Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

SYSTEMATISING SLAVERY:
THE MAKING OF THE PLANTATION
SYSTEM IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

The eighteenth century proved a critical period in the evolution of slavery and race in the American South. The trajectory of the southern colonies was far from certain at its beginning, but became much clearer after the split from Great Britain in 1776 and the subsequent formation of the United States. Slavery grew in size and importance in the South throughout the 1700s, creating two mature slave societies based on different crops: tobacco in the Upper South and rice in the Lower South. During this period, the need for white unity increased as African slaves formed a much greater proportion of the population. Blackness became ever more firmly associated with a servile status, while whiteness, at least for men, granted some form of political inclusion - white males could vote, but most political offices were limited to those with substantial property. Class tensions did not go away, however, and a tight-knit Virginia planter elite emerged in the first half of the century, living sometimes uneasily alongside their less affluent neighbours. As slaves arrived in ever greater numbers, and numbers of indentured servants decreased, the demographic dynamics of the Chesapeake changed decisively. This was a society in flux, despite the stability of the staple crop tobacco.

The rapid growth of a second major English colony at the turn of the century did much to protect British interests in North America from colonial rivals Spain and France and ensure slavery's entrenchment in the South. Carolina was divided into northern and southern sections and Charles Town held the key to its future success, although in 1700 this settlement was threatened by Native Americans to the west and the Spanish to the south. Georgia was founded in the 1730s primarily to provide a buffer against Spanish incursions from Florida, and not until mid-century were slaves permitted. After that, slavery quickly became the principal labour system as Georgia essentially became an extension of South Carolinian society. Plantation slavery, organised on a much larger scale than in the Chesapeake, was concentrated in the Lowcountry, a slim strip of land about fifty miles wide stretching

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