What the South Meant

Slave and Free states and Territories in 1861 (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve spent four posts now referring to the South in various ways. In that time I’ve assumed the reader knows what I mean by that, but a few years ago one of my friends pointed out that California is as southern as most of the states we group together in the South. Why is Virginia Southern but California is not? For that matter, Hawaii ought to be the most southern of states. The latter is anachronistic in the context of the 1860s, when it was an independent nation, but the point still holds for California.

On strictly geographic terms, the southern United States would be all places south of its geographic center. In 1860, that would have been a point in northern Kansas along latitude 39° 50’ N. This would make Washington and San Francisco both Southern cities. It would also place all of New Mexico and Arizona in the South. Yet in general use, California is not a Southern state despite its physical geography.

The South then arises from cultural geography. Perhaps its western terminus is the frontier largely unsettled by white people at the time. But that would exclude large sections of Texas and Florida. The exclusion of Florida might stand to reason today, but in 1860 it belonged in the South as much by cultural geography as by physical geography. If we can permit Texas and Florida we must also permit California as while frontier separated it from the rest of the nation, its meteoric rise to statehood following the gold rush made it at least as settled as the two aforementioned.

Perhaps culture fixed the border of the South before 1850? That removes California from our concerns and leaves us with a region bounded by Texas in the west, the ocean to the south and east, and a strange, irregular northern limit. Common Revolutionary history might include Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland, and Delaware together but leaves Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama out. Anglo-American culture would link most of the South, but leave out Lousiana and partially Texas. It would also have to include such un-Southern places as Boston.

Setting those aside, perhaps agriculture is the standard? The North industrialized. The South did not and so remained primarily agrarian. That sounds right, but the North was full of small farmers. The nineteenth century version of the American Dream involved moving west and finding cheap land, which we took from the Indians, and establishing oneself as a yeoman farmer. Despite industrialization, agriculture remained the North’s most common profession and the one to which most Northerners aspired. The North had more industry than the South by a vast margin, but still had more farmers than factory workers.

Still, industry and agriculture bring us close. Both sections had agricultural cultures, but they diverged. In the North, agriculture could be and often was for a cash crop just as it was in the South, if not quite the same cash crops, but northern agriculture involved a patchwork quilt of small producers working largely smaller plots with the help of family and perhaps a few hired hands. In the South, agriculture entailed large plantations worked by slave labor.

Slavery thus defines the South. To be Southern was to be a slave state and to be a slave state was to be Southern. But don’t take my word for it. In counting the slaves and free blacks in the US, the 1860 census plainly lays out the division between the sections. They are:

The Northern or Free States
The Southern or Slaveholding States

Page X, 1860 Census

If you download the population schedules, the first reference I found appears on page X, or page 22, of the black and white PDF, and I’ve reproduced it here.

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