I really enjoyed John Majewski's Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation. I therefore procured a copy of his first book, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. In the opening pages, Prof. Majewski points out that, although Northerners such as William Seward characterized the South as physically decrepit and economically degraded, it is possible to reach a very different conclusion:
We now know that Republicans greatly exaggerated the degree of southern stagnation. Economic historians have conclusively shown that the South was remarkably prosperous on the eve of the Civil War. Southern incomes - at least those for whites - rose rapidly between 1840 and 1860. High crop prices for southern staples such as cotton and tobacco accounted for much of this prosperity, but white southerners were hardly passive recipients of good fortune. They built thousands of miles of railroad tracks, improved the productivity of farms and plantations, and established a small but growing industrial base. By international standards, at least, the South was an economic powerhouse.