George E. Novack

The Colonial Plantation System

(December 1939)

First Published: New International, Volume V, Number 12, December 1939, pp.343-345.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

In the colonial period, before the rise of large-scale industry, slavery existed in two different economic forms in the Western world, one representing its past, the other its future. The first was the patriarchal form in which it had flourished from time immemorial. The patriarchal plantations were largely self-sustained, retaining many features of natural economy. Production was divided into two parts, one devoted to the cultivation of such cash crops as tobacco, corn, hemp, etc.; the other to the needs of home consumption.

The plantation system developed along these lines in the Virginia and Maryland colonies. The average estate was relatively small, employing from five to twenty hands, part of whom were likely to be white redemptioners. Blacks and whites worked together in the fields without insurmountable barriers or deep antagonisms between them. Relations between masters and slaves, with notable exceptions, had a paternal character. The slaveowner was not an absentee landlord who entrusted his estate to the supervision of an overseer and was interested solely in the maximum amount of profit to be gained from his operations. He lived upon his plantation the year round and regarded it as his home.

Field hands were often indulgently treated. Negro servants, who replaced white servants in the household as well as in the field, were frequently on intimate and trusted terms with the master and his family, remained in the same family generation after generation, and were regarded as subordinate members of the household.

Such plantations raised their own food, wove their own cloth, built their own houses. Agriculture for domestic use was sometimes supplemented by domestic manufacture. George Washington’s estate, for example, contained a weaving establishment. Other planters owned spinning and weaving factories employing not only slave labor but white servants on a wage-labor basis.

In South Carolina and Georgia the plantation system developed according to a different pattern. There chattel slavery lost its patriarchal characteristics and became transformed into a purely commercial system of exploitation based upon the production of a single money crop. The typical rice and indigo plantations in the coastal regions were of large size, employing about thirty slaves working under a white taskmaster. The proprietors were either absentee owners living in Charleston, Savannah, or Jamaica who came to inspect the estates several times a year or who lived only part of the year upon their plantations owing to the prevalence of malaria in the hot months. South Carolina and Georgia’s economy was so utterly dependent upon slave labor that they became the strongholds of the slave system in the English colonies on the mainland.

Until the rise of the Cotton Kingdom, the capitalist plantation system in the English colonies was perfected on the largest scale in Jamaica. Economically considered, the whole island was converted into one vast plantation devoted to the cultivation of sugar cane and the making of sugar which was then shipped overseas for sale. The individual plantations, carved in large sections out of the fertile soil, were in many cases owned by absentee landlords resident in England and managed by hired superintendents. They were extremely productive and worked entirely by slave labor.

“The average unit of industry in the Jamaican sugar fields came to be a plantation with a total of nearly two hundred Negroes, of whom more than half were workers in the field gangs,” writes Ulrich B. Phillips in his introduction to the first volume of The Documentary History of American Industrial Society.

“The laborers were strictly classified and worked in squads under close and energetic supervision to near the maximum of their muscular ability. The routine was thoroughly systematic, and the system as efficient on the whole as could well be, where the directors were so few and the Negroes so many and so little removed from the status of African savagery. The Jamaican units were on the average the largest in all the history of plantation industry.”

The concentration of production upon one commercial staple combined with the exclusive use of slave labor give rise to the social and economic consequences that were later to prevail in the Cotton Kingdom. The small farmers who had originally populated the island were pushed out and gradually disappeared. The inhabitants came to be divided into two absolutely opposed classes: the planters and their agents on top and the Negro slaves on the bottom. A sprinkling of merchants and mechanics between them catered to the needs of the plantation owners. The sugar lords were absolute rulers of the island, exploiting it for their exclusive benefit and representing it at Westminster.

This type of chattel slavery prefigured the future and was to predominate within the Southern Cotton Kingdom. Except for the far South, slavery was a decaying institution in the English coastal colonies at the time of the Revolution. The decline in the value of tobacco compelled many planters to turn to the raising of other crops in which slave labor could not profitably compete with free labor. Finding their slaves to be an economic liability, some masters entertained ideas of emancipation. The slave system began to disintegrate, giving way here and there to tenant farming, share-cropping, and even wage-labor.

Virginia and Maryland were then among the leading centers of abolition sentiment in the colonies. Some of the wealthiest and most influential planters in the Old Dominion, such as Washington and Jefferson, advocated the abolition of slavery and the restriction of the slave trade. Henry Laurens of South Carolina, President of the Continental Congress, who owned slaves worth twenty thousand pounds, wrote his son in 1776 that he abhorred slavery and was devising means for manumitting his chattels. But most slaveholders, especially those in Georgia and South Carolina where rice and hemp could not be grown without slaves, flatly opposed any restrictions upon the trade which would prevent them from buying the labor they needed. They found support among Northern merchants who benefited from the slave traffic.

In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had inserted an indictment of George III for promoting and protecting the slave trade against colonial protests. But, he tells us,

“... the clause, reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren, also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

The Revolutionary War impressed the dangers of slavery upon the minds of the colonists. Aroused by proclamations from royal governors and military commanders promising them freedom, thousands of Negroes escaped to the British camps and garrisons; while the slaveowners, fearful of insurrection and the safety of their property and families, were unable or unwilling to serve in the Continental armies. New England, with a population less numerous than that of Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia, provided more than twice as many troops to the revolutionary forces. The South was easily conquered by the redcoats who were defeated and expelled from New England at the beginning of the war.

Although the Revolution had been proclaimed and fought in the name of liberty and equality, it brought little immediate alteration in the status of the mass of Negroes who lived in the South. Only the few thousands in the North benefited from the liberating legislation of that period. The state constitution of Massachusetts led the way by abolishing slavery in 1780; Pennsylvania passed an act of gradual emancipation the same year; in the succeeding years other Northern states illegalized slavery within their borders. But not for a half century after the Declaration of Independence, in 1826, was slavery legally abolished in New York.

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in secret conclave at Philadelphia to form the Union, the question of the abolition of slavery was not even placed upon the agenda. The discussions concerning slavery revolved around those issues pertaining to the interests of the Southern planters and Northern capitalists whose representatives composed the Convention. The questions in dispute concerned the slave trade, the use of slaves as a basis for taxation and representation, and the protective tariff.

In return for the protective tariff granted to the capitalists, the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, whose platform was “No Slave Trade—No Union,” were granted a twenty-year extension of the slave-trade, a fugitive slave law, and a provision allowing three-fifths of the slaves to be counted as a basis for taxation and political representation.

The slaveholders proved powerful enough to obtain a Constitution that not only protected their peculiar institution but even erected additional legal safeguards around it. General Charles C. Pinckney, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, reported with satisfaction to the South Carolina ratification convention that:

“By this settlement, we have secured an unlimited importation of Negroes for twenty years. Nor is it declared when that importation shall be stopped; it may be continued. We have a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge. In short, considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make. We would have made better if we could; but, on the whole, I do not think them bad.”

The Constitution, then, was a slaveholder’s document; the United States was founded upon slavery. Some of the founding fathers recognized that slavery was the chief crack in the cornerstone of the new Republic, a crack which in time might widen to a fissure capable of splitting the union apart. Jefferson prophetically warned the slaveholders that they would one day have to choose between emancipation or their own destruction. But before Jefferson’s prophecy was fulfilled, chattel slavery was to flourish more luxuriantly than ever in North America and spread beyond the Mississippi to Texas. It was to make Cotton king of American economy and the cotton barons autocrats of the nation; and it was ultimately to flower in that anachronistic Southern culture which proclaimed slavery to be “a perfect good,” eternally ordained and sanctified by the laws of God, Justice, History, and Mankind.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006