The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century

The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century

The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century

The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

The impact of cotton and slavery in the nineteenth century American South was so dramatic and enduring that neither the region nor the nation has yet escaped from the influence of that era of regional prominence.

Excerpt

The American South has largely severed its ties to cotton during its twentieth-century economic and political resurgence, but neither the region nor the nation has yet escaped from the influence of an earlier era of regional prominence dominated by King Cotton. Much of Southern economic history in recent decades has been an undoing of the patterns of demographic location and economic activity that emerged in the nineteenth century and persisted into the twentieth. Even as Southern homogeneity and distinctiveness have faded, however, it remains true that the least affluent Americans are disproportionately Southerners, former Southerners, and their children, black and white. If the South was the nation's number one economic problem in the 1930s, as Roosevelt said, then the nation's quite different economic problems of the 1970s continue to have a Southern tinge. For these reasons it is worth our while to try to understand the historical background, the origins of the economic structure and institutions of the Cotton South, and the ways in which they evolved and changed over the course of the nineteenth century.

The chapters that follow represent the culmination of an intellectual odyssey that has spanned more than a decade. My interest in the Southern economy goes back to my experience in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. I was eager to accept the opportunity to return to North Carolina in the summer of 1966 as a research assistant on a project directed by Professors Robert Gallman of the University of North Carolina and William N. Parker, my teacher at Yale. The central purpose of that study was to measure the degree of self-sufficiency of the antebellum cotton economy, as a test of Douglass North's hypothesis which . . .

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