While the North and West experienced dramatic social and economic change, the South remained relatively unchanged between 1820 and 1860 because of the region’s reliance on cotton production. After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton production proved so profitable that by 1860, the South was producing 75 percent of the cotton supply used in British textile factories.
As the North became increasingly democratic, the South continued to adhere to the old, almost feudal social order. At the top were a select few, extremely wealthy, white plantation owners who controlled the southern legislatures and represented the South in Congress. Then came the farmers who owned one or two slaves, followed by the poor and sometimes landless whites. Black slaves were confined to the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Though slaves did the bulk of the manual labor on the largest cotton plantations, not all whites owned slaves. In fact, only about one in four southern males owned slaves in the 1850s, and those men usually owned only one or two slaves. Most southern whites were poor subsistence farmers who grew food only for their own use.
Despite the rampant poverty and social inequity, the vast majority of southern whites believed firmly in the superiority of their social system. Ironically, the poorest whites often were the most ardent supporters of slavery, because they dreamed of becoming rich planters with slaves of their own.
Slaveholders attempted to justify slavery in many ways. Some championed the “paternal” nature of slavery by arguing that they took care of the “inferior race” as fathers would small children. Others told themselves that blacks were better off as slaves in America than as “savages” in Africa. More often, however, defensive slave owners pointed accusing fingers at the North, claiming that the impersonal industrial system in the North was based on “wage slavery.”
As time passed and the rapidly changing society in the North outpaced the sluggish South, Americans in the North and South began to see themselves as two very different peoples. While the North underwent major social and economic changes during the antebellum period, the South generally clung to King Cotton and slavery and thus remained essentially the same. These differences drove the regions further and further apart in the years leading up to the Civil War.