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American Slavery Essays

Although it was not their original intention, colonists in the New World gave birth to a modern form of slavery. Within the burgeoning colonies, slavery evolved far beyond what any other people in history had known or established — the enslavement for life of one race. Clearly, slavery was not the result of a single driving force. Looking at the events that originated in Jamestown, one can see a linear progression of circumstances that ultimately institutionalized slavery within the colonies. Through happenstance, the earliest Africans who landed in Jamestown were treated as indentured servants, meaning that their labor contract specified a fixed term of service to their master. Eventually, however, the legal status of Africans in America evolved into an enslavement system driven by economic need. It concluded with the systemization of slavery and racial prejudice on a scale unequaled in the Europe from which the colonists had emigrated.

Slavery was by no means a novel concept to western civilization when the first settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. Driven by a need for large quantities of cheap labor, for centuries the Greeks and Romans enslaved prisoners of war, criminals, and those who had fallen into indebtedness. In those societies, however, the term of enslavement was not for life and race played no role. Slaves could be free after they had successfully completed a period of servitude; they could eventually rise to a position of higher station within the same society that had once enslaved them. Later, between the 9th and 15th centuries, the Europeans developed a history of serfdom, a form of servitude that bound peasants to the land they worked. Serfs, defined as “a member of a servile feudal class bound to the land and subject to the will of its owner,” found that the only compensation for their work, other than food and housing, was protection by the feudal lords in times of rebellion and war.(1)

This European world, however, had passed by the time of English colonization. Nevertheless, a large, landless, and poor population remained. Their status prompted the use of the indentured system, contracted labor for a set amount of time, to both provide the lower class with a means of transportation to the colonies and, for the upper class, a source of labor. Winthrop D. Jordan, a prominent historian of racial relations, explains that English immigrants were required to remain indentured for a term of “four to seven years or until the age of twenty-one.”(2)

Just as the indentured were making their way across the Atlantic, Africans were finding their way to Jamestown as well, although not by choice. In 1619, a British pirate ship had been sailing off the coast of Virginia. The English offered to trade the twenty Africans on board their ship for provisions with the settlers at Jamestown. Originally, the people of the twelve-year-old colony had no interest in the cargo being offered, but they eventually made the trade.

Because this first group of Africans landed in the colony by chance, it is reasonable to surmise that once traded successfully, word got out and more slave ships followed. Anthony Johnson is an excellent example of what might have occurred with the first Africans who arrived. According to T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, both professors of history, Johnson arrived on a slave ship in 1621, identified as “Antonio, a negro.”(3) Richard Bennett purchased him as an indentured servant(4). Antonio’s contract was for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years.(5) Sometime after 1625, he married Mary, an indentured African living, at that time, on the Bennett plantation; they had four sons.(6)

Times however, were difficult for both masters and servants. Virginia was facing economic challenges because people could not stay alive. Disease was killing the colonists during the first fifteen years. More than half of those who immigrated died of disease. According to Edmund Morgan, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale, the death rate during this time “was comparable to that found in England during the peak years of the plague.”(7) Another reason for the economic problems was that the colonists could not find a viable crop because of the swap- like terrain. People were acquiring land, but they simply could not do much with it. People only existed; they were not making any substantial money.

One crop that began to give some hope for a better economy was tobacco. The Virginia colony began to experiment with it in 1614. Settlers found that they lived in the right climate for this crop to grow and flourish. As the crop grew, people within the colony began smoking it and the demand for tobacco increased because colonists found it hard to resist. This created a relationship between the demand for tobacco and the labor to supply it. According to Jordan, “tobacco required labor that was cheap but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.”(8) These requirements set the stage for what would become American slavery.

The labor-intensive nature of tobacco was another reason it required a large work force. The crop was essentially a year round one that needed constant tending. Tobacco had to be trimmed often, de-bugged routinely, harvested when ripe, and prepared for sale. The crop ripened in mid-summer, the hottest months of the year. When harvesting the crop, the laborers had to cut it, trim it again, dry it, and bundle it for shipping. Once the entire process for the year’s crop was completed, the laborers had to ready the land for the next planting, which began in January.

Tobacco alone created a huge, almost desperate need within the colony for labor. The colonists had figured out a way to make money and improve the economy, but they could not turn the opportunity into a profitable reality for two major reasons. First, by 1650 there was an increasing reduction in the numbers of indentured servants due to deaths because of disease. Secondly, the contracts were expiring for those who had been indentured before tobacco began to boom for the colony. These former servants were becoming freemen, able to have their own land to grow the new economic opportunity. According to Morgan, the shortages in labor were also due to the “huge expansion of tobacco production, [which] helped to depress the price of tobacco and the earnings of the men who planted it.”(9) There were more settlers farming the crop and fewer of them were able to produce enough to sustain their farms financially due to the shortage of labor. The colonists had to find another way to achieve the success they felt they deserved and they began looking to the African slave trade as an answer to their dilemma. Morgan affirms this by saying, “Once Virginia’s heavy mortality ceased, an investment in slave labor was much more profitable than an investment in free labor.”(10) Jordan makes the comment that, “in the tobacco colonies it is possible to watch the Negro slavery develop, not pop up full-grown overnight.”(11) Jordan’s comment makes it clear that the eventual definition of slavery was not due to an immediate response to the need for labor based on race, but a progression of decisions based on an economic need that grew into slavery based on race.

The speed at which African slavery developed was tied to the economy and who was benefiting from the slave trade itself. Plantation owners, slave brokers, ship builders, and those who were operating the ports were all profiting. Jordan contends that, “It may be taken as a given that there would have been no enslavement without economic need, that is, without persistent demand for labor in under populated colonies.”(12) Nevertheless, slavery based upon a labor demand is different from slavery based upon race.

Between 1630 and 1640 the colony began to divide, not along class lines as before, but by skin color. An important turning point, according to Jordan, is John Punch, an African indentured servant. Punch ran away from his master and when caught, he was sentenced to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.”(13) Other Africans suffered the same fate in the following years. This is a complicated period because while some Africans were being enslaved for life, others were able to purchase land and remain free. By the time Antonio and Mary were freed from their servitude in 1641, Antonio had taken the name Anthony Johnson. Within nine years, he had purchased 250 acres of land and a head of cattle.

The fact that Johnson and other free Africans were able to own land does not mean that whites thought of them as equal. Actually, a belief that Africans were inferior to whites was intensifying. When considering the Punch sentence, Jordan points out that “no white servant in any English colony, so far as is known, ever received a like sentence.”(14) Racism comes from fear. The legal decisions and laws restricting Africans within society made whites believe Africans should be feared. That which is feared must be controlled. Slavery would eventually become a system of control over slaves by the use of horrific violence.

Although changes in the treatment of Africans based on race was occurring, the need for labor remained a persistent issue. At this point, the explosion of the tobacco economy and the increase in the slave trade became interdependent. It is reasonable to assume that the loss of labor due to indentured contract expirations, caused landowners to seek new sources of labor. Servitude for life would serve their purposes.

Laws creating a slavery system began to appear for Africans. In 1661, the first law was passed changing servitude into slavery for life. One year later the law changed to include children born to slave mothers, making them slaves for life as well. While the laws were changing, Anthony Johnson was still living as a free man. He was living his life as a successful farmer and community member, proving that up until laws began to tighten, race was not the driving force in the progression of slavery. Jordan points out that Johnson “himself owned a slave.”(15) When more than four-fifths of his land burned, Johnson suffered a setback. He sold all but fifty acres, which his son Richard lived on and farmed. The rest of the Johnson family moved to Maryland to try to make a go of new opportunities to buy land. Anthony Johnson was unable to purchase property, but he did find a way to rent three hundred acres of land and farmed it until his death soon after. Breen points out “Johnson’s story vividly suggests, possibilities for advancement [for Negroes] existed in 1650 that by 1705 were only a memory.”(16)

While the Johnsons were making their way in Maryland, the laws in Virginia continued to change. In 1667, laws ensured that Christian baptism could not free a person from slavery. In that same year, laws passed which restricted any African or slave from possessing a firearm, made it illegal for Africans to leave their master’s land without a pass, and outlawed interracial marriage. Laws were passed which prohibited land ownership for slaves, established curfews for free Africans and slaves alike, and restricted public assembly among blacks. The laws were strategically put in place to ensure that at no time would any free African or slave be truly free. This became the foundation of what would become slave codes, which the colonies used, as Jordan points out, as a “maintenance of discipline.”(17) Jordan also makes the point that the laws were in place to “[tell] the white man, not the negro, what he must do. It was the white man who was required to…” enforce the laws.(18) By the “time of the revolution,” according to Jordan, every colony had passed laws to ensure “governance of Negroes.”(19)

After his father’s death, Richard had to go to probate court in Virginia to ensure his land would remain his. Appearing before an all-white jury, Richard found the law forbidding an African to own land enforced by the court. The jury took his land from him, land that had been in his family for more than thirty years, and then began selling it, in sections, to white men. The story of the Johnson family becomes a prism, through which the evolution of the American slavery system is clearly visible.

Slavery in the United States was not inevitable. At any point in time, any number of decisions could have been made to a different end. Yes, slavery rose up out of an economic necessity, but it became a racial issue when the demand for labor required justification. Those making the decisions at the time acted on the belief that one race was inferior to another. The linear progression of slavery in the original colony allows for the supposition that had the line curved in any direction at any time throughout history, the outcome would have been different.


1. American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Serf.”

2. Winthrop D. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the
United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). 28.

3. T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on
Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

4. Ibid., 8.

5. Ibid., 10.

6. Ibid.

7. Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of
American History, (June 1972): 19.

8. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 39.

9. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom,” 20.

10. Ibid., 25.

11. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 40.

12. Ibid., 50.

13. Ibid., 42.

14. Ibid.

15. Breen and Innes, “Myne Owne Ground,” 18.

16. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 59.

17. Ibid., 61.

18. Ibid., 59.

19. Ibid., 29.


Breen, T.H., and Stephen Innes. “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern
Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Jordan, Winthrop D. The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Morgan, Edmund. “Slavery and Freedom: The American Orthodox,” The Journal of American
History (June 1972): 5-29.


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Why Cotton Got To Be King

By Robert Behre

More than two decades before the Civil War, a planter in Edgefield, South Carolina, contemplated the languishing cotton prices and the plummeting value of his slaves—which by some accounts were worth less than a third of their value before the Panic of 1837.

“Every day, I look forward to the future with more anxiety,” James Henry Hammond confided to his diary in 1841. “Cotton is falling, falling never to rise again.” But his fortunes did improve, and Hammond earned the admiration of influential South Carolinians, who eventually sent him to the U.S. Senate—where, during an 1858 debate with William Seward of New York, Hammond argued the South’s agricultural riches could bring the world to its feet in event of war with the North. “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?” Hammond asked. “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King.”

But if your image of the South’s plantation economy is a refined, agrarian ideal that changed little in two-and-a-half centuries, before the loathsome Yankees put an end to it, well, that moonlight and magnolias picture isn’t quite right.

In fact, the only constant in the South’s plantation economy was change—as reflected in the way Hammond’s fortunes varied over those 17 years. The South’s crops evolved—from tobacco and indigo to rice and sugar and then, only relatively late in the game, to cotton.

The lands being farmed evolved—from coastal plains linked by rivers and bays, to interior regions connected by rail and canals.

The states with the most promising crops evolved—from the old Atlantic seaboard states of the Carolinas and Virginia, west and south to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and eastern Texas.

And the labor evolved—from a situation where enslaved blacks and whites essentially were both pioneers struggling to eke out an existence in a new world, to a system of chattel slavery in which the slaves were as much an asset as the land.

As England struggled for its own foothold in the New World, one of the few surviving settlers from the London Company planted a powerful seed around 1612 in what is now Virginia’s coastal plain. The tobacco John Rolfe planted wasn’t the harsh strain grown by the natives, but a milder seed that Spanish colonists were growing in the Caribbean and South America.

Bad relations with the American Indians had plagued the colonists, who were struggling simply to keep themselves fed—much less earn the riches they had hoped to earn in this new land.

Rolfe’s seed would change all that.

When the first of Rolfe’s new tobacco crop was sold in London, the essential framework of the Southern plantation economy was put in place. The building blocks included colonists and planters eager for riches, seeds of crops from other places, a wealthy European market and a complicated gumbo of human relations that would breed both invention and cruelty.

Rolfe found good ways to grow and cure the Spanish tobacco, possibly with advice from his new bride, Pocahontas. Seven years after Rolfe first planted his tobacco, Jamestown had exported 10 tons of it to Europe. This luxury crop eventually gave colonists needed income to buy African slaves.

The tobacco not only increased the colonists’ wealth, but the crown got its cut as well—a steady stream of income as the plant grew in popularity in London and beyond. At times, the colony had to force its residents to plant food.

Within three decades, Jamestown was shipping 750 tons of tobacco back across the Atlantic, making tobacco the largest export in the American colonies. But the crop wore out the soil, so there was a scramble across the Chesapeake Bay waterways for fresh, suitable lands.

England’s foothold was now secure, nonetheless, as the South learned that great prosperity could be gained through the cultivation of the right cash crop.

The story of Southern agriculture isn’t confined to the South. Not only were European markets essential; precedents in the Caribbean colonies influenced its development. French and Spanish colonists established sugar plantations on several islands, and English colonists got in on the action in Barbados. By the 1640s, the small island was divided into large plantations.

To do the demanding work, colonists imported African slaves in such numbers that there were three for every one planter, as wealthy planters eclipsed the poorer ones, some of whom would leave for a new colony called Carolina.

As the Virginia colonists were establishing wealth with tobacco, another English ship came ashore farther South in 1670 to create a new colony that eventually would surpass Virginia in cultivation of cash crops.

The ship Carolina arrived via Barbados, and unlike the first settlers in Virginia, the colonists arrived with African slaves, though they were more like indentured servants.

The Barbadian notion that a white planter considered all persons in his household as family helped shape the colony’s early slavery practices. In his definitive history of South Carolina, author Walter Edgar writes, “Everyone, white and black, was a pioneer.”

The colonists tried tobacco first, without much luck—partly because the European market was saturated, forcing prices down. But by 1685, the Carolina colonists found a different crop that made many of them fortunes a few decades later: rice. The slaves’ knowledge of growing rice in their native Africa is increasingly understood to be an important part of the rice crop’s success. South Carolina planters valued slaves from rice-growing regions; Henry Laurens, a merchant slave trader and one of the wealthiest men in all of the American colonies, distinguished between slaves based on skills they learned in their native lands.

“The Slaves from the River Gambia are preferred to all others with us, save the Gold Coast,” he would write. “Gold Coast or Gambia are best…next to them the Windward Coast are prefer’d to Angolas.”

The kind of wealth Lowcountry planters could amass is illustrated by the case of Peter Manigault, a planter, lawyer and legislator, born in 1731, who eventually held a 1,300-acre plantation west of Charles Towne, a 2,476-acre plantation in Port Royal and more than 2,000 acres of rice plantations along the Santee River, and another working plantation outside Columbia. His son Gabriel would inherit about 25,000 acres, enough wealth to allow him to pursue architecture and design some of Charleston’s most imposing buildings at the dawn of the 19th century.

There was always a scramble for the next big crop. Eliza Lucas Pinckney of Charles Towne loved to experiment with crops—including indigo, a blue dye now commonly used for jeans but created a rare and valuable color in the 18th century; so valuable England was willing to subsidize its production.

The indigo market—and subsidy—effectively ended with the Revolutionary War, but rice would survive and find lucrative markets in Europe. After all, people can do without smoke or blue-colored garments, but everyone needs to eat. In Louisiana, French and Spanish settlers had moderate success with sugar, but indigo also was the major crop there in the late 18th century, before the region was part of the United States.

The balance started to shift after a French nobleman, Etienne de Bore, returned to his native Louisiana. At his plantation about six miles north of New Orleans, de Bore became frustrated by insects gobbling up his indigo, so he began tinkering with sugar cane and in 1795, pioneered production of granulated sugar. He was helped by the expertise of other sugar makers who moved to Louisiana after the bloody 1791 slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti.

At the peak in the early 19th century, Louisiana planters got yields from 16 to 20 tons of cane per acre and harvested 300,000 tons of sugar per year, helping support half a million people.

Had a South Carolinian kept his promise in 1793 to pay a Yale-educated tutor 100 guineas a year, the Southern economy as most know it today might have looked a whole lot different. But the deal fell through, and Eli Whitney headed south to Savannah instead, accepting an offer from the widow of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene to stay at her plantation and continue his studies. A handful of planters produced cotton in Georgia, but extracting the valuable lint from the worthless seed was a time-consuming chore that could easily wipe away any meaningful profit. Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas Miller—also a Yale alumnus—was familiar with the difficulties of processing cotton.

At their urging, Whitney concocted a series of wires to hold the seed while a drum with hook-shaped wires pulled the fiber out and a rotating brush cleaned the lint off the hooks.

Cotton was by no means a new crop: Planters had grown Sea Island cotton, a long-staple variety, in the sandy soils along the South Carolina and Georgia coast since the early 1700s. But like tobacco, it depleted the soil and often was challenging to market.

Whitney’s gin changed the game; the market for it spread faster than he could control or profit from. Demand for cotton, including the short-staple variety, exploded as England and France built new textile mills that craved the raw material. By 1804, Southern cotton production ballooned eight-fold from the decade before. Unlike Sea Island cotton, short-staple cotton could grow in upland areas, giving planters in vast swaths of the South a chance at riches previously confined to the coast.

The War of 1812 disrupted trade with England, but entrepreneurial Northerners stepped into the breach. While a few cotton and wool spinning mills had been built in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut by 1805, scores more sprang up in the following decade. The number of mills within a 30-mile radius of Providence, R.I., doubled between 1812 and 1815, spurred by the same hopes of riches that induced Southerners to plant the cotton. The revolution was on.

The lucrative short-staple cotton trade helped create two Souths: An upper South of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina that began moving away from the plantation model, selling their slaves to owners in the lower South—states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, where cotton planters desperately needed the labor.

Land planted with cotton or tobacco and nothing else eventually was exhausted, and planters pushed west in search of fresh land and profits. South Carolina planter Wade Hampton is just one example.

Hampton first journeyed west as an Army colonel and quickly saw the potential there, University of South Carolina history professor Lacy Ford notes. By 1812, he had acquired 38,000 acres and 285 slaves in Louisiana and Mississippi. “Ultimately, he produced more cotton there than he did in South Carolina,” Ford says. “He became one of the four or five richest people in the South on the basis of his extensive holdings.”

William Hamilton, a North Carolina native and one of Hampton’s top aides, wrote to his family about the new areas’ possibilities: “An acre of ground, well prepared, can yield 2,000 pounds of sugar and one good negro can make five bales of cotton worth $500 and 40 prime field hands can till 200 acres and produce $10,000 of cotton annually,” a huge fortune then.

Ford says there was both a push and pull in the move west: The push was spent fields in the Carolinas and Virginia, and the pull was the promise of riches on new land.

“A lot of people didn’t pick up and go, but a lot of people did,” he notes. In 1801, South Carolina produced half of the nation’s cotton. By 1821, the margin had dropped to 29 percent. Half of all whites born in South Carolina between 1800 and 1860 eventually left the state.

Natchez, Miss., became a new boomtown, and New Orleans soon overtook Charleston in shipping and population. The Cotton kingdom extended into eastern Texas and hundreds of miles up the Mississippi River. The flight west also created a big political problem as the abolition movement geared up and the nation quarreled over which new states should be permitted to have slaves and which should not.

Big bucks were on the line. The South produced about three-fourths of the cotton that fed the textile mills in England and France.

By one estimate, more than 20 percent of England’s economy depended in some way on the textile industry, and the United States’ domestic textile plants produced about $100 million worth of cloth each year; its ships transported cotton and cotton products across the globe. By 1860, two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton came from the states that would soon constitute the Confederacy.

Cotton didn’t receive its coronation easily. Richard Porcher and Sarah Fick note in The Story of Sea Island Cotton, a recent history, the turbulence Lowcountry planters faced. “Even with skilled slaves and the special care taken with the plants, sea island cotton was an uncertain crop, succumbing to unseasonable rains, storms, insect pests and a fluctuating market,” they write.

The drive west meant a second “Middle Passage” for many slaves. After Congress outlawed the international slave trade in 1808, the only way planters could get new slaves was to buy them on the domestic market, and the push west meant thousands of slaves were sold and relocated—and often torn away from their families.

Meanwhile, pressure built to free the slaves—and it wasn’t coming only from the North. Two of Charleston’s elite, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, became abolitionists in 1830. With Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, they published Slavery As It Is: The Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The book included published excerpts from Southern newspapers that spoke to the institution’s cruelty: In The Raleigh Standard, they found this bit from Nash County, N.C., slave owner Micajah Ricks: “Ran away, a negro woman and two children, a few days before she went off, I burnt her face with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make a letter M.” Slaves also were always resisting, trying to find ways to lighten their workload, get better provisions and more autonomy. As industrialization seemed increasingly likely, Southerners began to debate whether slaves or freed men should work in their emerging factories.

Planters who owned large numbers of slaves produced most goods for export, but the South had many more small farmers, mostly whites, who farmed the upland areas—the lucky ones producing a small surplus of cotton for market while managing to feed their families.

In 1850, the average South Carolina farm covered 541 acres, and that would drop to 488 acres by 1860. There were 33,171 farms, some wealthy but many less so. Meanwhile, cotton prices oscillated wildly over the decades; prices were high until 1819 and then down, rose again until a crisis low in 1837 and then climbed back in 1848 with another dip coming in 1851.

Some worried that cotton was dominating to the South’s detriment. Cotton “starves everything else,” warned W.J. Grayson, an outspoken unionist. “The farmer curtails and neglects all other crops. He buys from distant places not only the simplest manufactured articles, his brooms and buckets, but farm products, grain, meat, ham, butter, all of which he could make at home.” And there soon would be a need to make them.

Ford, author of Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, says the single biggest misunderstanding about the Southern plantation economy is how diverse and ever-changing it was. By the beginning of the Civil War, the cotton gin had been around only as long as computers have been today.

“It was a much more dynamic economy than most people realize,” he says. “It was newer, fresher and under constant strain. Cotton production was only in its third generation when the Civil War came, and there were many people still alive who could remember when the first meaningful amount of cotton was grown in the South.

“In the larger sense, in dealing with the lower Cotton South as a whole, it’s always important to remember the upper South—North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, is really a different kettle of fish. They planted almost no cotton, and they’re having a very different experience and reacting to circumstances differently as well.”

Some Southerners might have accepted the coming Civil War because they had little land, slaves or anything else to lose, but others had significant sums at stake. “Throughout the lower south as a whole, the cotton boom of the 1850s and the prosperity that the boom created for the region gave it the self-confidence and belief that it had a system that would work,” Ford says, “and that probably enhanced people’s willingness to secede.”

And though the coming war eventually would end slavery and the plantation economy it supported, the South would continue to plant and profit from cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco well into the 20th century. Of course, it wasn’t the same, but on the other hand, the South’s plantation economy never stood still.

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