value; if one did not own slaves, it was increasingly difficult to get one's foot on the first rung of the slaveholding ladder. (There is a modern parallel in the increasing property value for the homeowner in a rising real estate market and the obstacles facing the first-time buyer in his or her attempt to break into that market.) In the slave South, such a situation brought political and social as well as economic anxieties. James Oakes stresses that "it was the promise as much as the reality of upward mobility that traditionally sustained the dreams of many nonslaveholding whites." He quotes the somewhat melodramatic warning of one slaveholder that "the minute you put it out of the power of common farmers to purchase a negro man or woman to help him on his farm, or his wife in the house, you make him an abolitionist at once."40 Ironically, it was the success of the Southern slave economy in the 1850s which put the price of slaves beyond the reach of many farmers, and therefore denied them a share in the profits of the system.
Whatever the external pressures and the internal tensions, and whatever the calculations of profit and loss, there was little immediate sign of slavery losing or even loosening its grip. Slaveholders, and most nonslaveholders too, adhered to slavery above all because it was there, and they dreaded the consequences of its demise. "We were born under the institution and cannot now change or abolish it," said a Mississippi planter. He would have preferred to be "exterminated" rather than be forced to live in the same society as the freed slaves.41 Behind considerations of efficiency and profitability lay something much deeper still. Slave and master were locked together in a system which the one could not escape and the other would not abandon.