The growing prosperity and power of the Southern elite planter system can be traced to the seventeenth century. By the time the American Revolution began, a small group of elite planters managed to consolidate their control from Virginia to the Carolinas. Much of this prosperity and power was based on the profits tied to the protected market of the British mercantile system as well as an ever-growing population of slaves. Elite planters lived better, ate better, and socialized better than their poorer counterparts, developing what historian David Hawke refers to as “opulent plantations.” According to Hawke, “The wide gap between rich and poor in the Chesapeake…had already appeared before the seventeenth century ended.”
Increasing Wealth of the Southern Planter Class
The increasing wealth of the Southern planter class coincided with the rapid growth of port cities and towns, enabling them to send raw materials to England while at the same time ordering luxury items that defined a new class of colonial American aristocrats. Writer Henry Wiencek comments that, “The pride of the planters demanded that no expense be spared to proclaim their status.”
Prior to the American Revolution, an already debt-prone George Washington, for example, ordered a new coach from England. No expense was spared on a carriage that featured only the finest trimmings and made out of the costliest materials.
At the same time, Washington was transforming Mount Vernon into an enviable estate, first with tobacco profits and later with funds from his wheat crop as well as an inheritance. Historian Ira Berlin states that, “Planters took on the airs of English gentlemen…” as they forged “seats of small empires…”
Birth of the First Families in the Pre-Revolution South
Much earlier, the diary of planter William Byrd II demonstrated a life that included civic duties and leisure. Byrd described what he ate everyday, including such selections as boiled beef, roast beef, goose, and mutton. Few poor farmers could afford to sit down at a table to the types of food mentioned by Byrd. His social pursuits, when not tending to his plantation, included much merriment and card playing. Byrd was an educated man who read Greek.
Tobacco and rice, the chief export commodities of the colonial South, received generous subsidies through the mercantile system; both were enumerated goods. Historian Oliver M. Dickerson writes that, “Next to tobacco, rice was the most important commercially grown agricultural crop of the continental colonies.” Both became the seeds of fortune that created the great plantation estates and the “First Families” that, ultimately, would rule the South politically.
Slavery Helps to Create Powerful Planter Elites in the South
Slavery, however, made the cultivation of such crops highly profitable. Elite planters possessed the financial means to purchase slaves, frequently reselling slaves to less powerful, fledgling planters. According to Berlin, “Having enslaved black people…the grandees knit themselves together through strategic marriages, carefully crafted business dealings, and elaborate rituals, creating a style of life which awed common folk, and to which lesser planters dared not aspire.”
As the political leaders, the elite planters wrote the slaves codes, beginning with the 1676 Virginia revolt led by Nathaniel Bacon. Slave codes deprived free blacks of their rights and helped to separate slaves from poor whites, many of whom began their colonial experiences as indentured servants. Slave codes were amended throughout the years, giving planters unlimited control over their slaves. Further, slavery became more advantageous as mortality rates decreased, an initial problem with the influx of Africans unaccustomed to the climate and diseases.
Permanence of the Southern Slave System
By the time of the American Revolution, Southern planters identifying with the Patriot cause were powerful enough to ensure that the Jeffersonian phrase, “all men are created equal” did not apply to people of color. After the Revolution, the same elites ensured that any hint of slave emancipation was quashed. Slavery was an integral component of the plantation system, ensuring both prosperity and political power.
The ante-bellum planter class was rooted in pre-revolutionary conditions that in large measure owed its success to the profitable British mercantile system. This emerging success, based on agricultural profits, coincided with the growing importation of slaves. By the time of the Revolution, a distinct Southern planter class formed sectional goals that would eventually conflict with the an industrializing North.
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries Of Slavery In North America (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998)
Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts And The American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951)
David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life In Early America (Harper & Row, 1988)
William A. Link and Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, The South In The History Of The Nation, Volume One (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999)
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003)