Why study the South? What makes this peculiar region important from the point of views of Americans, or people abroad wanting to know more about the American experience? The South experienced changes and phenomena central to how the United States evolved over time. What defines it—and the extent to which it really was and is different from the American nation—lies at the intersection of the widespread interest in southern history, literature, and culture. Southern particularity in its economy, system of racial hierarchy, cooking, climate, and speech all seem to mean a sort of country-within-a-country, at odds, perhaps, with the rest of the nation.
Today, southerners speak differently, eat differently, live in a different climate, and regard themselves as apart from the rest of the United States. Still, what constitutes “the South” remains a contested concept that has evolved over time. Some parts of the South were dominated by slavery; others were largely isolated from it. Most scholars agree that the eleven former states of the Confederate nation are southern, but so probably are the border states that did not secede, including Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Parts of Delaware historically are southern; much of the state in 1861 remained wedded to slaveholding and plantation agriculture.
Rather than a single “South,” there were in fact many Souths, and the region exhibits remarkable geographical, economic, and demographic diversity. Within the South, there remains a physical diversity that includes mountains and highlands, coastal plains, towns and cities, piney woods, and river bottoms, swamps, and wetlands. The South spread west, extending from Arkansas into Texas, while, to the North, it also included border regions in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
The South’s diversity was both geographical and historical. The particularity of the region is rooted in the physical differences extending across the South, from the marshy coastal areas on the Atlantic seaboard, to the red-clay interior of the Piedmont, to the hill country and mountainous regions, and to the Delta region that extends down the spine of the Mississippi River. Along the Gulf of Mexico, a Gulf South emerged whose original European influences were Spanish and French, not English. The unification of these diverse regions was historical, occurring over centuries between the colonial era and the Civil War. Ultimately, these Souths converged in the nineteenth century, with the spread of plantation agriculture and spectacular expansion of cotton culture across the Gulf region and Mississippi Valley.
Perhaps more useful is to regard the South as a highly diverse region, often at odds with itself, which shared a regional identity based on unique historical forces. Despite its diversity, the South, as an identifiable region, came into existence by the middle of the nineteenth century. Its identity lies in what W. J. Cash described as a “peculiar history” of the South, a history distinguishing it so much from national norms. And this “peculiar history” is tied to the rise and fall of racial slavery, its destruction during the Civil War, and the troubled aftermath of emancipation. Although “not quite a nation within a nation,” Cash reminded us that the South was the “next thing to it.” But the story of the South charts, and helped to define, the history of the United States.
But the most important thing that made the South “the South” was race—the establishment of a coerced labor system based on racial slavery; the expansion of that system to include, at its peak in 1860, four million enslaved people; the demise of this system during the Civil War; the reimposition of white supremacy after Reconstruction; and the slow and ambiguous effort to achieve a racially just society. The mind of the South, concluded Cash, arose from the institution of slavery and the social, economic, and political conditions surrounding it. A “proto-Dorian” bond of racial unity among white males transcended class differences. Southerners’ military prowess blended with patriarchy, male dominance, social class, exalted values of personal honor, and above all, race. This “savage ideal” characterized the South historically as a region bound to defend its traditions of individualism, localism, and racial hierarchy against all outside intrusion.
Cash’s proto-Dorian bond and savage ideal made the South different, but these considerations also made the region crucial to the very meaning of American politics, culture, and economic development. Slavery fueled much of the urgency and political participation of the Jacksonian political system, and race has dominated American politics since then. Slavery sustained American economic growth; the Cotton Kingdom became the most significant generator of capital fueling capitalism around the Atlantic World. White supremacy may have appeared confined to the region below the Mason-Dixon line, but racism infused American society after the 1870s. The most important diaspora of the twentieth century was southern—the Great Migration of millions of African Americans to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. This southern diaspora had manifest cultural consequences in the rise of an African culture that found audiences around the world.
The American South was constructed with roots in the plantation system and the particular world that grew up around slavery. The region—and its sense of self—came into existence as a result of a shared past in which experiences of slavery, geography, and ethnicity created a set of common interests and values. There was no such nothing as “the South” until after the American Revolution. Before then, the region south of the Potomac River remained a collection of disparate colonies with differing cultures and political traditions, united mainly by the dominant influence of slavery and slaveholding. The birth of the American Republic paradoxically fanned feelings of state particularity and sectional difference, and, in the new federal constitutional system of 1787, the interests of slaveholding states diverged from those of non-slaveholding states. The South’s regional consciousness accentuated a continuing debate about what the Republic meant.
Image Credit: “George Street, Charleston, South Carolina” by Henry de Saussure Copeland. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.