Editor’s Note: The aim here is to be honest, informative and entertaining.
I enjoyed this documentary.
Mississippi was the quintessential Southern Slave Society. In our times, we associate Mississippi with crushing poverty and backwardness, but it used to be the wealthiest state in America. In 1850, there were more millionaires in Natchez than anywhere else in the United States.
As I have explained, the founding fathers of the Deep South came to the New World to get rich. They created Slave Societies modeled on Barbados in the British Caribbean. The meaning of “liberty” in the Deep South was closely associated with prosperity, not any highminded abstract philosophical principles or religious utopianism as was the case in the Northern states. After succeeding in getting rich as a planter, the goal of the Southern gentleman was to live a lifestyle like the British gentry.
We’ve forgotten that it was the normal people from Great Britain who settled the South. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain was in the process of building the commercially oriented British Empire. The gentry class dominated Parliament and set the tone of elite British culture. Anglicanism was the state religion and Puritanism faded after it was discredited in England by the chaos of the English Civil War. After the Restoration in England, the long term trend in Britain was toward secularism, nationalism and materialism and the folks who shared that “mainstream” outlook settled in the South and the Caribbean colonies. It was also from this point forward during the reign of King Charles II that England (soon to become Great Britain) took over and dominated the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The Puritans and Quakers were the most discontented religious sects in 17th century England. Those groups settled New England and Pennsylvania respectively where they set out to build a “City on a Hill” and a “Holy Experiment.” In contrast, the founders of the South saw their region as an agricultural paradise like the Garden of Eden which was waiting to be filled up by enterprising planters and their servants. This was the culture that created the Cotton Kingdom in Mississippi in the early 19th century.
As the documentary explains, antebellum Mississippi represents the unique culture of the Deep South in full bloom probably better than any other state:
- Black slaves were over half the population of Mississippi, however, the significant fact here isn’t the size of the black population but that the state was roughly half White and half black. Mississippi was a “settler society” and a perfect hybrid of a “true colony” and “plantation zone” which was ultimately a product of the sub-tropical climate of the Deep South that facilitated White demographic success. In contrast, the tropical Caribbean colonies failed to become settler societies.
- While Mississippi was dominated by the plantation complex, there were parts of the state in the hill country in the northeast or in the piney woods like Jones County in the southeast where there were very few slaves. It was these places which became unionist strongholds. This was typical of the South outside of South Carolina which was uniquely dominated by the plantation complex in both the Lowcountry and Upcountry which is why that state spearheaded secession.
- Mississippi was emphatically clear that slavery was the “occasion” of secession. There was no beating around the bush about it. Abraham Lincoln was a Black Republican and it was feared that he would abolish slavery and establish social equality between the races.
- While slaveowners were only 9% of the population of Mississippi, 49% of households in Mississippi owned slaves. In other words, while the planter class owned most of the slaves in Mississippi the typical slaveowner wasn’t a planter. Slavery in Mississippi like elsewhere in the antebellum South was a middle class institution.
- The distribution of slaves in the Old South was unusual compared to other Slave Societies in the New World. It was why Southerners boasted that slavery and white supremacy had created the “broadest aristocracy” in the history of the world in the South because in Mississippi half the White population was already directly invested in the institution.
- The largest slaveholders in Mississippi were conservatives who tended to oppose secession because they feared disunion and war was more of a threat to slavery than Abraham Lincoln. It was the smaller slaveholders who were most enthusiastic about secession because again slavery was a middle class institution in the Old South.
- Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who later became President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy, wept while giving his Farewell Address. Davis and his ilk were moderates who were swept along by the tide of the revolution that was stirred by men like Rhett.
- A great paradox of slavery in the Old South is that it promoted White egalitarianism because anyone could become a slaveowner. Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun illustrate how far poor Scots-Irish farmers could rise in the Old South. White supremacy also muted divisions over religion and ethnicity in the South which became so much more prominent in Northern politics.
- Prophecies of Mississippi’s doom after abolition proved to be well-founded because the North’s highly touted “free labor” system proved to be a disaster when it was implemented in Mississippi as it had been in the Caribbean. Yankees just assumed that Mississippi would flourish like New England after embracing free-market capitalism. In the 21st century, Mississippi is now the poorest state in the country because the truth is that it never really recovered from the war.
- I thought the section of this documentary on Reconstruction was very weak because there was nothing about how the ex-Confederates were disenfranchised, how carpetbaggers cynically used the black majority to loot the state treasury or how it was the context of the specter of black majority rule which was caused by the introduction of universal manhood suffrage (except for ex-Confederates) that created the explosive situation of that time period. The cause was meddling by outsiders who cloaked their naked pursuit of material self interest in the usual hypocritical cant about their concern for the welfare of the poor blacks they abandoned.
- I thought the part about how Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand had made Mississippians reliant on Midwestern food imports and the consequence of that was mass starvation during the War Between the States was very well done. We’re going to discuss how the Union used starvation as a war tactic at some point down the road.
- Similarly, the Siege of Vicksburg (depicted in the image above) and how July the 4th was remembered in Vicksburg as a hated Yankee holiday after the war is something we will get too shortly as well.
The typical person who watches this documentary probably won’t glean that much of this from it and will just come away with the moral that slavery was bad and is over now. I’ve studied plantation slavery in the South and the Caribbean for years due to my own curiosity about the subject. I find it a useful alternative perspective from which to better understand the free-market capitalist system.
Note: Calvin Candie in Django Unchained always makes me laugh. If you are going to study a subject as fraught as this, you need to lighten up.