Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article

This article sketches an interpretative synthesis of the evolution of the Old South by examining the ongoing efforts of the region’s white politicians, intellectuals, and opinion makers to grapple with the “problem” of slavery in the early republic. It traces the changing nature of those efforts and the conflicts they spawned from the drafting of the Constitution to the emergence of the full-scale abolitionist attack on slavery in the mid-1830s.

The problem of slavery, in the minds of southern whites, was threefold: Was it consistent with the ideals of the Founders, was it compatible with the long-term economic health of the region, and did it threaten the safety and security of whites? After the ratification of the Constitution, the upper South and the lower South began to define the problem of slavery differently. In the upper South, the stagnation of the tobacco economy and the difficulty of adapting slave labor to other pursuits left the region’s whites feeling that they would be safer and enjoy better long-term economic prospects if the region had fewer slaves. In the lower South, the cotton boom of the early 1800s deepened the dependence on slave labor and led whites to believe that the wealth of the region was inevitably tied to the preservation of slavery. But the risks of living in a slaveholding society remained a gnawing, and at times an acute, concern.

Ultimately, whites in both the upper and lower South tried to solve the problem of slavery, as they saw it, by reconfiguring the institution. But they wanted to reconfigure slavery in very different ways. The upper South sought a demographic reconfiguration, that would “whiten” their region through both the sale of slaves to the lower South and colonization of free blacks and recently manumitted slaves overseas. The lower South, in contrast, sought an ideological reconfiguration of slavery centered on “domesticating” the institution through the embrace of the ideology of paternalism. Paternalism was supposed to serve as not only the dominant theory but also the common method of slave management, and this ideology of paternalism was justified on the grounds of white supremacy.

Inadequate and tortured as the efforts by white southerners to “solve” the problem of slavery in ways amenable to their own interests were, this study of their evolution reveals how the choices, accommodations, and compromises made by white southerners forged the society historians commonly call the Old South.