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From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800-1880.

Using six counties in central Georgia as a microcosm of economic development in the U.S. cotton belt, Joseph P. Reidy describes the social and political repercussions of the transformation from slave to free labor in the years between 1800 and 1880. Reidy, an associate professor of history at Howard University, compares economic developments in central Georgia to those in other slave holding areas of the Americas, arguing that "events in the South can only be understood in the larger hemispheric context of slave emancipation". Thus, he places slavery in the U.S. South in a global historical framework in order to explain the economic, social, and political changes which accompanied its abolition.

Reidy begins by examining the antebellum economic relationships of yeoman settlers, cotton planters, and slaves during central Georgia's frontier period. In the pioneer phase before the cotton boom of the 1830s, class differences were muted, as whites and blacks worked side by side to eke out a subsistence from the soil. Labor relations were precapitalist; the mutual exchange of goods and services among friends and family was common; the task system gave slaves free time to grow their own food and to produce artifacts for barter or for sale. Yeoman were proud of their economic and political independence. Even the cotton planter was "in the world market but not of it". Although planters were involved by necessity in the international cotton trade, they generally opposed capitalist institutions and relationships.

The expansion of cotton production and the concomitant importance of the capitalist world market led to changes in economic organization. Gang labor replaced the task system. Small subsistence farmers lost out to large commercial planters. The slave holding elite gained increasing control over the economic and political institutions of central Georgia.

As economic differences among whites increased, planters pointed to slavery as the savior of republican equality. Unlike the North, where differences between labor and capital threatened to tear asunder the social fabric, Georgian planters such as T.R.R. Cobb argued that the South united diverse economic interests into one by combining labor and capital in the person of the slave. Because black slaves provided a mudsill class, all whites were equal.

Reidy questions the egalitarianism of slave society. Although U.S. planters did not control Southern yeoman as the Brazilian planters did their European clients, he argues that they had far greater economic, social, and political power over other Europeans than Northern capitalists. Similarly, planters in the U.S. South attempted to control the labor of their slaves to a far greater extent than their Caribbean and South American counterparts. The "slaves' producing and marketing goods without the mediation of the master posed a potential threat . . . the entering wedge of free labor".

The outbreak of war in 1861 brought tremendous changes to the Southern economic system. Reidy thinks that the Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, correctly identified slavery as the "cornerstone of the rebellion". The South was not only fighting to preserve its peculiar institution, but it also depended upon the provision of goods and services by slaves to defeat the North. The Confederate utilization of slave labor undermined traditional economic and social relationships, however: the shift from cotton production to food staples left slaves with more free time to engage in their own economic activities; the mobilization of white men increased the demand for slave artisans and industrial workers.

The Southern defeat meant the end of slavery and the need to create new economic, social, and political relationships. In the years between 1865 and 1880, "the planters evolved by several routes into an agrarian bourgeoisie and the freedpeople into a rural proletariat". Southern planters of the late 19th century, much like the English landowners of the 18th century, systematically curtailed landless laborers' access to resources which had traditionally provided them subsistence. In addition to developing bourgeois concepts of private property, planters also sought to transform sharecropping into "another mode of wage labor". They used the legal and political power which they possessed to achieve economic hegemony.

The freedmen and women of Georgia vigorously opposed efforts to turn them into a rural proletariat. They conceived of sharecropping as a form of "co-partnership" whereby those who owned and those who worked the land made joint decisions about the crop. They developed their own institutions and leaders to assert their independence from their former masters. And, most significantly, they realized the importance of the suffrage and attempted to make the political system responsive to their needs. But the landed and commercial elite managed to reestablish their control over the political system and to deny the emancipated slaves the economic and social independence they desired.

African Americans' efforts to create their own institutions and to control their own lives renew the age-old historic debate between proponents of economic determinism and of the so-called "Great Man Theory" of history. Although he criticizes those who see people at the mercy of world market forces, Reidy concedes that the "plantation workers of central Georgia . . . struggled mightily (but ultimately without success) to resolve the contradiction between the political ideals of human equality and the persistent reality of economic inequality . . .".

Reidy's comparative approach to Southern history is not new. Marxist historians have long emphasized the importance of the capitalist world market to developments in the agrarian South. Historians of diverse persuasions have argued that slavery in the U.S. needs to be placed in a global historical framework. Both Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese have examined slave holding in the larger context of the Atlantic world. Stanley Mintz has studied slave societies in the Caribbean; Peter Kolchin has compared American slavery and Russian serfdom. Reidy does a good job of integrating these and other comparative studies into his work; he draws numerous parallels between the circumstances of slaves in central Georgia and those of bound laborers elsewhere in the world.

His treatment of the Southern yeoman is less satisfying. The bulk of his economic analysis involves planters and slaves. Although he notes the ways in which capitalist developments hurt the small holder, Reidy barely alludes to the white laborer's efforts to control his own fate. Nor does he explore the role of racism in keeping white and black laborers apart.

The comparative perspective of Reidy's book compensates for many of its shortcomings. College students are often extremely provincial in their approach to economic development and historical change. From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South would be an excellent monograph to use in a U.S. history survey or in a seminar on the American South. Amy Thompson McCandless College of Charleston
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Author:McCandless, Amy Thompson
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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