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CHAPTER 11 - The Peculiar Institution

The North and South differed in many ways, but none proved more significant than the South's
staple crop economy and the labor force that worked it. Cotton (and in some areas tobacco, rice, and
sugar) created a system of business and commerce that made Dixie different from the rest of the nation,
and the most obvious difference was the region's reliance on slavery. More than an economic system,
slavery was a critical, creative force in a social order that included planters, their ladies, plain folk (men
and women), and, of course, the slaves themselves. The result was a complex society that has often been
romanticized and frequently misunderstood. Bound together by race and by a firm belief in a patriarchal,
hierarchical system, whites of different classes and genders shared many of the same beliefs and wanted
many of the same things. At the same time, there were significant differences among members of the
white community, differences which were not always apparent to the casual observer. African Americans,
also united by race and in most cases by slavery, found a variety of ways to maintain their dignity and, in
so doing, managed to create an enduring cultural system that transcended their condition and enabled
them to endure the hardships they faced.
This chapter concentrates on the history of slavery in the Old South, roughly between 1800 and
1860. The chapter begins by discussing the economic dominance of cotton in the South and how the
northern and international textile industry depended on the raw material. As the North industrialized, the
Souths economy rested overwhelmingly on the cash crop of cotton. Next, the chapter describes different
classes of southern whites and seeks to explain why non-slaveholding whites supported the institution of
slavery. The various proslavery arguments are explained, illustrating how the definition of freedom was
bent to justify the peculiar institution. Slave masters had a variety of tools from which to pick in order
to maintain order with the slaves. One of the Voices of Freedom pieces highlights a set of rules for
slave behavior written by a Louisiana master. Physical violence was the most dramatic way of
disciplining slaves, but the threat of sale was the most effective. The chapter next considers slave society
and culture, with emphasis on slaves efforts to maintain some form of autonomy via family life, folklore,
and religion. Slave culture also cultivated a strong will for freedom. This section also examines free
blacks in the slave South. The chapter concludes with a look at various forms of slave resistance, from
silent sabotage to full-scale rebellions. One form of resistance, running away, is highlighted in the
Voices of Freedom piece by Joseph Taper, who escaped from Virginia to Canada.


Points for Discussion
How did the North and South differ from each other? How was slavery the fundamental reason for these
differences? How did each region benefit from the other?
What roles did families and religion play in the lives of slaves? How did family, gender, religion and
values combine to create distinct slave cultures in the Old South?
How did slave owners justify and defend slavery? How have arguments about slavery evolved since the
Founding generation?
Slaves did not just capitulate to their situation. What were the major forms of resistance to slavery?
Which ones were most common, most effective and most demonstrative?
Why did the plain folk continue to support the slave system?
How important was slavery to the national economy and the emergence of the US as a great power?
How did slavery shape social and economic relations within the Old South?
What were the legal constraints on slaves lives and work?

Key Terms
King Cotton Deep South Amistad slaveocracy
Cavalier Myth Sambo Plain folk Underground Railroad
Gang/Task Systems Peculiar Institution Gabriel Prosser Slave codes
Denmark Vesey Nat Turner Task System Code of Honor
Lords of the Loom and Lords of the Lash Paternalism Harriet Tubman