The Road to Secession

Agriculture in Antebellum North Carolina

Despite growth in manufacturing and industry, North Carolina's economy was still based on agriculture. By the 1850s, North Carolina had developed two main cash crops, tobacco and cotton.

North Carolina never developed an extensive plantation system. In 1860, more than two-thirds of the farms in the state contained fewer than one hundred acres, where the owner and his family did the majority of the labor. They may have purchased a few enslaved people to share the work.

Social Classes in Antebellum North Carolina

By 1860, there were six fairly distinct social classes in North Carolina. The gentry or planter class consisted of owners of large plantations with more than twenty enslaved individuals, high public officials, and professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and business leaders. Although with only about 6 percent of the white population, this class controlled much of the state's government and business.

About 25% of slave-owning whites belonged to the middle class. This group included small merchants and manufacturers, professional men of moderate income, and small farmers enslaving fewer than twenty individuals.

The common whites made up the third and fourth social classes and constituted about 60%-65% of the state’s white population. The yeomen farmers were smaller land owners who farmed their land independently. They did not enslave people. Others in this class included miners, mechanics, and artisans. This class had political rights equal to the higher classes.

Approximately 5%-10% of the white population was in the fourth class of poor whites — landless tenant farmers and poor laborers who went from one low-level job to another.

Many common whites supported slavery and served on county militias to guard against revolts and track down freedom seekers. The common whites fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War.

North Carolina had a large population of free African Americans who constituted the fifth social class. Approximately 10% of the black population fell into this category. New laws restricting where formerly enslaved people could live and setting high costs to the owner for freeing them prevented true freedom of movement by free blacks.

The sixth and lowest social class was that of the enslaved persons, who made up nearly one-third of the state's total population in 1860.

The Life of a Slave

Slavery, by its very nature was dehumanizing, as people were considered property and their worth was primarily valued by the amount of work they could do. Most slave owners provided only the basics for their slaves, as any extra consideration would cut into their profit margin.

Even within the enslaved community, there was a social hierarchy. On large plantations, the personal servants, household servants, slave drivers, and black overseers held a higher status than the vast majority of slaves that worked in the fields.

Discipline and punishment within the institution of slavery was varied. Enslaved people were legally considered property and it was in their owners' best interests to keep them healthy enough to work. Nevertheless, even the kindest master used harsh disciplinary measures when necessary.

The Rise of Abolitionist Movements and Southern Reactions

Although most North Carolinians supported slavery, a significant portion of the population supported the abolitionists. The Quakers in the Piedmont had always opposed slaveholding.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sanford that Congress did not have the authority to forbid slavery in the territories and that a slave could not sue in court. Furthermore slaveholders could not be denied their property without due process of law. Republicans in Congress reacted by preventing efforts to expand slavery into the territories. In 1859, an abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal located at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to seize guns and arm slaves for insurrection. Southerners feared further rebellions. In North Carolina, laws provided stricter control over the enslaved population to protect slaveholder property rights and guard against threats of violence to the white population in general.

Source: The Road to Secession
Courtesy the State of North Carolina

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