Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

A WHITE MAN'S REPUBLIC
IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH

The United States doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, adding to the vast expanses gained in the trans-Appalachian West in the late eighteenth century, but this was hardly unoccupied land. The Mississippi Territory, organised in 1798, was home to the Choctaw and Chickasaw, while the Seminoles were a powerful presence in Florida. Moreover, large parts of Georgia remained occupied by the Cherokee and the Creek. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, Native Americans faced a mounting challenge as settlers pushed both westward towards the Mississippi River and southward towards the Gulf Coast. This movement and the creation of new states along the Gulf Coast would ultimately result in the tragic forced expulsion of Native Americans. Settlers, including ordinary whites and slaveholders, as well as slaves migrating with their owners or sold via the internal slave trade, quickly moved into the prime cotton land of the Black Belt. The emergence of the cotton kingdom was extremely significant to the development of the South. This region became the heart of what scholars call the Old South but, with the exception of long-established French and Spanish settlements, was barely two generations old by 1860.

As Native Americans were pushed out and the contours of the present-day South took shape, the centrality of whiteness to southern society was not only confirmed but seemingly became enshrined. The process of westward expansion was intrinsically linked to debates about the racial and cultural superiority of American civilisation. New states opening in the Southwest wrote constitutions based on the democratic principles of universal white male suffrage and the election of political offices. Underpinning white political rights was a powerful pro-slavery argument, drawing on the latest scientific research, asserting that all white men were equal in their superiority over blacks. In these changing circumstances, status differences between whites, blacks and reds (as Native Americans were now known) became more rigidly defined and widely interpreted as natural and irrevocable racial differences.

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