How Important Was Slavery Before 1850? Was It a "Marginal Institution, " "Peripheral to the Development of American Society? What Were Its Effects in the North and South?

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In the south, agriculture was the big business. Cash crops were grown, often using slave labor, on big plantations and small farms throughout the south. Cotton, tobacco, and food crops (rice, Indian corn) were all grown to some extent, but cotton was by far the most profitable. In the first half of the nineteenth century, manufacturing was taking root in the North. Among the first industries to grow was textiles. Northern textiles were made from Southern cotton. Southern cotton fueled the South’s economy even more directly. In both North and South, the institution of plantation slavery influenced the economy and social life, though to differing extents.

In the South, slavery was important to not only the economy but also to the social order. Slavery provided the social stratification in the South. Slaves themselves were at the bottom of the ladder, followed by nonslaveholding yeoman farmers. Small slaveholders were in the middle of the later, and large plantation owners (who could sometimes have hundreds of slaves) were at the top. Even to the nonslaveholders, slavery was an important (though not necessarily good) institution. Hinton Rowan Helper would not have argued against slavery so much if it were truly a “marginal” institution. He argued because it affected his economic and social position in society. George Fitzhugh, a southern slaveholder, argued for slavery because he, as a slaveholder, was affected by it. Every person in the south, from slaveholders to yeoman farmers to the slaves themselves, was affected by slavery. Slavery also had a tremendous economic impact in the South. It was a cash crop and could be profitably exported to foreign countries or sold to the North. Cotton was the majority of the nation’s exports by 1840, and it was even more dramatically important in the south. A popular exclamation of the time was “cotton is king” because of its tremendous economic importance. The majority of cotton produced was grown on large plantations were...
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