"Why A Plantation?"
|William Aiken Walker, The Sunny South, 1881.|
Photograph courtesy of Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. Spartanburg, SC.
Plantations were southern farms that were usually dedicated to the production of one crop and that usually
relied on the labor of at least twenty slaves. The planters who
owned these estates often viewed them as extended households in
which the master was responsible for the well-being of all who
lived there. This perspective is called paternalism because the
planter acted like the parent and treated the workers like children.
However, it is unlikely that most slaves shared this perspective.
They knew that plantations were not households and they were
not children. Regardless of the rhetoric of paternalism, plantations
were large scale commercial enterprises that were run for a profit.
Planters thus differed from other southern farmers (who may have
even owned a few slaves) because they participated in a market
economy. This means that they produced a crop for sale rather
than for their own use. They thus engaged in a certain amount
of economic risk taking because, if no one bought their crops,
they couldn't eat their products in order to survive.
|Cotton Gin, 1793.|
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.
The invention of the saw gin was only
one of the technological innovations which propelled the growth
of cotton as a cash crop. The other important technological innovations
came with the invention of machinery for the manufacture of cloth
in England (and eventually the United States) that created a growing
demand for cotton. However, while these technological developments
were crucial in the growth of cotton as a cash crop, cotton production
was an agricultural commodity, and made money only when plantation
owners could put more workers in the field, rather than buy more
machines. From an investor's point of view, slaves were a capital
investment, comparable to the machinery a northern factory owner
Because cotton was an agricultural product
rather than an industrial product, the work involved in its production
changed with the seasons: from plowing and planting in the spring
to harvesting in the fall. Thus technology did not alter the
seasonal nature of slave work rhythms. On the other hand, cotton
was not an agricultural product that required skilled labor for
its production. Slaves did not work on their own, completing
specialized, skilled tasks (as they did with the production of
rice, for example). Cotton could be - and often was - cultivated
by gangs of slaves working side by side. They were supervised
by an overseer and subject to strict rules of discipline. In
this respect, the growing of cotton on plantations in the South
resembled the spinning and weaving of cotton in factories of the
|FromThe Progress of Cotton, 1835-40.|
Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.
However, what distinguished southern plantations
from northern factories more than anything else was the use of
slave labor. Slaves had been used to garner huge profits for
tobacco planters since the 17th century and were critical
to the rice cultivation which developed in the 18th century.
The growth of cotton as a cash crop in the 19th century
meant the growth of slavery throughout the South. As the number
of slaves grew in the South, planters defended their labor system
by claiming that African Americans were an inferior race incapable
of working independently or of taking care of themselves.
Many Europeans had come to the New World
with racist ideas about Africans - stereotyping them as sexually
promiscuous and savage. These attitudes expanded and flourished
with the growth of slavery in the South. Whites commonly described
African Americans as naturally docile and lazy, deceitful and
foolish, childlike and incompetent. This view of African Americans
as inferior - more like apes than humans - was reinforced by the
legal definition of slaves which made them property.
Planters argued that slaves were well cared
for on plantations: fed, clothed, housed, and protected, in return
for their work. Planters went on to argue that they thus took
more responsibility for the well being of their workforce than
northern manufacturers did for theirs, and that slaves were therefore
better off than northern workers. While the criticism of northern
factories is well taken, the physical brutality that many slaves
experienced at the hands of masters, mistresses, and overseers,
belies any claims to paternal protection. Moreover, slaves made
it clear in numerous ways that they were dissatisfied with the
plantation system. In a few cases they staged rebellions involving
slaves from several plantations. More frequently they engaged
in individual acts of resistance such as running away or working
more slowly than masters and overseers demanded. And while planters
may have claimed that their plantations were extensions of one
large family, slaves went to great lengths to establish their
own families independent of planter control.
Thus plantations were created to make a
profit for the owners before technology made cotton a cash crop
and before slavery was the only labor system. But plantations
were adapted to produce cotton in the 19th century and by
then they only employed slaves. Planters became wealthy by exploiting
the labor of men and women who could not choose another way of
life, and by promoting the idea that whites were superior to blacks.
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Last Revision: 6/5/98