History of the United States: Social Conflict and Ideological Tensions in pre-Colonial America—Part 4 The Deep South

This is a summary of the first lecture of seventy in the course on the History of the United States by The Teaching Company.   This is the 1st edition which is currently out of print, but for those who are interested in purchasing the current 2nd edition of this course and listening to the complete lecture series, please go to www.thegreatcourses.com.

This first lecture is given by Dr. Darren Staloff, Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.    I split up the lecture into four separate posts, each on one of the four regional cultural zones in early America; this is the fourth post, on the culture of the Deep South.   The fifth and final post will be on the political and ideological conflicts that occurred throughout the early American period.   

iv. The Deep South

a. Slavery

Unique among all of the North American culture zones, it was not settled from Europe or from England. Rather, it was settled from the West Indies, particularly from Barbados. For most of the early American period, South Carolina, the Cape Fear region, and the low country of Georgia resembled the West Indies far more than the rest of North America. We can see this in the initial orientation of the economy. Slavery, although it emerged in Virginia by 1619, is not a significant factor in the economy until well into the 17th century and 18th century.

From the very outset, on the other hand, South Carolina is a significant source of slavery. Its economy is initially directed towards the West Indies. It produces livestock, wood for barrels and hogsheads, and grain for the West Indies because it’s so profitable to produce sugar there that it makes no sense to produce food.

Then in the 18th century, they end up producing their own staples, the two great staples of indigo and rice. That had a profound impact on transforming the nature of slavery in South Carolina, but nonetheless there is one distinctive feature from the outset. In Virginia, in the Chesapeake, and even in the North, it takes some time to establish a slave code, to establish legitimation for slavery. An important issue in every case is what happens when a slave converts to Christianity: is it ideologically acceptable and legally acceptable to enslave a Christian? South Carolinians don’t even raise the question. It’s not an issue for them. Uniquely among the North American colonies, the Deep South treats slavery as a natural relation, as a natural institution, and an unquestioned basis for the social order.

This will become significant in the 19th century. Even when the Virginians defend slavery, they do so on the assumption that it is a necessary evil; South Carolinians describe slavery as a positive good. Virginians say they must have slavery to produce their goods, and in order to ensure some sort of reasonable race relations that won’t become genocidal. South Carolinians say slavery is the natural way of organizing their society, and it’s good for the slaves.

b. Society

As you can imagine, Low Country society was even more hierarchical than that of tidewater Chesapeake. Indeed, one of the distinctive features that distinguished it from the Chesapeake was the fact that the Low Country was such a hot, humid, malarial swamp that during the summer, the planters would all remove to Charleston and create a fairly intimate community and transmit and integrate their hierarchical mores of mastery. One of the distinctive features of South Carolina that makes it quite similar to the West Indies is that it is the only part of North America that has absentee landlords, a feature which it shares with Jamaica, Barbados, and other colonies in the West Indies.

v. Conclusion—Four Regional Cultures

What we see are not only four distinct regional cultures in the early American period, but regional cultures that will persist thereafter, whose political realities will remain distinct well into the 19th century. Much of subsequent settlement will follow isothermic lines, which means that people will move to areas that are geographically and climactically quite similar to where they came from or settled. So New Englanders will settle much of upstate New York and the Northern Midwest; the evidence of that can be found in the religious devotionalism of that region, often known as “The Burned Over District” because of all the revivals and awakenings that took place there. Settlers from the Middle Colonies will move west into Southern Midwest and Central Midwest, people from the Chesapeake will move into Kentucky and Tennessee, and the people from the people from the Deep South will move into what will be subsequently known as the Black Belt or the Cotton Kingdom.

So these regional cultures will be replicated, and to some extent they persist even to this day.

The fifth and final post in this series will deal to developments of political life of early America, which was characterized by a variety of different societal and ideological tensions.


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