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Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation

Author(s):Majewski, John
Reviewer(s):Delfino, Susanna

Published by EH.Net (March 2011)

John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. xiii + 240 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8078-3251-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Susanna Delfino, Department of European Research, University of Genoa, Italy.

?A Modern Economy without Modernization? — A Southern Paradox

Scholarship of the past few decades has amply documented that, from the late 1700s, capitalist-oriented entrepreneurial and business forces were at work in the southern states, and that their strength and visibility increased during the first half of the following century. Defining the contours of a univocal southern economic vision in the antebellum era has, however, proved extremely challenging, exposing all the ambiguities and inconsistencies immanent in the thinking of elite southerners, from political economists to politicians, from planters to manufacturers, and to businessmen in general. Even the staunchest agrarians, in fact, did not fail to appreciate the desirability of an albeit moderate industrial development. The seeming contradictions, which stemmed from their effort to reconcile economic development — including industrialization — with the preservation and protection of the institution of slavery, resulted in the shaping of a distinctively southern idea of economic modernity which rejected the tenets of modernization as commonly understood in the North and Europe as well by the mid-nineteenth century.[1]??? ??? ????????

John Majewski?s Modernizing a Slave Economy focuses on Virginia and South Carolina to explore the implications of such inconsistencies in the shaping of the secessionists ideology and, ultimately, in accounting for the failure of the Confederate experiment. Whereas a traditional historiography had identified the principles inspiring secession in the defense of thoroughly agrarian values, minimal government, and laissez-faire, Majewski shows that the secessionist ideology comprised instead visions of industrial expansion and economic independence that ought to be achieved largely through government activism. As a result, Majewski argues, the experience of a centralized and highly bureaucratic Confederate nation was not ?a radical disjuncture but a natural outgrowth of southern attitudes established during the antebellum period? (p. 7).

To demonstrate his thesis, Majewski adopts multiple and intertwined perspectives: from the environmental, to the economic, and to the political. Such an approach provides him with a broad compass of sensibilities that make the analysis well articulated and sophisticated at every turn.
The environmental argument constitutes the core around which Majewski?s analysis unfolds. Through it, he illustrates the distance separating reality from imagination in the economic vision of white southerners, as well as in northern perceptions and representations of the South?s economy. By showing that the extremely widespread use of shifting — as opposed to continuous — cultivation was determined by the highly acidic composition of much of the South?s soil, he both refutes the cultural explanation upheld by northerners to account for the seemingly backward state of southern agriculture and pinpoints the objective limits to regional economic development. In fact, by leaving vast stretches of land unimproved, shifting cultivation resulted in low population density. This, in turn, generated negative effects on the extent and depth of markets and on transportation costs: two essential factors for the development and expansion of the manufacturing sector. Slavery, of course, aggravated the situation but, as the case of Maryland well illustrates, was not the primary cause for either shifting cultivation or the South?s difficulties in triggering a self-sustaining process of industrial development. While only a relatively small number of enlightened southerners fully understood the real nature of the problem with southern agriculture, most believed that it could be solved through a vast reform program. However, because of the complexity and scope of the actions needed, this could only be pursued through the support of state governments. Investment was needed in the fields of research and education, and in the funding of local agricultural societies that might introduce farmers to a correct use of fertilizers and to the advantages of crop rotation. Steps forward were made during the last few antebellum decades, but the results obtained did not match the efforts lavished by agricultural reformers. Majewski rightly ascribes those meager results to the relatively low short-term return that the southern state governments anticipated from massive investment in agriculture as opposed to more ?visible? undertakings, such as railroad building, in the face of both intrastate and interstate rivalries.

The connection Majewski identifies between agricultural reformism, pleas for state intervention in the economy, and secessionism is crucial to his thesis that social conservatism and economic development coexisted in the secessionists? vision of an independent southern nation. Political independence, in fact, was only an empty word if not accompanied by certain economic requisites — a manufacturing base to free themselves from northern dependence, and the establishment of direct trade links with Europe. Toward the achievement of these goals, the modernization of agriculture was central. As Majewski effectively contends, the strong focus secessionists placed on agriculture has been wrongly understood as revealing their adhesion to a traditional, outmoded vision of the South?s future. Quite the contrary, it conveyed their awareness that the quest for southern political independence implied economic diversification, including industrialization. In their envisioning of an independent southern Confederacy, secessionists were, however, caught in the straits of a number of more or less apparent inconsistencies. For example, they criticized the activist government and the gospel of modernization embraced by northerners while at the same time placing these very assumptions at the core of their southern nationalism.

As Majewski points out, the advocacy of state-promoted economic policies dated back to the antebellum era. The example of railroads is revealing in this regard. Heavy spending in railroad construction by the southern state governments — and eminently by those of Virginia and South Carolina — stemmed from the belief that this sort of intervention could make up for the structural problems impairing a ?natural? development of the South?s economy. Due to the sparseness and scantiness of the population, the building of railroads could not be sustained — as in the North — by local communities; but if the lines were built thanks to massive public investment, their beneficial effects would reverberate on the economy as a whole, stimulating the growth of commerce and manufacturing, opening new prospects for international trade, and uniting the several parts of the South. Such a course of action, however, ?produced a boom in railroad construction without revolutionizing the southern economy,? thus failing ?to correct the region?s fundamental economic problems? (p. 104).

In their desire to reconcile the creation of a modern economy with the protection of slavery, secessionists made gross mistakes in evaluation. Their quite simplistic understanding of economic interest, for example, led them to believe that the Confederacy would have won both international and internal support, even from the slaves themselves. Reality would prove completely different. This is not, however, the only paradox that Majewski identifies in his analysis of the political economy embraced by secessionists in their envisioning of the future of an independent southern nation, vis-?-vis the region?s economic and social conditions. Advocacy of free trade had traditionally been one of the mainstays of southern economic thought within the national fold. However, an independent South required both a free trade international policy and an albeit moderate protectionist one, to shield its infant industry from northern and foreign competition. Confederate nationalism was therefore based on mixed ideas of economic liberalism and state regulation. Ultimately, the vast array of either domestic and international issues the Confederate government had to cope with often required measures of opposite sign, resulting in the adoption of contradictory and therefore largely ineffective policies that contributed to the collapse of the Confederate nation.

Secessionists emerge from the pages of Modernizing a Slave Economy in a completely new light as opposed to previous interpretations: modern men with a vision, rather than backward-looking traditionalists. Throughout the book, slavery comes forward as the core problem in determining the ambivalence and incongruities steeped in southern economic thought. Majewski?s work demonstrates, once and for all, that the defense of slavery was not deemed incompatible with the quest for economic modernity by even the most conservative members of the southern elites. More generally, it reiterates the need to definitely abandon rigid, dichotomous understandings of the economic, cultural, and political assumptions underlying unionism and secessionism, respectively. Modernizing a Slave Economy confirms that love for the Union and secessionism; unionism and the defense of slavery; secessionism and the envisioning of an economically modern South could and did coexist in the minds of antebellum and Civil War white southerners.?

This book is absolutely original in its placing the consequences of shifting cultivation at the basis of the South?s failure to achieve higher standards of economic modernization in the late antebellum decades. Through this example, and in contrast with previous interpretations, it effectively downplays the pre-eminence of the cultural factor in accounting for the South?s relative failure in catching up with the North in terms of industrial development before the Civil War.[2] Culture did matter, of course, but its impact was most revealed by the inconsistencies immanent in southern thought, which concurred to define the traits of a southern paradox still difficult to grasp in its complexity and entirety. By suggesting a different kind of continuity between antebellum and Civil War southern political economy as compared with traditional interpretations, John Majewski opens important directions in historical investigation and sets a new standard in the scholarly debate. The scope and complexity of the subject indeed deserve further research toward an increasingly sophisticated understanding of southern history in the slave era.

1. In his monumental work on the South?s intellectual life, Michael O?Brien discusses the economic thought of southerners, illustrating its traits of ambivalence and modernity as well. He shows that not even the most conservative among them failed to acknowledge that the encouragement of manufacturing was central to the South?s future. Michael O?Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).? I have also argued for a fundamental convergence of opinion among southern political economists and political thinkers on the subject of manufacturing. Susanna Delfino, La fabbrica dei sogni: dilemmi economici nel sud degli Stati Uniti tra l?et? della Rivoluzione e la crisi di met? Ottocento (Milano: Selene Edizioni, 2008).

2. The argument that the cultural factor was the main constraint to southern industrial development is set forth by Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

Susanna Delfino is the author of La fabbrica dei sogni: dilemmi economici nel sud degli Stati Uniti tra l?et? della Rivoluzione e la crisi di met? Ottocento (Milano: Selene Edizioni, 2008).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century