Wealth and Culture in the South

Section Summary

Although a small white elite owned the vast majority of slaves in the South, and most other whites could only aspire to slaveholders’ wealth and status, slavery shaped the social life of all white southerners in profound ways. Southern culture valued a behavioral code in which men’s honor, based on the domination of others and the protection of southern white womanhood, stood as the highest good. Slavery also decreased class tensions, binding whites together on the basis of race despite their inequalities of wealth. Several defenses of slavery were prevalent in the antebellum era, including Calhoun’s argument that the South’s “concurrent majority” could overrule federal legislation deemed hostile to southern interests; the notion that slaveholders’ care of their chattel made slaves better off than wage workers in the North; and the profoundly racist ideas underlying polygenism.