The Cotton Belt was an overnight phenomena that took its own sweet time, over seventy years.

The development of the Deep South Cotton Belt, without any doubt, is the South’s S&L ED defining event. We cannot ignore the Cotton Belt economic base with accompanying social/political institutions established the foundation on which the South’s future ED rested. Not only does the Cotton Belt legacy affects the present-day South, but it is also essential to understanding our national S&L ED history.

Until WWII the reality created by the Deep South Cotton Belt contrasted with, and struggled against the reality unleashed in the textile mills/factories New England. The savage legacy of Civil War and contemporary racial polarization testify to critical role historical economics, cultures, and supporting political/policy institutions still exert on our daily lives in the 21st Century. ED, as always caught in the cross-hairs of those three dynamic forces, needs to better appreciate how and why it became a bi-polar handmaiden of opposing economic/political systems–if only to help prevent a future repetition.

In this module, the second in our four-module Cotton Belt mini-series, I describe the initial post-1790/pre-1816 “formation” of the Cotton Belt in Carolina’s and Georgia’s Piedmont geographies–focusing on its most salient geography–South Carolina’s Upcountry Piedmont. The post-1815 spill over of the Cotton Belt into the newly-acquired (through Indian removal or Louisiana Purchase) wilderness territories will be outlined in the next, third module, in this Cotton Belt mini-series.

How Piedmont South Became the Cotton Belt’s Womb  

It all started, of course, with the (1794) cotton gin. It took a generation for that innovation to diffuse throughout the Piedmont geographies. The experimentation that followed, and more important to us the trial and error development of a new “fusion” Deep South political culture, overlapped with the establishment of a new agricultural economic base built around plantations, slavery, cotton and export. The culture (and politics/policy it produced) in its good time supported this new economic base produced its distinctive ED goals, strategies and programs, in stark contrast to that followed above the Mason-Dixon Line.

The term “womb” is a metaphor to describe where, how, and why the various dynamics of developing a cotton-plantation-export economic base produced a living embryonic Deep South policy system and culture destined to extent into other geographies once purchased or cleared of the Indians. The dynamics underlying Cotton/Black Belt growth/migration were introduced in the previous module. They include a revitalized plantation based on slavery, a “chronic migration syndrome” caused by soil depletion, the timing and execution of “Indian Removal”, the ebb and fall of cotton prices, tariffs, war, and economic Panics which triggered or depressed mass enthusiasm.

The Louisiana Purchase (1803) dramatically enlarged the potential geography for cotton expansion, and the inclusion of the mighty port of New Orleans (challenging Charleston’s previous dominance while prompting Mobile, and later Galveston’s ascendancy) would greatly motivate Charleston’s and South Carolina’s subsequent railroad-based ED strategy–detailed in our second Theme 3 mini-module series.

The Piedmont border regions, sparsely settled until the arrival of the Scots-Irish previous to the Revolution, attracted a hodge-podge of migrants, including post-Revolutionary War Tidewater emigres. Constrained by hostile Indian territories, pre-1800 life was hard (we call it hardscrabble) in these geographies–this was an early version of the American wild west. In thee desperate and opportunistic economies, the cotton gin was readily adopted and cotton planted to avoid bankruptcy, if not starvation.

Fall Line in SC, NC, and VA

Geography played a major role in the formation of the Cotton Belt. Cotton didn’t grow in highlands or mountains, although it prospered in plateaus and valleys. Accordingly, e womb of the future cotton belt, centered in Piedmont, the highland “middle” of these three coastal states, immediately above and below the Fall Line. It is interesting to note development of key urban centers along the Fall Line–initially reliant on a trans-modal economic base (see-Map) and notice the present-day urban centers that grew because of transshipment opportunities/infrastructure investment required to connect the new Cotton Belt to ports.

With all this volatility, and the sheer number of “moving parts” required to set in motion the developing Cotton Belt , one can understand why the Cotton Belt developed in “bursts” rather than a steady expansion. Reading the history one realizes the Cotton Belt was formed through a series of land/slave booms (a real estate and slave-importation reminiscent of the future 1849 California gold rush) and ), that produced multiple irrational stampedes of entrepreneurial activity, land purchases, and town-building.

Settlement-building resulted, by necessity rather than planning. In any case these Cotton Belt urban centers were remarkably tiny–and incredibly isolated–by anyone’s standards, were almost simultaneous with statehood. Statehood approved during a state’s initial land boom meant that the political culture that got there first, drafted the state constitution–which almost immediately was rejected by soon-to-follow new cultural immigrants. It took a generation or more to meld the diverse political cultures into a more stable and coherent policy system (Alabama in particular, has yet to overcome its rocky inception). Deep South states and their policy systems were created previous to the their current political culture–which is not the way it is supposed to work, but that is a story which shall be told in later modules.

The South Carolina Upcountry Cotton Boom

The Fall Line middle areas of Georgia, South Carolina and southern North Carolina, our Cotton Belt womb, bordered not only on coastal Lowlands, but on the higher ranges of the Piedmont mountains. Called “Upcountry” [1], cotton plantations shared the landscape with predominant, Scots-Irish yeoman hardscrabble farming.

At the close of the American Revolution (1783) the Upcountry was a backwater region, isolated from the main currents of South Carolina society which ran through the mercantile center of Charleston and the [Barbadian] plantation society of the coastal parishes [sometimes referred to as “lowlands”].

The interior … an untamed region which had experienced deadly Indian raids as late as 1763, supported only a coarse frontier society that was more frontier than society. In 1783 [Upcountry] was sparsely populated, almost exclusively white, and essentially unchurched … clustered in small settlements … on the fringe of the state’s export-oriented economy…. During the next half-century, this bare-bones backcountry developed … nourished by … cotton and evangelical Christianity [2].

Rice or tobacco did not suit Upcountry soils; and indigo, suffering from foreign competition, had expanded to the point it satisfied the limited market demand. Grain, which the Upcountry farmers sold to Lowcountry, was, by the late 1790’s, a glut on the Charleston markets. Lacking transportation access, the region was isolated, and economically adrift at the time of the cotton gin invention.

Upcountry soils, perhaps surprisingly, “proved as receptive to cotton as they had been forbidding to other staples“. In very short order, “The fertile Savannah River valley and other portions of the lower Piedmont quickly emerged as the heartland of the South’s first short-staple cotton boom[3]. The early and easy success of cotton prompted the State of South Carolina in 1798 to pay the firm of Miller and Whitney (as in Eli), $50,000 to allow South Carolinians to copy their patent, and furnish two models for which would serve as an instruction kit. The year before (1797) Wade Hampton Sr., a Tidewater pioneering plantation owner to buy 3 gins which were the first to use water as a power source [4]. Georgia’s cotton gin monopoly was anything but long-lasting.

South Carolina, as a state, produced only 94,000 lbs. of cotton in 1793–most of which were long-staple West Indies cotton. By 1811 the South Carolina Upcountry alone exported more than 30 million lbs. of short-staple cotton [5]. This production velocity demonstrated the transformative power of the cotton-plantation-export nexus–and supports our description of the the Piedmont and South Carolina Upcountry as the “womb” of the future Cotton Belt.

Deep South Clash of Cultures: Origin of a Deference Culture

Perhaps the most nettlesome annoyance economic developers may have with my Chapter One model is that economic development strategy and programs are an output of a policy system. The tale related in this module is mostly how a distinctive Deep South policy system was formed. If the Deep South produced distinctive versions of strategy and program it is because the Deep South cotton-plantation-export nexus created its distinctive version of a policy system.

The Deep South culture while heavily influenced by Carolina’s Barbadian culture was a fusion of Scots-Irish and a modest Tidewater influence–and even some Yankee entrepreneurial input. In this section, I begin my description of two crucial element in that distinctive policy system: (a) the coalition between the noveau Deep South cotton plantation owner and the Yeoman/Scots-Irish; permitted by a unique utility of cotton as a cash crop that (b) lessening the underlying tension within the coalition and allowed the two cultures to develop a mutual deference by both groupings to the hopes/ends of the other. That mutual deference resulted in a volatile, constantly shifting policy system that frequently seesawed economic development policy, strategy and programs toward a southern “Whig-like” ED, and then in the opposite direction corresponding to Jackson’s well-known preference for state/local ED with little to no federal role, and a distinct resistance to state-chartered corporation and public-private partnerships.

At its most basic level, the antebellum Deep South political culture rested on the coalition and its mutual deference norms. The Civil War would end that, and the so-called “Redeemer” post-Civil War Deep South political culture had to be reforged, often unsuccessfully. Antebellum and Redeemer Deep South political cultures are not identical at all–they are fundamentally different.

At root, as we shall soon discover, the antebellum Deep South culture formed around the Scots-Irish antipathy to authority, and an instinctive tendency to view politics and policy as an elite-mass, zero sum exercise. Antebellum cotton plantation owners preferred to plant, harvest, and export cotton–and make enormous profits in so doing. They proved to be indifferent policy actors. Scots-Irish Yeoman farmers were another matter entirely. As shall be revealed in this and future modules, this wild swings they caused, were ameliorated a bit, through deference by antebellum plantation owners to Yeoman Scots-Irish perceptions and needs. The tension was lessened and the deference worked in the antebellum period due to the wealth creation produced by cotton. The Civil War changed that however.

Accordingly, as the reader proceeds onto the below-sections, she should be alerted I am interweaving two separate strands of thought: the first the Upcountry as the womb of the future Cotton Belt, but the second may be more critical to our ED history, the complex/subtle political culture that emerged in this period that with variation was carried into other states that became the Deep South Cotton Belt.

That culture accounts for much of (1) the state-level political culture that blended at least three major cultural influences into exceedingly subtle state policy system; and (2) the intensity and power of local, more homogeneous political culture that produced much of the support and resistance to MED strategy, internal improvements in particular. The remaining culture, needing integration into the coalition, the Barbadian–Charleston-lowlands based political culture, will be dealt with its own section below.

            General Wade Hampton

A New Generation of Plantation Owners

General Wade Hampton–The early years were truly a boom–bumper crops and high prices–for those cotton pioneers that successfully established major plantations. They made a fortune. Plantation owners such as Wade Hampton Sr. scion of the dynasty that included his son, Wade Jr., a famous Civil War cavalry general, and Reconstruction era governor. Virginia-born Hampton Sr., of Tidewater Royalist heritage similar to Washington, emigrated to the Upcountry before the Revolution. Among the first to switch to cotton (1797), by the time of his death (1835) Hampton Sr. had become the richest planter in America. It was Hampton that first imported the cotton gin to South Carolina. At death, he was reputed to be the South’s most wealthy planter.


Patrick Calhoun–Hampton’s Scots-Irish counterpart was Irish-born, Patrick Calhoun, also a Revolutionary War leader, and founder of a dynasty that included future Senators, and Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President (author of nullification and acknowledged leader of the antebellum South: John C. Calhoun). Patrick Calhoun’s descendants were major players in South Carolina politics through the entire 19th Century. Scots-Irish plantation owners such as Patrick Calhoun, were common, but they were the vanguard; most Scots-Irish remained on their hardscrabble farm.

Both Hampton and Calhoun, in any case, were typical, if exceptional, prototypes of a new generation of plantation owners , a noveau-riche made wealthy by the cotton-plantation-export nexus. Their sons and daughters will often follow similar lifestyles in similar policy systems–but usually in another Cotton-Belt state. In later sections when we describe antebellum policy-making the rank-in-file cotton plantation owner tended to follow the “lead” of these two charismatic plantation owners; they were major policy players in the early antebellum period–but as shall be seen, the typical antebellum plantation owner preferred to stick to his cotton. The key player in the antebellum Deep South was the Scots-Irish.

“Aspirational Cotton” and Deference Culture: Scots-Irish Yeoman’s Path to Heaven

The reader should discern my concept of “deference” is vastly different from conventional thought. Conventional thought asserts the Scots-Irish” masses defer to their betters, the plantation elites. My deference culture is two-sided, and mutual.

In that the plantation had replaced the feudal manor in Cotton Belt agriculture, the politics and relationships between these two sets of cultures collided, and colluded–and it was the former serf/freeholder Scots-Irish that were the more volatile. What divided and bonded them was that each possessed an shared “identity” that plantation owners were elite and the Scots-Irish were the “common people” (masses-yeoman farmers). Each knew his/her place–but the common people intensely wanted their share of of prosperity and wealth, and sharply resisted the elites getting more than their share. At the same time, however, more entrepreneurial yeoman farmers also wanted to create “in micro” a lifestyle and economic status that reduced the perceived inequality between the two groupings. Within the Scots-Irish lay an “aspirational” need to close the economic/elite gap: antebellum cotton allowed that to happen under the proper conditions.

This is a tension-filled cultural coalition that broke down on a regular basis–when cotton failed to produced wealth. ED frequently got caught in the cross-hairs. Since they could not escape each other in their isolated rural communities, each had to find a way to work things out if life was to be worth living.

Nevertheless, over a generation or two, an Upcountry coalition evolved and held together through a mutual deference relationship. When yeomen backs were “up”, plantation owners gave way to the masses, in policy-making, frequently retreating to their plantations and managing their affairs. The Scots-Irish would then dominate policy-making, usually in the state capitol, but planters held their own in the local hinterlands. Eventually good times would again roll, and cotton regained its wealth-creating magic. In those periods, yeoman Scots-Irish would settle down, and enjoy their good life, leaving policy to their economic betters. Deep South policy system politics had a discernible yin-yang tendency. To make this deference work, however, the yeoman demanded respect and consultation from the plantation elite. Yeomen also expected to profit from it.

Thus far the reader may see hints of today’s “populism” in this fragile policy system–but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Populism we must always remember is not linked to one ethnic grouping, but it can be linked to a shared state of mind and aspirations.

How Did this Deference-Based Coalition Work?

An unplanned consequence of the rise of cotton and the invention of the cotton gin, was that cotton economics offered to yeoman farmers what rice, wheat, and indigo could not; yeomen farmers could plant small amounts of cotton to generate income and satisfy status aspirations. Cotton was the perfect cash crop. You did not have to be a plantation owner to make money from cotton-raising.  “Requiring no large capital outlays and subject to no particular economies of scale in production, short-staple cotton seemed the ideal cash crop for small farmers[6].

With a purchase of a handful of slaves, yeoman farmers could quickly pay off their debt for slave purchase–and pocket the rest. They could purchase domestic slaves and mirror the plantation household. Any yeoman farmer could grow a field or two of cotton, send it to the plantation cotton gin, and it was like a second income, a gig economy within the larger cotton nexus. That extra cash made all the difference in hardscrabble farming, and created a shared bond between the “elite” and the “common people”.

This was no threat to the plantation owner. Just the opposite. When it worked it brought stability and civilization to their rural community. Cotton production as a secondary cash crop “incited industry among the lower classes of people, and fill the country with an independent yeomanry“, [allowing] “individuals who [previously] were depressed in poverty and sunk in idleness …[to rise] to wealth and respectability” which could be left to their progeny [7]. Like two porcupines making love, plantation owners “deferred” to yeoman, wary of their intense, if latent, hostility and its potential for sabotage and rebellion, and needing their support in a sea of black faces. The symbiotic relationship substituted a cultivated paternalism, not entirely dissimilar from the Roman patron-client/personalistic relationship. Moreover, Upcountry cotton plantation owner pioneers provided a role model, a can-do aspirational motivation, to hundreds of neighboring Scots-Irish yeoman hardscrabble farmers. .

Subject to Early Republic fluctuating cotton prices and partisan schism, yeoman farmers viewed their best hope for future advancement by making his hardscrabble farm a miniature plantation, and himself a small-scale plantation owner. Slavery, yeoman farmer ownership of a few slaves and use of cotton as a supplementary cash crop, produced a reasonable vibrant, if fragile, rural middle-class, and created an economic/political bond with plantation owners with whom they could ally for expertise, seed/resources and use of a cotton gin. Until the Civil War, when Sherman burnt the plantation and Reconstruction ended slavery, this morally reprehensible shared bond underlie the antebellum Deep South policy system.

That this required an extension of slavery to create a white agricultural middle-class is correct. Cross-class expansion of slavery was the core shared bond that sublimated the clash between the white cultures.

Black Belt Counties

Expansion of Slavery

The “shared bond” between plantation owners and yeoman farmers  dramatically increased slave populations in the Upcountry region–from 21,000 (1790) to 70,000 in 1810.

In 1800 only 25% of all white families in the Upcountry belonged to the ranks of slaveholders. Yet by 1820  just under 40% … owned slaves” In the bordering lower Piedmont, the corresponding figures were 28% to 45%. [8]

The plantation owners owned more slaves by far. Indeed 35% of these owning slaves, owned fewer than two slaves [9]. Horribly when cotton  spread beyond the South Carolina frontier into the wilderness after 1815, it kick-started the a large-scale nefarious “Second Passage to the Interior” of slaves from Tidewater to the depths of the emerging Cotton/Black Belt. Before it exhausted itself, this “middle passage” consumed over 1 million black slaves. Moreover, a slave-trader complex, series of slave auctions centers developed to accommodate this expansion–destroying what little existed of Black family life, and placing the very worst features of slavery on steroids.

Maturity Arrives Quickly in “the Land of Cotton”.

Apparently “good times are often forgotten in the land of cotton”. The first Upcountry cotton boom was remarkably short–they all were, it seems. Upcountry Piedmont’s initial growth phase, however, shortened, was still remarkably impressive given the small number of Piedmont plantations, and the prosperity is also testimony to the aggregate small-scale production of yeoman farmers. From less than 100,000 pounds in 1793, by 1811 Upcountry produced over 30 million pounds. By 1802, the U.S. was Great Britain’s single most important supplier of cotton [10]. Then hard times set in–and the cotton/soil depletion syndrome made its first appearance. As we shall later see, the call to economic developers to remedy that sad situation was quickly made.

Jackson and 1815 Battle of New Orleans

Because of soil depletion, larger plantations became larger as they bought out neighbors, and their second sons moved into the interior using family resources. Or, plantation owners if times got too tough could relocate to new areas, into states such as Georgia/North Carolina–and after 1815 Alabama and northern Florida. With them came hordes of entrepreneurial yeoman farmers, and emigres from other states hoping to capture the entrepreneurial rewards cotton promised.

What made population migration possible was either desperation of hardscrabble yeoman farmers whose lifestyle and economic prosperity was crushed–and given the Scots-Irish propensity to move on to new territory made the previously mentioned land boom a reality. Crushed cotton prices when they revived were followed by migration. But that is only part of the Cotton Belt expansion story. Primogeniture played a role; first born got Dad’s plantation, and other siblings had either to marry well or make their own way. Still all offspring of first-generation cotton plantation owners left sons and daughters the desire and expectation to have a large plantations/lifestyle, short-staple cotton expertise, an established slave workforce, and accumulated capital to finance the ex-Carolina cotton migration. This proved to be the source of Cotton Belt venture capital into the new states. The Upcountry cotton nexus contained an inherent migratory  safety value, whose unintended effect was to cause serious stress economic disruptions in the home base geography–disruption ultimately caused by an diversified economic base.

So enjoy the good times while you can; cotton was a volatile commodity. Pricing was erratic, and global affairs disruptive. After a decade Piedmont’s first phase suffered from several serious jolts. As early as 1807, while the Upcountry was enjoying the last days of its U.S. cotton monopoly, the Napoleonic wars sent shivers into cotton prices. The War of 1812 shut off trade with Great Britain completely–although New England textile mills gradually replaced old England.

1813 Fort Mims Massacre which triggered Jackson’s War with the Creeks

By 1815 a movement of South Carolinians into Georgia was discernible–soil depletion was doing its dirty work. At the same time the end of the Creek War opened up eastern Alabama for settlement and cotton.  During this time cotton prices plummeted, and only after 1816-7 did they begin to climb back. It was the prospect of new profits from this cotton recovery that prompted the 1818 South Carolina External MED internal improvements initiative that we shall discuss in the next module Mini-Series B.

===================== How Do we deal with Upcountry economic disruption or with the integration of Upcountry into the larger state economy and policy system

In this turbulent time other important matters had to be dealt with. . The first was the meaningful integration-inclusion of Scots-Irish into the South Carolina policy system. That integration into the state’s larger policy system was critical to the sustainability of the newly evolved mutual deference system. A similar integration occurred in Georgia. The second was the fabrication of a symbiotic alliance of Barbadian Lowlands planters with Upcountry planters to accept each other and to jointly and informally dominate much of South Carolina’s S&L policy systems. That too would be replicated in other Deep South states.

Clashing Political Cultures Produced a Changing State Policy System

It is rare that historical analysis can isolate a relatively homogeneous political culture and show how it became embedded into policy-making structures. A mini-case study of the Early “early” Republic South Carolina constitution is quite insightful in observing how change in the  state constitution modified the South Carolina state (and local) policy system to adjust to change in the state’s political culture. As such this case study is an early example of how our model’s assumption that cultural values can be expressed in political structure–and then reflect on subsequent ED policy outputs can occur.

Contemporary Scots-Irish

The mini-case study describes key elements of the initial state constitution approved in 1790, and then under attack from those adversely affected, in this case our Upcountry rising new plantation owners and the Scots-Irish yeoman farmers. The initial constitution privileged the Barbadian plantation owners and the City of Charleston, at the expense of virtually everybody else. Opposition intensified and finally a critical mass was achieved in 1808 resulting in a major constitutional amendment that reset the state’s state and local policy systems. That amendment was in itself a compromise that captured the tension between plantation owners (including Tidewater and Scots-Irish), and Scots-Irish yeoman farmers.

That this episode affected subsequent External MED internal improvements and developmental transportation infrastructure strategy–the major ED paradigmatic strategies of this period  will outline in Theme Module Series B which follows. Moreover, one can see aspects of this struggle play out in the rise of Alabama and even Mississippi Cotton Belts in the next module. One might also observe how important a role slavery played in the actual structure of the South Carolina policy process. It turned out that without having the right to vote, slaves indirectly “voted”, and their indirect involvement enhanced plantation owner political power. What we can also see is how both cotton and slavery “positively” affected the political power of Scots-Irish yeoman farmers.

Charles Pickney, South Carolina Twice Federalist Party Presidential Nominee

The political/electoral structures that produced the delegates to the original 1790 state constitutional convention reflected structures over which lowland and City of Charleston voters had disproportionate influence and voting blocs. Pre-cotton Upcountry voters, primarily Scots-Irish, demanded that a one (white) man one vote–equality–was essential to political liberty (also called republican; at that time they probably fell under the anti-Federalist label).

The Lowland plantation nexus and City of Charleston, however, were predominately Federalists who controlled the colonies domestic politics to the extent they were able to affect the absentee-colonial government housed in London. The Upcountry demand for “equal” (white) voting was perceived as a challenge to Federalist dominance over the state’s policy systems. So they successfully opposed the “equal” voting in the new state constitution. Why?

One man-one vote today is viewed as an absolute good (unless you are not male, of course). Essentially voting population equals the eligible resident population in a given electoral district. In 1790, however, that was complicated by whether one included (non-eligible to vote) slaves in the population count. The Federal Constitution three-fifths section specified that population for federal voting allowed one representative for a given population that afforded “three people” for every five slaves resident. How does one “count” slaves who are ineligible to vote (as were women in this period). Today one might say these electoral districts were malapportioned.

Well, unsurprisingly, feminists were in short supply in these years, and the issue boiled down to favoring districts where a great number of slaves resided. Including slaves according to the federal formula, produced an electoral system in which districts with fewer eligible voters but lots of resident slaves would outnumber districts (with fewer slaves) that contained vastly more eligible voters. That meant in practical terms the Lowland plantation areas would have more districts with considerably fewer eligible voters than Upcountry areas. The great debate in the 1790 Constitutional Convention, therefore could be summarized as a battle of Upcountry versus Lowlands with the latter “coming to win its rights” and the former “holding its privileges[11].

Bluntly, using the Federal formula allowed the Federalists to control both houses of the state’s bicameral legislature despite being a minority of the state’s eligible voting population.  In 1790, the inclusion of the federal formula into definition of electoral districts produced a Lowland voting population of less than 29,000 and an Upcountry voting population of 111,500. “One-fifth of the white population, possessing three-fourths of [the state’s wealth”  controlled both bodies of the state legislature [12]. That is made more critical in that the governor, astonishingly weak in formal powers–lacking a veto, for example, was elected by the legislature.  That Constitution, excepting Charleston, also granted considerable powers over local affairs to counties which were “creatures” of the state (legislature). The Convention’s decisions were not submitted to popular referendum, but voted on by the existing legislature.

That the Federalists were dominant at the state-level well into the first decade of the 19th Century may not have mattered in many policy areas, but it did affect economic development significantly. MED was very much in the cross-hairs of partisan and ideological differences. There was a material difference in the MED policy/strategy approaches of the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists. In any case, the post-1800 weakness of the Federalists could be attributed to several factors, but for us a major one was the rise of the “cotton” Upcountry. After 1795 change was afoot. One of the Upcountry’s key disrupter was the above-mentioned Wade Hampton Sr, nick-named “Cotton Billy”.

Major league unhappy with the 1790 state constitution, “Pre-Cotton Billy” joined with other Upcountry leaders to form the Representative Reform Association which eventually included the entire Upcountry. It was in fact one of the earliest “sub-state regional” private advocacy organizations in the nation.  Absolutely political, its agenda also involved several significant ED-related issues/strategies. It picked up as its central tenet the reapportionment of the state legislature (and electoral districts) along the lines of the 1790 constitutional debate. With the rise of the “cotton” economy in Upcountry, however, the debate got more complex, while the drive for reapportionment paradoxically grew stronger and more intense.

As the reader might guess, cotton meant slaves–for both big plantation owners like Hampton (the first known user of South Carolina cotton gin), and Scots-Irish yeoman farmers. Slaves translated into an increase in population, and voting power.

The terms low country and up country had acquired a new meaning … and henceforth meant in effect the regions below and above the Fall Line … Low country ideals by the grace of white cotton and black slaves had conquered the state … ‘the silent Negro vote of the parishes [counties]’ continued to be a source of power to the white men of the black country’ [13].

It was the force of economic changes … that won the day for reform. The spread of slavery up the State with the development of the cotton culture had made in effect the middle country [of the Early Republic Upcountry] in effect part of the Low Country…. slavery won the middle country completely” it lessened the fear and the opposition of Lowcountry Federalists to reapportionment  [14]. Accordingly the Compromise of 1808 reapportioned the state legislature and election districts, leaving for the first time, the lower house of the state legislature in the hands of the Upcountry legislators. The Senate, although more balanced, remained in control of Lowlands and Charleston.

The new legislature, however, in short order, as will be seen in Mini-Series B, reversed the direction of the Federalist-dominated legislature in MED internal affairs, rejected outright the use of state-chartered corporations, resisted formation of state banks,, and assumed at best an indifference toward railroads–all of which reflected the Scots-Irish political culture as applied to Early Republic ED policy-making. The Senate, influenced more by Federalist elements from Charleston, embraced a stronger MED agenda, using state government itself as its principal EDO, and state MED-related politics reflected the ever-changing yin-yang of that policy debate–until that is the parameters of the debate exceeding the boundaries of Scots-Irish deference to plantation owners. Political culture had infused itself into structural political processes and MED policy-making.

Upcountry Pumps Out Cotton Entrepreneurs into the Alabama/Florida Wilderness

Volatility was cotton’s middle name. Cotton export and hence cotton prosperity was volatile from the start of the Cotton Belt. The Napoleonic Wars (1807-1815) deeply affected cotton prices and cheapened the price of land/slaves. Cotton producers responded by increasing the volume of cotton produced–depleting soils all the faster. The agricultural supply-demand dilemma, which plagues nearly all crops, also meant lack of demand that prompted deflation that nailed debtors to the banker’s cross. That led to taking on more debt, and inability to pay it off if things got out of hand. The Panic of 1819 triggered many cotton bankruptcies and certainly muted the attractiveness of the Upcountry and cotton. It also officially ended the first cotton boom.

Hard times hit the Upcountry especially because its soils were wearing thin. Upcountry plantation owners replaced lost fields by buying out bankrupted neighbors, but increasingly with acreage outside the Upcountry. Georgia and were natural beneficiaries. By the early 1830’s the good times were again rolling–until late 1837 that is when the Panic of 1837 set in and Upcountry returned to hard times once more, lasting into the very late 1840’s. Debt and soil depletion were again the main problems–and the cycle was repeated again. The Scots-Irish tendency to move on when hard times hit, now reappeared in earnest and each recovery from a downturn resulted in a cotton rush yet deeper into the Wilderness. Cotton was a migration machine.

When his own lands were exhausted, the typical Upcountry planter … ‘buys all he can from his neighbors … and continues the work of destruction [by inefficient soil management] until he has created a desert of old fields around him, and when he thinks he can do no better, sells his lands for what he can get … and marches off to a new country to recommense the same process [1]. ford, p. 38

So as Lacy Ford observed nearly half of the whites born in South Carolina after 1800 left the state, “proceeding in step-like fashion across the deep South“, first to Georgia and then a decade later moving on to Alabama.  By 1850 more than 50,000 South Carolina-born lived in Georgia, 45,000 in Alabama, and 26,000 in Mississippi. In each of these states South Carolina emigres constituted at least 30% of in-migrants. Upcountry was the hardest hit–“a steady stream of upper Piedmont whites flowed into the [old] Southwest between 1830-1850, while during the same years whites abandoned the lower Piedmont for the cotton frontier in unprecedented numbers” [2] ford, pp. 38-9. On top of cotton problems, a “Corn Panic” ensued after 1845, driving still more farmers out. Boom and bust.

But there were silver linings in these clouds. The interesting dynamic that resulted from this substantial migratory shift was that Upcountry lost its economic losers, who departed for other regions already growing explosively from the cotton boom migration. A steady stream of cotton entrepreneurs, having for various reasons lost their Upcountry fields, moved on to other new regions of the explosively developing cotton empire. Ironically, that cheap and available wilderness land, cleared of Native Americans and sold by the federal government in land auctions made it not only easier, but attractive to simply use up the Upcountry land and move on when it played out. There was, in effect, little reason to farm efficiently, or with concern for the soils long-term viability.

In this game of “musical cotton chairs”, South Carolina, necessarily lost out. “The prolonged agricultural depression, highlighted by the wholesale exodus of whites, which followed the Panic of 1837 spurred concerned South Carolina leaders into action. Spearheaded by the newly-formed “State Agricultural Society of South Carolina” [which continues and still operates the South Carolina State Fair], a well-organized agricultural reform and economic diversification movement emerged during the early 1840’s[3].ford, p. 42

So lo and behold in 1842, the state legislature retained a “consultant”. Edmund Ruffin from Virginia, was hired to take a look at the agricultural wasteland and develop recommendations of how to deal with it. Ruffin concluded in his report that cotton, while the crucial driver in the growth of South Carolina, was  also responsible for its then-decline. Cotton had, in my words underwent, “deagriculturalization” (not unlike future deindustrialization). The counter to this, Ruffin urged:

emphasis on cotton production had worn out the soil, undermined subsistence farming, and retarded economic diversification …. South Carolina should wean itself from excessive dependence on cotton by diversifying agricultural output and expanding industrial activity [4]. ford, p. 42

How ironic! Unlike most consultant reports, Ruffin’s had an afterlife. Armed with this strategy local agricultural societies sprang up across the Upcountry/Piedmont to advocate and advance agricultural/ crop/soil reforms, and, while definitely secondary industrialization.  The key to industrial expansion, as the North had already discovered was ‘developmental infrastructure”, in order words, railroads. These agricultural societies  supported a number of proposed railroad projects, particularly those connecting the Upcountry, which still had limited access, to the rest of the state. The key was to replicate New York’s Erie Canal by using transportation infrastructure to reach into the nation’s interior and transport its goods and services to Charleston for export and internal trade. This was the stimulus for industrialization.

As will be described in Module Series B, this strategy was attempted–with mixed results. The copy New York strategy failed miserably. Still, by the late 40’s and early 50’s “a network of railroads which would eventually revolutionize [Upcountry] transportation, and trigger a commercial boom in the region were already under construction[5] ford, p. 43. The Cotton Empire was learning how to live with industrialization.

But fear not for the primacy of King Cotton. It was nothing if not resilient. After 1849, the southern Cotton Empire entered into its 1850’s glory days, yet another cotton spasm when cotton prices increased, profits skyrocketed, and expansion into wilderness lands once again attractive if not inevitable. Cotton production in Upcountry South Carolina not only stabilized, but with soils replenished, produced 75% more cotton than a decade earlier. Long live “King Cotton”.


A Quick Case Study Comparison of Antebellum Georgia and South Carolina

Georgia Cotton Migration

South Carolina and Georgia border areas

Georgia as one remembers was an off-shoot of the Carolina Colony. We will spare the reader as much of its past history as possible, but certain essentials are, well …, essential. Georgia did enjoy its own migration flow, it was not as deeply affected by Barbadian immigrants for example.

Scots-Irish also migrated into Georgia; the Great Wagon Road ended in Georgia, and they settled around Augusta on the Savannah River. Savannah, considerably smaller than Charleston functioned as Georgia’s chief port. But truth be told, I could have called Georgia’s Upcountry the womb of the Cotton Belt as well as South Carolina–they were almost mirror images of each other.

Still, the economic, political and social distinction between Lowlands and Upcountry did emerge in the 18th Century. Indigo and rice were also important staple crops, and with them came the plantation system–and slavery. The cotton gin was invented in Georgia. It tell the interesting story behind its innovation in my book, As Two Ships. Suffice it to say the wife (Catherine Greene) of George Washington’s functional equivalent to Stonewall Jackson, Nathaniel Greene played a key role. In 1791, Georgia’s production of cotton totaled nearly 1,000 bales (p.13), but cotton gin’s diffusion to surrounding counties marketed by Whitney’s firm (and financed by Catherine Greene) prompted its own version of Upcountry regional development.

The corresponding huge increase in slaves also materialized in Georgia as cotton took over. In 1790 there were about 30,000 slaves in Georgia; by 1800 about 70,000; and, by 1810 well over 100,000 (Cobb, p.13). Georgia’s Upcountry Cotton and Black Belt seemed as natural as anything we have described in our previous modules. The spread of slave ownership to yeoman farmers also occurred.

these yeomen maintained a relatively secure and independent existence by concentrating first on subsistence crops and then growing smaller amounts of cotton for domestic use and the market [export] as well. In good years members of this sturdy yeomanry had managed to climb to higher runs in the slave-holding hierarchy although as slave prices rose dramatically in relation to cotton prices, this feat was increasingly hard to accomplish and the percentage of white families who owned slaves actually declined during the late antebellum era (p. 20) cobb

Yazoo-Georgia Land Controversy

The 1788 state constitution replicated South Carolina’s counting of slaves as population, and resulted in the identical malapportionment. There was no compromise of 1808, however and plantation owners were that much more powerful in Georgia than South Carolina.

The Georgia state policy system suffered from a huge scandal–integral to our rise of the cotton belt–the 1789 Yazoo Land Scandal. That scandal not only compelled the federal government to step in to devise a massive restructuring of state land claims and a subsequent grounding for three new states, it also resulted in a significant reconstruction of Georgia state government. Its initial Early Republic 1789 constitution mirrored closely that of South Carolina, with the legislature supreme, even electing the governor. The 1798 Georgia state constitution checked legislative power, and did so be empowering a separately elected governor with significant veto power. (Bullock, Charles & Gaddie, Keith, Georgia Politics in a State of Change (2nd Ed) (Pearson, 2013, Chapter 3)

Georgia was home to Scarlet O’Hara, the Tara plantation, and her father the Irish-born Gerald O’Hara. Indian removal did occur in a different time frame, however, with serious Georgian Indian Removal extended deep into the 1840’s. The Trail of Tears began in White County Georgia. In any case, the power of cotton as a wealth creator, mirrored that of South Carolina. James Cobb asserts that by 1848

a Georgia planter who owned just ten prime field hands was wealthier than all but one percent of the citizens of Boston. With an average per capita value of $900 [in 1860, ]… the average slaveholder in Georgia was five times wealthier than the average northerner. Georgia’s largest slaveholders were some of the richest people not only in the nation but in the world … half of Georgia’s wealth was invested in slaves … nearly forty times that of the state’s total investment in manufacturing p.19

James Cobb, Georgia Odyssey: Short History of the State (University of Georgia Press (2nd Ed), 1997)

And soil depletion played out in Georgia as it did in South Carolina: “By the late antebellum period, continuous cotton cultivation had largely exhausted the soil in many of the old cotton counties to the north and west of Augusta, and many of the area’s largest slaveholders had relocated to the still wild and frontierlike counties around Columbus” (p.19)




[1] The map provided in the module reflects the contemporary definition of Upcountry, but the reader is advised the historical definition of Upcountry is not identical to the abbreviated contemporary definition. In the Early Republic Upcountry was pretty much everything above and immediately below the “Fall Line”. Today its cotton heritage is lost, the region, dominated by I-85 corridor, includes ten counties. The Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson CSA is the largest defined urban area. Clemson and Bob Jones University are its most well-known universities. Adrift in a sea of FDI, corporate HQs, and the South’s auto alley Upcountry is not what it used to be.

[2] Lacy K. Ford, Jr. Southern Radicalism: the South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 5.

[3] Lacy K. Ford, Jr. Southern Radicalism, p. 7.

[4] David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: a Short History (University of South Carolina Press, 1951), p. 364.

[5] Lacy K. Ford, Jr. Southern Radicalism, p. 7.

[6] Lacy K. Ford, Jr. Southern Radicalism, p. 7.

[7] Lacy K. Ford, Jr., Southern Radicalism pp. 10-11.

[8] Sven Beckert, the Empire of Cotton, p. 103

[9] Lacy K. Ford, Jr., Southern Radicalism p.12.

[10] Sven Beckert, the Empire of Cotton, p. Empire, 104.

[11] David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, pp. 340-345.

[12] David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, p. 342.

[13] David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, p. 359.

[14] David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, p. 357-8.