Saturday, April 04, 2009

Southern Agricultural Practices, Population Densities and the Failure to Industrialize Before the Civil War

Brett Schulte pointed out John Majewski’s new book, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation, in a recent post. It looked interesting, so I got it.

It turns out that the first chapter of the book is so fascinating that I decided to write on it separately. Don't shoot me, Brett! The chapter explores southern agricultural practices, land use and population density, and the effects that flowed from them, including the south’s slow rates of industrialization and development of transportation, and relative dearth of institutions from schools and associations to newspapers and libraries.

In the colonial period, farmers in both the north and south grew crops using a technique called shifting cultivation. This was essentially a pioneer slash-and-burn approach. The farmer burned an area he wanted to use as a field, farmed it for a period of, say, three to five years until the soil gave out, then burned a new area and started over. The downside of shifting cultivation was that it was wasteful of the land, which might have to rest for fifteen to twenty years until it could be burned again and replanted.

As population densities increased in the north, farmers there gradually shifted to a rotation system in which older fields were converted to pastures of clover and other legumes that helped revitalize the soil, combined with heavy use of cattle manure. In the south, however, shifting cultivation remained the norm up to the Civil War.

The south’s failure to adopt a rotation system had widespread consequences. First, it meant that large amounts of land went unused. In the north, farmers employing crop rotation were able to have almost two-thirds of their farmland in cultivation during any given year. In the south, the corresponding figure was about one-third.

The fact that most farms and plantations included large tracts of unused land – whether virgin forest that awaited burning in the future or previously-burned areas returned to scrub – had the effect of dispersing the rural population and “stunting rural population growth. In terms of rural population per square mile, southern states . . . lagged far behind most northern states.” Prof. Majewski includes statistics showing that total southern rural population density was 60% to 40% that in various areas of the north. Eliminating slaves, the statistics were far worse.

This dispersion of the rural population amidst large tracts of undeveloped land in turn had consequences. Among other things, “the South’s low population densities helped stifle overall development.” One key “to the rapid expansion of northern manufacturing” had been the existence of “deep and rich rural markets” that would purchase manufactured goods. “[A] wealthy and densely populated countryside provided the economic foundation for the North’s large and prosperous cities.”

But these concentrated rural markets were precisely what the South lacked:
Shifting cultivation effectively precluded Smithian industrialization. A sparsely settled countryside meant fewer people, smaller markets, and, ultimately, less manufacturing and urban development. A population spread thinly over a wide area discouraged local manufacturing. The lack of local manufacturing and urban development in turn reinforced the incentives of slaveholders to achieve self-sufficiency. With few towns and cities to provide goods and services, slaveholders had a greater incentive to use their slaves to produce textiles, shoes, and other goods for home use when the demands of the plantation slackened. Southerners thus failed to develop the local pools of capital, skilled workers, and entrepreneurial ability that had helped sustain northern industrialization.

As the above quote suggests, Prof. Majewski does not assert that slavery was irrelevant to the south’s failure to industrialize before the War. To the contrary, he asserts that “the presence of slavery discouraged the production of consumer goods.” The existence of plantations and slaves both encouraged on-site manufacturing (as the foregoing quote suggests) and reduced and skewed consumer demand away from the sorts of consumer goods that had fueled northern industrialization.

Low rural population densities had even more far-reaching effects. Although the south desperately needed improved transportation to counteract dispersed markets, low density made transportation networks uneconomical. “The large swaths of unimproved land generated little traffic, which dramatically reduced potential revenue per square mile.” Again, slavery only compounded the problem, because slaves were not going to passengers or consumers in meaningful amounts.

In addition, “[l]ow population densities also made it more difficult for southerners to create institutions that could create and disseminate productive knowledge.” Newspapers and periodicals, professional and literary associations, libraries, schools and colleges all suffered as a result. “Economic historians have found a strong correlation between low population density and illiteracy in the antebellum period.”

In short, “[i]n the South, shifting cultivation created the demographic equivalent of a permanent frontier in which vast amounts of land remained uncultivated for generations.”

All of which leads us back to the beginning. If shifting cultivation had so many disadvantages and negative consequences, why did southerners retain it and not progress to rotation, as their northern brethren had? Was it slavery? Was it a plantation system that somehow made it acceptable to retain large amounts of unused land? Was it slavish devotion to some misguided Jeffersonian ideal? It is here that Majewski presents his most startling thesis, which I will discuss in the next post.


  1. Anonymous9:25 AM

    No time to read the book myself. I look forward to your summary and analysis of Majewski's thesis.

    My first guess would be institutional differences (i.e. different property tax incentives in rotational versus shifting states).


  2. Sorry Part II has been delayed. I'll get there soon.


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