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The plantation-era South saw large expansions in agriculture while manufacturing growth remained relatively slow. The southern economy was characterized by a low level of capital accumulation (largely labor-based) and a shortage of liquid capital, which, when aggravated by the need to concentrate on a few staples, the pervasive anti-industrial, and anti-urban ideology, and the reduction of southern banking, led to a South dependent on export trade. In contrast to the economies of the North and West, which relied primarily on their own domestic markets, because the southern domestic market consisted primarily of plantations, southern states imported sustenance commodities from the West and manufactured goods from the North. This imbalance of imports and exports has been seen as an economic exploitation of the exporting South where the antebellum economic growth of the North came at the expense of the South.
The plantation system can be seen as the factory system applied to agriculture, with a concentration of labor under skilled management. But while the industrial manufacturing-based labor economy of the North was driven by growing demand, maintenance of the plantation economic system depended upon usage of crude labor that was both abundant and cheap.
The five major commodities of the southern agricultural economy were cotton, grain, tobacco, sugar, and rice, with the production of the leading cash crop, cotton, concentrated in the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana).
The leading historian of the era was Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who studied slavery not so much as a political issue between North and South but as a social and economic system. He focused on the large plantations that dominated the South.
Phillips addressed the unprofitability of slave labor and slavery's ill effects on the southern economy. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods inspired the "Phillips school" of slavery studies between 1900 and 1950.
Phillips argued that large-scale plantation slavery was inefficient and not progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power. "Most farmers in the South had small- to medium-sized farms with few slaves, but the large plantation owner’s wealth, often reflected in the number of slaves they owned, afforded them considerable prestige and political power."
Phillips erroneously contended that masters treated slaves relatively well; his views on that issue were later sharply rejected by Kenneth M. Stampp. His conclusions about the economic decline of slavery were challenged in 1958 by Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer in a landmark study published in the Journal of Political Economy. Their arguments were further developed by Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, who argued in their 1974 book, Time on the Cross, that slavery was both efficient and profitable, as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn, Fogel and Engerman came under attack from other historians of slavery.
As slavery began to displace indentured servitude as the principal supply of labor in the plantation systems of the South, the economic nature of the institution of slavery aided in the increased inequality of wealth seen in the antebellum South. The demand for slave labor and the U.S. ban on importing more slaves from Africa drove up prices for slaves, making it profitable for smaller farmers in older settled areas such as Virginia to sell their slaves further south and west. The actuarial risk, or the potential loss in investment of owning slaves from death, disability, etc. was much greater for small plantation owners. Accentuated by the rise of price in slaves seen just prior to the Civil War, the overall costs associated with owning slaves to the individual plantation owner led to the concentration of slave ownership seen at the eve of the Civil War.
Much of the antebellum South was rural and, in line with the plantation system, largely agricultural. With the exception of New Orleans and Baltimore, the slave states had no large cities, and the urban population of the South could not compare to that of the Northeast or even that of the agrarian West. This led to a sharp division in class in the southern states between the landowning, "master" class, poor whites, and slaves, while in the northern and western states, much of the social spectrum was dominated by a wide range of different laboring classes.
The conclusion that, while both the North and the South were characterized by a high degree of inequality during the plantation era, the wealth distribution was much more unequal in the South than in the North arises from studies concerned with the equality of land, slave, and wealth distribution. For example, in certain states and counties, due to the concentration of landholding and slave holding, which were highly correlated, six percent of landowners ended up commanding one-third of the gross income and an even higher portion of the net income. The majority of landowners, who had smaller scale plantations, saw a disproportionately small portion in revenues generated by the slavery-driven plantation system.
While the two largest classes in the South included land- and slave-owners and slaves, various strata of social classes existed within and between the two. In examining class relations and the banking system in the South, the economic exploitation of slave labor can be seen to arise from a need to maintain certain conditions for the existence of slavery and from a need for each of the remaining social strata to remain in status quo. In order to meet conditions where slavery may continue to exist, members of the master class (e.g. white, landowning, slave-owning) had to compete with other members of the master class to maximize the surplus labor extracted from slaves. Likewise, in order to remain within the same class, members of the master class (and each subsumed class below) must expand their claim on revenues derived from the slave labor surplus.
British mercantilist ideology largely explains the rise of the plantation system in the United States. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under mercantilism, rulers of nations believed that the accumulation of wealth through a favorable balance of trade was the best way to ensure power. As a result, Britain began to colonize territories across the Atlantic to take advantage of their rich natural resources and encourage exports.
One example of Britain utilizing the colonies for economic gain was tobacco. When tobacco was first discovered as a recreational substance, there was a widespread social backlash in mainland England, spearheaded by King James himself. By the middle of the 17th century, however, the British government had realized the revenue potential of tobacco and quickly changed its official moral stance towards its use. As a result, tobacco plantations sprung up across the American South in large numbers to support European demand. Britain benefitted from the immense volume of tobacco that colonial plantations could produce. By 1670, more than half of all tobacco shipped to England was being re-exported to other countries throughout Europe at a premium. In similar ways Britain was able to profit from other American staple crops, such as cotton, rice, and indigo. As Russell Menard puts it, Britain's capitalizing on increased European demand for these crops "fueled the expansion of the American plantation colonies, transformed the Atlantic into an English inland sea, and led to the creation of the first British Empire."
This mercantilist approach to colonization was not as exploitative as it may seem at first glance. Many claim that being a part of the British mercantilist system was in the best economic interest of the colonies as well, as they would not have been able to survive as independent economic entities. Robert Haywood, in his article "Mercantilism and South Carolina Agriculture, 1700-1763", argues that "it was unthinkable that any trade could prosper in the straight-jacket of regimented and restricted international trade, without the guiding hand of a powerful protecting government."
The plantation era, while it was in large part the source of the South's initial economic prosperity, was also the reason why the South lagged in productivity starting in the early- to mid-19th century. Because the plantation system mainly required a large volume of unskilled labor, the South did not have the human capital to succeed when the plantation era was over. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips contends that the plantation "sadly restricted the opportunity of such men as were of better industrial quality than was required for the field gangs." Essentially, men who would have been otherwise capable of performing other skilled jobs were nonetheless relegated to field work because of the nature of the system.
According to the Goldin–Sokoloff hypothesis, in the South, the relative productivity of women and children was higher than in the North, since the relative abilities of a man, woman, or child to pick cotton or harvest tobacco are nearly the same. In the North, however, since the relative productivity of women and children was much lower, factory jobs became attractive, and there arose an abundant supply of labor to fuel the industrial boom. As a result of the misallocation of labor in the South, the system "hindered all diversification in southern industry, and kept the whole community in a state of commercial dependence upon the North."