualifications included: being male, owning a plantation, or some other valuable business, and generally owning more than 50 slaves. Of all the white southerners only one in four actually achieved this status. These are the slave masters so generally referred to of the Old South.

Most white southerners never saw the beautiful plantation society of places such as Tidedale. (Davidson, DeLay, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff 322 ) The tier below the top of the pyramid belonged to a larger class of land owning whites with less income and influence. These were independent farmers who worked the land with their families, and generally owned smaller farms. Commonly refereed to as yeoman farmers, this was the “middle class of the South.”(Davidson, DeLay, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff 327) The institution of slavery hurt this group as it made production cheaper and forced yeoman farmers to compete with mass production and less costs. However, these yeoman farmers still supported slavery mainly out of racism and fear that emancipation would cause a rise up against all whites from former slaves.

The bottom of the white portion of population was the working poor white. These southerners frequently had as little or less than an actual slave and often worked along side slaves in the fields of wealthier plantation owners. These people never owned much land, if any and varied from the yeoman farmers as they were never as prosperous. Their greatest achievements in life were often becoming a manager for a large plantation owner. Frequently, resentment for their place in society lead to aggressive behaviors against the black slave men and women working aside them in the field. This paired with extreme racism fulled their opposition to emancipation.

Second from the bottom were freed blacks. To obtain status as a free black man documentation needed to be present at all times with the individual. Harassed and often captured for suspicion of being a run-away slave, free blacks generally moved to cities or closer to Northern borders in hopes of finding employment and safety through numbers.(Davidson, DeLay, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff 336) Jobs were scarce and limited. Laws were enacted to ensure that these people (the largest urban population in the South) would not succeed and remained poor.

At the very bottom, with the largest numbers, were the enslaved black population. This group was composed of house slaves, those in charge of duties from cooking to sewing and nursing and field slaves, who spent their days in the fields and often lived in small enclosures with other slave families and shared living supplies. Most worked very long hours, had little to no freedoms of any aspect in life and were subject to whipping or other cruel punishments. Although the numbers of infant mortality and life expectancy were worse than their white counter parts, slaves still dominated the population. They were a needed to produce the goods the economy relied on.

Despite the horrific living conditions and hard life, slaves often found ways to relieve the pressure of captivity by forming a unique culture of their own. Songs, a sense of family, folk tales and their own branch of Christianity helped lift the sadness they felt and also served as a way to teach the younger generations about family history and how to get by with minimal problems.(Davidson, DeLay, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff 350) Every so often a group of slaves would rise up and rebel against their owners. The most famous of these was Nat Turners rebellion in 1831.(Davidson, DeLay, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff 350) Nat and a group of other slaves turned on his masters and several other members of the community, killing men women and children. Eventually Nat and all of his followers were captured, many sentenced to death.

Rebellions like that of Nat Turner made some states rethink the issue of slavery. In this particular case Virginia looked into overturning slavery completely in the state, but at the final vote, the majority opted not to end it. As long as it was still legal, the south would continue to utilize the system of slavery to produce goods and boost the economy.

The South held tight to its beliefs that America was a democracy and in that democracy white skinned people were the elite beings. With these firmly held values southern politicians used smear campaigns accusing other politicians of being abolitionists in National elections. Founding fathers, judges, preachers and other southern men, such as Jefferson, wrote out about the need for slavery and firmly believed that blacks could not function without the guidance given by a white owner. While the final ideas and suggestions on what to do about the enslaved people varied greatly by author, yet none felt the practice should be eliminated completely. By 1830 the South’s identity was firmly intact as a land of slave holding, upper class whites who wanted their white based democracy rights intact. Holding their values tightly, the issue of slavery would not be resolved until after the bloodiest war in America, the Civil War.

Works Cited

Davidson, James, Brian DeLay, Christine Heyrman, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff. US. 5th. 1&2. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2009. Print.

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