Friday, June 2, 2017

Was the South Poor Before the War?

From the Abbeville Blog:
In the academic community and among much of the general populace the tacit assumption had been for many decades that the antebellum South was, at least taken as a whole, a poor land which compared unfavorably in almost every index of material prosperity with that of the North.  After all the South lost the Civil War, and everyone knows the great predominance of the Union in population, railroad mileage, commerce, finance, and industry.  The North’s economy was-much closer to the industrial, modern system that is equated with wealth and progress than was the Souths back­ward looking agrarian economy and paternalistic social system.  Not only are there statistics to buttress these beliefs, but also eyewitness accounts of many travelers in the antebellum South. Men such as Frederick Law Olmsted described graphically the unfavorable, even wretched living conditions of many of the Southerners they met, Olmsted even asserting that nine-tenths of the neighbors of gentlemen he met “for a hundred miles around them lived in a manner which, if witnessed at the North, would have made them objects of compassion to the majority of our day-laborers.”[1]

Perhaps the most extremely denigrating view of Southern society was that painted by the British economist J.E. Carines during the Civil War in his book The Slave Power. Carines said that a small oligarchy of wealthy planters used four million slaves to rule four million wretched and debased whites, or, as they were known in the South, “white trash.”[2] While all historians conceded that there was a wealthy upper class in the South it had become commonplace—and still is to a very large extent—to view this class as quite exceptional with the great majority living a life more akin to the crude pioneer than to the wealthy aristocrat.

The very face of extreme poverty in the South after the Civil War among large numbers of both its black and white citizens has done much to bolster the belief that the antebellum South was poor, as has the relative raking of the Southern states at the bottom of almost every economic index since that great conflict.

Studies of the past few decades, however, have seriously questioned the old assumption of a markedly inferior Southern economy in the pre-war years. Frank L. Owsley was the first to establish that a large middle class existed in the antebellum South. Writers such as Phillips and Gray portrayed the slave regime of the Old South in a more sympathetic light but still saw the Southern economy as distinctively less vibrant than the Northern. Studies of regional income were among the first academic efforts to suggest Southern prosperity in the pre-war years. Richard Easterlin developed estimates of regional income for 1840, 1860, and subsequent years down to 1950. His estimates are based on commodity production and distribution for the earlier years. Those of 1840 are basically the work of Ezra C. Seaman, a Midwestern lawyer and government official, who used the 1840 census data to estimate regional income in a book first published in 1848 and revised in 1852.[3] (Read more.)

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