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Social Development: North and South, The Market Revolution in the South

favorable balance of trade, market revolution, plantation agriculture, plantation economy, Big farms

The South experienced a market revolution of a different kind. In the years leading to the American Civil War, the South provided three–fourths of the world’s supply of cotton, which was a crucial raw material for the international industrial revolution. In the same years, cotton accounted for one–half to two–thirds of the value of all American exports, contributing mightily to a favorable balance of trade. The plantation was a business of worldwide significance, and the cotton boom made thousands of planters rich. At the same time, however, the South’s commitment to plantation agriculture stunted other areas of its economy, opened the region to intense international criticism over slavery, and led ultimately to political and economic disaster.

Plantation agriculture led to an undemocratic distribution of wealth among whites. The plantation economy rewarded size: Big farms were more profitable than small ones. Successful planters were able to buy more slaves and good land, depriving less-successful planters of these benefits and concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. In 1830, 35 percent of Southern households included slaves. By 1860 the figure stood at 26 percent, with fewer than 5 percent of white households owning 20 or more slaves. Most whites lacked the fertile land, the slave labor force, and the availability of transportation to bring them into the market economy. Along with slaves, most whites formed a huge majority of Southerners who had minimal ties to the market and who bought few manufactured goods.

The result was that the South remained in a colonial trade position in relation to Britain and, increasingly, to the northeastern United States. Without regional markets, there was very little urbanization or industrialization in the South. Southern states financed few internal improvements: Plantations tended to send goods to markets via the river system, and smaller farmers preferred low taxes and unobtrusive government to roads and canals. The few Southern cities and large towns were ports on the ocean or on the river system. These cities were shipping centers for cotton exports and for imports of manufactured goods. Manufacturing, shipping, banking, insurance, and other profitable and powerful functions of the market economy stayed in London and—increasingly—in New York.

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