Theses Doctoral

Origins of the Old South: Revolution, Slavery, and Changes in Southern Society, 1776-1800

Spooner, Matthew P.

The American Revolution and its aftermath posed the greatest challenge to the institution of slavery since the first Africans landed in Jamestown. Revolutionary defenses of the natural equality of man provided ammunition for generations of men and women opposed to racial subordination while the ideological strains of the struggle sounded the death knell for slavery in Northern states and led significant numbers of Southerners to question the morality and safety of slaveholding. Most importantly, the bloody and chaotic war in the South provided an unprecedented opportunity for slaves to challenge their bondage as tens of thousands of black men and women fled to the British, the swamps, or the relative anonymity of the cities.
In examining the “reconstruction” of Southern slavery in the post-Revolutionary decades,
Merging social, military, and economic history, "Origins of the Old South" examines how, in the attempt to rebuild their society from the ravages of war, black and white Southerners together created the new and historically distinct slave society of the “Old South.” The first two chapters of the dissertation demonstrate how the struggle to contain the disorders of a civil war amongst half a million enslaved African-Americans transformed the Southern states—the scene of the war’s bloodiest fighting after 1778—into a crucible in which men, land, and debt melted into capital. State governments redistributed thousands of slaves and millions of acres of land to purchase supplies and raise troops from within a weary populace; the estates of many of the South’s most important planters, comprising roughly ten percent of the region’s real and personal wealth, were confiscated and sold at auction at a fraction of their value; and wartime prestige coupled with the departure of prominent loyalists allowed a legion of “new men” to come into control of the new state governments.
The result was the ascendance of a new class of merchant planters, who pushed the locus of Southern development inland, and major changes in the contours of black life in the region. The remaining three chapters of the dissertation examine these twinned consequences of the Revolution over the following three decades. Chapter three follows the experience of enslaved men and women after the war, tracing their movement throughout the Atlantic World and across the boundary between slavery and freedom during the conflict. Chapter four then looks at the impact of the region's ill-fated antislavery push during and immediately after the war, while chapter five shows how early national state governments drove slavery's expansion and closed the revolutionary moment in the process.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 11, 2015