The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities

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This article is an applied experiment in digital scholarship. Over the last decade networked information resources have come to play a large role in the work of historians; most of us have become accustomed to augmenting our library research and professional discussion through digital means. Despite these changes, scholars have only begun to craft scholarship designed specifically for the electronic environment. In this article, we attempt to translate the fundamental components of professional scholarship-evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument-into forms that take advantage of the possibilities of electronic media.

We apply these methods to a long-standing issue in American history: how slavery divided American society and culture in the years before the Civil War. Our close study of two communities near the Mason-Dixon Line, a comparison designed to isolate the role of slavery in shaping societies of similar location and histories, shows significant differences in demography, agricultural strategies, and industrial development but broad commonalities in economic outlook, political structures, and cultural orientation.

This comparison builds on a long tradition of historiography. Generations of historians have debated the differences slavery made, particularly in the Atlantic world in which slavery played such a central role. These differences assumed profound importance in the case of the United States, where the Civil War became the largest war waged over the future of slavery.

People have debated for decades the precise role of slavery in precipitating that war. Some emphasize fundamental, irreconcilable conflict between societies based on forced labor and contract labor. Others emphasize instead contingent events in the political realm. Those who stress intrinsic conflict have often built their arguments around the general concept of modernization, with the North embodying the characteristics of modern society-democracy, economic innovation, and social mobility--and the South explicitly resisting those characteristics. Those who isolate political conflict, by contrast, tend to emphasize the fundamental similarities in ideology and culture of white Northerners and Southerners.

We approach this long-running debate by comparing the specific manifestations of slavery and contract labor in detail and in relationship to one another. We use the capabilities of new information technologies both for analysis and for presentation of the argument. For analysis, we turn in particular to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to understand the way social structures were arranged spatially. For presentation, we rely on Extensible Markup Language (XML) to connect large amounts of evidence with detailed discussions of the historiography on slavery in the United States on the eve of the American Civil War.

We find that slavery did not bear a simple relationship to emergent forms of modernity in the economic, cultural, or political realm. The very pervasiveness of slavery throughout the South meant that it exerted complex effects on every aspect of society. Slavery was adapted by whites to technology, communication, industry, and agriculture in ways that permitted white Southerners to consider themselves participants in the most advanced developments in Anglo-American culture and society. On the other hand, slavery led white Southerners to organize their societies in ways different from nearby wage-labor societies, ways that precluded certain kinds of social development and that in turn encouraged the South to understand itself as a perhaps superior variant of that Anglo-American culture and society.

This article concentrates in particular on untangling the relationships between political structures and social structures. Historians have tended to conflate social interest and political identity, assuming that votes for slavery were votes for secession. But the pervasiveness of slavery across the diverse South meant that those who defended slavery voted across the entire range of strategies from fervent Unionism to fervent secessionism. Accordingly, our detailed research shows little connection between slaveholding and political alignment in our Southern county. And it shows no clear connection between social identity and votes for the Republicans or Democrats in the Northern county.

That does not mean that we discount the role of slavery in precipitating the American Civil War. To the contrary, we believe the North and South fought tenaciously in the political realm precisely because they were fighting over the spread of slavery's power-an immediate, tangible, and momentous stake--rather than over differences in social outlook based in a conflict over modernity. The war was the result of two highly mobilized and highly confident regions, each modern in its own way, fighting over the future of slavery in a rapidly expanding United States.

This project was funded in part by:

The National Endowment for the Humanities

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