Southern Social Classes Introduction

Though implications were being made years before, by the 1850's, the divide in American society had become evident. Northern industry was not as dependent on the slave labor as the southern agriculture. Clearly, slavery was becoming the foremost issue as the nation progressed into the latter half of the 19th century. The issue of abolition was polarizing the North and South. The Southern social structure began to develop quite differently from their more modern countrymen to the north. This structure showed the problematic situation arising in the south and highlighted the growing seperation between the north and south . A significant stratification in their social classes would come to define them as a region and as a people in the years to come. Among these social classes were the plantation owners, the plain folk, and the southern ladies.

The Planter external image CottonPlantation.jpg

The combination of land and slave labor enabled the southern aristocracy to become hugely successful producers of crops (tobacco, rice, cotton, sugar) in their areas. They exercised almost complete control of every facet of southern life. Though they controlled the economic, political and social pillars of southern society, the wealthy planter class still had to minimize the risks of running a profitable plantation through intelligent supervision. Their privileged way of life also included a component of struggle,necessary for the wealthy to create a and maintain a successful plantation. They had to move frequently in order to cultivate new lands, with much of their profits flowing directly into the new plantation and leaving little extra money for personal amusement.
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Owning nearly one thousand acres of land each, run by dozens of slaves, the southern elite liked to compare themselves to the European upper class. However, most of the wealthy in the south were new up-and-coming settlers who struggled with modest resources to make a name for themselves. Also, for the most part, they did not enjoy a life of luxury, instead enduring fierce competition comparable to the capitalism taking place with the Northern industrialists at the time.

The planter aristocracy created a high image of themselves, steering away from the crude connotation implied in fields like commerce and trade. Instead they chose more cultured living stylesthat were viewed more suitable for men of their stature. Thus a life in the military was often chosen by the aristocrats, because it created a powerful image for these prominent figures. But what truly defined an affluent, learned aristocrat was his sense of honor. Southern males made sure to express themselves politely, acting courteous towards his fellow man, and showing respect towards others. Disrespect to this system has been known to spark a violent response its practitioners. To add to this sense of bravery, the landed aristocracy portrayed themselves publically as dignified men deserving of respect, and any challenge to said manhood brought social ostracization or a duel.

Southern Lady

By the 1850's another social class was forming in the new United States, the southern lady. Typically affluent women of the south made their livings as homemakers, appeasing their husbands and nurturing their children. In opposition to the Northern external image Fine_Southern_Lady.gifwomen of the time, southern ladies were more confined to the household, rarely leaving their homes or providing income. In the patriarchal structure of the time, men were the defenders of their women, effectively reducing them to an even more subordinate status then the already held, while men continued to exercise strong dominance.

Socially, the majority of women were isolated to farms, socializing with few outside of their own families, thus limited to the exciting careers of subservient wife, or caring mother. Women and children of the south were controlled by men, but life on a farm meant a fuller engagement in the economic life of the family. Southern women were thus allowed to give a hand in agricultural labor, spin and weave textiles, and even supervise their slaves. This was not always the case though, many women, mostly on larger plantations, became "plantation mistresses", meaning she was basically an inactive member of society, and an ornament to her man.

Also, southern women receieved a very poor education in comparison to their northern counterparts. 25% of all women over twenty living in this area atexternal image 6706paula-deen.jpg the time, and men showed little concern in giving them their proper education. Academies of the time focused on teaching women their vital role in society, being a suitable wife.

Southern women were also forced to carry a few unique burdens,that were by no means easy or enjoyable. They would give birth to their children to see nearly half them die before reaching the tender age of five. Plantation working slaves carried some of the burden of white female physical labor, but they also posed a persistent threat to southern women's marital and relationship status (because men frequently porked their female slaves, birthing bastard slave children).

In some unique cases southern white women became agitated with their monotonous lives, and therefore joining the abolitionist movement or other Southern reform and suffrage causes. For the most part though, women lived under the delusion that they were beneficial members to sociey, defending the virtues of their southern lifestyle. Living surpressed lives, the typical southern lady was restricted by the patriarchy, and denied the opportunistic lifestyles seen in the North. The concept of a southern lady still carries a negative connotation to this day.

"Women, like children, have but one right, and that is the right to protection. The right to protection involves the obligation to obey."
-George Fitzhugh, important southern social theorist of the 1850's

Plain Folk

Typically, white southerners were humble farmers, commonly referred to as plain folk. These people owned little to no slaves, ran small plantations, who worked close to each other in comparison to larger plantations. Mostly, plain folk worked on substance farming, very few growing cash crops to make cotton because it turned little profit. Often times these people could not produce enough sustinance to get out of debt, knowing that their opportunity for advancement was unlikely, rarely ever excelling to the ranks of the planter elite.
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Pexternal image NIAPLogo2.giflain folk the most part, were very poor and greatly limited by their inability to receive a proper education. Of the 25,000 student enrolled in the 260 college universities all of them were members of the upper class elite. With inferior schooling in comparison to the North, nearly 500,000 illiterate whites, half of the country's population.

Plain folk seemed to have drawn the short stick in terms of equality and economic prosperity in the south, but still, few rebelled. One case of rebellion involved the Appalachian "hill people" of the Ozarks west of the Mississippi. They were basically isolated from the rest of society and proud of it, secluded from the new commercial economy, producing no surplus, gaining no real currency, relying primarily on bartering, but exercising great individual freedom and patriotism thus standing as strong opposers to the growing issue of southern slavery. These individuals were defiuant to southern sectional conformity, who eventually resisted secession, going as far as to fight for the Union to spite the Confederacy.external image American_Gothic.jpg

Because most plain folk were involved in the plantation system, class tensions on the south were avoided. These small farmers were largely dependent on the plantation aristocracy because they provided them with access to advanced farming tools, upper level markets, and were often closely related to each other. Meaning the upper and lower classes were kin. Small plain folk farmers felt strong ties to their land and the democratic structure that they participated in. And with the boom of cotton economy many plain folk had the opportunity to expand their horizons, developing a sense of security, independence and regional loyalty to their southern homes. Plain folk never really rebelled because they had no strength to protest. Plain folk could always fall back on their racial ties, knowing that they were superior to the black people, feeling a bond with all white society, a unchallenged supremacy.

Family life of the plain folk was characterized by a strong patriarchy, believing it would support stability and ensure order in the household. These gender relations made children and women subservient to their male masters.

Commonly referred to as "crackers," "sand hillers," or "poor white trash" their was a faction of the plain folk who refused the plantation economy, but tolerated the social premises that seemed to degrade them. Living in squalor, forming a branch of society below the lower class. Their living conditions have been described as worse than slavery, even going as far as to eat clay for sustinence.