This year’s Wyatt Exploration Program, “The Old South: An American Story,” will focus on the history of the American South before the Civil War and culminate in a trip to Virginia. Rich in history, language, cuisine, music, and folklore, the South is one of the most distinctive regions in America. For better or for worse, southern men and women shaped the destiny of the American nation. The rich and multi-faceted history of the American South is the story of both America’s greatest successes and it darkest tragedies. In short, the American South represents both the best and worst of America’s History.
It was in the American South that the English established their first permanent colonial settlement in North America in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Men and women from England, Virginia, and the Caribbean soon afterward established and settled the colonies of Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. By the mid 18th century, America’s southern colonies had become very prosperous, and the successful establishment of plantation agriculture led to a lucrative trade and the large-scale production of staple crops such as tobacco, rice, and indigo. American colonists participated in a dynamic Atlantic trade that dramatically changed their standard of living, selling staple crops and buying clothing, furniture, sugar, tea, and slaves. Within these new plantation societies, a powerful generation of men accumulated large tracts of land, built political reputations, and constructed beautiful homes filled with lavish furniture. Southern plantation owners achieved such great financial success, however, by using the forced labor of African slaves. Approximately 250,000 people of African descent lived and worked in the American South on the eve of the American Revolution.
Southerners played a crucial role in the movement for American independence and in the Revolutionary War. Key battles in South Carolina and Virginia ultimately ended in the surrender of British General Cornwallis to American troops in Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. Southerners also dominated the politics of the early republic. Well-known southerners Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted sacred American texts, like the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Moreover, 9 of the first 12 U.S. presidents were born and raised in the South.
A boom in cotton cultivation in the early 1800s drove southerners westward. Cotton became “king” of the South, and southerners like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun shaped national politics in the antebellum era. As southerners flooded into Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi to establish cotton plantations, they became increasingly reliant on slave labor. Debates over the expansion of slavery into the West pitted northerners against southerners and eventually led 11 southern states to leave the Union. Slavery proved to be the Gordian knot of southern society, cut only by the sword of civil war and the death of over 600,000 Americans.